THE LAST time Tom Mitchell played in a Grand Final was the last time he played for Sydney. The next time he plays for Collingwood will be his second attempt at reaching the promised land. He has been waiting seven years for another opportunity to claim one of the few prizes that has eluded him so far.
Mitchell requested a trade to Hawthorn less than a fortnight after the Western Bulldogs ended a 62-year premiership drought by defeating the Swans in the 2016 decider, joining a club gunning to remain in contention after the famous three-peat.
It didn't work out that way. Mitchell won a Brownlow Medal and a Leigh Matthews Trophy in his second season at Waverley Park, earned All-Australian selection twice and claimed three Peter Crimmins Medals – all around a horrific broken leg – but he never played in a winning final in brown and gold.
The 30-year-old made the decision to pack up and move again last October, landing at Collingwood three minutes before last year's trade deadline slammed shut, moving clubs in a three-way trade that sent Ollie Henry to Geelong and Cooper Stephens to Hawthorn.
Now nearly 12 months on from that trade, Mitchell is returning to the Grand Final stage, this time wearing the No.6 black and white guernsey his dad, Barry Mitchell, wore during his one season at Collingwood in 1993.
"I do feel the move has rejuvenated my career. I feel really happy. I feel like the club has really embraced me, all my teammates, the coaches, they really encourage me to go out and do what I do well. I feel really supported," Mitchell told AFL.com.au after Friday night's thrilling win over Greater Western Sydney.
"I haven't been this happy in my footy career ever. I come to work every day with my mates loving what I do with a smile on my face. I can't say that was always the case, I've had plenty of ups and downs throughout my career, but I'm enjoying it. Winning helps, but regardless of that, the culture that 'Fly' (Magpies coach Craig McRae) has created means that you can come and everyone is really valued."
The Magpies' one-point win over Greater Western Sydney in last Friday night's preliminary final was the perfect present for Collingwood coach Craig McRae, who celebrated his 50th birthday with the biggest win of his first 50 games at the helm and will now coach against the side he won three premierships for as a player.
"It was his 50th birthday and 50th game. He said to us all he wanted for his birthday was a win. We gave him his birthday present," Mitchell said. "The job isn't finished though. Really pumped for (the Grand Final). Look forward to getting back to training and preparing for (the decider)."
This time last year, Collingwood was licking its wounds after its season ended at the SCG when Sydney held on by a point. Magpies GM of football Graham Wright then went to work, signing four players – Dan McStay, Bobby Hill, Billy Frampton and Mitchell – during the Trade Period before adding Oleg Markov via the pre-season supplemental selection period.
All five recruits have addressed holes and played most of the year, but Mitchell has been the most consistent fresh face. The inside midfielder has nailed his role, averaging 25 disposals, 11.2 contested possessions, 5.8 tackles and 4.8 clearances from 25 games, despite some outside noise at times questioning his spot in Collingwood's stacked engine room.
"Everyone is entitled to their opinion. I'm content with where I'm at, I'm very happy playing for Collingwood. More importantly, I just love playing my role and doing my bit for the team. That's more than enough for me," he said.
"I'm just here to do my bit. I just want to come in and dish the ball out to our runners: [Jordan] De Goey, [Jack] Crisp, Daicos brothers. Whatever the outside noise is, I don't take too much notice of it. I'm just here to do what my teammates and coaches are asking of me and that's what I try and do every week."
While Mitchell finished with 24 disposals, 12 contested possessions, 10 tackles – the most on the ground – Nick Daicos made a stunning return after six weeks on the sidelines with a knee injury, collecting 28 disposals, six clearances, five inside 50s and 520 metres gained.
"It's not easy to come back after a six-week layoff, as good as he is," he said. "I thought as the game went on he looked better. He will be better for the run. He is one of the best players in the comp, so to get that game into his legs is going to make him even better next week."
Mitchell was drafted to Sydney months after it won the flag in 2012. He watched on as it lost to Hawthorn in 2014 and was on the MCG when things didn't work out in 2016. Now he gets another shot at the ultimate prize.
"As you get a little bit older as well, you realise these chances don't come around too often," he said. "To be playing in a Grand Final for Collingwood, I never thought I'd be saying that. I can't wait. One more to go."