Buckley and the search for footy utopia
Pointed: Nathan Buckley?s man-management style is taking shape. Photo: Vince Caligiuri
When you change the government, you change the country. PAUL KEATING
THE real Kirribilli pact was a secret handshake, witnessed only by four men. Collingwood's version was out in the open. Ultimately, it resembled the furtive Bob Hawke-Paul Keating deal only in the sense that a venerated, silver-haired leader was reluctant to vacate the seat.
Hawke was shoved when his team was battling, while Mick Malthouse spent the final two years - the most successful of his dozen at Collingwood - knowing that he would be replaced by Nathan Buckley at the conclusion of season 2011.
At first hailed as a coup, the arrangement soon became highly contentious because the Magpies won a premiership and were within 30-40 minutes of snaring a second; to tip a coach out, in the middle of such success, was unprecedented. While Malthouse signed on, he never concealed his distaste for the handover.
But a deal is a deal. Buckley is the coach. Malthouse, having spurned an ill-defined ''director of coaching'' afterlife at Collingwood, has gone to Channel Seven.
The Collingwood switch is a change of leader, not government. Most of the Malthouse front bench - football chief Geoff Walsh, sports science boss David Buttifant and recruiting manager Derek Hine - have stayed on. The playing list is mainly intact, albeit a number are injured and a couple have retired. The coaching change is more akin to Keating following Hawke, than Howard following Keating.
Still, Collingwood is already a slightly different team under Buckley. How different? Leigh Matthews, one of the game's clearest thinkers, predicted that ''very little'' would change in the transition to Buckley. Matthews has met with Buckley to provide some informal mentoring - ''a few conversations'' was how the phlegmatic Matthews described the interaction. Matthews is one of a number of advisers who've been sought out by an intensely focused Buckley.
Another occasional sounding board and four-time premiership coach, AFL Coaches Association president David Parkin, said Buckley's preparation for coaching was the most rigorous he had seen.
As promised, Buckley has had the footballs out earlier and more often than Malthouse. The workload is said to have increased.
''The altitude camp we did over there was by far the hardest, the hardest session, the hardest training camp we've done over there,'' said key defender Ben Reid.
The players say the game style has been tinkered with, rather than revolutionised, with a greater emphasis on ball movement. Buckley is renovating, not tearing down the house that Mick built.
His man-management style - seen by sceptics as his major challenge - is still taking shape. Motivating and extracting commitment from players, ''getting them up'', was Malthouse's great gift. Buckley, to date, has been ''very measured'' in all his dealings with players. Rodney Eade is providing the experienced hand and one of the jocular foils that Buckley's manager and confidant, Craig Kelly, said his man would need.
The most important difference between Collingwood's 2012 compared with 2011 could prove to be the circumstances that Buckley has encountered, which, due to injury - two of them serious - and Sharrod Wellingham's ill-timed drinking session, have become more problematic over the past month.
In the grander scheme, Buckley has been bequeathed a club with a very strong playing list, huge resources and expectations. On Friday night, however, when Buckley takes command in the box, the Pies will likely be without eight or nine of their best 22 from last year. That's not counting retirees Leon Davis and Leigh Brown.
More ominously, they enter the season with 11 premiership players, including Scott Pendlebury and Travis Cloke, coming out of contract in a market liberalised by free agency and Greater Western Sydney.
Essendon's ex-champion Matthew Lloyd reckons that, as coach of the flag favourite, Buckley will be under more pressure than any rookie coach in AFL history.
Buckley this week dismissed such talk as irrelevant to the task at hand. ''Whether I'm under more pressure or not, I beg to differ,'' he said. ''Every coach has an expectation and is trying to achieve an end. The pressure that comes with that is just a side effect.''
Matthews called the notion of Buckley feeling pressure a ''misnomer'', observing: ''People like Nathan Buckley, Michael Voss, James Hird, the pressure they put on themselves … far surpasses any external forces.''
Yet, Buckley has learnt to temper those demands he places on himself. ''I think I've learned that that's not necessarily a great way to be. It's not great for the mental state at times, because sometimes you need to be able to smell the roses. But the fact is no matter what anyone says outside of our organisation … in the end, you're judged on your performances.''
