This year marked the 25th anniversary of Nathan Buckley’s entry into the world of AFL football as a young star player with the then-Brisbane Bears.
It has been an epic journey over a quarter of a century, one in which Buckley, now 46, has seldom been out of the harsh glare of the public spotlight, but consistently racked up the individual honours and accolades.
A Brownlow Medal. A Norm Smith Medal. Six Copeland Trophies as Collingwood’s best and fairest. Seven All-Australian selections. The Collingwood captaincy for nine seasons.
It is some catalogue but comes with a jarring note – the absence of team honours.
Buckley is one of just four players to have won his Norm Smith in a losing grand final side. He won the Brownlow the following year as part of a Collingwood team again beaten on the big day. Four of his best and fairests were won in seasons the Magpies didn’t even make the finals.
His one official connection to an AFL premiership was as an assistant to Mick Malthouse in Collingwood’s last premiership year of 2010.
Somehow, when it has come to team success, fortune has conspired against him.
Buckley left Brisbane after just one season to join the Magpies, a club supposedly with better prospects. By the time his playing days finished in 2007, he’d played in two losing grand finals, both against Brisbane, which won three flags in a row from 2001 to 2003.
When Buckley finally assumed the coaching reins at Collingwood, the Pies had won a flag and just finished runner-up. But they’d bow out in a preliminary final in his first year at the helm, exit in week one of September the following season, then miss out on finals altogether for the next four years.
It means the Buckley who stands just one victory away from the game’s ultimate prize when Collingwood plays West Coast in Saturday’s grand final has a different profile altogether from the precociously talented 20-year-old debuting in 1993.
Unlike playing, coaching for Buckley has been a battle. First, it was to put his own mark on a team, list and style that had the name Malthouse stamped indelibly all over it.
Then it became navigating a series of obstacles always magnified because of the names Collingwood and Buckley, be it the phasing out of much-loved favourite sons, off-field player indiscretions, a ridiculous catalogue of injuries to key players, or a club president in Eddie McGuire with an even larger profile and penchant for having his two bob’s worth on virtually any topic, let alone those involving the Pies.
By the close of last season, it became about simply keeping his job. Collingwood had finished 13th, each season since its last finals appearance in 2013 less fruitful than the last, the best 22 still a moveable feast, the playing style confused.
Such was the club’s investment in Buckley over so long a period, first as player, then captain, then coach-in-waiting, retaining him seemed as much about pride as the bottom line. But a full-scale review of the football operations, similar to that which Richmond executed around Damien Hardwick at the end of 2016, has produced phenomenal results.
There’s been the fresh voices of new assistants in Garry Hocking, Justin Longmuir and former Bulldog Matthew Boyd. Most of all, though, there has been a fresh voice in Buckley, the former champion having seemingly finally reconciled the different skill set required to get his message across to that which had always come naturally.
I recall interviewing Buckley the player in 1994 during his first season at Collingwood. Even then, he conceded fighting a battle with himself to feel more empathy for those teammates who could not execute instructions and skills with his polish.
It was a struggle that continued when he assumed the Pies’ captaincy five years later. And it was still ongoing when he became coach in 2012. In that role, it meant more opportunity to become involved in too many issues he needn’t, lacking as much faith in those actually charged with the responsibilities as he had in himself.
Buckley’s wont to micro-manage was an issue focused upon in the review that ultimately extended him a two-year contract extension. Again, he conceded the point made and stressed a resolve to address it.
And with an administration and whole club now more attuned to a collective approach and to accentuating the positive, Buckley to an extent has been able to “let go”, a happier, more harmonious and ultimately higher-performing player group the result.
Even after Collingwood lost its first two games this season, and those on “death watch” began preparing the obituaries for the Pies and their coach, the focus of both the team and its mentor never wavered.
The upshot has been a side that has subsequently won 17 of 23 games, knocking over the red-hot flag favourite Richmond last week in its most complete performance to date, and entering the grand final as favourite.
It goes without saying a premiership as coach for Buckley on Saturday would be the crown jewel on an already glittering football CV.
You also can’t help but feel he’d happily trade in all those other honours to ensure this one. Not only because it’s been such a hard slog to earn it. But because this one isn’t just about him.