A new Collingwood: Are Pies no longer the club everyone loves to hate?

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Key points

  • Collingwood sit atop the AFL ladder and appear to no longer be the club everyone loves to hate.
  • Second-year coach Craig McRae is widely credited with changing the club’s culture for the better.
  • New captain Darcy Moore has earned rave reviews for his words away from football.

Mark Korda will, ultimately, be just a footnote in Collingwood’s new frontier, but the short-lived president’s words after Craig McRae’s coaching appointment were prophetic.

Korda lasted only 10 months in the job – initially sharing it in an interim capacity with Peter Murphy – after Eddie McGuire’s 22-year reign, amid board challenge threats and the spectre of Jeff Browne, a close McGuire ally. To no one’s surprise, Browne succeeded Korda as president.

Craig McRae has had a major impact on Collingwood since being appointed in September 2021.Credit: Getty Images

If McGuire’s high-profile departure in February 2021 will be remembered as the end of an era, then McRae, better known as “Fly”, who was hired seven months later, has become the understated face of this new one.

“With a new coach, a relatively new GM of Football [Graham Wright] and a strong focus on development, we believe a new time is being created, one I hope Collingwood members and fans will share in and enjoy in the years ahead,” Korda said.

Eddie McGuire resigned in early 2021.Credit: Joe Armao

McRae, Browne and Wright were just three of the major personnel changes, with a new chief executive (Craig Kelly) and captain (Darcy Moore) also in place this year. They are flying on field after re-emerging in 2022 as the “kings of the close one”, with an exciting, frenetic brand that appeals to more than just the black-and-white army. Even the most ardent Collingwood haters would admit to enjoying, or at least admiring, their style.

They are making plenty of good moves off the ground, too. When some groups of Magpie fans booed Lance Franklin, the club issued a quick and genuine apology.

In fact, the club everyone but its fans once loved to hate appears to be managing what is typically impossible, especially for them: being on top of the ladder, and actually likeable.

Under McGuire, the Pies did everything on a grand scale, from champion player Nathan Buckley becoming coach – in an acrimonious handover from Mick Malthouse – to using his platform on The Footy Show to build Collingwood’s status as the biggest sporting club in Australia. He revelled in the “us against them” mentality.

At the same time, forgetting, or downplaying, McGuire’s titanic contributions would be a grave error. As one Collingwood person said this week: “You embrace the future, but respect the past.”

Ex-Collingwood star-turned-media personality Dale Thomas concurs.

“What Eddie did for the footy club was unbelievable, from where the Pies were when he took over, to delivering a premiership and being super competitive through that time,” Thomas told The Age.

“I won’t be one to bash Eddie. Sure, he got some things wrong along the way – there’s no doubt about that – but at the end of the day, all he wanted was for the club to be successful and as good as it could be.

“When his time to go came, he went. People were lining up to bash and kick him because it was the first chance they had in a long time to do that.”

The AFL’s answer to Ted Lasso

McRae was, with all due respect, a sidekick in the Brisbane Lions’ early 2000s golden era, and worked his way up the coaching ranks at Collingwood, Richmond and Hawthorn before returning to the Magpies as the main man.

He is neither physically imposing, like Buckley or his assistant and ex-Lions coach Justin Leppitsch, nor desperate to be the loudest voice in the room. But McRae “gets it, on and off the field”, Thomas said, pointing to him being the person who organised Brisbane’s end-of-season trips in his playing days.

That much was evident when McRae handed the reins to Beau McCreery’s mum, Julie, before last week’s Mother’s Day triumph over the Giants. He is so far striking a wonderful balance between positivity, powerful statements and getting the most out of his players.

“It’s all on the back of genuine authenticity … he has a real care and compassion for his players, and wants them to get better,” Thomas said.

“The stuff with Beau McCreery’s mum was brilliant, and not a gimmick. It’s a different way of keeping players engaged, then they went out and won by 10 goals.

“I spoke to [Magpies recruit] Tom Mitchell the other day, and he said every day was a joy to come to work. I’m not sure how many players from other clubs at the top of the ladder – Geelong are maybe the exception – would offer that up because footy is tough … so genuine enjoyment out of it doesn’t come easily.”

Craig McRae shares similar philosophies to Apple TV+ character Ted Lasso.Credit: Colin Hutton/Apple TV+

McRae’s most poignant public line to date was: “We want to act like winners.” The comment followed several of his players slumping to the ground in reaction to their narrow qualifying final defeat last year to the Cats.

“The siren goes and there’s half a dozen guys laying on the ground,” McRae said afterwrds. “For me, that’s not a winner. That’s acting like a loser. We lost a game – we’re not losers.”

