Nathan Buckley exploded onto the AFL scene in 1993 as the inaugural winner of the Rising Star Award. His career began full of promise, success was assured, and he was destined to become one of the game’s greats.
Buckley’s obvious talent established a position of power and following his first season of football he chose to exercise a clause in his contract which allowed him to be traded to any club of his choosing. Buckley’s stated goal was to have the chance to play in a premiership.
With his mind set on leaving Brisbane and returning to Victoria – the home of AFL – every club attempted to secure Buckley’s services. The big three of Collingwood, Carlton and Essendon were among them, along with Geelong and very strong interest from North Melbourne – who thought they had secured the young star.
Having recently achieved a premiership, and possessing the resources to ensure the best possible chance, Collingwood was in the box seat and eventually won the battle, but not the war.
During Buckley’s stellar career he won every honour the game can bestow upon an individual, save for a Coleman Medal.
To his Rising Star Award he would eventually add a Brownlow Medal, a Norm Smith Medal, 7 All Australian selections, the AFLCA Player of the Year award, the honour of captaining his team, 6 club best and fairest awards, selection in Collingwood’s Team of the Century, and induction into the Australian Football Hall of Fame. But despite all this, the ultimate success eluded him.
Meanwhile, all the primary candidates Buckley rejected won premierships. Carlton in ’95, North Melbourne in ’96 and ’99, Essendon in 2000, and even Geelong managed to break a four decade premiership drought in his final season of ’07.
To rub salt into the wound the club he abandoned, Brisbane, embarked on the most successful era in modern football with three consecutive premierships from 2001-03. Further salt, Collingwood was the losing side in two of their three premierships, while Buckley was captain.
Following his retirement, Collingwood managed to achieve the premiership that had eluded Buckley during his playing days, just as they had done prior to his arrival at the club.
In the end, Buckley managed to wedge his outstanding 15 year, 280 game career into a 19 season window of failure. Quite an achievement.
With hindsight, Buckley’s decision to join Collingwood could well be viewed as one of the worst in the history of professional sport, but the man was nothing if not committed.
Showing loyalty, and the same drive for success, Buckley returned to the fold taking the helm as coach of the Collingwood Football Club in 2012.
One can’t help but notice his coaching career began in much the same circumstances as his playing career. He joined a financial powerhouse with all the resources required for success, but immediately following said success. Alas he may be too late, again.
Buckley inherited a grand finalist side, then dropped to a preliminary final, and an elimination final in his first two seasons. Despite the regress, he has already been granted a contract extension.
The obsessive devotion of Collingwood President, Eddie McGuire, to Buckley will ensure he is given every change to rebuild the ailing side. His predecessor, Michael Malthouse, survived 10 years before his breakthrough premiership. Buckley could likewise be given a decade to prove his worth.
Only one team can win in any given year, and now with 18 sides in the competition the chance of premiership success in any given decade is barely greater than a coin toss.
Should that coin fall the wrong way, Buckley will finish his AFL career with over a quarter of a century of personal excellence to his name, but all that talent and dedication will amount to nothing measured against his publicly stated desire: premiership glory.
If this occurs, there is only one more piece which needs to fall into place for his failure to be complete – a premiership to the team who initially courted Buckley for his coaching services, North Melbourne.
If you don’t support North Melbourne, make them your number two team in the coming years.