When Craig McRae arrived in Collingwood last September, he found a club that seemed well and truly broken to outsiders.
After coming within a kick of their 16th premiership in 2018, the Magpies had gone from close-to-the-flag favorites in 2019 to being entirely out of the final two years later.
The wheels had not only taken off on the pitch, but also, with the Do Better report in a culture of systemic racism at the club quickly followed by the departure of longtime chairman Eddie McGuire and the club’s favorite son, senior coach Nathan Buckley.
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Fast forward 12 months and McRae has been rightfully voted Coach of the Year by his peers, ahead of the two men coaching in Saturday’s grand final, Sydney coach John Longmire and Geelong’s Chris Scott.
It has been an astonishing first year at the helm of McRae, whose Magpies were cruelly beaten by one point in a thrilling preliminary round final last Saturday by the Swans.
Collingwood’s unlikely run to the preliminary final was made all the more impressive by the fact that it was made with two-time Australian big man Brodie Grundy in street clothes.
Grundy hasn’t played another game after playing on Anzac Day, with a PCL injury followed by a season-ruined ankle injury, and the big man admitted seeing his team-mates thrive without he was “bittersweet”.
Speculation has swirled around the league over the 28-year-old’s future, with the club reportedly keen to get his monstrous salary off their books.
However, staying away only strengthened Grundy’s love for the club.
“Collingwood is an amazing club that I haven’t been able to fully experience what it’s like from the other side,” he told Wide World of Sports.
“I’ve been on the pitch, but being on the other side of the fence and seeing the passion of our supporters, it fills you with pride. You really realize when you’re immersed in this how much it means to people. .”
Despite only playing six games under McRae, Grundy was immediately impressed with what his new senior coach brought to the table.
“Fly (McRae) came in and really wanted to galvanize everyone in one direction and probably did that by going back and learning more about our past and spending time in Victoria Park and also giving everyone a message community,” he said.
“I enjoyed that because football is one thing, but having that experience on the other side means so much to so many people.
“The fans would be really happy to know that their coach is thinking of them.”
Grundy credited McRae’s “strength-based” approach to training as the catalyst for a number of young Collingwood players having the best seasons of their careers.
“Since he came on, he’s been someone who wanted to play the game and it’s all on the backs of the players playing to their strengths,” he said.
“The most important thing I noticed is that he starts every meeting by reaffirming our values and our DNA.
“It’s not just about kicks and marks and handballs, but how he wants us to behave, and you saw that in his comments about not being losers and to want to act like winners. It’s really about reinforcing behaviors.
“His coach, having been in that developmental role, means he understands the developing player and what it takes to be at his best.
“He’s very process-oriented and level-headed and he’s good at communicating team values. He’s good at getting everyone on the same page.”
One player who has thrived under McRae is 22-year-old defender Isaac Quaynor, who spent his first three seasons under Buckley.
Quaynor, who has made a career-high 24 appearances this season, said McRae was a modern coach perfectly suited to the young Magpies side.
“He steers the ship in a very calm way, but when he needs it he can give a little spray,” he said.
“I think that’s important and I think that resonates with a lot of us players. We have a very young squad, so potentially that old-school way of coaching doesn’t resonate as much.
“I think he (Fly) brings the best out of all of us and he’s done an amazing job in less than 12 months.”
When asked how to describe the Magpies’ wild ride, which featured an incredible 11-game winning streak, Quaynor had only one word: “Fun.”
“It was fun. I had a lot of fun,” he said.
“What (the coaching staff) was able to do, the culture they were able to create, it’s family.
“It sounds a bit cliché, but everyone plays for each other. We’re like brothers there.
“We all like working together, putting the pressure on and doing what we do.”
Under McRae, Collingwood’s ability to pick up victories in hard-fought games has become uncanny. Although they were unable to complete another heist in last weekend’s preliminary final, the quick finish provided further proof of their composure in tense situations.
“We train him a lot, I think you have to tip the hat to the coaching staff,” Quaynor said of Collingwood’s composure in close games.
“Fly, Leppa (Justin Leppitsch), Skip (Hayden Skipworth), this whole cohort, Bolts (Brendon Bolton), they do a great job of educating us and responding to all the different ways of learning something.
“Whether it’s visual, writing it, one-on-one, we see it again and again. We’ve been in a lot of tight positions and we’ve done it, so we’re just learning every week.”
Collingwood may have been denied this time around, but with McRae’s steady hand guiding a group of the league’s most exciting cores, ultimate success may not be that far away.
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