Australian sport lovers: what superlatives come to mind when you think of Nathan Buckley? Champion captain of one of the most famous sporting clubs, not only in Australia, but the world? Six-time Copeland Trophy winner and only the third player in history to win a Norm Smith medal in a losing Grand Final?! Brownlow medal winner? Or untried coach who was so loved by his club that they sacrificed a premiership-winning coach on the altar of nepotism?
Let me just say that I’m not a fan of Mick Malthouse. Never have been, never will be. It used to bug the absolute shit out of me when he’d persevere with an on-field match-up that just was not working, either to teach the player a lesson in humility, or … well, I honestly can’t think of another reason why a coach would allow one of his own players to suffer like that. It’s beyond me. Another one of MM’s idiosyncrasies was his boundary-riding game plan. I was happier than a pig in shit when Bucks took over and declared that my beloved Pies would be using the corridor more often. Mick was fond of saying that we just didn’t have the cattle for such a bold move, but if that were true, why did both his former clubs – West Coast Eagles and Western Bulldogs – both hug the boundary like Mick’s daughter Christi when she worked for Channel 10?! All jokes aside, when Mick Malthouse took the reins in 2000 it was after favorite son Tony Shaw coached the club to a wooden spoon in 1999. Two years later – TWO YEARS later – Collingwood played off in a Grand Final against the might of the Brisbane Lions, and came within 9 points of glory. I could go on about how we were robbed in that particular game, about how there were three specific incidents that lost us that game in unpaid free kicks, but I won’t. That’s another story.
After that painful day, it took MM another four years to get the Pies back into the finals. That first year, 2006, we were coming off the back of a couple of injury-ridden seasons that saw Mick have to play our B-team, and sometimes even our C-team, just to put players on the field. Those were lean years. But 2006 signaled something: a change in fortune. Scott Pendlebury and Dale Thomas joined the club. Heath Shaw began to make a name for himself. The Pies would play finals every season from 2006-2011 under Malthouse, of course winning that well-deserved flag in 2010.
During this successful period, Nathan Buckley’s accomplished playing career came to an abrupt end. Hampered by hamstring injuries, he called it a day after the narrow, heartbreaking 2007 Preliminary Final loss to Geelong. First working as a commentator for Channel 7, he had his eye on bigger things. While travelling to the US to study coaching, and then working as an assistant coach at Collingwood under Malthouse from 2009-2011, Maguire and the board appeared panicked that their beloved champion would wind up coaching against us, and conceived the now infamous succession plan, in 2009. Malthouse would step down as senior coach and take on the as-yet undefined role of ‘adviser’ while Buckley would coach his former team-mates: a feat rarely pulled off by players of their own clubs. Voss, Hird and of course Tony Shaw are all examples of champion players who failed as coaches of their own clubs. Why would Maguire et.al. think Buckley would be any different?!
Meanwhile, Mick Malthouse went from a much-loved coach in 2010 to a pariah, after announcing his departure from the club toward the end of the 2011 season, breaking his contract and the terms of the succession plan, which stated that he relinquish his role to Buckley in 2012. He’d just coached the Pies to a flag that was 11 years in the making and was on his way to a second successive Grand Final. ‘His boys’ were on track to a potential dynasty. The news broke Pie hearts all over the land. It also destabilized the team going into the 2011 finals series. To add insult to injury, he remarked later that he’d never coach against “his boys” and then promptly signed on as the coach of Collingwood’s most hated rival, Carlton.
And that’s where Mick Malthouse leaves this story. Six years later, Nathan Buckley’s coaching career is, if not in immediate peril, then definitely at a crossroads. He’s taken a club that was at the top of it’s game in 2011 to a near cellar-dweller in 2017. Beset by a long injury list only a couple of years into his term, you could hardly blame him for early losses, but when star players returned and the Pies continued their slide down the ladder, the media microscope was turned on Nathan Buckley and his confusing game plan. People questioned whether he had the full backing and faith of his players. They also questioned some of his off-field decisions. Despite a bevy of expected retirements of veterans such as Simon Prestigiacomo, Chris Tarrant, Tarkyn Lockyer, Leon Davis and Shane O’Bree, there were rumblings that other senior players weren’t happy with the new coach and the feeling was most definitely mutual. In a move that I’m sure still has many fans baffled, Alan Didak was forced into retirement when he was de-listed, and another fan-favorite, Heath Shaw, was off-loaded to the newest team in the league, the GWS Giants. On-field spats with his captain Nick Maxwell, as well as an attitude problem, were blamed. I still call it the worst decision Buckley ever made, and I, as a longtime fan of Heath Shaw, will never forgive him for it.
But as they say, there’s no use crying over spilled milk. Over the intervening years we also lost premiership players to forced retirement through injury. I and many others like me shed a tear when the players gave Luke Ball a guard of honor during his last game, as he and Darren Jolly were a huge part of the reason why we won the flag in 2010. Then we lost Alan Toovey (and the much-loved chant of TOOOOOVES), Brent Macaffer, premiership captain Nick Maxwell, Ben Johnson, Leigh Brown and worst of all, Brownlow medal winner and all-round character, Dane Swan, due to a career-ending injury in 2016.
The new culture was blamed for moves to other clubs by premiership players like Dale Thomas, who was seduced by his former coach Mick Malthouse into playing for Carlton; Chris Dawes and Heritier LaMumba to Melbourne and arguably, Sharrod Wellingham to the West Coast Eagles, although I think he just wanted to go home. More recently, Dayne Beams defected to the Brisbane Lions to play alongside his twin brother and be close to his father, who was sick with cancer. That I understand and don’t blame him for, although others undoubtedly do, for reasons I won’t go into here. The last two premiership players to leave the nest were Travis Cloke (Bulldogs) and Nathan Brown (St Kilda). The jury is still out on whether those decisions were made with the club’s best interests at heart.
So of the 2010 premiership team, a mere seven years later, we have: Captain Scott Pendlebury, hard-nut and swing-man Tyson Goldsack, courageous but physically fragile defender Ben Reid, perhaps the shortest man in the league in Jarryd Blair, and future captain Steele Sidebottom. We have recruited a group of older players from other clubs to address our lack of experience on field and while some of these decisions have proven fruitful and even inspired – Travis Varcoe, for example – there are some who would say we’ve been wasteful, even short-sighted, at the recruitment table. Jesse White has been patchy, Levi Greenwood serviceable in his role left by Brent Macaffer but not much more, and the Chris Mayne experiment has been an utter failure. Of course not all of this can be laid at Buckley’s feet. It’s down to the entire board and recruitment staff. But there are other questions being asked by supporters on bulletin boards and social media; questions about why certain players keep getting games ahead of youngsters like Matthew Scharenberg and Rupert Wills, despite consistent good form in the VFL. Why the game plan seems to be an utter mystery not only to those watching it but those trying to implement it. Why the quality of our goal-kicking has never really improved despite numerous attempts to address the problem, and why, oh why, the constant ball movement backward and sideways under pressure?! We are now into July and the finals are just under two months away. Collingwood now have no chance whatsoever of playing finals for the third or fourth year in a row, having only won FIVE GAMES, and Buckley’s contract is up at the end of the year.
Would I be universally hated for suggesting that maybe, just maybe, the succession plan was a bad idea?!