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Nathan Buckley and Collingwood: A tale of regression

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Roar Guru
12th June, 2021
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1502 Reads

If Collingwood had won the 2018 grand final, things would’ve been different for Nathan Buckley.

This is the narrative going around now that Buckley has stepped down as Collingwood coach.

My first response to this is discussion around Collingwood loves its use of “if”. “If” Brayden Maynard hadn’t been blocked. “If” Anthony Rocca’s point had been called a goal. “If” Wayne Harmes’s tap had been called out of bounds. “If” Phil Carman hadn’t been suspended.

There’s always some hypothetical that exists to massage the pain, to qualify the failure, to provide an out from the simplest truth possible: in those cases, Collingwood just wasn’t good enough.
That reality applies to the 2018 grand final.

After an opening that saw Collingwood kick five goals to zero, something happened. Collingwood’s gameplay choked up. Nathan Buckley himself would comment on this later at Collingwood’s Copeland Trophy celebration: they lost their “dare”. Instead of trying to win the game, they went out to save it.

West Coast played proactive football. For the most part after quarter-time, Collingwood played reactive football. As the game unfolded, West Coast made things happen. Collingwood did not. If not for inaccuracy, West Coast could’ve – and arguably should’ve – won that game by three or four goals.

Josh Kennedy celebrates kicking a goal during the 2018 AFL Grand Final

Josh Kennedy of the Eagles celebrates kicking a goal during the 2018 AFL Grand Final. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Now I digress because this game becomes an important microcosm for what’s followed.

A clamour didn’t develop for Nathan Buckley to be replaced as coach of Collingwood due to a lack of results. It’s not because of the win/loss record. Since that grand final, Collingwood have played in a preliminary final (2019) and semifinal (2020). This is their first genuinely poor year since 2017.

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Read print media, watch football shows, listen to fan discussion – these are not the motivators behind the discussion around change.

That’s something simpler: devolution.

Collingwood’s gameplan has regressed over the last three years. I’ve written it often enough: they played a fast, attacking, chaotic brand of football in 2018. Even Gerard Healy recently commented, “I’ve asked this question many times – I still can’t get my head around why he [Buckley] changed from this team who almost won a premiership in 2018 where they (played) through the corridor with pace and play on.”

But bookending 2018 is the football we’ve been seeing this year: indecisive, short, indirect, ultra-defensive, overly controlling, taxing, which has then invited (or incited) issues such as skill errors, poor decision making, lack of structure, appalling F50 entries, vulnerability on the counter-attack, etc.

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These are the real indictments that critics have used to support their cries for change: this spluttering gameplan that has ground on-field performances into excruciating eye-sores and left everybody asking, “What the hell are we trying to accomplish?”

This also doesn’t factor in how this game style affects the playing group. From the outside looking in, a number of players have looked shadows of themselves. You can point to all the forwards from 2018: Brody Mihocek aside, they have all been poorer versions of themselves in the three years that have followed. You buy one or two falling away, but five of them?

Jordan de Goey is one who becomes the focus of criticism given everybody has such high expectations of him. Earlier this year on 3AW, Leigh Matthews said, “Forget about thinking of Jordan de Goey as Dustin Martin – he [de Goey] is not his [Martin’s] bootlaces.”

Jordan De Goey.

Jordan De Goey. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

De Goey has struggled to graduate from forward to midfielder, the way a contemporary such as Christian Petracca has in that same timeframe. De Goey was ahead of Petracca in 2018 in terms of development. Now Petracca has skyrocketed past him. Why is that? Petracca has evolved into one of the best players running around, while de Goey has never recaptured his 2018 form, or progressed into (at the very least) a competent, consistent midfielder.

De Goey obviously has the talent. He’s shown games in the midfield that he can play there. So what’s held him back?

Why has Brodie Grundy failed to develop synergy with his midfield? The 2018 grand final provided evidence of a ruckman who could statistically dominate a game, yet not translate that proportionately to midfield connectivity. The 2019 preliminary final whacked that point home. And then some. Yet it’s remained a problem.

