An imperfect perfection – how Nathan Buckley changed his demeanor to unlock grit, determination, skill and hunger in his players.
While Adam Simpson walked away as the most successful coach of the 2018 AFL season, Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley deserves a toast of his own. Subjected to brutal criticism from the media and backlash from fans following a disappointing 2017 season, the former Magpie great was forced to go back to the drawing board.
Much has been made of Buckley’s perfectionist character and micromanaging ways. It’s the rhetoric many drew upon to explain Collingwood’s four-year finals drought from 2014-2017. Indeed, Buckley would be the first person to admit he got it all wrong in the early stages of his coaching career, not by his own intention but by the clash between playing instinct and coaching strategy.
As a player, Buckley showcased immense talent and always had the natural ability to standout. Every kick and hand ball would be fired straight at the intended target, not an inch too left or an inch too right. It was the way he played – demanding perfection from himself, and the bitter disappointment was evident whenever he didn’t achieve exactly that.
Buckley’s hunger to win the footy at every contest translated to a will to be perfect in every aspect of his game. A player who can perfect the game is a rare asset in AFL football, especially in the modern game where the lures of riches and fame often impede one’s output on the field. For many current players, near enough is good enough, but for Buckley, it was never the case.
With a Norm Smith Medal, Brownlow Medal, seven All-Australian selections and six Collingwood Best and Fairest trophies among other achievements, Buckley’s footballing resume embodies perfection in every way. However, while his playing attributes were simply remarkable, the ability for Buckley to lead young men into battle as head coach has been his hardest skill to master.
After taking the reigns as senior coach of the Magpies at the start of the 2012 season, Buckley steered his troops to the preliminary final before being comfortably beaten by eventual premier, Sydney.
Buckley’s real woes as a coach began at the end of the 2013 season, when his side suffered a shock loss to Port Adelaide in a home elimination final at the MCG. The loss led to Buckley blaming cultural issues on the poor performance. Hindsight now teaches us the cultural problems at the Pies were a product of the initial Buckley coaching method. He didn’t know it at the time, but Buckley himself may have been the problem. The culture was his to control, or his to lose control of.
Collingwood players young and old weren’t being able to develop as footballers or as young men. They were being micromanaged by a coach who could only tolerate perfection in every part of the football club.
For a coach who had mastered the art of AFL football throughout an almost flawless career, errant foot skills, holes in the backline and chaotic passages of play were sights which angered and upset.
So how did a coach of Buckley turn the tide and elicit the best in his players?
1 - Revamping the playing list
Senior figures who had been integral to Collingwood’s grand final success in 2010 made way for fresh talent. The likes of Alan Didak, Travis Cloke, Heritier Lumumba and Dane Swan had all departed by the end of the 2016 season. Their exits allowed for Buckley to draw on a mix of younger players - the former GWS trio of Taylor Adams, Adam Treloar and Will Hoskin-Elliot the headline acts.
The addition of James Aish from the Brisbane Lions is another example of Buckley injecting youth into his coaching mantra. The four recruits, along with other Magpie youngsters came to the fore in the 2018, all playing pivotal roles on Collingwood’s resurgence to grand final contender.
2 - Believing in Mason Cox
If there was a player to upset any football perfectionist, then Mason Cox ticks all the boxes. The lanky American has had to work extraordinarily hard to find his feet at AFL level. Buckley would have been excused for hitting the “delist” button after Cox’s first season underwhelmed, but he stuck firm and is now reaping rewards.
Cox’s assets in his size, contested marking and knack of goal kicking have been used by the Pies to boost their forward stocks substantially. Yes, he is unconventional and often serves up poor passages of play, however the Texan provides an x-factor element to the team. Nathan Buckley deserved every reason to be smiling in the coach’s box as the chant of “USA, USA,” rang out across the MCG as the number 46 tore the Tigers to shreds in the 2018 Preliminary Final. Cox’s blemishes were overlooked by Buckley for his beauty, and the coach should be credited for believing in the US import.
He saw the budding oak tree whilst others saw a pretty ordinary acorn, and for this, the emergence of Mason Cox is as much a victory for Buckley as Cox, himself.
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3 - Showing discipline and compassion
The Jordan de Goey drink-driving saga at the beginning of the year was a bleak start to the Magpies tilt to climb back up the ladder. One of Collingwood’s best players, de Goey was banned from three AFL games and slapped with a seven-month alcohol consumption ban; punishments which made the richly talented forward earn back the respect of his teammates. Buckley’s firm but fair stance in dealing with De Goey indicated a definite shift from a culture perspective at the club. De Goey enjoyed a breakout AFL season after serving his ban,and re-signed with the Pies despite lucrative offers from other clubs on the table - a sign the clubs disciplinary measures were appropriate and necessary.
Contrarily to demonstrating discipline towards De Goey, Buckley also mastered the art of compassion. His response to the tragic death of Travis Varcoe’s sister Maggie speaks volumes of the coach’s personality transformation. The club, following Buckley’s actions, allowed Varcoe time to mourn the loss with his family and recuperate and refresh before the finals series.
Similarly, Buckley showed absolute class when the Collingwood cheer squad’s grand final team banner was left in tatters after a torrid gust of wind blew it flush to the ground. Buckley could have simply ignored the situation; however, he went straight to the banner makers and wrapped his arms around them, offering reassurance that everything was ok and the they weren’t to blame for the situation. A small act, perhaps, however it’s an act which even the fans who despise the Magpies cannot deny as being simply professional, graceful and compassionate. It was the actions of a man who has learned that every individual at the club adds to the fabric of the place. Everyone is important.
You often hear great leaders talk about everyone at the club – from the president to the boot-studder. Those cheer squad members were the symbolic boot studders on Grand Final day, and it was Buckley acknowledging them that signalled just how far he’s come, and he’s taken the club with him.
Then there were the pictures of Buckley consoling distraught runner Alex Woodward in the Collingwood rooms following their agonising defeat to the West Coast Eagles. As Woodward seemed to be blaming himself for getting in the way of Jaidyn Stephenson as he tried to prevent an Elliot Yeo mark which led to a goal, Buckley gave him a huge hug. The coach had just endured a grand final defeat, yet he again showed class by supporting a member of the Pies support staff. It was about others – not about himself.
The Collingwood Football Club have for a long time been the team every AFL fan loves to hate. However, the evolution of Nathan Buckley from an elite footballer to a coach who now appreciates his players for who they are rather than what they are not, is changing many opinions across the country.
Nathan Buckley’s imperfect coaching methodology is worthy of premiership success. And for the first time, those outside the bubble of the club itself and its supporters might not mind if Buckley leads the Pies to the promised land.
Kudos to the Pies for sticking with the boss and to Nathan for bucking his previously perfect persona.
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