IN WHAT would surely prove the final flourish to what has been a stunning winter season for the North Melbourne Football Club, Ben Buckley now looks a near certainty to take over as that club's chief executive.
The outgoing national soccer boss and former Kangaroos vice-captain is now understood to be strongly considering returning to the fold of his traditional football code, despite seeming no chance to replace Eugene Arocca when North chairman James Brayshaw sacked the latter after a tumultuous 12 months, culminating in a disastrous weekend in Launceston in May.
But the national football landscape has shifted dramatically since then, with every code affected, and what looked to be a significant backward step for Buckley now looms as a brilliant combination of home-coming mixed with one of the greatest challenges in Australian sport. The Kangaroos are doing well but need a headline act and, dare we say it, a boost to their brand.
For North Melbourne, Buckley would be a coup. Acting chief executive Cam Vale has proved a worthy stand-in, but the big signing that Brayshaw wanted and seemed unlikely to get has now stepped forward in a perfect piece of timing. Whether Buckley lost patience with his chairman, Frank Lowy, or vice-versa or a combination of both is not clear but it was time for him to leave the world game and unfortunately for Vale and the other name or two on North's CEO shortlist, the stars have aligned.
Buckley, a former senior AFL executive under Andrew Demetriou, who was headhunted by Lowy, is understood to be departing on an annual salary of $1.3 million. North could not go near that amount but Buckley would not expect any new position to equal his current wage in the current landscape. A move back to the AFL has been mooted but seems unlikely.
Despite a lift in membership, brilliant on-field results and good early signs after a tough start where Hobart is concerned, the Kangaroos remain financially weak. But the board has already indicated it would find a bit extra to lure Buckley, and if it does not act quickly another club could beat it to the line. Changing codes in Australian football, as John O'Neill did, as David Gallop is about to do and as Gillon McLachlan has been tempted by, is a risky business. At the very least, any mistake leaves you liable to accusations of being a foreigner and in the case of the AFL, rugby league and soccer, you might as well be switching countries. The off-field business might be the same in terms of media and sponsorship, but to understand the culture of the game is such a major advantage and has proved so for Demetriou.
Buckley would be a big-picture man for North and provide an ideal gateway to a better relationship with the AFL, whose commission has harboured serious doubts about Brayshaw from the outset. The North chairman spoke lightheartedly on his Triple M radio show two nights ago about contacting Buckley during the London Olympics, but our understanding is that the talks were more serious and that Buckley gave Brayshaw every indication that his inquiries were worthwhile.
The good news for Buckley is that Brayshaw's laissez-faire demeanour would suit him as much as it frustrated Arocca. Dealing with Lowy has reportedly proved a micro-managerial nightmare, but there is no chance of that with the media-personality chairman, who famously attended that Hawthorn game in Launceston and watched from a stats box rather than press the flesh with Tasmanian politicians, corporate sponsors and the AFL.
Bad timing has dogged the Kangaroos for decades. They deserved some good fortune and Buckley is that.
Buckley is expected to hold talks with the Kangaroos as early as today and even if he chooses to take a short spell in the sun, once he has achieved a new broadcast rights deal for Australian soccer, North would be prepared to wait. Kangaroos Friday night football would prove more than just a one-off come season 2013.