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What is Nathan Buckley's pass mark in 2021?

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Roar Guru
3rd January, 2021
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Now that Eddie McGuire has announced that 2021 will be his last year as president of Collingwood, what does that mean for Nathan Buckley?

Buckley was famously appointed in the succession plan that saw him take the reins from premiership coach Mick Malthouse.

There is some scuttlebutt that given he knew he wasn’t going to be there in 2012, Malthouse was lax in regard to off-field discipline in 2011 and left Buckley to clean up the mess. Come 2012, we know Buckley embarked on a journey of cultural reinvention and that an exodus of the 2010 premiership squad followed.

After four years of missing the finals (2014-17) Buckley’s position as senior coach looked vulnerable. To be fair to Buckley, the list management during this period was replete with misfires and injuries, which impacted performance and arguably the capacity to knit a cohesive game plan.

A new narrative was also developing among the supporter base too: Buckley would be given every opportunity to succeed because his dismissal would be an admission that the succession plan was a mistake. The club will obviously deny this and some supporters may scoff, but many felt Buckley and Eddie McGuire had become inextricably intertwined.

Collingwood made the grand final in 2018 only to lose it in heartbreaking circumstances. Of course this is Collingwood. Remove the “2018” from that statement and you could apply the “heartbreaking” adjective to 20 Collingwood grand finals. This is important to note – too many people use yet another grand final loss as a measure of accomplishment. At Collingwood it’s just another season.

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Come 2019, Collingwood’s on-field efforts spluttered. Throughout 2020 Collingwood continued to decline. Injuries, COVID, a loss of assistant coaching staff and lots of other reasons can be cited, but the grander worry among many of the supporters is that Collingwood has regressed strategically.

Their 2020 performances were eerily similar to those of 2014-17, an era marred by skill errors, poor decision-making, collapsing defensive zones, unpressured opposition over-the-top goals, indecisive ball movement, dyslexic midfield synergy and slow, spasmodic forward-50 entries.

From the outside looking in, Collingwood changed the way they moved the ball in 2019-20, employing a measured, surgical approach – or at least attempting to – whereas in 2018 it was freewheeling, fast, direct and audacious.

I list these symptoms and issues because the past must be considered in any coach’s tenure. Of the nine years Nathan Buckley has been at the helm I can cite 2018 as being the only season Collingwood consistently played a purposeful, cohesive brand of football. The other seasons were marked by inconsistency and sporadic efforts, beating a finalist one week, only to lose to a bottom-four side the following week.

Nathan Buckley, coach of the Magpies, looks dejected

(Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

So what exactly is a pass mark for Nathan Buckley in 2021?

Not many coaches would be given ten years without returning a flag. Some might cite Mick Malthouse as a disclaimer – he won a flag in his 11th year at the helm. But this is an erroneous conclusion. In Malhouse’s tenth year he agreed to a succession. Effectively in his tenth year he was told he was fired. It was just that execution took two years.

Malthouse too often is brought in as a qualification of Buckley’s longevity. Malthouse got ten years; so should Buckley – at the least. It’s unclear why any coach’s tenure is used as a qualification of another’s fortunes. You could just as easily take another coach – such as Tony Shaw or Murray Weidman – and use them as criteria to cite why Buckley should be moved on.

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The reality is that both tenures are different because the club was in a different place when each man took on the job.

Malthouse inherited a wooden spoon list and within three years had guided them into a grand final. And then another one. He made the call to rebuild after successive grand final failures, endured two injury-stricken horror years in 2004-05 and then had Collingwood back in the finals from 2006 and kept them there until he was replaced.

He coached Collingwood to four grand finals – five including the draw – six preliminary finals and eight finals campaigns from his 12 years at the helm. And of course there is the 2010 flag. That’s one preliminary final every two years, one grand final every three years and one flag every 12 years. Sigh.

As an aside, the implementation of the succession plan and the introduction of Buckley as an assistant coach is often credited as being responsible for the 2010 flag success. Depending on who you talk to, Buckley was responsible for the press, or his arrival motivated Malthouse to finally get serious – as if the ten years prior had been a frolic – and recruit a genuine ruckman (in Darren Jolly), a position some believe Malthouse didn’t respect.

These assertions ignore that Collingwood was already exhibiting signs of the press in 2009, a year before Buckley would join the coaching panel, and in 2008 traded with Brisbane to get young ruck Cameron Wood to the club, paying a similar price to what they paid for Darren Jolly. Prior to Wood, they invested time in Guy Richards, who they drafted in 2000. Richards would not debut for four years and would then be given another four years to try the make the position his own. Then of course there’s Josh Fraser, Steve McKee and David Fanning.

Malthouse rated ruckman. He just had mixed success with those he tried.

(Photo by Hamish Blair/Getty Images)

Buckley took over a premiership squad and within two years they dropped out of the finals. From what can be pieced together from various sources – interviews, including with Buckley and Scott Pendlebury, and player biographies – it was a fractured time, with the club perhaps indulging in their success and needing to be refocused.

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They then missed finals for four years. The last Collingwood coach to do that was Tony Shaw 1996-99. Prior to Shaw you have to go back to 1941-44 to find the last Collingwood coach to miss the finals in four successive years – it was actually five, as they also missed in 1940. That coach was the legendary Jock McHale, who was entering the latter period of his career. Given he’d won eight flags, I imagine they afforded him some leeway.

