There is a special poignancy attached to the departure of AFL coaches when their names have been as frequently applied in gold leaf lettering to club honour boards as Nathan Buckley’s at Collingwood.
The last time such a living legend gave up the Pies coaching job with the club faring so badly at every level was in 1986, when Bob Rose absented himself from the “New Magpies” era.
A dignified conscience figure at odds with that greed-is-good era, Rose was farewelled as one of the game’s last real gentlemen.
About Buckley, a similar vision has always been projected by the media.
Even the most cynical Collingwood supporter would agree that his public persona was always statesmanlike.
In fact, the central irony of Buckley and Eddie McGuire’s dual-occupancy of the club’s leadership was that the former footballer was the more assured and engaging media performer than the professional broadcaster.
In these times of gee-don’t-you-just-get-the-feeling-we’re-spot-on-about-the-way-we’re-going-about-it punditry, most fans would surely welcome Buckley’s return to the TV analysis role.
It’s what convinced Collingwood they had a tactical savant on their hands in the first place. It could save millions of brain cells.
At 48, Buckley knows that other coaching opportunities are likely to crop up in the future.
Collingwood’s own prospects are less bright than when Rose and Ranald McDonald gave way to Leigh Matthews and Allan McAlister.
Ross Lyon will be trumpeted as the leading external candidate for the job but, like Buckley, he’s toiled endlessly and never secured an AFL premiership.
The playing list to be wrangled by the new man is not exactly brimming with Shaws and Millanes, although a few Daicoses is a decent start.
The Magpies’ administration, currently caught between tabula rasa reboot and Zombie McGuire mode, looks less convincing than Mason Cox’s set shot.
Renewal was necessary but it comes with no guarantees.
Buckley’s official farewell was at least a change of pace from the tortured, self-pitying departure of the other prominent Pies figurehead this year.
McGuire’s clung to the myth that high-profile Collingwood people have it tougher than the rest — that scrutiny of the “biggest” Melbourne club far outstrips others, thus its misfortunes and indignities cut deeper.
Yet AFL coaching positions are coveted, high-paying jobs, and Buckley had one for 10 years at the club he loves.
In the latter stages of his reign, he was open about his faults. Ingratitude was not one of them.
He was measured, keeping things in perspective, only “a bit sad” about walking away. No heaving tears, just “time for something different”. Even his weariness at cross-examination would not have been overturned by fact-checkers: “The headline is very rarely connected to what I say.”
As in his playing career, far more important than what he said was what he did.
At his 2018-19 summit, Buckley was a momentum swing away from lifting his elusive premiership cup.
The descent from there, as it might now be seen, was not really the chaotic plummet that has formed as a general impression thanks to the club’s wider problems.
Collingwood was a kick away from another grand final appearance in 2019, and doubtless would have fared far better in the decider than the Giants’ in their capitulation to Richmond.
As there are no prizes for second place, the Pies’ loss of two games by less than a goal means that a 10-year coaching career is deemed by some a failure. Less easily recalled: It was Buckley’s Collingwood that dismantled and denied Richmond, the swaggering team of an era, in the 2018 preliminary final, when perhaps nothing and nobody else would have stopped them.
Neither present nor mentioned on Wednesday but looming large over the club’s recent crises of identity, togetherness and performance, was former player Heritier Lumumba, whose confrontation of Collingwood’s apparent toxicity and self-satisfaction revealed it to be neither as unified as its “Side by Side” motto, nor the pillar of the community it imagined itself.
Seven years after Lumumba’s departure as a player, four months on from the release of the Do Better report, Buckley’s resignation was never explicitly linked to his former protege. History will view this far differently, with certain key facts and public statements speaking for themselves.
At his own Collingwood farewell, which was roundly mocked at the time, Lumumba predicted he’d have the last laugh.
In precipitating the cultural review whose aftershocks have included the resignations of the club’s two key figures, he plainly has.
Stones and glass houses being what they are, you wouldn’t have known that from Wednesday’s press conference.
Those who continue to bemoan Lumumba’s stand as a hatchet job should instead acknowledge that he still carries burdens that make the tribulations of football coaching and club presidency seem not so significant at all.
And what is so special that can be crumbled by one man and his principles?
There are other questions. What is culture? Why do football clubs exist?
Collingwood used to pre-empt them with bold proclamations and hairy-chested overconfidence. Yet Buckley himself became far less macho as time wore on and surely for the better.
Collingwood’s future would do well to follow suit, no matter who is shifting the magnets.