IF COLLINGWOOD wins the Grand Final on Saturday, it could have Carlton's pre-season training camp on the Sunshine Coast to thank for one of its unlikely and unsung premiership heroes.
Oleg Markov might be a Blues player if not for that trip. It was simply a case of bad timing, and a chain of events happening elsewhere, that led to him signing for the Pies following a wild week in February.
The athletic running defender has played 22 of a possible 25 games this season, his importance within Collingwood's team highlighted during a finals campaign where he's won a series of pivotal and defining battles.
Somewhat remarkably, though, it had followed a summer where his future in the game looked lost. After 51 games across seven years with Richmond and Gold Coast, Markov had found himself without a home and without any certainty as to what would come next.
After being told late last year that he wouldn't be offered a new deal by the Suns, and having failed to receive a shred of interest as a delisted free agent, Markov's manager Marty Pask began fielding calls from QAFL sides regarding his plans for 2023.
Markov was working in Queensland, had a partner in Gold Coast, and was content to remain north. That was until his VFL premiership coach, Craig McRae, convinced Collingwood officials to make a call.
McRae, the man hoping to become Collingwood's next premiership coach this Saturday, had worked closely with Markov alongside fellow Magpies assistant Justin Leppitsch during Richmond's glory years.
During that period, Markov had featured in each of the Tigers' flag campaigns – playing seven senior games in 2017, two in 2019, and six in 2020 – and won a reserves premiership under McRae's guidance in 2019.
McRae and Leppitsch advocated for Markov joining Collingwood as a train-on player in January. Lured by the prospect of reuniting with his former coaches, he made the journey back to Melbourne to give his AFL dream one last crack.
It was during the next month where the story of Markov's career – already a wild journey to that point – added another crazy chapter as he missed his chance, went to Carlton, backflipped, and signed for the coach he had long hoped to re-join.
It was St Kilda that made the first move in this strange series of events. Markov had been joined at Collingwood by fellow train-on player Oscar Steene, a 201cm ruck that the club was considering adding to support Darcy Cameron and Mason Cox.
Steene had impressed during his month at Collingwood, so much so that word of his talent was circulating. It led to St Kilda, also looking for ruck depth at the time, offering the youngster a contract and forcing the Pies into action.
By Friday, February 3, Markov's time at Collingwood was done. He was told the next weekend that the club's vacant list spot would be filled by Steene, leaving him once again without a footballing home.
More lifelines were to come, though. The previous week, 2000km away on the Sunshine Coast, Carlton was conducting a week-long pre-season training camp when running defender Zac Williams ruptured his ACL. All of a sudden, the Blues needed a Markov-type.
Carlton made a call to Markov's management, organising for him to sign as a train-on player the following week. The only problem? The Blues didn't return to Ikon Park until the following Thursday.
It meant that Markov sat idle for 96 hours, waiting for another chance. But, in that time, Collingwood defender Charlie Dean hurt his troublesome foot. Scans revealed a fracture that would rule him out for the season, opening up another list spot at the Pies.
That diagnosis came through on Thursday, as Markov was finishing up his first session at Carlton. Later that evening, he received a call from his manager Pask. Collingwood had been in touch. It wanted him back.
Markov was a no-show at the Blues as they completed their next session the following Friday morning. Instead, the combination of a certain offer from the Pies and the chance to once again work under McRae and Leppitsch proved too good to turn down.
Carlton, from its perspective, had wanted to put Markov through his paces alongside defender Alex Cincotta – who had graduated from the club's VFL program – during multiple sessions before making a call on who would replace Williams.
Markov's decision made the Blues' own choice relatively straightforward. Cincotta was signed and played 19 of a possible 26 games at Ikon Park this season, including all three of the side's finals matches.
Similarly at St Kilda – which opted for Anthony Caminiti when Steene officially signed at Collingwood, watching the key forward kick 19 goals from 18 games this year – the club would have still been satisfied with how proceedings played out.
Markov, from the moment he signed with the Pies, then made a spot in McRae's team his own. With high-end speed, overlapping run, length and the ability to mark overhead, he has become one of the backline's most valuable members.
That's been reflected in the 22 consecutive senior games he has since played. Having made his Collingwood debut in round four, as a tactical substitute against Brisbane, he has not been dropped since.
He signed a one-year contract extension earlier this season, with a trigger for a second year that could take him through to 2025, and by Saturday evening he could have an AFL premiership medallion to wear next to his VFL one, also won under McRae, from 2019.
Not bad for a player that looked bound for the QAFL little more than 10 months ago.