Sorrow and wonder as Magpies grieve a great and make it nine wins straight

“The game provides the same entertainment for a bloke who’s a million-dollar company director as it does for a bloke who shovelling dirt in a trench.” Billy Picken said that in 1981. He died on the weekend, aged 66. He was a magnificent, if unorthodox, footballer. A big-occasion performer, a beloved figure at Collingwood and a player who entertained suits and ditch diggers in equal measure.

Billy wouldn’t have had much time for duckers and shruggers, for midweek rule changes and sub-rule shifties. As a man who used to commentate his own play, he was probably more informative and erudite with a mouthguard and a gob full of mud than some of the folks calling the modern game.

But he would have loved round 19. Granted, large chunks of Friday night’s Richmond-Fremantle game resembled the closing credits of a Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em episode. It was hardly the sort of football to strike terror into the premiership aspirants. But it was compelling, in a pre-dynasty Richmond kind of way. Though “not shaped for sportive tricks”, Shakespeare, as one Richmond supporter tweeted on the siren, would have surely been a Tiger.

Saturday afternoon’s twilight game was like watching a completely different sport. That timeslot has thrown up some of the best games of 2022, and this was a gem. Playing for their season, Port Adelaide threw the kitchen sink at Geelong. Charlie Dixon’s eyes were spinning in the back of his head like one of Laurie Connell’s racehorses. He reminded us how much Port had missed him in the first few months of the year. The Power were ahead in virtually every statistic, but as always were crying out for a big body down back, some clean ball users and a pinch of luck.

More than a thousand points were scored on the same day for the first time since 2018, and the Queensland derby and the grand final rematch helped bump up those numbers. The last time Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs met, Luke Beveridge came spoiling for a fight. With his vendettas, his cryptic answers and his baffling selections, he can drive fans to drink. On Saturday, however, he had that look he sometimes gets around this time of year – the look of a man hatching a plan, a man who knows his side can inflict some serious damage if they can sneak into the eight. It was, he said, one of the best home-and-away wins of his career.

Picken’s son Liam was the consummate Beveridge footballer. Billy himself played with a young Peter Daicos at Victoria Park. They even acted together in the film The Club, both lending assistance during a locker-room altercation. Daicos – no slouch in big games himself – said Picken was the best finals player he saw at Collingwood. Daicos’s two sons burnished their reputations further on Sunday. His eldest kicked one of the goals of the year. His youngest is a study in everything you want in a draftee – balance, sure hands, steady feet, an even temperament and an intrinsic understanding of what senior football and the modern game requires. The game slows down around him, the way it slowed down around his dad, the way it slows down around his captain.

Collingwood were chasing nine wins in a row on Sunday, a scenario that only the most one-eyed or prophetic fan could have predicted. In early March, several prominent football journalists tipped them as wooden spooners. In 2021 they were plain, poky and totally bereft of luck. Craig McRae has changed that. Before securing this job he was working at Hawthorn, where they were one of the highest-possession teams, but the worst for inside 50s. From the outset, even in the interview process, he was adamant Collingwood would be the opposite of that. Not surprisingly, with McRae and Leppitsch in the box, there’s a lot of Richmond in how they now play – the emphasis on forward momentum, on minimum possession for maximum impact.

But when you’re eyeing off finals, the Bombers are exactly the sort of team you want to avoid. Since the bye they’ve played like they’ve had nothing to lose. Crucially, they’ve started running both ways. They’ve beaten some very good teams. Yesterday, however, they were asleep at the post. This time Collingwood were the pacesetters – a role to which they were neither accustomed nor suited. The Bombers, who hadn’t registered a possession in their forward 50 in the first term, then played with total abandon, pegging back a 37-point deficit.

But this Collingwood side simply don’t give in. They’re personified by Jack Crisp, wearing Billy Picken’s No 25. They excel, as McRae said this week, in the thrill of the chase. And they’re peerless in close finishes. There’s always luck at play when you win so many close games; luck that completely eluded them last year. But it’s also a sign of smart footballers, good leadership and total buy-in from the players and coaching group. And it comes with confidence. Once you win a few close ones, you back yourself to do exactly what needs doing, to stand where you need to stand, to have the right mix of risk and reward. And once you have that confidence and belief, you can stand, like Jamie Elliott did deep in the forward pocket yesterday, and pull off the seemingly impossible.

It was a fitting end to a vintage weekend of football, a weekend tinged by sadness. When you lose a game in that manner, it can feel like the sky’s about to cave in. With that in mind, The Age’s Greg Baum tells a story of football writer and Collingwood supporter Michael Davis trudging home from the MCG after the 1979 grand final. It was one of those afternoons that diehards take decades to get over. Walking behind Davis was the man adjudged Collingwood’s best player that day. “Cheer up Mick,” Billy Picken said. “It’s only a game”.