When Nathan Buckley and Eddie McGuire struck their “Kirribilli” agreement in July 2009, it was designed as a move to keep Nathan Buckley away from the clutches of any other club and ensure that he would return to the club where he stamped his legacy as a coach. The deal was that he would be an assistant for two years under Mick Malthouse before taking over in 2012.
The perfect marriage though got off to a somewhat shaky start, with Collingwood winning the premiership in 2010 and losing the grand final in 2011, with Malthouse famously crying post an epic preliminary final victory over Hawthorn. With such success under Malthouse, the pressure was immediately elevated onto Buckley, the club’s favourite son.
Collingwood has regressed in every year of Buckley’s stewardship. In his first season, they were knocked out in a preliminary final by eventual premiers Sydney and then in 2013 were knocked out of a semi final by the then rising Port Adelaide on the MCG. At the start of 2014 he was awarded a contract extension that would take him to the end of 2016. In the past two seasons, Collingwood have failed to make the finals as they have undergone an apparent rebuilding phase, with many of their key components from their premiership list still remaining.
Coming into the 2016 season, his last under contract, the media speculation surrounding his contract status has slowly escalated and threatens to become a distraction. Eager to quell the story and not let it become a distraction, Eddie McGuire told Triple M radio “It hasn’t happened yet, but it will” in relation to the contract extension for Buckley, before also mentioning that “Nothing has been signed, and nothing has been fully decided just yet.” So with all indications appearing that the favourite son is going to receive an extension to at least the end of the 2017 season, the true question is, has Buckley done enough, and does he deserves an extension?
Looking at the club’s progression under his coaching, it would be fairly easy to suggest that the team has gotten worse under him. For Buckley though, it has been a matter of steering away from the game plan that turned them into a premiership side, a Malthouse game plan and putting his own footprints on their playing style. Buckley has also had to cope with the loss of key players Dayne Beams and Dale Thomas in recent years, two of their best ball users which hurt Buckley’s ambitions. In the first half of 2015, Buckley began to unveil his new game plan as an attack minded team with the team sitting at 8-3 after 11 rounds as they boasted the second best attack in the AFL. However, just like 2014 their season petered out and once again the club missed the finals.
A major positive of Buckley’s tenure has been his ability to recruit players to the club, in particular highly rated youngsters who he had involvement with at the AIS Academy. The likes of Adams, Treloar, Aish and Jack Crisp have joined the club over the past few seasons, with all having shown potential to be excellent AFL players. Buckley is also showing that he seems to be an excellent developer of talent with unheralded players like Langdon, Frost, Williams and Oxley all coming on strongly in the past couple of seasons, along with blue chip recruits Brodie Grundy and Jordan de Goey.
One thing to consider with Nathan Buckley is how he stacks up against his relative peers within the coaching fraternity. Comparing all coaches that have coached between 70-150 games (Buckley’s vintage) he appears to compare semi favourably. One thing to consider though, is that he stepped into a team coming off back to back grand finals and would have been expected to win, compared to Hardwick, Hinkley and to a lesser extent Brad Scott who walked into situations that seemingly required a rebuild. This therefore leaves him comparable to Chris Scott and John Longmire with the three of them having stepped into similar situations. Scott and Longmire of course both won premierships within their first two seasons of coaching, whilst Buckley has only seen regression in his coaching career thus far.
Another criticism of Buckley is that he is wasting the prime years of his best players in Scott Pendlebury, Steele Sidebottom and Travis Cloke. Pendlebury in particular is consistently one of the top five players in the AFL with the ability to turn a game on its head at any one moment. With him playing the best football of his career, it appears that Collingwood are almost wasting his brilliance with their decline and some of that blame has to be attributed to Buckley. Cloke in particular recently hasn’t been the same player for Buckley as he was under Malthouse, when he was the most commanding forward in the AFL and appeared to be almost unplayable. In his first two seasons under Buckley, with many of the Malthouse structures still in place, Cloke booted 59 and 68 goals respectively. With the coach’s imprint over the last two years beginning to take full effect, he has only kicked 39 and 34 goals, whilst looking like a completely different player.
A key reason to the Magpies thinking in keeping Buckley around till the end of 2017 is the continued desire for stability. Buckley, in conjunction with list manager Derek Hine, has now been able to mould the list to suit his game style and now has no excuses to showcase the best of his coaching abilities. Another factor in Buckley’s favour are the lack of readymade senior coaches available that could potentially take his job at the end of the season. With Collingwood seemingly primed to have another tilt at a flag in the coming seasons, it seems unlikely that they can afford to have another inexperienced coach in the event that they move on from Buckley.
One name that will continually pop up in speculation will of course be Ross Lyon. Lyon, who famously walked out on the Saints to take up a lucrative offer with Fremantle, may be tempted to return back to Melbourne to coach the biggest club in the land. This job would also be seemingly more attractive with Collingwood being primed to compete whilst Fremantle will be on the decline with their ageing list, likely following a similar trajectory to St Kilda post Lyon.
If Collingwood are to see an improvement this season, much of their improvement will stem from their ability to win close games. In games decided by 10 points or less, Collingwood went 0-5, which ended up being the reason that they weren’t a finals side. Being able to rectify this deficiency will go a long way to determining the success of Collingwood, and in turn Buckley, this season.
With such a youthful list that has been heavily turned over since the premiership in 2010, this is now the time for Buckley to stamp his mark on the Collingwood Football Club in a season where finals must surely be the aim. It seems to be the right call for now to give Buckley an extra season, however if he is unable to arrest the worrying downward trend of the football club, then perhaps at the end of the 2017 it’ll be time to end for McGuire to end the Buckley-Collingwood marriage once and for all.