McRae's Magpies banishing old skeletons with new culture of success

This time it was different. And fittingly, really. Collingwood has worked so hard to change its image. Now it's done so where and when it mattered most.

Much had been made during the week of the Magpies' propensity to make Grand Finals without winning them.

Indeed, prior to this immediately famous and storied premiership, Collingwood had played in 44 Grand Finals for just 15 wins, a miserable strike rate of just 34%. And so many of those defeats had been by heartbreakingly small margins.

Magpie fans know the painful numbers. Four points in 1964. One point in 1966. Ten points (after having led by 44) in 1970. Five points in 1979. Nine points in 2002. Five points again in 2018, after having led with only 100 seconds remaining.

When Brisbane's Charlie Cameron put the Lions in front with only five-and-a-half minutes left on the clock, who remotely familiar with the game wasn't thinking "is it really going to happen again?"

Or again when Joe Daniher snapped a goal to bring the Lions within four points of Collingwood with one minute and 33 seconds remaining? Such is the weight of the Magpies' past in those big moments.

But Craig McRae's team has the art of the tight finish down pat. It was almost as if all those narrow wins over the last two seasons -- and the Grand Final made it 17 victories from 21 games decided by single-figure margins -- were training for this exact moment.

As you could have said last week, when Collingwood had to scrap and scrape to get over the line against Greater Western Sydney. Or its qualifying final win over Melbourne. Three finals wins by a combined 12 points. And a flag.

The obvious temptation now will be to assume that this lifting of history's yoke is the signal for Collingwood to launch into a period of sustained success.

After all, the Magpies went into 2023 only the sixth-oldest and sixth-most experienced list in the competition. They had only six players older than 30, four rivals had more than that.

They have some of the most exciting players in the competition, the likes of Nick Daicos and Jordan De Goey, again both pivotal to Collingwood prevailing when it counted, as they are so often.

But perhaps one of the biggest weapons Collingwood might have at its disposal as it enters 2024 with the title of the reigning premier and the team everyone else wants desperately to topple might be the self-consciously more humble face it has attempted to present to the football world.

It's certainly a different approach to the Magpies with which the football world is more familiar. And one which they're entitled to think might yield longer-term results than those predecessors which actually did get to dance on the premiership dais.

Just as Collingwood of previous years had a propensity to come up empty-handed on the big occasion, so did even the couple of versions which won famous triumphs have a capacity not to capitalize on its premierships.

The famous Magpies who broke the club's 32-year flag drought in 1990 were then infamously the same group who partied so hard afterwards they were able to win only three of their first 11 games the following season, ultimately failing to make the finals.

Current Collingwood football manager Graham Wright should be across that danger having been one of those 1990 premiership Pies.

"I'm sure these guys will look after themselves far better than what we did back then," he smiled in the jubilant Magpie rooms when reminded of the considerable aftermath of that flag win.

Steele Sidebottom, too, having won his second Collingwood premiership, along with former skipper Scott Pendlebury, 13 years after the first, was also able to reflect on the different mindset, new approach, fresh administration and an inspired appointment as coach in Craig McRae had made to this big and traditionally brash organisation.

"I believe the club is in as good a shape as it has been. I'm not saying this wasn't the case before, but we've just got people in positions who really care about each other.

"Everyone at our footy club just loves coming into work every day and getting better. Everyone was in the circle. I was fortunate to be part of the 23 who got to do it, but there are hundreds of people who deserve to get one of these," he said, holding up his premiership medallion.

And in strictly on-field terms, Collingwood has plenty of room for further improvement and potential opportunities for those who missed out this time to have their turn.

They won this flag, for example, without a dominant key forward, the hard-working and solid but hardly spectacular Brody Mihocek the only Magpie to break the AFL's top 20 goalkickers.

Their defence has been a mainstay, but can still improve plenty at preventing scores once the ball penetrates the back 50, Collingwood ranked only 14th for that measure this season, even in this epic Grand Final offering Brisbane plenty of goal scoring opportunities from limited inside 50s.

Collingwood's raw midfield numbers weren't overly inspiring, ball movement from the back half its strongest calling card. These are areas in which McRae and his coaching panel can elicit further development from their charges.

In short, the rest of the competition can improve, but even as they bask in the glow of a 16th premiership, there's nothing to suggest the Magpies can't, either.

That would be different. But then so is a Collingwood side which not only wins the close games, but wins close Grand Finals. An enduring stereotype has been smashed. And the aftermath of this Magpie flag might be different, too.

You can read more of Rohan Connolly's work at FOOTYOLOGY.