Buckley the silent killer as Collingwood hit stealth mode
Coach Nathan Buckley leading a quiet charge for the finals (Slattery Images)
“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
Movie aficionados will identify this quote from the 1995 film The Usual Suspects, delivered by Kevin Spacey’s antagonist ‘Verbal’ Kint.
While watching it for the umpteenth time last week, I was reminded of Nathan Buckley and Collingwood in season 2012.
Buckley was a champion player of the highest quality, and anyone who disagrees or claims he was overrated is openly admitting a bias against the man or club that they can’t get past.
In any debate comparing Buckley, Hird and Voss – a conversational football staple for more than a decade from the mid 90s – I would generally take the side of the Magpie skipper.
Immaculately skilled on either side of his body, possessing the most penetrating and accurate kick in the league, he was a ball magnet of the highest work ethic, as smart as any to have played the game, and was tougher in the contest than his critics ever admitted.
While perhaps not possessing the genius of Hird or the wrecking-ball hardness of Voss, he was the epitome of the true professional.
And while Buckley is only 10 games into his coaching career, it seems he may also possess champion qualities in his new vocation.
Under fierce media heat earlier in the year after a ten-goal thumping at the hands of Carlton in round three, leaving his side at 1-2 after being comfortably handled by Hawthorn and distinctly unimpressive in beating Richmond in the first two weeks, Buckley never faltered.
Mick Malthouse was chipping away at the Pies in various commentating roles, and the ever-growing football media were circling, frothing at the mouth for open warfare between the former coach and the new one, bloodlust on their minds.
Yet Buckley calmly swatted away the media frenzy, barely suppressing a yawn while doing so. The rabid dogs were turned into puppies with dignified common sense. No story here.
That time-honoured refrain of having ‘lost the players’ was being bandied about, a cliché thrown around when a side is struggling. In this case it didn’t stand up to the barest scrutiny, and spoke only of a lazy media.
Did not the Collingwood players know that Buckley would be coaching them in 2012 from as far back as July 2009? Did they not, led by Dane Swan and Dale Thomas, re-sign when the lure of opportunity and vast sums of money were thrown at them from elsewhere?
Scott Pendlebury will be the next Magpie captain, already as respected within the group as current skipper Nick Maxwell, and when he signed a four-year deal on the eve of the season, we could take it as read that he believed in the coach. When Pendlebury speaks and acts, others follow.
The Pies’ slow start to the year was more due to a lengthy pre-season injury list than the change of coach and tactics. Injury (and suspension) troubles also derailed the last third of Collingwood’s 2011 season, and after a sixth finals campaign in a row (effectively an extra season of training and matches) it is understandable if mental and physical fatigue played a part over those gruelling summer months.
Perhaps Buckley, as a first-time coach looking to stamp his authority on a group that so loved and revered Malthouse, pushed them a little too hard. Hardly a hanging offence, and surely we’d allow the newcomer some leeway for youthful exuberance.
It must be said that injuries are continuing to destabilise their campaign and may ultimately define it. It will still be a struggle to go all the way, but instead of crumbling into a side that barely competes like Carlton has become, Buckley has sensed an opportunity to furnish his players with greater responsibility.
Under his tutelage, they have seized it, continuing to win matches in the process.
And while the Blues have been crying into their porridge about the rough treatment of Murphy and Carrazzo, the Pies haven’t exactly been missing fringe players. Swan, Thomas, Ball, Shaw, Wellingham, Didak, Maxwell, Reid, Jolly, Brown and Tarrant have all missed multiple games, a squad of players that you could build an All-Australian side around, let alone a competitive home-and-away one.
Despite all of this, the Pies, after yesterday’s pole-axing of the Suns, have won seven games in a row. That’s right, seven. This in a season that every expert is lining up to declare the most open in recent memory. More than one commentator has suggested that five or six wins in a row would be a peerless result.
Their victims haven’t exactly been bunnies either. Essendon were undefeated when the Pies beat them, Adelaide occupied second spot on the ladder and were at home where they hadn’t lost a game, while Geelong charged late but couldn’t overwhelm a side that was down two men of the highest quality.
Yet despite all of this, there has barely been a murmur about the side that knows ‘how to play the game’.
This is the number one football club in the country, the ‘Manchester United of Australia’ with a membership base north of 70,000 people. This is a club that has long been accused of having the Herald-Sun as a club newsletter, so often do they dominate the front and back pages.
We’ve heard about the emergence of Essendon, the discontent at Melbourne, the resurgence of Richmond, the electrifying Eagles and the gumption of Greater Western Sydney.
The Hawks have been either ‘hot’ or ‘hopeless’, the Swans ‘sensational’ or ‘spent’, while the Cats are ‘cooked’, and even the ‘calamity’ Kangaroos have been getting some headlines for the wrong reasons.
Yet the Pies are not so much flying under the radar as in complete stealth mode, and this should be attributed to one Nathan Buckley.
The slow start to the season lowered expectations and enabled Collingwood to go about their business in the calmly efficient way they do best, and once the Malthouse smoke (but no fire) was dealt with, everyone seems to have forgotten about them.
After ten rounds, the greatest trick that Nathan Buckley has pulled is convincing the football world that the Magpies don’t exist.
And while their contemporaries in finals from years past (read Geelong, Hawthorn, Carlton, St Kilda, Western Bulldogs) are all struggling to have an impact, and the new kids on the block (West Coast, Essendon, Adelaide, Richmond) are attracting the headlines, perhaps when it’s all said and done we’ll be left with Collingwood, football’s usual suspects.
Cameron Rose is a born and bred Melbournian, raised on a regime of AFL, cricket and horse racing. He likes people who agree with him but loves those that don't, for in his mind there is nothing better than a roaring debate. He tweets from @camtherose.