Collingwood lost a grand final in 2018, they lost a preliminary final in 2019 and they looked like they were making up the numbers in 2020. In his nine years at the helm Buckley’s coached Collingwood to one grand final, three preliminary finals and five finals campaigns. They’re relatively impressive figures, although I’d qualify that of those nine years they’ve looked genuine contenders only in 2018.

We all know about Collingwood list replenishment for 2020. Despite the way revisionism has downgraded the quality and importance of Adam Treloar, Jaidyin Stephenson and Tom Phillips, the reality remains that they were considered three starting-18 players, and Stephenson and Phillips were big drivers in the 2018 premiership assault. Arguably Treloar was Collingwood’s best midfielder in 2018 until he tore both hamstrings in the Round 14 clash against Carlton.

The club has repeatedly thrown around Brayden Sier’s name as a possible replacement for Treloar, but a big question mark hangs over him. Sier looked great in 2018 as a big-bodied inside midfielder who stood up in tackles and fired out beautifully weighted handballs. But he played just six games in 2019 and three in 2020 and has looked a shadow of the formidable youngster who impressed so many in 2018. He may come up – we’d hope he does – but the evidence isn’t on his side.

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Josh Daicos, Isaac Quaynor and John Noble were all promising in 2020 and could build on their foundations, but at this stage of their careers they still remain unknown quantities. Callum Brown looked great in 2018, weaving through traffic and showing audacity and composure, but he’s become rushed, panicked and uncertain in the last two years.

Tyler Brown is a likely prospect but still needs weight and muscle to mix it regularly at this level. Trey Ruscoe had a handful of games this year and showed enough to offer promise.

Nathan Murphy is the forgotten man. He played just two games in 2018 and then struggled with injury, but Collingwood highly rated him. It’s unclear where he stands now. Collingwood may still rate him, but as with Sier, the evidence to forging a prolonged career isn’t on his side.

Will Kelly looked good for the three quarters he’s played at AFL level, but he’s at an extremely formative stage of his career. Then we have Trent Bianco and Jay Rantall from last year’s draft and the crop from this year’s draft.

That’s a lot of young players with not many games behind them needed to shoulder the burden. Young players are inconsistent. Few have debut seasons as spectacular as Stephenson’s. Even Josh Daicos needed four seasons to become a senior mainstay.

The three players traded out formed part of that middle core, so that’s an immediate loss of leadership, experience and – particularly in the cases of Treloar and Phillips – hardened bodies. Brodie Grundy, Taylor Adams, Brayden Maynard, Jack Crisp and Darcy Moore have been great, but the club will definitely need much more from the likes of Will Hoskin-Elliott, Josh Thomas and Jordan de Goey.

Breaking down Collingwood’s 42 listed players (including rookies) we have:
No games: 12 players

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  • Fewer than ten games: six players.
  • Fewer than 20 games: two players.
  • Fewer than 30 games: three players.
  • Fewer than 40 games: one player.
  • Fewer than 50 games: one player.
  • Between 51 and 100 games: four players.
  • More than 100 games: 13 players.

Of those 13 players who’ve played more than 100 games, Scott Pendlebury will be 33, Chris Mayne is 32, Levi Greenwood will be 32 when the season begins, Jeremy Howe and Jordan Roughead are 30, Steele Sidebottom will be 30 and Josh Thomas is 29.

That leaves the list precariously balanced in terms of experience given you would expect either attrition or injury to factor at some point. Collingwood will rely heavily on 25 players who’ve played fewer than 50 games, and 20 of those players have played fewer than 20 games.

That’s a lot of youth and inexperience.

Brody Mihocek and Jordan De Goey of the Magpies celebrate a goal

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Usually at least one team will slip from the eight. The two who look susceptible are Port Adelaide and Collingwood. While Port Adelaide were minor premiers, the compromised fixture afforded them more home games. They also have an ageing pointy end to their list. West Coast also has an ageing list, but their home-ground advantage should benefit them enough to give them a finals berth.

The other finalists have added to their lists in a way that should improve them. That’s not Collingwood’s case. There’s been no Jordan Roughead to hold down a key defensive position or Darren Jolly and Luke Ball to appreciate the midfield. All the improvement will have to come from within.

But it’s not a static environment. Clubs outside the eight are expecting the same improvement. Carlton and Melbourne are the two who have the potential to be bolters, and I’d expect Fremantle and Sydney to improve.

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It’d be easy to put a figure on what we expect Nathan Buckley to deliver in 2021, but what most supporters would want to see is consistency. The game plan issues that have increasingly opened up over the last two years and have been scarily reminiscent of the problems of 2014-17 suggest a strategy that simply doesn’t gel consistently, and it has supporters asking what we’re trying to achieve.

The club might claim this is not the game plan they want to play. In that case they’re unsuccessful in communicating their game plan to their playing list. If it’s a case of injuries depriving them of the players they need to implement their strategy, then they might need to rethink that strategy and find one that their available players can attempt to execute.

Surely there has to be an end to this amorphousness that has pervaded so many of Buckley’s teams. That should be the biggest criteria for 2021 – we’d all love to win a flag, but I’d consider accepting a lowly finish if I saw evidence of a list and game plan build that would lead to a competitive, sustainable, enjoyable brand of football for many years to come.

Because if it’s the same old, same old and we’re just relying on promise, then surely – in a time of administrative upheaval and reinvention at Collingwood – that is a redudancy the club has to address.

But I should put a qualifier on that too: it shouldn’t be the responsibility of Eddie McGuire and the incumbent administration but rather the new president coming in.

Whoever that is should have a say in which coach will take the club into the future with them.