General Footy Writing: Black and White through shades of Blue

Warning: the following will contain biases which are impossible to conceal.

Another Magpie campaign has come-a-gutsa at the hands of the formidable Cats. Once again the black and white army is left to its disgruntled contemplation of what might have been …

My heart beats Old Dark Navy Blue, and seldom will I be seen wasting a tear on the Carringbush. And it’s not like they need the publicity. But the yin can’t ignore the yang, so in a spirit of some perversity, I proffer the following thoughts on the State of the Enemy.

I don’t intend this to be an exercise in purely sinking the boot. I’m sure many others are queuing up for that gig, and it is a path well-trodden.

Black and White; Collingwood really couldn’t wear anything else. It’s the perfect summation of reactions to them. It also seems to infect the thinking of Pies supporters. For many of the tribe, the dial seems permanently set to drama. Even when the club tries to talk them down, expectations seem constantly heightened. History always looms large over life at Victoria Park.

Since before the days of Louie the Lip, the club has cultivated a high media profile; the attention brought advantages, supporters and sponsors. The Magpie spin machine has probably only been rivalled by Sheedy. President Ed was never likely to buck this trend — Ed was born with a microphone in his crib and he’s never met one he didn’t like. Melbourne footy media finds this serendipitous; most seem subscribers to the theory that you can’t go wrong writing about the Pies.

Mad Mick seems less sanguine about the Fourth Estate. Contempt never seems too far from the surface; interesting, considering his daughter is one of them (one for their shrinks perhaps). Nevertheless, even Mick sees fit to write a column. I’m told “Collingwood” in Walpiri means “enough already”.

So it is that the fourth-best side in 2009 finished fourth; yet large areas of old-growth forest were (and will continue to be) required to die in the process of reporting. Par rounds rarely cause so much commotion.

Par looked optimistic early in the season. Injuries and indifferent form saw some bad losses and a 3-5 start. This definitely wasn’t what was required, and pressure was building. That 12 of the next 13 were won is creditworthy. It indicates a steadiness of mind and consistency of performance which have been recent hallmarks of this group. It is also evidence that the draw provided a string of middling opponents.

Ah yes, the draw. As in soft. This is a frequent accusation in these days of fixturing oddities. To be fair, this is hardly the fault of the Pies. Rival clubs are happy to pocket the dollars a fixture against the Carringbush brings, and you can’t have it both ways. However, it would seem a trap that perspectives can be warped by an odd advantage here or there. MCG floggings of the Dockers may feel good, but they’re not usually sure signs of impending greatness.

The streak raised expectations, but come Round 22, and then finals, there proved to be nowhere to hide. The comeback against the Adelaide was gutsy, but it should be remembered that Craig’s Crows have recently proved quite inventive in the art of losing finals.

What can be discerned as the sound and fury settles? Firstly, the Coach. I’m sure many are old enough to remember Mad Mick from his Richmond days. A sharp-elbowed, narrow-eyed, tough defender with a mean streak, he wasn’t much liked by rival fans. Not a lot has changed. The teams he’s coached have borne a strong resemblance to the way he played his footy; disciplined, determined and well-drilled.

When allied with a genuinely talented playing list, as in his West Coast days, the combination proved truly formidable. In a decade at Collingwood he’s never had a playing list comparable. How much of this is Mick’s responsibility? Only insiders could truly know. Presumably football managers and recruiters et al are expected to play some role in these matters.

I can vouch that many Blues supporters of recent years have looked enviously at the Magpies’ development of young players. They have certainly accelerated many into senior footy to good effect. They would seem to be making the most of what they’ve got.

But it begs the question, why haven’t they done more to get what they need?

Their search for the right forward goes back before the days when they famously declined to pursue Plugger. Did they really believe the Roccas were the answer? For years now, opposition gun inside-midfielders have killed them. But when Judd came on the market, it was a former Pie CEO who clinched the deal, not the club he came from. These are just random examples which come to mind.

Building from the bottom with youth has many admirable qualities. In these days of salary caps and drafts it is the only real option for some clubs. But President Ed has spared little effort reminding all and sundry about the magnificence of Collingwood’s money pots.  Surely they have more options open to them than, say, Melbourne? With Shaun Burgoyne on the market, it will be interesting to see if the Pies are mentioned in proceedings.

What of their current list? They have a good share of youth with the potential for further development. A decent number of talented players, some of whom have question marks over their big-match temperaments. The defence is usually solid, and defensive rebound would seem to be improving. No key forwards who threaten greatness. To be the fourth-best side is no tragedy. But are the keys to a flag really contained within?

Has modern Collingwood become the spiritual home of Captain Blood’s “good ordinary player”? A few good games in Black and White will usually earn a player a profile it may take 100 solid outings to achieve at some other clubs. Despite all the publicity, how many recent or current Pies are really deserving of the tag Champion?

If advancement to a flag is to occur, it will need to be done under the much vaunted Transition Plan. So much has been said of this already, much of it containing the gloss of the spin cycle. To this I will only add that it’s hard to see why it was really necessary (unless Ed’s Bucks-mania couldn’t be contained). Mick and Figjam would seem to need a fair-sized town to be big enough for the both of them. But they are both pros, and you would think they’ll try to make it work. It’s just that Five Year Plans don’t have the greatest history in any walk of life.

I know many will think this rich in light of Carlton’s recent woes. I readily concede we have spent a lot of this decade perfecting a highly effective impersonation of a basket case.  We may be on the way back, but there are no guarantees of what we’ll achieve. That’s just the point. Four or five years ago you wouldn’t have bet bad money on us winning a flag before the Pies. Now I’m not so sure….

