Buckley displays an amazing grace
NATHAN Buckley had to go. It was April. It didn’t matter where he went, so long as it was elsewhere, or so went the prevailing wisdom. First, however, the Collingwood coach would receive some friendly advice, as all AFL coaches must, from former players, fans, and random passersby. If Buckley were to point the finger for his team’s failures, one commentator explained, he should point it at himself. Buckley didn’t go. Nor did he go last week, when — once again — self-proclaimed experts explained that he had to. By now, he had acquired a new honorific — “under siege”. His sixyear reign was “all but over”. He was reduced to a “distraction” — Collingwood’s future would be muddled until he went.
Buckley didn’t go. Even when he received the gravest of news — a club promise that he would be kept until season’s end, which is interpreted as code for his being shown the exit — Buckley stayed firm. Five years in Australia’s toughest gig has bestowed him with grace and poise, if not always the results he has sought.
Malcolm Turnbull, by comparison, has it easy. Prime ministers can lose 15 opinion polls in a row, but they still aren’t subjected to the kind of scrutiny an AFL coach endures.
Turnbull, after all, plays the same strategy week after week. Everyone knows he cannot spot a back pocket from a full forward. Yet no one is suggesting that he reapply for his job alongside other candidates; well, not yet anyway. That’s what’s been suggested Buckley do — submit himself to an open recruiting process.
Turnbull and Buckley do share one thing — the perception that their teams are not very good. Turnbull didn’t respond well when that was pointed out to him.
On election night last year, he was petulant, as if the voters were bit players in the bigger arc of his personal destiny.
Buckley, in contrast, fronts up regularly. He’s articulate and genuine, light in the face of adversity and thoughtful despite disappointment. He cracks jokes when he’d be forgiven for punching walls.
Some experts say he is good at his work and bonded to his players, and that the only problem lies in that critical set of numbers on the scoreboard. True, it’s a big sticking point, that. The club that claims to be Australia’s best is not as good as many other AFL clubs. Buckley has won a solitary final since 2012.
Yet he doesn’t hide behind statistical jargon. He assumes responsibility for defeat or, in the silly parlance of AFL House, he “owns the decisions”.
He has grown as one of those rare figures in sport. Buckley stands to be admired for the character test, for reasons removed from the usual measures of winning and losing.
Buckley’s team has lost twice as many games this year as it has won. He has battled the phantom notion that Collingwood may have performed better if Mick Malthouse were still in charge.
Buckley receives more free commentary than Bernard Tomic and most of it is just as unkind. He himself spoke of last week’s loss as a “tipping point”, but many observers have treated every week of his tenure since 2012 as such.
A few months back, former player David King said that Buckley was “dying on the vine”. The tenor was in step with the prevailing line — indeed, King was more constructive than some. “I believe Buckley’s coaching career is still salvageable before the lack of scoring impacts the crowd attendances and viewership,” said King, a veteran of zero games as an AFL coach.
James Hird, who does know about coaching pressure, spoke of watching Buckley coach some eight-year-olds on a Sunday morning, a few hours before a bigger coaching gig against Geelong. He said: “Being an AFL senior coach is like no other job I have experienced. I have never operated on someone, guided a mission to the moon or sent young men to their death in war. All these roles carry far greater significance in life than that of an AFL coach, but the pressure and stress that comes with being an AFL coach is unique and mostly unhealthy.”
Buckley grasps that. When Malthouse was sacked by Carlton in 2015, Buckley pointed out that nine out of 10 coaches seemed to finish their careers sacked.
“You very rarely get a chance to jump on the horse and ride into the sunset,” he said. “I’m not expecting to when my time comes.” Buckley might go. If and when he does, someone should get him a horse.