From the outset, Buckley - and by association, Eddie McGuire and the administration that installed him - will be judged harshly if the Pies stumble. Millions are willing him to fail. He did, after all, choose Collingwood for a second time when he might have coached a club that is less offensive to the majority.
The Buckley question - how he will he differ from Malthouse and can he make a difference? - is among the most significant of the season. Typically, coaches begin with teams that have failed and have a mandate for change. Buckley starts with a unit that lost only seven of 51 matches over two seasons. He has a mandate only to win.
TINKER AND TAILOR
THE GAME PLAN
At a briefing in February, Buckley revealed that the Magpies had changed their game style slightly - by ''5 to 10 per cent'' - for the 2011 grand final. There was ''no doubt'' they'd been worked out. The problem had been that the Pies hadn't had sufficient time to drill the variations. Buckley believes Collingwood's 2012 game plan will alter somewhat over the course of this season. ''I guarantee you by the end of the year, it will shift.''
It's clear that Buckley wants the Pies to use the corridor more than they did under Malthouse, who treated the boundary as his team's 19th man. But this should not be overstated. They still play wider than most clubs.
In cricketing terms, the boundary has been Collingwood's stock ball. Buckley has decided it needs another delivery - the corridor, or switches of play - to keep the opposition guessing. It's quite possible that this would have happened even under Malthouse.
The impression of opposition experts from rival clubs is that the Pies won't use the ''get-out'' kick down the line with the same frequency as they have and will switch play and move in board when held up. Ball movement will remain rapid and, if possible, quickened further as the Pies seek to isolate Travis Cloke, the game's most potent marking forward. As an assistant coach, Buckley liked Cloke and Chris Dawes to play in set positions, rather than swapping constantly.
At Collingwood's sunny community camp in Wangaratta, veteran ruckman Darren Jolly, told The Saturday Age that much of the game style was unchanged, but the Pies had placed more emphasis on how the ball was moved. ''Still we'll constantly work on our box set-up, defensive side, clearly to stop goals, but more on our, I suppose, attacking ball movement. We're not going to be so predictable to teams because, you know, clearly they figured us out last year.
''Certainly, Geelong in the grand final showed us up with their plus one behind the ball. They really ate us up in that area. We've done a few things over the break to combat that and, hopefully, turn it around.'' Jolly said Buckley had ''certainly freshened up the group, in I suppose aspects of our game that probably we weren't focusing on enough''.
THE GEELONG MODEL
Buckley's admiration for the team that wrenched the premiership from the Magpies was evident when he spoke to The Saturday Age this week. Geelong was the only team, besides his own, mentioned.
''In recent history, you only have to look at what Geelong were forced and were able to do last year,'' said Buckley, in response to a question about Collingwood's thinning depth. ''They played a lot of their youth, a lot of their young players at an early stage of the year and throughout the season and that gave their established players some rest and recuperation.''
He reeled off the names of the Geelong players who'd materialised last year. Buckley, who had been the assistant coach with an opposition brief under Malthouse in 2011, had completed a Masters in Geelong.
If it's natural for all clubs to eye off the premier, Buckley has a particular reason for aspiring to emulate Geelong. The Cats won the premiership, re-jigging their game style and freshening up under a new novice coach, after 11 years and enormous success under another man. Crucially, the Cats didn't discard the essence of what Mark Thompson had implemented. Chris Scott sought to retain the strengths - sublime ball movement, hardness, contested supremacy - while upgrading the plan to cope with Collingwood-style forward presses. Geelong toned down its helter-skelter, handball-happy style and kicked it more.
''I think any premiership coach creates a role model for the next year, at the very least,'' said Buckley. ''Some premierships - all premierships - are won on obviously optimum effort and investment by the playing group and the coaches. Some were by tactical advancement or strategic advancement.
''I thought Geelong was a balance of both of those. They were able to maximise their playing list and got great investment from their players, but they also tweaked their existing game plan to the point where they, you know, they were up to date. I don't think there was anything special or spectacular with the way they played the game, other than the fact that it was hard, contested and not easy to beat.''
Buckley's challenge is similar to Scott's.
