Sometimes you forget just how bad it was. Before Scott Pendlebury and Dane Swan. Before Mick Malthouse. Before hope.
The late 1990s were a dark time for Collingwood fans. Everything was black, with almost no hint of light. Those were the days of James Wasley, Scott Crow, and something called a Cameron Venables. Damian Adkins and Ben Kinnear were the future. In other words – there was no future. There was only a miserable present, and Nathan Buckley was the only thing to make it bearable.
In sport, pain is the richest context. Without the devastation of losing as a preface, the euphoria of winning is blunted. Despair is a necessary precursor to ecstasy.
If nothing else, the late 90s and early 00s were heavy on context for Magpie fans. For so many years, Buckley was the only justification for watching the team play. Sure, they would lose every week, but every time Buckley had the ball in his hands, you knew he was going to do something special with it. Like with all the great ones, it was worth going to the footy just to see Buckley play, because there was always the possibility that he was going to do something that nobody in the game had ever done before.
He’s the best, purest kick of a football I’ve ever seen, a player capable of kicking the candle off a cupcake from 60 metres away.
His kicking motion was unique, eschewing the more traditional method of a straight leg and following through by pointing your foot at the intended destination. Instead, Buckley whipped the ball on an angle like a soccer striker, generating more power by having a wider range of motion. Matt Suckling and Daniel Rich, and so many of the other great kicks in the modern game, owe their techniques in varying respects to Buckley.
His strength was mountainous, his courage unquestioned, and his speed sneakily imposing. He was at his best in the biggest moments – the tragedy of his career was that his teammates weren’t good enough to get him enough of those moments.
In the 2002 and 2003 grand finals, where Michael Voss had Brownlow medallists Jason Akermanis and Simon Black as his running mates, Buckley had Paul Licuria and Scott Burns. It was never a fair fight, despite a gallant effort in the first clash.
Unlike his contemporaries – Voss, James Hird, Mark Ricciuto, Ben Cousins, Andrew McLeod – Buckley never had a legitimate premiership squad. By the time those players did come along – Pendlebury, Swan, Travis Cloke when Travis Cloke was good at football, Dale Thomas, Heath Shaw and company – his body betrayed him. His timeline expired as Collingwood’s premiership window finally opened. Fatefully, the night that Collingwood’s era of success began – from 2007 to 2012 making five preliminary finals in six years – was the last night of his career.
I remember being in the stands that evening at the MCG, Collingwood cruelled by the genius of Gary Ablett Jr, staring down at Buckley on the bench as the final siren sounded. Walking off the ground he took a moment to look up at the crowd, to savour the feeling one last time, and just like that, I knew it was over, and that it would never be the same.
The 2010 premiership was made all the more sweet by the dreadful agony of ‘02 and ‘07, the numbed disappointment of ‘03, ‘06 and ‘09, and the dreary irrelevance of the mid to late 90s. Sitting in the crowd at the MCG on that sunny Saturday afternoon in October 2010, a couple hours after Heath Shaw snuck up on Nick Riewoldt, the moment was untouchable. A pair of drunken Collingwood fans (save your snark) in front of me hugged and kissed and jumped and yelled in delirium: ‘WE’RE HERE.’
The only thing that took anything away from 2010 was the fact that Buckley wasn’t a part of it. Yes, he was an assistant coach, but it’s not the same as being a head coach, captain or player. It wasn’t his team. Buckley had been a part of all of the pain, all of the context, but none of the euphoria. A sense of total closure was lacking.
Depending on the tint of your lenses, Buckley’s coaching career has been anything from a catastrophe to a series of unfortunate events. I’ve watched him coach for the past five years and I have no idea whether he’s good at it or not. His tenure has been clouded by so much noise. There was the inevitable culture clash with Mick Malthouse’s boys, and then there were the injuries. My God, there were the injuries.
Does 2012 turn out differently if Luke Ball doesn’t tear his ACL and Thomas doesn’t play the whole season hurt? Do the Pies make the finals and arrest the downward trajectory in 2014 if half the team doesn’t go down in the second half of the year?
Even this year, a miserable, confusing, endlessly frustrating campaign of let-downs, no-shows, and brief signs of hope, feels like it could have been totally different. Inject Dane Swan, Jamie Elliott and Matt Scharenberg into this team, have Marley Williams, Alex Fasolo, Taylor Adams, Travis Varcoe, Darcy Moore with a cleaner bill of health, and isn’t the team a totally different animal? Every squad suffers from injuries, but Collingwood’s run of health since Buckley took over has bordered on comical. Injuries aren’t an excuse until they are.
Regardless, the team’s construction has been flawed. There aren’t enough talented ball users in any part of the ground, there are too many lumbering talls, and really, just not much tends to make sense when Collingwood play football. They have no discernible game style and, aside from brief stretches in the middle of 2012, end of 2013, and beginnings of 2014 and 2015, haven’t consistently had one since Buckley took over.
There are always flashes though, and those flashes, combined with the injuries, Buckley’s aura within the club, and his articulate, honest and endearing media persona, conspire to give him a much longer leash than most would have when their teams have got progressively worse for five consecutive seasons. Perhaps he’s lucky to still be in the job.
But I don’t care. As a Collingwood fan, I say let the leash stretch into eternity.
2010 cured two decades of hurt. For Collingwood fans, the only remnant of pain from that era is that Buckley never got his medal. Collingwood have been frustrating to follow for the past six years, but it must be remembered that it’s only been six years – St Kilda, Melbourne and Bulldogs fans will shed no tears for us.
There is a grace period after a premiership, and Buckley deserves all of it. So long as the possibility remains that he might just be a good coach, I hope Collingwood keep him on. I hope they let him fail in the worst ways possible and only then let him go, when the excuses have run dry and the reality of his failure is cold and stark. I hope, that just maybe, he succeeds.
I’d rather Collingwood win one premiership with Buckley as coach over the next ten years than two or three without him. Between the club and the man, I choose the man, because for so long, the man was the club.
Most won’t sympathise with that view, but most didn’t talk themselves into Ryan Lonie having a little Andrew McLeod in him in 2001. Those were dark days, and Buckley was their only light. In similarly dark days now, Collingwood, within reason, owe it to their favourite son to give him every possible opportunity to shine again.