(L-R): Justin Leppitsch, Craig Kelly and Brendon Bolton. Pictures: AFL Photos

LIFE is never the same for those who secure an AFL premiership.

The public adulation, the private satisfaction, the parties change everything. Feelings of accomplishment and fulfillment can distort a competitive reality. Distractions, some welcomed and others unwanted, to a high performance life can enter daily routine and thoughts.

When it’s a Collingwood premiership, multiply the disturbances and the frenzy by 10, maybe 20, and when the flag defence begins with two losses, murmurings outside the club lead to valid questions within it.

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Collingwood people – players, coaches, administrators - are convinced they have not taken shortcuts in 2024 preparations.

CEO Craig Kelly, a naturally and proudly combative leader when he feels the need to protect his people, begins a conversation with AFL.com.au about the club’s early 2024 landscape with a version of mock laughter. He had just finished one of his regular chats with coach Craig McRae, the two aware of what is already unfolding in the public narrative.

“Externally people don’t understand what goes on internally,” Kelly said. “All of us understand the game we are in, all of us understand when you play two good sides, you will try to pick it apart and look for reasons and try and talk things up.”

To Kelly’s point, there are obvious reasons for the Magpies’ tardy start. Greater Western Sydney (a 32-point winner in Opening Round) and Sydney (a 33-point winner in round one), are very good football teams, with the Giants having already pushed the Pies to a one-point result in last year’s preliminary final, and the Swans beating the Pies by the same margin in the 2022 preliminary final. Both teams are expected to finish high on the 2024 ladder.


Then there is the indefinite absence of Nathan Murphy, who hasn’t played since the first quarter of the 2023 Grand Final and who continues to be assessed by concussion experts, and which has had a profoundly negative impact. The ripple effect of his unavailability has changed the attacking dynamic of the Pies’ backline.

A big hole has formed in the forward line, too, with Dan McStay’s latest knee problems causing many problems inside 50.

The long-service leave being taken by renowned football department head Graham Wright, and the flow-on effects of those now empowered to fill his void, is another problem.

Kelly himself will be playing active roles in the running of certain parts of the football department, including involvement in big picture discussions on the composition of the Magpies’ list, an understandable role given that prior to becoming CEO in January 2023, he had established the biggest sports talent and marketing agency in Australia.

It is known there has been friction, particularly between Brendon Bolton and Justin Leppitsch, as the new football department roles assigned to cover Wright are being bedded down.

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

Bolton had his responsibilities bolstered in the new portfolio breakdown, and retained status as director of coaching. Among Leppitsch’s new roles are the overseeing of the Magpies’ football, strategy and innovation.

Clare Pettyfor, general manager operations, has recently told the club she would be returning to a media role with Melbourne.

Wright offered to resign when he made Collingwood officials aware of his need for a lengthy break from football. The long-service leave which he has taken was suggested to him by president Jeff Browne and Kelly. He will return to the club in early September.

“It’s white noise – he (Wright) will be back for the back part of the year and then we will sit down and talk long term,” Kelly said.

“He came in and wanted to do it that way (resign) and after that we just said to him, ‘you don’t have to do it that way’. That is how it happened. We rang the AFL, and they were very supportive.”

Craig Kelly (right) embraces Jordan De Goey after Collingwood's win in the 2023 AFL Grand Final. Picture: AFL Photos

While denying any relationship problems between Leppitsch and Bolton, as well as any major issues relating to Wright’s exit, Kelly said elite sports organisations were not for people afraid of confrontation.

“In high performance environments where a lot of stuff happens, people yell and scream,” Kelly said.

“Bolts and he are heading down a good path, and they want to head down that path together.

“He (Leppitsch) is a better manager now, and he will be good at this list stuff, and how he is going about it with Derek (Hine) and I is exciting.

“I am spending time helping Bolts, and Leppa, and with list management meetings - I will assist Derek. I won’t be sitting in on selection or (sitting) on the benches (during games), just supporting key people.”

Collingwood recruiting boss Derek Hine speaks with media during the 2023 AFL Draft on November 21, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Again reverting to a strong defence of the club he loves, Kelly, who knows first-hand the outside effects of a premiership at Collingwood after playing a key role as a key defender in 1990, wanted it known that change was part of his leadership mantra.

“Look, we made more changes for last year than this year,” Kelly said.

“And we want people to be challenged, we want balance, we want people to go on long-service leave and we will put people in different roles.

“Some will work, some won’t. We just want to get better and seek to get better, and we need to get better because everyone else is also wanting to get better.

“Fly (Craig McRae) and I … we will shake every year and see if we need to change, we want balance and a workplace where people are challenged, and where people can keep moving forward.”

Craig McRae during Collingwood's match against Sydney at the MCG in round one, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

McRae knew the premiership hangover talk would come at some stage of 2024. He flagged that it would be levelled at the club in a wide-ranging interview with AFL.com.au in February.

What he wouldn’t have expected, though, even with the learnings and wisdom that comes with 29 years as a player, assistant coach and coach in the AFL, was that the hangover topic would be generated before the new season even started – by the legendary Leigh Matthews.

“Revisiting something that happened six months ago, to me that’s never helpful,” Matthews said of the late February-early March release of “Take The Steps”, a documentary which premiered at Hoyts Melbourne Central.

McRae hasn’t detected hangover symptoms. But his demeanour did change in the post match media conferences from Opening Round to Round 1. He remains comfortable that his entire team classily soaked up and celebrated its stunning 2023 success, and that the early 2024 problems can be rectified with a return to the basics at the core of his two full seasons in charge.


But he and Kelly have also been around long enough to know that unless they start winning, their words will present in hollow form to the public. It’s why they found themselves unexpectedly laughing when talking about the outside-club observations on Tuesday.

St Kilda awaits Collingwood on Thursday night at the MCG, Brisbane the following Thursday at the Gabba. And as complex and sophisticated and educated as football now is, there is still only one thing guaranteed to make the negative talk disappear – wins.