Craig McRae after Collingwood's win over Melbourne in the 2023 qualifying final. Picture: Getty Images

"IT IS going to be difficult to please all of you at the same time, but I just want to make sure you understand we are going to work really hard to develop winning habits and behaviours that you will be really proud of us, win, lose or draw."

Craig McRae was wrong in his first letter to members after being appointed coach of Collingwood just over 24 months ago. He has been able to please an entire fanbase across his first two seasons at the AIA Centre. And that is no mean feat. 

When the triple premiership player became the Magpies' third senior coach this century, they had just finished 17th on the ladder after winning six games. Club icon Nathan Buckley had departed mid-season after a decade in the role. Eddie McGuire had stepped down as president after 23 years. It was the changing of the guard.

Collingwood wasn't expected to be back in contention so soon, but it has been since midway through 2022. After losing five of his first nine games in charge, McRae has guided the Magpies to 33 wins from 41 games, leading the club to back-to-back preliminary finals to start his coaching career. 

After completing a long apprenticeship in a variety of coaching roles across 15 years – Richmond (development, assistant, VFL coach), Collingwood (head of development) and Hawthorn (assistant) – McRae will reach 50 games as a senior coach in Friday night's preliminary final against Greater Western Sydney at the MCG. 

Craig McRae with assistant coaches (L-R) Hayden Skipworth, Brendon Bolton and Justin Leppitsch after the R10 match between Collingwood and Carlton at the MCG on May 21, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

And he will reach that milestone on the night of his 50th birthday. Maybe another "red wine replay" to celebrate if things go to plan? After all, the second-year coach added that phrase to the footy lexicon after Collingwood's thrilling two-point win over Adelaide in round 15. "Only one glass, drink responsibly," McRae added following one of the Magpies' 15 single digit wins under his watch. They have lost four games by under 10 points, including two finals. 

While former Lions teammate Chris Scott has a remarkable record from his 13 seasons in charge of Geelong – 210 wins from 309 games, two premierships from three Grand Final appearances – McRae has a better winning percentage so far at 73.47 per cent. Only two men who have coached at least 50 games – Cliff Rankin (78.95%) and Jack Bisset (78.75%) have better records. Both coached in the 1920s and 1930s, decades before the game became a full-time billion dollar business. 

The Magpies have been a powerhouse for a long time and always had one of the largest supporter bases, but the McRae impact, both in terms of on-field results and his Ted Lasso personality – his wife thinks he is the AFL's version of the fictional AFC Richmond manager – have led to record membership growth across the past two seasons. 

Darcy Moore and Craig McRae celebrate Collingwood's win over Melbourne in the qualifying final at the MCG on September 7, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Before McRae arrived, Collingwood's membership number had peaked at 85,226 following the heartbreaking loss to West Coast in the 2018 Grand Final. That number was under 30,000 when Mick Malthouse arrived at the end of 1999. It had soared to 72,728 following the 2010 premiership win and remained in the 70s until the spike in 2019.

After dipping to 82,527 in 2021, it rocketed to six figures for the first time in McRae's first year, reaching 100,384 amid a season that saw the Magpies get within a kick of another Grand Final appearance. 

Collingwood set a new club and AFL record last month with 106,470 members on the back of another campaign of thrilling football that has sparked a fanbase, resulting in plenty of fans flocking to the MCG. 

More than 90,000 people have turned up four times to watch Collingwood under McRae – both qualifying finals, last year's semi-final and 2023 Anzac Day – eight other games have had at least 80,000 in the building, while 18 in total have been in front of more than 70,000. 

The Magpies averaged a VFL/AFL home attendance record of 63,722 during the home and away season and 60,209 across the season to date, with more than 90,000 people expected on Friday night, despite Greater Western Sydney having the second smallest supporter base behind Gold Coast. 

McRae cut his teeth as a development coach at Richmond, before his first stint at Collingwood where he taught Mason Cox the fundamentals of the game, long before his memorable CBS appearance on 60 Minutes. Although they can't pronounce Craig in the United States, even if the audience of 13 million didn't realise the difference. 'Cregg' had a laugh about it at his next press conference. 

Mason Cox and Collingwood coach Craig McRae after the round 12 win over Melbourne in 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

The background in development has helped bring the most out of the players Collingwood traded in during last October's trade period – Tom Mitchell, Dan McStay, Bobby Hill and Billy Frampton – as well as pre-season supplemental selection period signing Oleg Markov. The improved depth has helped return the Pies to the penultimate weekend of the season. 

Mid-week and post-game, McRae's honesty and positivity has been refreshing and contagious. His values shine through in the words that he expresses in public, not just behind closed doors to his players. None more evident than in his thought provoking comments following last year's six-point qualifying final loss to eventual premiers Geelong when he revealed his disappointment after some of his players collapsed to the ground in defeat. 

Jack Ginnivan (left) and Nick Daicos look dejected after Collingwood lost the preliminary final against Sydney on September 17, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

"We want to act like winners," he said. "I must admit, the siren goes and there are half a dozen of our guys laying on the ground. For me, that's not a winner. That's acting like a loser. We lost the game, but we're not losers. There is a difference. I said that for the lifetime that I'm sitting in this chair – maybe barring a Grand Final – if we don't win, don't lay on the ground."

Whether they win on Friday night and go all the way or not, McRae has taken the black and white army on a journey that appears to have many more greats days and nights ahead.