WHY I GOT OFF THE BUS

IVAN CLEARY BREAKS HIS SI­LENCE

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - - SUNDAY SPORT - P46

IVAN Cleary is sit­ting back on a leather swivel chair in his of­fice at the Pan­thers Rugby League Academy.

In readi­ness for his first of­fi­cial train­ing ses­sion to­mor­row as Pen­rith’s head coach since 2015, Cleary has spread­sheets and high­lighted print­outs aligned for ev­ery player in his 30-man squad laid out across his desk.

Be­fore press­ing record on the tape for his first in­ter­view since his po­lar­is­ing de­par­ture from the Wests Tigers 11 days ago, The Sun­day Tele­graph is taken through the academy that was opened in 2016.

Into the gym, past the play­ers’ dress­ing room, re­cov­ery baths, coach­ing staff ar­eas and fi­nally, a glance out onto the two train­ing fields.

“I only came through the academy for the first time last week — and orig­i­nally, I was one of the peo­ple asked for in­put into its de­sign,’’ Cleary said. “What was the big­gest fac­tor in re­turn­ing to Pen­rith? There’s plenty, but I’d say un­fin­ished busi­ness.’’

Cleary coached the Pan­thers for four sea­sons, earn­ing Dally M coach-of-the-year hon­ours in 2014 when they reached a pre­lim­i­nary fi­nal. At the end of 2015 he was sacked af­ter be­ing told by gen­eral man­ager Phil Gould he was look­ing “tired’’.

“It was a com­plete club re­build. And we were mak­ing progress, so to be ex­ited when you can see what’s com­ing was hard,’’ Cleary said.

Son Nathan Cleary de­buted in 2016, part of a glut of ju­nior ta­lent ris­ing through the ranks.

“I’ve sat back watch­ing Nathan play for the last three years and I’ve watched this club, the academy and the path­ways de­velop and grow,” Cleary said.

“And the whole time, I’m think­ing, ‘I’ll never be back here to fin­ish what I started’.”

Many will won­der how Cleary could re­turn given the way he was shown the door.

“I asked my­self the same ques­tion — but I felt straight away that there was no one here that thought I shouldn’t be do­ing this job.” OFF THE BUS Cleary’s split from the Wests Tigers with two years re­main­ing on his con­tract cap­ti­vated the NRL’s at­ten­tion.

The 47-year-old ac­cepts re­spon­si­bil­ity for the sit­u­a­tion he left Tigers CEO Justin Pas­coe in and so, too, the club’s pas­sion­ate fans. But he is adamant that he acted with hon­esty to­wards the power­bro­kers and the play­ers, adding that he was will­ing to re­main at the Tigers un­til the end of his 2020 con­tract.

“What I couldn’t do was com­mit to (a deal) af­ter 2020 — and that’s the crux of it,’’ Cleary said. “It wasn’t my de­ci­sion to leave the Tigers, it was mu­tual.

“In a per­fect world, I would pre­fer the cir­cum­stances to be dif­fer­ent — but they are what they are. When I signed the orig­i­nal con­tract with the Wests Tigers (in 2017), I had ab­so­lutely ev­ery in­tent to not go any­where.

“Peo­ple can have their opin­ions about the de­ci­sions I’ve made — but I was trans­par­ent and I was 100 per cent hon­est with the Tigers.’’ PAN­THERS POUNCE The Pan­thers’ first play for Cleary oc­curred in late July when Pen­rith chair­man David O’Neill asked if he would con­sider ever re­turn­ing.

“It was noth­ing for­mal, it was very loosely that he asked would I be in­ter­ested,’’ Cleary said. “And I said yes, I would be. There was noth­ing spe­cific, be­cause we all un­der­stood I had a con­tract at the Tigers.

“They (Pen­rith) just said they were con­sid­er­ing the head coach­ing po­si­tion mov­ing for­ward.

“I had a con­tract un­til the end of 2020, so my thought was I bet­ter go talk to the Tigers, which I thought was only fair, in­clud­ing Justin, (Tigers chair) Ma­rina (Go) and

I spouke to a cou­ple of board mem­bers and that’s when they told me, ‘there’s no way you’re go­ing any­where, you’ve got a con­tract’. The next morn­ing I told the play­ers ex­actly what I had told the board — but also, the club has made a strong stance and I’m not go­ing any­where. At the time, that was the po­si­tion,which is why there was no need to elab­o­rate in the press.”

THE REAL DEAL

Cleary’s si­lence con­tin­ued in the me­dia be­cause he felt there was noth­ing more to ex­plain. That was, un­til a for­mal of­fer from Pen­rith ar­rived in late Septem­ber. "Un­for­tu­nately that was leaked (to the press) as well, so by the time I got back to talk to the Tigers, there was al­ready ex­ter­nal pres­sure. How­ever, I of­fered full dis- clo­sure to any­one that needed to know.

“All I said (to the Tigers hi­er­ar­chy) was, it’s my in­ten­tion to sign with them (Pen­rith) in 2021.

“That was a pretty tough thing, ob­vi­ously.’’

The Tigers were un­will­ing to stick with a coach who had signed with a ri­val club.

Cleary was for­mally granted a re­lease from the Tigers 11 days ago, yet he only put pen to pa­per on a five-year deal with the Pan­thers last Wed­nes­day.

He texted the Tigers play­ers to thank them, but wished now he had the chance to speak to them in­di­vid­u­ally.

“There was a bunch of other stuff in there I would’ve liked to say and thank God I didn’t be­cause it would’ve ended up in the me­dia.’’

RIS­ING SON

Coach­ing son Nathan — who will move out of the fam­ily home for the first time af­ter Christ­mas — was an ob­vi­ous lure for Cleary, but per­haps not the grap­ple hook most be­lieve.

“It’s a fac­tor — but again, there’s a lot of fac­tors,’’ Cleary said. “I did have a sense that if I didn’t take this chance, it may never hap­pen again. That’s the thing about the NRL, op­por­tu­nity only knocks once and I wanted to get him (Nathan) to the Tigers — that was some­thing we wanted to do (to­gether) as well.”

Asked how he would han­dle rest­ing or drop­ping his son, Cleary said: “He’s go­ing to be like ev­ery­one else. There’ll be some dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions and he knows that and I know that. But we’ll deal with those like I would with any other player. He’s mov­ing out soon and I think that’s a good tim­ing.’’

TI­TLE TOWN

Cleary is un­der no il­lu­sions why he’s been brought back to Pen­rith — to win the club’s first ti­tle since 2003. The pres­sure is on at the foot of the moun­tains — and Cleary knows it.

“There’s al­ways pres­sure. I read an ar­ti­cle last week about all the coaches un­der pres­sure and that wasn’t even about win­ning comps,’’ Cleary said.

“The big­gest pres­sure on me is that we im­prove the team and I’m look­ing for­ward to do­ing that.

“It’s a lit­tle bit scary, but that’s the thrill of it, too.’’

Main pic­ture: Sam Rut­tyn

Re­turn­ing Pen­rith coach Ivan Cleary and (left) on his first day at the Pan­thers in 2011; (in­set right) Nathan Cleary.

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