Heading into what shaped up only weeks ago as his final month as Collingwood senior coach, the overwhelming evidence is that Nathan Buckley will save his career and will be offered a new contract with the Magpies.
Call it serendipitous timing, call it one last chance or call it an admission finally from Collingwood’s hierarchy that the club failed to provide adequate support structures around its favourite son who entered the top job six years ago woefully inexperienced for the task ahead.
Whichever way you consider it, Buckley emerges deserving of another crack at the Collingwood coaching job. If that is the way Eddie McGuire decides to go ??? and we predict he will ??? then surely the call should be made in the coming week or two to end the uncertainty that is haunting so many key figures at the club.
While Gary Pert’s departure did not in itself help to secure Buckley’s position it certainly didn’t hurt the coach’s chances. And the fact of Pert’s removal from the landscape has exposed the folly behind the club’s management of its football department and other key staff in recent years.
Much has been made of Buckley’s revolving door of football bosses and the disenchantment with McGuire’s move to install Graeme Allan in place of Neil Balme a year ago, but you have to wonder how tough it must have been for the senior coach when virtually every one of his assistants feared for his future on one-year agreements which was the CEO’s strategy in recent years.
So not only has Buckley not known where the future lies but he has had to deal for some time with a group of often insecure assistants and colleagues. Of Buckley’s five-man match committee only football boss Geoff Walsh and new assistant Brenton Sanderson have any certainty at the club beyond the end of September. Of the club’s eight assistant/development/academy/VFL coaches all bar Sanderson and Brad Gotch come out of contract this year.
As does high performance boss Bill Davoren and ditto list manager Derek Hine, who was given a one-year deal at the end of 2016, and his recruiting team.
All the out-of-contract assistants have been encouraged to seek alternative positions at other clubs because the Magpies cannot guarantee anything until the coach is decided. Several will be moved on but the sooner the club makes a call on Buckley the sooner it can retain those it wants to keep ??? preferably moving to show more faith in them by offering longer than one-year contracts.
Acting CEO Peter Murphy, who has been reviewing the Collingwood administration while Geoff Walsh has been examining the football structure, unearthed low morale and a less than vibrant workplace along with other shortcomings in the business.
The review into the governance of the club and the functioning of the board remains intriguing given McGuire’s despotic style and the unlikelihood he will change now whereas Walsh’s conclusions would seem more predictable given his history of backing coaches and erring on the side of stability. This along with his strong historic relationship with Buckley.
But in the end it will be McGuire’s call and surely his heart is telling him now that Buckley has strong internal support. Selling the decision to supporters, who have stayed away in alarmingly big numbers this season, will prove his toughest task particularly given the Magpies are 13th and look likely to finish in their lowest position since Buckley was appointed six years ago.
But then so would selling the decision to replace him with a promising but untried rookie senior coach, however solid his apprenticeship. Particularly after the club has invested so heavily in the 45-year-old and McGuire’s tenure is so strongly linked to Buckley. If the president is so determined to revitalise his leadership then sticking with the coach within a better structure would prove a masterstroke should it work and far less risky than the current alternatives.
There is evidence Collingwood felt at some point during the early part of the season that Alastair Clarkson and Hawthorn might be questioning one another and that the game’s SuperCoach might be available. No one thinks that now. Nor does there seem an appetite to try to lure Brad Scott from North Melbourne, which we thought might have proved a good fit a month ago.
Since the round-16 loss to Essendon, Collingwood have beaten Gold Coast, West Coast and endured a heartbreaking draw with ladder leaders Adelaide. People can scoff all they like about coaches “losing” players and players “playing” for the coach but there is no doubt internally a sense that Buckley has somehow galvanised this team. Despite being horribly let down over the past year by some recruiting-list decisions and a couple of key individuals, namely Daniel Wells, who came to the club out of shape, and Jordan De Goey.
Certainly he has won over significant sections of the football community in the manner he has carried himself this season and if public performance wins him points in a job Ross Lyon joked was one of the game’s hottest hot seats, then throw that onto the pro-Buckley argument.
Recent AFL history shows that untried favourite sons fail when thrown into the job. The experience of the highly public Geelong review demonstrated that the coach should not always shoulder the blame and that strong clubs look deeper than simply sacking the customary fall guy.
It would be wrong to say that Richmond have become a long-term successful football club just yet but the example of last year’s review and subsequent decisions would suggest that the Tigers are on the right track. By identifying key weaknesses to help a coach who has struggled but not failed rather than giving up on him has strengthened Richmond’s culture.
Collingwood looked on track to become a strong club when it won the 2010 premiership. For all sorts of reasons it then fell away and in falling it became apparent that Nathan Buckley was not the messiah.
But Collingwood remain a machine with a daunting upside. Now McGuire and his team have had the strength to call for this major review they will surely realise that Buckley might have made mistakes along the way but his character, work ethic and experience and the right leaders around him could still see him become a very good coach. Preferably with at least a two-year contract.