''If you look at premiership sides, or even Collingwood, in recent years, there's been players that - [Jarryd] Blair, Dawes, Reid, [Brent] Macaffer, Brown, probably five that jumped up that wouldn't have been seen as legitimate AFL talent at the beginning of 2010. They've played in premierships that year.
''You've got [Allen] Christensen, [Mitch] Duncan, [Trent] West and potentially [Daniel] Menzel who got injured, stood up and were in their best side, there's three or four that came up in [the] 2011 premiership side. No matter who you are, or what you look like at the beginning of the year, if you've got an established core, then you can develop three or four players that push through … and become part of the best 22, then you're in the hunt.''
The upshot? Buckley needs to find four or five kids to emerge this year.
DEALING WITH PLAYERS
As a player, Buckley wore a reputation for demanding plenty of teammates. Malthouse, asked in a 2009 television interview about Buckley's potential coaching pitfalls, referred to Nathan's ''perfectionist'' streak. The inference was clear, that Buckley was a higher performer who might struggle to tolerate less single-minded mortals.
So, the obvious question for the players was whether the perfectionist had been hard on them? ''Well, he certainly hasn't been yet,'' said Jolly, the ruckman adding, with a chuckle, ''Who's to know what's going to happen [after] a couple of games with a bit of stress on his back? But, to date, he's been fantastic.''
Perhaps because he's so aware of his own intense nature and conscious he's following a popular older coach, Buckley has been measured to the point that sources say he hasn't yet raised his voice in anger. His management style is said to be understated, composed and rational; in dealing with Andrew Krakouer's demons, he erred on the side of the player's welfare and gave him a month's leave.
Malthouse had a bond with his players that had an emotional edge. He showed faith in them, told them he believed in them, that he was proud of them. They responded with effort. He was perhaps most beloved by those who'd been scallywags: Dane Swan, Alan Didak, Heath Shaw, Chris Tarrant, Ben Johnson. They didn't want to disappoint the grey-haired father who'd shown such faith.
Malthouse was loath to suspend players for indiscretions and reluctant to hand power to his leadership group - albeit, he shifted this stance over time. Buckley, as captain, took a harder line and was an advocate for player empowerment. In his book, All I Can Be, he explains his disappointment when Tarrant and Johnson were allowed to play in a late-season game after they'd been embroiled in a late-night scuffle. This week, Wellingham was suspended for drinking in what was a standard club response.
If Malthouse was a motivator with an emotional pitch, Buckley takes the view that, in an ideal world, motivation should be the player's responsibility. ''I have a great belief in the philosophy that the player is responsible for their performance and for getting themselves up, the motivation comes from within, within the individual and within the team. I believe the player needs to find the necessary arousal level to perform week in, week out and he needs to have a reason to do that and generally the team and the leaders within draw the group together to provide that.
''And the responsibility of the coaches is to provide the right environment and the stimulus for the players to find that level.''
Buckley acknowledged that to have self-motivated players was ''utopia'' - a word the perfectionist used more than once in our conversation. ''But to get to that point, players need to understand when they're doing it and when they're not.'' A strong coaching panel would ''give that feedback''.
The affable Buttifant is probably closer to the players than anyone at Collingwood, and was even tighter with Malthouse, with whom he recently wrote a book. In the industry, many wondered if Buttifant would leave post-Malthouse, but he stayed.
Buttifant's role under Buckley has been the subject of some conjecture. It was suggested that Buttifant, the high-altitude training pioneer, had less clout under Buckley than Malthouse. Buckley wished to correct this view.
''David's importance with a junior coach, or a young coach, a rookie coach, is probably enhanced, given that I'm leaning on 'Butters' as much as any first-year coach feels like he needs to lean on a person in that role. The fact is, he has a wealth of experience … he and I obviously have discussions about philosophically where we need to go to and we set the direction and then we go and roll it out together.''
Asked about the workload on players, Buckley said: ''I still think there's an ability to develop every player at every opportunity. Our players can be fitter, our players can be more skilful, our players can be faster and stronger and we're not setting a ceiling on our capabilities of that.''
