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Nathan Buckley: The professional

Date

Matthew Lloyd

Getting his message across: Nathan Buckley has the attention of his players.

Getting his message across: Nathan Buckley has the attention of his players. Photo: Getty Images

Nathan Buckley has already put his unique stamp on Collingwood's game plan.

AS A player, Nathan Buckley polarised the football public. If you barracked for Collingwood you loved him and if you didn't, Buckley was usually enemy No. 1 for the opposition supporters.

FIGJAM was the sobriquet he carried with him from his time with the Brisbane Bears and he had to wear that tag for the first half of his career at Victoria Park.

Buckley has a few words of encouragement for young Magpie Jamie Elliott.

Buckley has a few words of encouragement for young Magpie Jamie Elliott. Photo: Getty Images

I was lucky enough to tour Ireland with Buckley for the international rules series in 1998 and, as the baby of the group at just 22, was in awe of the players around me. Some of the names included Wayne Carey, Stephen Silvagni, Robert Harvey, Mark Ricciuto and Shane Crawford.

Those trips were as much about socialising as they were training and playing and while some left their mark on me with how much they could drink, Buckley made his presence felt with his intensity on and off the field and his professionalism and dedication to be the best.

That upset others at times but nothing was going to stop Buckley getting where he wanted to be. Buckley is a competitive beast who achieved everything in his playing career except the ultimate prize. He is now determined to achieve that as a coach and he couldn't have been any more impressive in his first 10 games at the helm of the biggest club in the land.

We have short memories in football and I'll never forget how scathing the Collingwood supporters were of Buckley after the round-three belting at the hands of arch-rival Carlton. The pressure on the new coach was intense and the common theme among all the talkback callers was that Mick Malthouse should still be coach.

In the following week, the football world looked to be caving in on Buckley. He was rumoured to have lost his senior players and he had the two most powerful men at Collingwood over the past decade - Eddie McGuire and Malthouse - trading barbs. As always, Buckley kept a cool head when everyone around him was losing theirs. Insiders at Collingwood are amazed at how composed Buckley is when the pressure is on - both in the coach's box and when addressing his players at the breaks. It's like he's been in the caper for 10 years.

Buckley must have been hurting though and knew that only a win against Port Adelaide the following Saturday would stop all the rumour and innuendo. The Magpies did just that and after a 1-2 start, have now won seven on the trot and will go into the mid-season break at 9-2, if they defeat Melbourne tomorrow at the MCG - as they should.

What's even more impressive about Collingwood's form to date is that it has been crippled by injury.

I questioned the Magpies' depth at the start of the year, suggesting that they didn't bat very deep but I was wrong.

The Magpies have played six debutants due to season-ending knee injuries to Luke Ball, Brent Macaffer, Andrew Krakouer and Lachlan Keeffe. The Pies have also lost Darren Jolly, Ben Johnson, Alan Didak and Ben Reid for sustained periods. Not many clubs could cope with losing so many players of that quality.

Injury presents opportunity and two who are playing career-best football under Buckley are Steele Sidebottom and Dayne Beams. Now in their fourth seasons at Collingwood after being taken as first and second-round selections in the 2008 draft, they have now become elite midfielders of the competition. Sidebottom is averaging 28 possessions a game and four clearances and Beams 29 possessions and almost six clearances.

They are thriving with the extra responsibility they have been given in the absence of Ball and Swan.

Although the arrangement between McGuire, Malthouse and Buckley ended on a sour note, the new coach couldn't have asked for a better apprenticeship under the old. Gaining the experience of going to two grand finals in your last two years as the understudy is the perfect grounding.

What has impressed me about Buckley is that he has taken the defensive game style and mindset that made Malthouse's teams so successful and added his own touches to complement what was already there. The difference being, that if the option to go through the middle of the ground is there, Buckley's players are instructed to go for it. That may make them vulnerable to be scored against but it will also make them a more dangerous team on the counter-attack.

Buckley hasn't tried to reinvent the wheel, which can often be the undoing of first-time coaches.

The true test for Collingwood will come through rounds 13 to 17 when it plays West Coast, Fremantle, Carlton, Geelong and Hawthorn over a five-week period.

But the resilience of Buckley and his playing group tells me that the Collingwood club is up and about and ready for whatever the opposition throws at it.

In what has been the most open season in recent history, Collingwood's form suggests that it is about to separate itself from the rest of the competition.

Buckley's missing piece of silverware could suddenly become a reality in late September.

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