It could easily have been a scene out of Apple TV+ smash hit Ted Lasso, a show based on an overtly optimistic American coach who wins sceptics over with his kind, thoughtful and compassionate ways.

McRae has achieved the same, but in the real world.

Brodie Holland, who played 119 of his 155 AFL matches for Collingwood, still watches the Pies religiously despite being the coach of VFL club Northern Bullants, and credits McRae for the club’s public transformation.

“I think it has a lot to do with the coach, and his mindset about things. He’s super positive, no matter what happens,” Holland said.

“He never has a bad word about the opposition or umpiring, or anything negative – there’s always a positive spin and an optimistic outlook, and that’s rubbed off on the playing group.

“Footy’s changed a lot, too, so it might be part and parcel of where the game is heading as such. Maybe we just don’t hate each other as much.”

Holland thinks Collingwood’s aesthetically pleasing and skilful style is also a factor in the club’s reputational change, along with the likeability factor of the players, not least of all boy wonder Nick Daicos. He could list only Brayden Maynard, who is famously loyal to his teammates, as someone who might irk opposition supporters.

Ahead of Sunday’s showdown with arch rival Carlton, former Blues hardman David Rhys-Jones even conceded he could not help but respect the Magpies as well.

“I think everyone’s pretty impressed with the way they go about their footy these days. It’s amazing what Craig McRae is doing,” Rhys-Jones told The Age.

“Some of the games they’ve been able to pull out last year and this year after being in a bit of strife has been remarkable. They have this never-give-up attitude. I’d rather watch them than Carlton at the moment.

“As much as I hate them, you’ve got to respect them as well. Everything is working nicely for them, so hopefully they get to the finals and bomb out – I don’t want them getting a 16th premiership.”

Darcy Moore is proving an inspired choice as captain.Credit: Paul Rovere

Captain, my captain

Moore has become an integral part of the new Magpies since replacing long-serving and much-admired Scott Pendlebury as captain in February.

“We’re different personalities, we’re different people – but that’s a great thing,” Moore said.

“This club has experienced a lot of change over the last few years, and I suppose this is just another step towards the future … I’m not Scott Pendlebury, I’m Darcy Moore, and that won’t be changing any time soon.”

Moore’s widely celebrated Anzac Day speech, where he perfectly summed up the honour of playing on the day while noting football’s insignificant place alongside the sacrifices made by past and present armed forces, only added to Collingwood’s glow.

That speech prompted Fox Footy analyst and North Melbourne’s dual premiership player David King to laud not only Moore but also the Pies’ series of excellent calls in recent seasons.

“They got the right coach. When the time was there to make a tough call, they made it. They made a change to the captaincy, and they’ve absolutely nailed that,” King said.

“The way they’re developing these young players, the way they’re making them think and act – I know they’ve had a couple of issues off-field, but they’ve addressed them immediately. They’ve been honest as a footy club. They’ve been absolutely bulletproof for the last 18 months.

“[Moore] makes you proud of our code when you hear a young man speak like that.”

Jodie Sizer with former Collingwood president Eddie McGuire.Credit: Joe Armao

Doing better

Collingwood’s landmark Do Better report, which found the club guilty of systemic racism, proved the undoing of McGuire after a public backlash, in particular, to him declaring on the day of its release that it was a “proud day” for the Pies.

McGuire apologised at the AGM afterwards for his wording, and resigned the next week.

“I said it was a proud day for Collingwood, and I shouldn’t have,” he said.

“I did not mean we’re proud of past incidents of racism and the hurt that has caused. It’s been interpreted widely that way and I regret that deeply.”

McGuire declined to be interviewed for this story, believing it was the new team’s time, while the Magpies also opted to leave others to discuss the work they have done, both on the field and behind the scenes, that has endeared them even to non-Collingwood people.

Magpies vice-president and Djab Wurrung/Gunditjmara woman Jodie Sizer is part of the Collingwood integrity committee designed to help make the changes recommended in the Do Better report.

The Magpies acknowledge there is work still to do, and that it will be an ongoing process, but Moore again made an impression at a public healing ceremony at Victoria Park in April, in recognition of AFL legend Nicky Winmar’s historic stance against racism at the same venue three decades ago. Club president Browne was also in attendance.

Moore shared an embrace with Winmar before standing arm-in-arm and telling everyone listening how “honoured” he was to be there.

“This man has an extraordinary legacy, and he’s had a powerful impact on so many of us here,” the Pies skipper said.

“Seeing the young ones here today really inspires me to keep working towards a shared future where we can all walk together in strength and solidarity.”

It was another moment that Moore and Collingwood got right in the past few years.

They do not pretend to be perfect, and they may still be hated by some, but these new-age Magpies are undeniably changing opinions.

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