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Callum Brown provides a simpler story. In his debut year in 2017, Brown showed sure hands, composure in traffic and a willingness to take the game on. He looked like a long-term prospect throughout 2018. His composure deteriorated throughout 2019, and worsened in 2020. Brown now often looks panicked and confused and streaky. If he has a set shot in front of goal, he looks positively terrified.

There are lots of these stories at Collingwood over the last three years, and accumulatively they’ve contributed to the argument for change. That became a collective too overwhelming to deny, and while this year’s on-field efforts may have played a major factor, I’d argue that this year’s win/loss record did not.

You can lose, but be building towards a future. Or you can lose, with evidence suggesting there is no genuine forward momentum – it’s building on quicksand, and only the most optimistic would suggest anything permanent is ever going to be erected.

Had Collingwood come out of 2018 and continued to play that same purposeful brand of football for the next three years, if the cornerstones of 2018 had remained in place, I think a lot of people would be content for Buckley to have remained and oversee a rebuild.

Some would contend this view is simplistic. They’d argue Collingwood couldn’t play that 2018 style because they were found out, because opposition worked them out and they needed to change.
It’s funny how Richmond have played their brand for the last six years, every club knows what they’re doing, yet they can keep doing it and be successful. Similarly with Hawthorn during their three-peat. And Geelong during their heyday.

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They might tweak here and there. Personnel may change around the periphery. But the reality with a meaningful gameplan is if it’s executed correctly, it’ll always give that team the best chance of winning – as it has (and is doing) for Richmond, and as it did for Hawthorn and Geelong, and as it does for other teams who enjoy long windows of contention.

Others might cite injuries as a reason Collingwood’s gone backward. But despite the ill-fated Dayne Beams trade, Collingwood has added to their 2018 grand final stocks Darcy Moore and Jamie Elliott (both of whom were injured the bulk of that year), and Jordan Roughead, and been boosted by the emergences of Isaac Quaynor and Josh Daicos.

Josh Daicos of the Magpies gathers the ball

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

The key outgoings have been James Aish and Tom Langdon. Have they lost more than they’ve gained? I’d suggest not.

While their November 2020 trade debacle has grossly affected depth this year, and arguably impacted player morale, they retained relatively (the typical Collingwood injuries aside) full lists for 2019-20, and yet progressively played a stymied brand of football.

For whatever reason, Collingwood decided to reinvent themselves and plot this new course that’s systematically taken the team from the top of the ladder to the bottom. Glimpses of good football are meaningless – we saw that 2014-2017. We were tantalised one week, then disappointed the next three.

Their entire system has broken down.

The coaching staff had been given ample opportunity to turn this around and either hadn’t been able to, or had refused to try something new (or revert to the 2018 methodology) in favour of continuing what they were doing, results be damned. Then, in press conferences following matches, it was all the same rhetoric about ‘brand’ and whatnot.

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So had Collingwood won the 2018 grand final, and yet still decided to plot this course, I’d wager that we’d still be here anyway.

Nathan Buckley, coach of the Magpies, looks dejected

(Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

As it is, it feels that the 2018 grand final either scarred Collingwood, or the coaches came away thinking they had to learn to control the ball so upsets like that didn’t happen. That meant a reversion in the way they played to this high-possession, defensive gameplan, only they pushed it to the extent that it asphyxiated the players from taking the game on when the opportunity was there, impinged their form and/or development of some and dampened the instincts of many.

In all my writings, I have always maintained that Nathan Buckley has been one of the best players I’ve ever seen play – a player who is underrated by many when discussions arise about the best players to play the game. He was a champion midfielder during a time Collingwood were struggling, and then led them into successive grand final campaigns where he proved his mettle on the biggest stages.

As a coach, while he might’ve always been accessible to the media, while he was always eloquent and personable despite the circumstances, the (on-field) vision he oversaw was frustrating and the results in nine out of ten years sporadic. Some behave like what we’re seeing this year is the outlier. It isn’t. It’s happened before – repeatedly.

Still, Buckley has zealously given a large chunk of his life to the Collingwood Football Club and always strived to make them better. I thank him for that, and wish him the best in whatever endeavour he tackles next.

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