We’re coming, said Carlton, and never arrived.
Then there’s Collingwood in the Nathan Buckley era, and here’s the lovely irony: Collingwood is the biggest, loudest footy club in the land, an organisation that blocks the sun, but it is unearthly quiet at the moment.
Yet the Magpies are second on the AFL ladder through five rounds, and in finals contention.
The supporters are excited, plainly, but the metaphorical lid remains firmly intact.
On talkback radio this week, the calls kept coming about Richmond’s struggles and Hawthorn’s thuggery and Mick Malthouse’s future at Carlton. But there was hardly a peep about the Magpies.
I admire what Buckley and Collingwood have done. It’s been methodical, it’s been clinical, it’s been based on long-term thinking, requiring patience. It meant that they missed finals in 2014 and barely made September in 2013, absorbing some pain and the grumbling that comes with it in an emotional game like Australian football.
Now the time is approaching for the harvest.
Collingwood is brimming with hungry youth. Witness the performances of Tom Langdon, Jamie Elliott, Adam Oxley, Brodie Grundy, Jack Crisp, Paul Seedsman and Taylor Adams in recent times.
A 22-year-old like Jack Frost has matured beautifully in his rag-tag way.
Learn these names off by heart, folks, because they will be around for a long time.
And remember that Collingwood has key injuries – Steele Sidebottom, Ben Reid, Levi Greenwood and Brent Macaffer sidelined for long periods – along with Lachie Keefe and Josh Thomas, who are under the cloud of ASADA. In the circumstances, it has been an outstanding start.
This is Buckley’s team, finally, rather than the remnants of Mick Malthouse’s 2010 premiership side.
You can’t help but admire the way the club has traded in recent years, not in a brash way, not chasing a Lance Franklin or a Jarrad Waite at big dollars.
Rather, it has tried to improve its list almost by stealth, bringing in Greenwood, Jesse White, Travis Varcoe, Adams, Patrick Karnezis and Clinton Young, and allowing Dale Thomas to go when Carlton came with outrageous money.
From the draft, Collingwood still has Jordan De Goey, Matthew Scharenberg, Nathan Freeman and Darcy Moore to come through, a cluster of talented, young men who are developing in the VFL.
When I put Collingwood’s resurgence to friends in the media this week, they screamed: ‘Who have they beaten?’
It’s true that Brisbane Lions, St Kilda, Carlton and Essendon is not the most impressive list of 2015 scalps, and also worth noting that a white-hot Adelaide was too strong for the Magpies in round two. This Friday night against Geelong will tell us some more.
But the building blocks are in place.
Buckley has worked from the back, just as Mark Thompson did at Geelong more than a decade ago.
With Ben Hart as defensive coach for the fourth year, the Magpies have become difficult to score against. They are No.2 in the competition for points-against, only behind Ross Lyon’s frugal Freo, conceding just nine goals a game.
The method is known in the modern era as team defence, and it has been highlighted in the media in the past few weeks by Frost, leaving his man to make a spoil and protect a teammate, and by Alan Toovey conjuring a similar act against Carlton.
It’s unselfish, and it requires courage, for your man might be left to kick a goal or create one. It’s also what good teams do, fostering a defensive group that works as a unit, covering each other.
Ted Richards, the esteemed Sydney defender, explained this best to me some years ago.
“We play six-on-six,” said Richards. “Not six separate one-on-ones.”
On the surface, what remains is for Collingwood to decrease its reliance on Travis Cloke up forward. Its scoring power is less than imposing right now, and hence Collingwood will not win the flag and is not guaranteed to make the finals, either. But it’s a matter of time before Buckley’s team is right in the mix.
If you hate Collingwood, get ready for the pain.