Phew! I made it all the way through without one gratuitous reference to dentally challenged fans and/or Joffa. No curse words either.

I look forward to the return of serve.

About John Butler

John Butler has fled the World's Most Liveable Car Park and now breathes the rarefied air of the Ballarat Plateau. For his sins, he has passed his 40th year as a Carlton member.


  1. JB

    Good to see you’ve put your extra two week’s break to some practical use…

    Floreat Pica members are well aware of my suspicions of our current list, not to mention the coach. So I don’t have much to take issue with you on.

    I can scarcely believe that after nearly 40 years of supporting this club I’m still pinning my hopes deep in September on a bunch of gritty scrappers.

    How much our list is the coach’s design is a pertinent question. And one I think everyone knows the answer too. Think Steve McKee. Think Danny Roach. Think Chad Morrison. Think Paul Medhurst. As one erudite magpie put it recently, he’s cultivated a list of acolytes.

    We don’t have an A-grade mid. We don’t have a ruckman. And we don’t have a power forward. A flag is impossible without one, if not all three. As this year is demonstrating yet again. And we’ve had chances to nab one of each kind in recent history.

    The transition will be interesting viewing. Once again, the Club has looked inward. Like it did with Shaw. Even Bobby Rose.

    Ed’s heroes are my heroes. Blokes who gave their all. For a losing cause. With one glorious exception. And there you have it, perhaps. The culture of the Club.

  2. Bob,

    That’s the most erudite comment that’s been written on this site. It makes far too much sense.

    I reckon coaches get too little scrutiny for the players they put on the park. The maxim, “He can only play the players he’s got,” is rubbish. A playing list is an extension of the coach’s wishes. Team selection is an extension of the coach’s wishes. Team selections comprise a large part of how I judge a coach.

    Yes, every club has a match committee and a list management committee but the ultimate decision-maker in both areas is the coach. That’s why I have misgivings about Rocket Eade’s performance with the Bulldogs; yes, he’s developed a flexible approach to goal but he’s been unable to develop the tall timber. It’s why I have enormous reservations about Brett Ratten; Carlton still have no option beyond Fev when approaching goal. Ratts seems uncertain in his job.

    Ultimately the Collingwood playing list and team very much reflects Mick Malthouse as a coach. He plays really honest players because they exhibit the qualities he likes. He’s suspicious of the brilliant ones because they sit outside his ken. I can’t see Collingwood ever making that extra step towards a premiership while Malthouse is at the helm.

    Then again I said the same about Ross Lyon this time last year.

  3. The word on the street is that this last Collywobble debacle has pushed a lot of the Black & White Army over the brink. Watch for the supporter reaction. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with the above comments JB & Daff. They we’re never going to win a Flag with Rocca – remember the perpetual distraction of the flying elbow right at the wrong time of the year? And Travis Cloke for Heaven’s sake. Neon Leon. Jack Anthony. The list goes on. The fish rots from the head.

  4. Bob (or should that be Haiku)

    I echo Paul’s comments re your thoughts.

    PD & JM, we would seem to be in furious agreement on many issues.

    I think Carlton appointed Rats for reasons of spritual renewal as much as any other fact, with the hope his coaching would develop as the team did. I admit the jury is still out on this one.

    Returning to Collingwood, the fans may start clamouring for change, but Mick’s committed to be around for another 5 years. Eddy doesn’t like to be wrong, so it’s hard to see a graceful exit strategy even if they sought it.

    I also think many issues pre-date Mick & Ed.

    If you look at the comparative histories of the Pies & the Blues since the 60’s, I think certain patterns reccur.

    This is where Bob’s comments on that ephemeral topic of club culture are telling.

    I think some of the lessons Collingwood have chosen to take from their glory days have hindered them in the modern era.

    I would be intrigued to get the Collingwood take on some of this.

    Bob (or other Picans)please consider this an invitation.

  5. Us Against Them.

    It’s our motto.

    It’s our shtick.

    It’s our considerable handicap.

    Ed has only enhanced this condition with his various run-ins with the AFL, in particular, Brisbane’s salary-cap concessions, which was basically held up as the main reason for our 2 Grand Final defeats. An argument based on a certain amount of logic perhaps, but playing the victim of a perceived injustice is a continuing theme at this club – think Harmes, think Carman, think goal umpires and tribunals. This helps create the psyche of the underdog, the blue-collar battler, (think Bobby Rose, think Hafey’s Heroes) condemning the club to mediocrity instead of getting on with the business of building premiership winning teams, something which the Blues did so clinically in the 70’s and 80’s. The absence of a Collingwood player in the Team of the Century only reinforced this culture – the blue-collar, no-name team of gritty scrappers – something which Ed and the Club latched onto with considerable gusto.

    The core problem of this attitude, of course, is that it is not a winning culture. Collingwood and their supporters never EXPECT to win. Victory is in the lap of the Gods. And we know how well they treat Collingwood – oops, I just played the victim again. It’s so hard not to.

    Carlton’s born-to-rule approach stands in direct contrast. It’s enviable. If a little criminal.

    The other related problem of course is the rewards handed out for underachieving. MM definitely fits the bill here. 10 years with more money and resources than any other club, a football department the size of a small nation. Yes, he has dragged the team into the finals every other year. But Laidley did the same with the Roos at a fraction of the cost. We haven’t really gotten close since 2003. And yet, we are so happy with this result, we have rewarded him with another 5 years.

    Ed wants everyone to hate us. Because we’re Collingwood. Well, I’m starting to.

  6. Bob

    I’m beginning to think the wrong person wrote the article.

    I was certainly anticipating a different response when I wrote it.

    If you’re coming to the lunch tomorrow I’ll buy you a beer.


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