Buckley is also managing a host of new coaches, having lost the three men he had earmarked for the main assistant roles, Mark Neeld, Scott Watters and Brenton Sanderson (ex-Geelong) to senior coaching jobs. Eade has taken one slot, in a mentor-like role, with Robert Harvey (midfield) and Ben Hart (defence) joining Matthew Lappin (forwards) as line coaches.
Like Neeld, Buckley also has adopted the West Coast model of having a development coach under each line coach, bringing in old teammate Anthony Rocca, Dale Tapping and ex-Bulldog Mitch Hahn.
The net result is less experience and continuity in the coaching ranks. Buckley took the glass half-full view. ''At times, having a fresh perspective is going to be a great opportunity for them. They know what they're capable of … and really, you know, the players will get the job done. I'm pretty confident that our coaches have got the experience and the ability and the perspective to be able to create the environment around those players for them to be stimulated and improve.''
''Creating an environment'' for the players emerges as a Buckley stock phrase. It is also his solution to perhaps the largest storm clouds hanging over the Westpac Centre: those 11 players coming off contract this year.
''Clearly, clubs are not going to be able to match the dollars that are going to be thrown at some of the individuals at the end of the season. So … it's important for the players to feel a value and a worth beyond the monetary aspect of it and in the end, there's going to be some circumstances that clubs aren't going to be able to even bridge that gap, because it's a bridge too far. The money will be so extreme that some players will decide that. In the end, you can only deal with what you've got and what we've got at the moment is the ability to create the right environment, build on the relationships and create a football team that players want to part of.
''We'll go about our business and what will be will be.''
In the corner of the ramshackle rooms at Visy Park eight days ago, after the Collingwood-St Kilda practice match, a tall, bearded man chatted to the coach before Buckley sat down with Eade to dissect the game. This upright figure, Ray Buckley, a former coaching nomad, is the formative influence in his son's football life.
All I Can Be contains searingly candid accounts of how a forceful Ray pushed and moulded Nathan, including a startling letter the father wrote to his teenage boy, in which he accused his son of being soft. ''You were a very tough kid from age 3 to 9 and then you slowly eased off the pace, became a thinker and chose the easy way.'' Ray implored Nathan to harden up, proscribing a series of physical and mental tasks, including runs and lifting weights.
More than a decade ago, I asked a Collingwood insider about Buckley. ''Nathan Buckley,'' he replied, ''is Tiger Woods. He's the creation of his father.''
As coach, Buckley is seeking out older heads who can help him be all that he can be. Eade fills that role formally. Matthews is lending the occasional ear. Barry Richardson, the ex-Tigers coach and president who Buckley worked for when he arrived at Collingwood, is also on hand to provide counsel. Kelly, the manager and ex-teammate, is another.
For the son, there is some symmetry in the father watching him coach. ''We've come full circle. When I was a young player, dad had plenty of advice. At a time when my career went on, he didn't have as much to relate. But he's a big supporter obviously and, you know, I value his opinion and I suppose like any father and son, we speak about it. He's a great confidant and definitely someone I speak a lot to and about what's going on in my life.''
It seemed Ray, as a former coach, was more animated about Nathan as coach. ''Oh, yes. I don't want to go there,'' said the son.
Buckley is 39 - old enough, as McGuire pointed out, to be father to some players. Matthews was greatly impressed with the person Buckley had matured into, having coached the 21-22-year-old version.
In McGuire's initial concept, the paternal figure in Buckley's coaching life today would be the man he replaced. Buckley said he had seen Malthouse a few times since their parting. ''Yeah, we've had a few chats.'' About? ''Just in general and we've run into each other on a couple of occasions and just had a general chat.''
Malthouse had not offered advice. ''No, he's offered me plenty of advice over the years. I've got 14 years of advice ringing through my ears with every decision that sort of I make … as are the words of any of the coaches I've had in the past.''
Malthouse and Buckley had mutual respect, rather than deep affection, as the older man recently acknowledged. The old coach knew that his presence at Collingwood was untenable. Hence Buckley has turned to others.
''Unfortunately, it's like me and 'Vossy','' said Matthews of the severance that occurs. ''It's the old bull and the young bull.''
Malthouse was a father to his players. What would Buckley be? ''Yet to be written,'' said the young bull.