THE difference between an excellent season and one full of what-might-have-beens can often come down to a few points here and there.
And that is a big part of why Collingwood managed to produce an impressive 6-3 year and finish in seventh spot, despite not being in many tipsters’ top eight at the start of the year.
The well-publicised fire sale at the top end of the list last year looked like derailing the club, but while the AFL team had a tough season, the VFL line-up reaped a huge benefit from the impressive group of young players drafted in.
Four of the Magpies' six wins came by seven points or less as a young brigade led by top draft pick Ollie Henry, rookie forward Jack Ginnivan, Finlay Macrae, Caleb Poulter and last year's top pick Jay Rantall produced some exciting football that saw all earn multiple opportunities at AFL level, while Next Generation Academy selection Reef McInnes was closing in on his chance before being injured.
First-year coach Craig Black appointed his 2018 Dandenong Stingrays premiership skipper Campbell Hustwaite as co-captain alongside Lachlan Tardrew and both took their game to new heights as well.
Add to that the performances of big-bodied midfielders Brayden Sier and Tom Wilson, plus the further development of ruckman Max Lynch, and Collingwood became a team with plenty of upside.
That was despite the missed development opportunities caused by COVID restrictions and cancellations in what Black called an "exciting" competition, although he was disappointed but pragmatic about missing the opportunity to test themselves in finals.
"Having such a big competition and giving our young players the experience to do some travel was what we were excited about at the start of the year," he said.
"We were excited about the opportunity of playing different clubs around the country, but in reality it became pretty hard and it was unfortunate we only got nine games underway (including one trip to Sydney).
"Having the ability to train as a group was limited but our boys did an amazing job of working hard individually and when we were able to connect again we came back and won three games, so our boys must have been doing something right.
"Any chance you get to play any form of finals, whether it is juniors, locals, NAB League, VFL/AFL, you really cherish that moment and you want to see young people go out and execute under a little more pressure and when the game is a little bit quicker, which should give them a bit of momentum to try and play AFL footy.
"So we were pretty disappointed as a collective when we got notification that we weren't going to (play finals), because it's always good to win games of footy and everyone wants to play at the pointy end of the season."
Black said the Magpies' ability to win those close games – they beat Werribee by seven points, Gold Coast by three, Coburg by four and Richmond by five – showed a steely determination that would stand his team in good stead.
That mentality saw nine young Magpies earn AFL debuts this season, eight of whom played regular VFL games, while fellow newcomers McInnes, Liam McMahon and Isaac Chugg also showed good signs.
"We talk about this a bit – we really hope giving our young players a really good grounding so they can win games of footy going forward is a really good trait to have," Black said.
"I knew our group had the will to win and the want to win – when you have four games under seven points you probably need a bit of luck on your side, and to get all four of them was a credit to the players for sure.
"When you’re bringing in so many young players and they’re getting opportunities it is giving them a really good stepping stone to project their career playing AFL, and if they're not playing AFL they're coming back and they are really strong contributors at VFL level."
Black said the first sign Collingwood had something special on its hands in Henry came in the round three win over the Suns when he had 22 disposals, 13 marks and kicked 3.3, while Ginnivan earned plenty of praise for his rapid rise from pick 13 in the rookie draft to playing the last five AFL games.
"Every time the ball went to (Henry) that day you just thought 'he'll mark this', and that's exciting for him, for our supporters and even for people to come and watch him in his first year," Black said.
"The next challenge for him is to do that at AFL level and we saw snippets of that when he played the last seven games, so that’s exciting for us.
"Jack doesn't miss shots on goal and the more opportunities he gets the better. He came in on the rookie list having not played much footy and he’d be the first to admit he was probably still playing like a local footballer, just wanting to kick goals.
"But through his workrate and identifying what he needed to improve, he had four or five really consistent weeks at VFL level and got his opportunity at AFL and kicked goals, which was really good for him."
Black also had plenty of praise for Hustwaite, 20, and Tardrew, 24, for their efforts in filling the shoes of retired stalwart Jack Hellier, as well as fellow VFL talents Sam Fowler and Sam Glover.
"It was a change for (the new captains) … we've had Jack Hellier as captain for so many years and he's been so strong, so for two young players to get the opportunity to lead a Collingwood VFL team which you know is going to have a mix of AFL players, they did an outstanding job," he said.
"Tardrew just does the job every week and we can just play him in every position – he is a strong contributor and I think he’s still got improvement, so that’s the really exciting part for us.
"Sam Fowler, 'The Rat', I was really excited that he wanted to come and play VFL again, he was a really strong performer in TAC Cup and made the Vic Country Team of the Year and kicked goals.
"He tried a few different clubs and maybe wasn't as committed as he wanted to be, and then last year when he really wanted to play but couldn't because of COVID, I think he's got some awesome traits and could play AFL footy so hopefully we can get strong performances out of him for the next year or two and keep pushing his name up.
"(Glover) has been around our program for a while and his ability to play forward or back, I think he impacted in both and helped us win. I think the Richmond game he kicked three goals and round one he played as a defender and played well.
"We thought our VFL core players really set the standard for us – you want your AFL boys to come back and drag the VFL boys along, but the two groups connected really well and challenged each other to play well on game day."
6-3 win-loss, 7th
What went right: There weren't high expectations around the Magpies at the start of the season, but a gutsy seven-point win over Werribee in round one – the first of four by no more than that margin – set them up for a year where they won six matches to bank a top-eight spot. Their first and second-year players (see below) showed the club’s on-field future is in good hands.
What went wrong: The loss to Essendon in round two when they were affected by COVID-enforced withdrawals seemed to undo the good work of the Werribee win, while the thrashing from Box Hill in what turned out to be the last game will leave a sour taste to drive the group over the next pre-season.
Best and fairest prediction: Brayden Sier had an outstanding six matches at VFL level and starts as the favourite for this award, but the question mark is over the three matches he missed, which brings co-captain Lachie Tardrew into the picture. Tom Wilson, Max Lynch, Jacob Booth and Jack Ginnivan could also poll well.
Best young players: Ollie Henry, Ginnivan, Caleb Poulter, Finlay Macrae, Tom Wilson, Jay Rantall, Trent Bianco and Anton Tohill all spent time in the VFL and earned AFL debuts. VFL co-captain Campbell Hustwaite led beautifully at just 20, Kaden Schreiber, 19, played seven games and Yousseph Dib got a taste ahead of being a likely NGA addition this year.
Coach status: Craig Black is contracted for a second year and the 2018 Dandenong Stingrays premiership coach is looking forward to seeing the further development of the Magpies’ youngsters. "I'm working on that connection between the VFL and the AFL and trying to make sure the VFL-listed players are getting everything they need, because they're just as important as our AFL-listed players," he said.