As Collingwood were pissing away the 2019 preliminary final, the mother of all brawls broke out in the Olympic Stand at the MCG. All afternoon, on and off the field, there had been a sense of impending doom. The city had been bracing for a Richmond-Collingwood grand final. But as the knuckleheads were being capsicum sprayed, GWS somehow slogged out a win in the puddles at the Punt Road end.
On the siren, there was a stadium-wide groan. From the stands, you could hear the GWS players celebrating. Their song, a Cossack-inspired heel kicker, sounded more like a dirge. Nathan Buckley sat in the box, arms folded, jaw set, eyes blazing. It was a waste of a season, he later said. In hindsight, it was probably his last realistic shot at a premiership.
The following year was a rough one for the best of us. But the Magpies were beset by a conga line of calamities. Jeremy Howe, one of the club’s most beloved and structurally important players, wrecked his knee in a gruesome collision. Steele Sidebottom was found wandering the streets of Williamstown in a disorientated state. Jordan De Goey was charged with indecent assault. Buckley beached lockdown laws with a game of tennis. They didn’t have the faintest clue how to deal with Héritier Lumumba. And the President wasn’t making a syllable of sense. They were eventually bundled out in a first semi-final that looked done after about 90 seconds. ‘Irrelevant’, ‘pedestrian’, ‘pathetic’, ‘physical and mental capitulation’, a typically restrained Mark Robinson wrote in the Herald Sun.
Worse was to follow. They completely botched the trade period. It flattened the playing list and alienated the supporter base. Buckley was certainly sloppy in the way he spoke about the Treloar exit. But, as always with Collingwood, everything was amplified. Wading Andy-Dufresne-style through the social media muck, Buckley was apparently more Shawshank warden than Collingwood coach. One person called his comments “one of the most backward and appalling things I’ve heard in footy”. In a competition that has thrown up its share of corporate and common criminals, conspiracy theorists, chancers, blowhards and whack jobs, it was a bit of a stretch.
Collingwood have lost their president, their pulse and, seemingly, the plot
Since then, Collingwood have lost their ‘big P’ President, their pulse and, seemingly, the plot. Last Saturday, just less than 25,000 supporters bothered to turn up. They barely made a squeak. The team looked lifeless. The club was adrift. The coach was right in the gun.
Buckley has been at Collingwood for a quarter of a century now. He was a magnificent, utterly insatiable footballer who carried some truly atrocious sides and squeezed every drop of ability out of himself. He finished his career on the MCG bench, his hands behind his head, his hamstring shot, his side having come within inches of pulling off one of the great preliminary-final heists. They pensioned off one of the most successful coaches in the history of the game to fast track-him into the top job. He inherited a crack side that went backwards every year for seven years. Pretty much every other club would have sacked him in 2017. To their credit, the Pies backed him in. He softened, finally caught a bit of luck, and was a Dom Sheed needle thread away from the premiership he so desperately coveted.
Collingwood people love Nathan Buckley. They love the way he never yields to the hysterical footy press. They love way he tempers his almost messianic drive with a hint of irony. But right now, you would be hard-pressed finding a fan who thinks he’s the long-term answer. It is not as though there is a groundswell of anger, a mass calling for his head. Rather, it’s a resignation, an impatience for the club to rip off the Band-Aid, to make one of the hardest decisions in its history. For there are no quick fixes here. The new ‘small p’ President, one of the country’s foremost corporate recovery specialists, reckons they are still finals material. But they do not look anything like a finals team. They look lost. They are paying several players obscene salaries for very little return. They will snap up Nick Daicos who, from all reports, is as talented a schoolboy footballer as you would ever see. But they do not have many options beyond that.
Whether Buckley is the man to start again from scratch is as much a question for him as it is for the club. Coaching an AFL club is a pitiless caper. Fetch me a violin, you say. And in many ways, you’re right. These guys are perched in a box, dropping F-bombs, thumping desks, making out like they are leading soldiers into battle and collecting very large pay cheques. There are people out there with real jobs, and real problems.
But it takes a toll. Many current and former coaches are in a terrible way. Being an AFL coach, Chris Scott said last month, is not enjoyable, it is not healthy, and it is arguably not worth it. “It will ruin your life,” David Parkin once warned Paul Roos.
Does Buckley really want another five years of that? He may, as Howard Cosell once said, decide he lacks “sufficient mediocrity” to slot into the Seven Network commentary team. But does he honestly believe he can revive this side, rebuild this list and re-engage Collingwood fans? And do the club have the plums to part ways with a favourite son, to do it swiftly and to handle it with dignity? If bottom-placed North Melbourne win tomorrow, those questions will answer themselves. But the more Collingwood shilly-shallies, mix their messages and scramble to get everyone on the same page, the quicker the supporter base will lose faith, hope and interest.