Having come within a kick of their 16th premiership in 2018, the Magpies had gone from being near-flag favourites in 2019 to being out of the finals entirely just two years later.
The wheels had not only come off on the field, but off it as well, with the Do Better Report into a culture of systemic racism at the club swiftly followed by the departure of long-time president Eddie McGuire and the club’s favourite son, senior coach, Nathan Buckley.
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Fast forward 12 months and McRae was deservingly voted by his peers as the coach of the year, ahead of the two men coaching in Saturday’s grand final, Sydney coach John Longmire and Geelong’s Chris Scott.
It has been an astounding first year at the helm for McRae, whose Magpies were cruelly beaten by one point in a thrilling preliminary final last Saturday by the Swans.
Collingwood’s unlikely run to the preliminary final was made more impressive by the fact that it was done with two-time All-Australian big man Brodie Grundy in street clothes.
Grundy did not play another game after starring on Anzac Day, with a PCL injury followed by an ankle injury ruining his season, and the big man admitted seeing his teammates thrive without him was “bittersweet”.
Speculation has swirled around the league about the 28-year-old’s future, with the club reportedly keen on getting his monster salary off its books.
However, sitting on the sidelines has only made Grundy’s love for the club stronger.
“Collingwood’s an amazing club which I haven’t got to fully experience what it’s like on the other side,” he told Wide World of Sports.
“I’ve been on the ground, but to be on the other side of the fence and seeing the passion of our supporters, it fills you with so much pride. You truly realise when you’re immersed in there how much this means to people.”
Despite only playing six games under McRae, Grundy was immediately impressed by what his new senior coach brought to the table.
“Fly (McRae) came in and really wanted to galvanise everyone in a direction and probably did that by going back and learning more about our past and spending time at Victoria Park and giving everyone a community message as well,” he said.
“I’ve valued that because football is one thing, but having that experience on the other side, it means so much to so many people.
“Supporters would be really happy to know that their head coach is thinking of them.”
Grundy credited McRae’s “strength-based” coaching approach as the catalyst for a number of Collingwood’s younger players enjoying career-best seasons.
“Since he’s come on, he’s someone that’s wanted to take the game on and that’s all on the back of players playing to their strengths,” he said.
“The biggest thing that I’ve noted is he starts each meeting by reaffirming our values and our DNA.
“It’s not all about kicks, marks and handballs, but about how he wants us to carry ourselves, and you saw that in his comments about not being losers and wanting to act like winners. He’s really all about reinforcing behaviours.
“His coaching, having been in that development role, means he understands the developing player and what it takes to get them to be at their best.
“He’s very process-driven and level-headed and he’s good at communicating the values of the team. He’s good at getting everyone on the same page.”
One of the players who has flourished under McRae’s guiding hand has been 22-year-old defender Isaac Quaynor, who spent his first three seasons under Buckley.
Quaynor, who made a career-high 24 appearances this season, said McRae was a modern coach who was perfectly suited to the young Magpies team.
”He steers the ship in a really calm way, but when he needs to, he can give a bit of a spray,” he said.
“I think that’s important and I think that resonates with a lot of us players. We’ve got a really young group, so potentially that older fashioned way of coaching doesn’t resonate as much.
“I think he (Fly) just gets the best out of all of us and he’s done an unbelievable job in under 12 months.”
When asked how to describe the Magpies’ wild ride, which featured an incredible 11-game winning streak, Quaynor had one word: “Fun.”
“It’s been fun. I’ve had a lot of fun,” he said.
“What (the coaching staff) have been able to do, the culture they’ve been able to create, it’s family-like.
“It sounds a bit cliche, but everyone just plays for each other. We’re like brothers out there.
“We just all love getting to work together and putting the pressure on and doing what we do.”
Under McRae, Collingwood’s ability to grind out wins in tightly-contested matches became uncanny. Although they were unable to complete another heist in last weekend’s preliminary final, the fast finish provided more evidence of their composure in tense situations.
”We train it a lot, I think you’ve got to tip the hat to coaching staff,” Quaynor said of Collingwood’s composure in tight matches.
“Fly, Leppa (Justin Leppitsch), Skip (Hayden Skipworth), that whole cohort, Bolts (Brendon Bolton), they do a great job of schooling us and catering to all different ways of learning something.
“Whether it’s visual, through writing it down, through one-on-one, we just go over it again and again. We’ve been in a lot of close-game 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 bunch of the league’s most exciting cores, the ultimate success may not be that far away.
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