Almanac Footy: The tragedy of Bucks, a Collingwood life riddled with injustice and adoration

 

It’s a wet and wild Saturday afternoon. He tries his heart out, sliding into packs, extracting contested balls, willing the ball forward. His short spiky hair glistens with sweat and rain. He’s the best player out there. If Anthony Rocca’s kick had been called a goal, everything may have ended differently. Instead, Nathan Buckley walked up to the dais alone to receive his Norm Smith Medal, too lost in the heartbreak of a Grand Final loss to soak up his individual accolade.

 

The year later is no better. Armed with a Brownlow Medal in Grand Final week, one he shared with two others, Buckley smiles but looks circumspect. He knows what’s ahead, and what he missed out on by the skin of his teeth a year prior. He may have done everything possible in AFL, but he hadn’t completed the most important job. Despite remaining humble, the final siren brings down a crushing defeat on Grand Final day. This time, his Pies don’t even come close enough to warrant Norm Smith discussions.

 

Four years after that MCG bloodbath to the three-peating Lions, Buckley still strolls around in his Collingwood jumper, kicking inspirational goals and carrying a lesser team on his hefty shoulders. Chiselled to a fine display of muscle and athleticism, Buckley is Collingwood’s lead warrior. When it comes to 2007, he has to take a back-seat role when he no longer becomes the be-all and end-all for the Pies.

 

Instead, he wills his frail body into one last campaign, buoyed on by the exciting youth present. The likes of Pendlebury, Thomas and Cloke will eventually form the nucleus of Collingwood’s next drought-breaking premiership, but it won’t come in 2007. Instead, Buckley’s hamstring gives out in the finals series, a downside of a Cinderella run including an overtime win in West Coast, and ending in a five-point defeat to the Cats in a crazy Friday night preliminary final. Yet again, Buckley falls agonisingly short of giving his beloved club the ultimate reward. He sits on in his post-career glow, heartbroken as the Cats romp to a record-breaking Grand Final win.

 

Nathan Buckley is synonymous with the Collingwood Football Club. Since his immaculate presentation and Terminator-like on-field application from the early days of his career, he has been a machine-like general of the black and white. Always preparing well. Clever and witty. Generous to his club. While many sat downtrodden at the injustice of Buckley never winning a premiership for the Pies, hope still sat on the near horizon. When he swapped his shorts for slacks and his number 5 jumper for a polo top in the coaches’ box, it was the world correcting itself. Buckley’s chance wasn’t over.

 

The footy world seemed to nod, agreeing from an early stage at his forays into assistance coaching. A three-quarter-time chat on the boundary during the 2010 Grand Final replay said it all, as a chuffed and smiling Bucks told the Channel 7 team that “there’s still one more quarter to go” as the Pies held an unassailable lead. That day proved to be Buckley’s best, involved (in the background compared to his other positions) as his former teammates finally scratched that premiership itch.

 

Many expected that to be the start of a wonderful Buckley tenure at Collingwood in coaching positions. But the coaching handover plan with Mick Malthouse was soon rolled out, and began in tough circumstances – recovering from a cruel 2011 Grand Final loss where the Pies juggernaut lost only three games for the season; all to the Cats.

 

But 2012 was a bright start. A top four finish. Emerging prospects came through. Collingwood was young again, and still around the mark.

 

It wasn’t to be. For all of his brilliant preparation and professionalism at the helm, Buckley’s work hard or leave approach soon created a rift, a penchant for bad luck. A crop of premiership players fell to injury, while others walked out or were forced out the door. The rat pack lost its shine. Dane Swan fell to a cruel career-ending injury way too soon, removing a vital cog. All of a sudden, the new era of captain Pendlebury and co were missing finals footy, and the pressure quickly fell on Buckley.

 

It’s not to say that it wasn’t warranted. The Pies were underperforming badly, and by the end of 2017 were a spiralling club lacking direction. Buckley had lost his smile and enthusiasm – he looked more like a hard taskmaster than a nurturing under-stander of the rigours of AFL footy. He needed a change. Many thought it meant at another club, or in a different position.

 

But Collingwood’s back office took a gamble, rolling the dice on a known entity who had never let his club down before. Never on the field, and not off it. Buckley was everything Collingwood, a favourite son of a proud club who found it incredibly tough to sever ties with him. They never did – the call had to be made by Buckley himself in the end.

 

The risk paid off – in their darkest days, Buckley reinvented and brought out the best in himself. By doing that, he brought out skills and qualities in his players that many never expected to see. Under his guidance, Brodie Grundy became an elite ruckman, Darcy Moore an exhilarating defender. Like others did to him, Buckley placed his faith in Josh Thomas and Brody Mihocek throughout 2018, and it reaped the rewards of a team who finished in the top four.

