Collingwood are no strangers to the pressure that goes with unfulfilled expectations.
But the Magpies and their coach Nathan Buckley go into Friday night’s clash with Sydney at the SCG facing not only a critical firestorm should they lose, but teetering on the precipice of some very unwanted history.
Collingwood have had some ordinary seasons in the past 20 years, but they haven’t started a season 0-3 since 1999, when Tony Shaw was still coach and the club ended up with its second wooden spoon.
Their clash with the Swans is important for both teams, last year’s grand finalists also winless after two rounds, but it’s Buckley, not his counterpart John Longmire, who will be feeling all the heat if his team ends up on the wrong side of the ledger again.
“I’m fine,” Buckley said of that mounting pressure as he and his team prepared to fly to Sydney on Thursday. “Most of it is external. And I think it’s premature and disproportionate, but I’m used to that.
“It’s not something different for me, it’s not something different for the Collingwood Football Club, it’s not something different for our senior leaders who have dealt with it for the majority of their careers, and it doesn’t really change anything we do.”
Buckley is far from the only AFL coach under pressure even at this early stage of the season. Collingwood are just one of eight winless teams, Hawthorn, along with Sydney, another perennial heavyweight yet to taste victory in 2017. But their respective coaches, Longmire and Alastair Clarkson, have time and popular belief still on their side.
Which isn’t necessarily the case for colleagues Ross Lyon and Rodney Eade, whose Fremantle and Gold Coast outfits currently occupy the bottom two rungs of the AFL ladder.
Collingwood’s losses to Western Bulldogs and Richmond have been by only 14 and 19 points. Buckley believes that, not for the first time, the reaction to those defeats has been out of kilter with the results themselves.
But he did concede that Friday night’s game, at a venue the Pies have played only twice and haven’t won at since 2000, loomed as a critical moment.
“Every game is [season-defining], you can’t hide away from that,” he said. “But it is early in the season. We’re not looking any further ahead than Friday, but they are all season-defining.
“It’s really early. We feel like we’ll get better as we go on. There’s probably four or five players that if fit and healthy would have been in our side in the first couple of rounds.
“We just haven’t taken advantage or been able to finish off our largely positive work to get the results in the last couple of weeks. We’re not looking any further than Friday and we’re going to get that right.”
Senior Collingwood players, among them captain Scott Pendlebury and Adam Treloar, have been moved to publicly defend their coach this week.
Pendlebury said Magpie players should feel responsible for their winless start and that Buckley was coaching as well as ever in his six seasons at the helm.
For that the coach was grateful, but while appreciating the gesture, reiterated the responsibilities of the coaching group as a whole.
“I think both ‘Pendles’ and Adam [Treloar] have thrown themselves on the grenade a little bit,” he said. “It’s a partnership. The coaches have a role to play. The players have a role to play. Those two boys will be at the front line, and I’m pretty sure they’re looking forward to the opportunity.”
Gold Coast’s Sunday twilight clash with Hawthorn may be no less critical for the hapless Suns or their coach Eade, whose three-year deal expires at the end of this season, Suns Mark Evans already this week having to publicly back his coach.
And at the Dockers, Lyon has the ostensible security of another three years after this season, but not the security of performances to back it up, Fremantle have been taken apart by first Geelong, then Port Adelaide, and have now lost 20 of their past 24 games, their dramatic fall from grace after topping the ladder in 2015 continuing into the new season.
Fremantle take on the Western Bulldogs on Saturday night, the reigning premier, funnily enough, the only team the Dockers have beaten from their last 11 opponents.
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