MICK Malthouse still sees Steele Sidebottom all the time, just not often in the flesh. In the aftermath of Collingwood’s 2010 Grand Final win over St Kilda, the coach got only one photo with his family. Nanette is there next to her husband and their four children Christi, Danielle, Cain and Troy. Then there is a 19-year-old who has photobombed at the last minute. 

That image sits proudly on the mantlepiece inside the Malthouse household and sums up Sidebottom. The boy that became a man at Collingwood, that never lost his cheeky grin. 

Now Sidebottom is still hunting an elusive second premiership medallion at 32, eyeing another opportunity to turn up in a different coach's treasured photograph. Craig McRae, take note. 

But on Sunday afternoon, the focus will be on Sidebottom when he becomes just the fourth player in the history of Collingwood Football Club to reach 300 games in black and white, joining Scott Pendlebury (367*), Tony Shaw (313) and Gordon Coventry (306) in rare territory. 

Since making his debut against St Kilda in round seven 2009, Sidebottom has become part of the furniture inside the Magpies' Olympic Park training base that was then called the Lexus Centre and has been called the Westpac Centre, Holden Centre and now the AIA Centre during a career that has also rewarded him with two Copeland Trophies and an All-Australian blazer. 

"The thing about Steele is he always had a smile on his face. He just loved the game, loved being at the club, loved being around his mates and as a coach you always just knew he would take on board anything you said. He rarely seemed stressed, he is just one of those blokes that takes life the way it is. That is a special quality," Malthouse told AFL.com.au this week. 

"He had many special qualities; he could run all day; he had a good football brain, he'd use the ball well and he has great coverage; he is the complete package, there is no question. But he is just a delight. I can hardly ever think of him having a frown on his face because he just enjoyed life and enjoyed playing footy.

"The other thing when it comes to Steele is I never heard a player or anyone talk badly about him and that's a great credit to him. It's OK to have good football ability, but he has a way about him that people just love."

When Sidebottom faces North Melbourne this weekend, he will return to the scene of many personal milestones. He made his debut at Docklands when it was named Etihad Stadium. By the time he played game No.250 in 2021, the venue was known as Marvel Stadium. But his most famous outing inside the building the AFL owns was back in 2008 before many knew who Sidebottom was, back when the ground was called Telstra Dome.  

Derek Hine was there on that famous day. The veteran Collingwood recruiter walked out of the ground into a wet September night thinking there was no chance the Murray Bushrangers midfielder would still be on the board when the Magpies would be on the clock at pick No.11. Everyone remembers the 10 goals and the 32 touches under the roof in the TAC Cup Grand Final, but the Magpies' national recruiting manager was sold the week before at Princes Park.

"The prelim the week before was just as good. He picked the team up and carried them across the line and it was just the most dominant game I've seen from an individual. I remember Brad Scott was with us at the time and I'd shown him some of the footage of Steele throughout the year and after the Grand Final I said, 'That's screwed now, we've got no chance of getting him.' The gods were with us and fortunately we were able to call his name out," Hine recalled this week. 

"In those two games, he just reached a heightened level – as a 17-year-old – where everything he did was just elite. It was just an amazing performance. Even at that age, he had this innate ability to perform at the highest level when the stakes were at the highest, just like Scott [Pendlebury] and Dale [Thomas]. 

"You fast track a few years and he was very stiff not to win the Norm Smith. All the focus has been on the Grand Final, but the week before was a dominant all-round performance where he was so far ahead of anyone on the ground with just his will to get them over the line. It was just extraordinary."

Before Tom Rockliff became Tom Rockliff, the ball magnet from Benalla played alongside Sidebottom in that TAC Cup premiership. He kicked four goals in the 81-point win over the Dandenong Stingrays to enhance his chances of being picked up, before Brisbane recruited him in the AFL Pre-Season Draft. 

The 33-year-old, who played 208 games for Brisbane and Port Adelaide, winning two best and fairests, All-Australian selection, and two seasons as captain at the Gabba, doesn't think Sidebottom has changed from the moment he sealed his draft selection 15 years ago to now. 

"He is exactly the same now as what he was back then. He has always remained the same. He grew up with a strong family connection back in Shepparton and always had family around him. He is just so humble. He has every right to not be the way he is, but he is so humble and softly spoken, enjoys a beer at the right times. He is one of the great blokes I've come across in AFL circles," Rockliff said.

"From memory, he'd only kicked two or three goals for the season up until the Grand Final. Me and him were rotating out of full-forward and on ball. He kicked nine straight and then got the yips in front of goal a little bit. We were certainly looking for him in that last quarter. He then finally kicked his 10th. To do that in a Grand Final was just absolutely remarkable."

Sidebottom has never had another job other than playing for Collingwood. And he doesn't count this as a job, even though his brilliance and longevity helped him buy his mum a house back in Shepparton a few years back, four doors down from one of his four brothers. 

Right now, Sidebottom is rated by Champion Data as the third best wingman in the AFL in 2023, behind St Kilda's Mason Wood and Essendon's Nic Martin, just ahead of Geelong's Isaac Smith and teammate Josh Daicos. A second All-Australian blazer might not be beyond him this year. And this might not be his final milestone. 

"I feel like my body is in a pretty good position at the moment. I'm still contracted for next year, I've had no real bad injuries to date, so touchwood that doesn't change and I can just keep playing a role for the team," Sidebottom said at the club this week.

Grand Finals have been key landmarks across Sidebottom's football career. The TAC Cup Grand Final and the 2010 AFL Grand Final are both days he will never forget, but 2018 can't be erased from his memory, no matter how hard he has tried to forget about it. Collingwood kicked the first five goals but lost by five points to West Coast. And to make the day even worse, Sidebottom was held to just 14 disposals by Eagles tagger Mark Hutchings. 

Sidebottom tore September apart until the final Saturday. He had 27 touches in the qualifying final against the Eagles, 31 against Greater Western Sydney in the semi-final before amassing 41 disposals – the second most of his career – in the stunning preliminary final win over Richmond. In a year where he finished runner-up in the Brownlow Medal behind now-teammate Tom Mitchell, the Grand Final will continue to drive him until gets another shot to atone. 

"I definitely think about it a lot," he said. "I look at that whole finals journey and where we came from. Although we didn't win it, that season apart from last year was one of the most enjoyable ones for me because of what I went through in the first few years with thinking finals was always going to happen. Even just taking in things like the parade and being grateful for the position I was in. it does sting a bit but I'm hoping I might be able to get another crack at it."

No one has a bad word to say about Sidebottom. The Collingwood Football Club has been home for more than 15 years. He has grown from a boy into a man, started a family and got married all while wearing black and white. He can still vividly remember the day Hine came to pick him up from home the day after the draft with Jason Taylor, who was then a Magpies recruiter and is now Melbourne's national recruiting manager, and drove him to the city. Plenty has changed since then, but Sidebottom hasn't.