WHEN Oleg Markov's time was up at Gold Coast last year, the childhood dream looked over. QAFL clubs were chasing his services and he had just been offered a full-time job as a support worker. It was time to start a new chapter.
But it wasn't.
Of the 23 Magpies that became premiership players – two for the second time – on Saturday, the Belarusian-born half-back with the curly moustache is the only one who wasn't on the list at the start of the year.
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The 27-year-old started training with Collingwood in January in a bid to land a rookie contract during the pre-season supplemental selection period, but the club opted to sign young ruckman Oscar Steene to fill a more pressing need instead.
Markov was in limbo again. At least momentarily.
Carlton called after Zac Williams tore his ACL on a pre-season camp and invited him to trial for a spot. But by the end of his first day at Ikon Park, the Magpies were back on the phone with an offer after scans had discovered that Charlie Dean had suffered a long-term foot injury.
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The former Richmond and Gold Coast defender was selected for his first appearance in black and white for the Easter Thursday clash against Brisbane at the Gabba. Since then, Markov hasn't missed a game, playing the final 23 games of a season that ended with a four-point win over the Lions in front of 100,024 people at the MCG on Saturday.
Markov will now have his name stamped on a locker at Collingwood Football Club forever, but only after he chose not to take the easy option by remaining in Queensland and moving on with life.
"It definitely crossed my mind most days in the off-season that my AFL career was over. It was more so just trying to find joy in footy. I still wanted to play footy, I just didn't think it was at the AFL level," Markov told AFL.com.au after the Grand Final.
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"I thought I couldn't rekindle that spark. I saw it as a chore or as a job, rather than something I once enjoyed as a kid. To come into this environment, I feel like a kid again. I'm able to smile, make mistakes, move on. I'm so grateful for this opportunity."
Collingwood made some bold list management decisions after losing last year's preliminary final by a point at the SCG. Magpies GM Graham Wright signed Dan McStay during free agency and then went and added three players – Tom Mitchell, Bobby Hill and Billy Frampton – during the trade period.
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The latter three all played on Saturday. McStay missed out after suffering a knee injury in the preliminary final win. Hill won the Norm Smith Medal after kicking four goals in a career-best performance, while Mitchell was in the votes after collecting 24 disposals, 13 tackles and seven clearances.
Markov was the last list management decision the Magpies made before the start of the season, but only after the South Australian almost became a Blue. Carlton went with Alex Cincotta instead, who ended up playing 19 games in his debut season after earning a shot at the age of 26.
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"I was very grateful for Carlton showing that interest to get me to train on," Markov said. "It was a great opportunity. Who knows what could have happened. I'm really lucky to have felt the love from them and that feeling of being wanted. But I've signed a contract with the black and white and I'm now forced to hate them. That's part of the contract!"
Collingwood coach Craig McRae was a key driver in trialling Markov during the pre-season. The pair spent five seasons together at Richmond where they shared the 2019 VFL premiership success together. Head of strategy Justin Leppitsch also coached Markov at Punt Road and was convinced he was too good not to be on an AFL list.
After a challenging couple of seasons in Carrara that almost led to the end of his time at the highest level, Markov said McRae's influence on not just his football but his life has helped him bring out a level of football not many thought was possible.
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"'Fly' is an incredible person. He makes you feel like you're his son. He treats me like that," he said.
"He is always straight, he understands what sort of feedback to give someone, he catches you in a safety net. It is special to have him around. I'm super lucky to have him not only as my coach, but as a mentor in my life. I love that man."
Markov was driving up the M1 in south-east Queensland when McRae called and planted the seed late last year. But even the man with the Ted Lasso optimism couldn't have foreseen what was to come with the dashing defender in the Mizuno boots. They now have a bond for life.