 

On his grandest of nights as coach, Buckley gained reward for his greatest leap of faith. Playing a seven-foot American forward as your key target is like drinking from a poisoned chalice, but in the 2018 Preliminary Final it was the holy grail. Cox, sneered at for most of his inconsistent career in Australia, renewed the faith and added some salt on top when he snagged three goals and booted Collingwood into a Grand Final off their greatest upset win in modern history, beating a rolling Richmond train.

 

But Buckley’s life at Collingwood was never one of un-met success – like a Shakespeare novel, his highs often came with lows – a duality of brilliance and hardship that made his career so beautifully tortured. To even it out, Collingwood’s dare ended five points short of a remarkable premiership, leaving more heartbreak in Buckley’s football heart – if he had any more heart to spare after his playing days.

 

Looking to replicate this near miss, his desperation for the premiership he deserved slowly drew further away. The beauty of 2018 was the careless way the team took the game on and risked it all. After that, Buckley, understandably so, relied on the breakout skill he had seen that year and tried to build a solid defensive foundation around it. In doing so, his team lost that spark, that attack and faith that wins premierships. When it came down to the clutch in the next two finals series, that little one percent of magic was irretrievable, and Buckley was consigned to more heartbreak to top it off.

 

It’s what makes today such a tragic day. In looking at the grand picture, Buckley’s decision to step away as coach is weirdly timed but understandable. Just after an inspirational win against the Crows, led by a barrage of emerging young prospects, seems like a weird time to lose hope and step away. But to understand Buckley’s decision, you have to look at his Collingwood life.

 

Nathan Buckley has never bled anything but Collingwood. Many tears have been released throughout the journey – a tragedy so cruel for a wonderful player and person. He leaves the club with an intangible reward for all of his hard work and faith in the organisation. So his decision is once again made for others, not for himself. He’s left in a torturous state, unable to reward himself for all of his terrific efforts and instead banishing himself for never delivering the one tangible reward yearned for in this game – a premiership cup.

 

For the sake of the club and their elusive chase of that 16th premiership, Buckley has removed himself from the equation. It’s selfless. It’s generous. It’s heartbreaking. And it sums up everything about Nathan Buckley’s life at Collingwood. He may never have gotten that bone, but he’ll be sent off with plenty of tears and a massive amount of respect for all of the days spent digging for it, even when life tried to remove him of that optimism.

 

 

 

For more from Sean, click HERE.

 

 

 

 

 

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Comments

  1. Thanks for the service, Nathan I wish you all the best for the future.

    At least the Pies are starting the hunt for a new coach before anyone else.

  2. Colin Ritchie says

    Great tribute Sean! I’m not a Collingwood supporter, I love it when my Bombers beat the Pies but it is sad when a player, coach who has given their all to the club is sacked, pushed, or resigns. He has held his head high, respected by all, and a true champion of the game. I don’t think he will be out of the limelight for too long!

  3. Nicole Kelly says

    This is a fabulous piece, Sean. I am devastated to lose Bucks. He’s a Collingwood champion…and bleeds Black and White. His professionalism to the very end is something I’ll remember. When he coaches another team to a premiership, I’ll be cheering him on.

  4. george smith says

    Not buying it.

    At Collingwood history repeats itself, first as farce and second as farce. To see yet another favorite son come close but no cigar after 10 years and yet another honorable loss leads me to ask – did we learn nothing from the Shaw, Weidemann, Mann and Rose debacles? At least Bobby Rose did the right thing and stepped aside for Leigh Matthews, then did everything he could as a committeeman to help with the 1990 premiership.

    This fellow took over a premiership side and ruined it and the geniuses who saw him as the second coming of Jock McHale were the same ones who white anted Malthouse after 2005.

  5. Stainless says

    Great piece Sean. For us outsiders, our schadenfreude at Collingwood’s current turmoil is compromised only by respect, admiration and sympathy for Nathan Buckley. I reckon only Bob Rose would match Buckley among Collingwood people in terms of universal admiration as a champion player and human being. Their coaching legacies will always be questioned – to what extent was their failure to achieve the ultimate success evidence of their frailties as coaches, the environment they were operating in, or sheer bad luck? It was only in early 2017 that Buckley and Damien Hardwick were under equally severe pressure and scrutiny in charge of two mediocre looking lineups. When one looks at what’s transpired since then, it’s surely a simplistic call to pin it all on the coach?

  6. Haje Halabi says

    feel sad for him ol bucks, but there are many I feel sad for that were great players. We move on and wish him the best. thanks for the illuminating read sean

  7. Luke Reynolds says

    Well written Sean. The Malthouse to Buckley handover was orchestrated well before 2010, something I have strong thoughts on, but at this moment just really sad that a legend of our club has finished up not where we all wanted to be.

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