Nathan Buckley's Collingwood debut
BY: Glenn McFarlane
For a person who was once unfairly tagged as a mercenary, Nathan Buckley is quite the stayer.
On March 26, 1994 Buckley played his first match in Black and White after a much-publicised move to Collingwood following a brilliant debut season with the Brisbane Bears in 1993.
And while Buckley’s Magpie debut game was more a workmanlike performance than displaying the wonders that would come not too much later, it was the start of a relationship that still has at least three seasons to run.
Buckley, the player, would become one of the greatest in the club’s history, stretched out across 260 games in Collingwood colours.
Buckley, the coach, is still very much an unfinished product, with much promise and the certainty that he will run through until at least the end of the 2016 season.
Incredibly, there have been only two years of the past 20 that Buckley has not been at Collingwood – the two seasons he spent in the media and at the AIS Academy in 2008 and ’09. Not even those former Magpie officials (chief among them, Graeme Allan) who fought so doggedly, and to the borderline of AFL rules, to secure him, could have imagined Bucks’ stay would be so long.
There had been some collateral damage in the Buckley trade.
Collingwood had to compile a list of 10 “untouchables” who were off limits and the rest of the playing list was effectively on the table. That meant the Magpies ended up relinquishing the popular Craig Starcevich and promising young player Troy Lehmann as well as their first draft choice for the readymade star.
In hindsight, two decades on, it looks to be one of the trades of the century, even if then coach Leigh Matthews later conceded the zeal with which the club chased Buckley left a sour taste for some players.
Buckley had even been heckled by Collingwood players a year earlier when he played against them in Round 12, 1993, especially from Graham Wright, Tony Francis, and, of course, Tony Shaw.
“‘Wrighty’ was yelling out ‘I hate you, I hate you’,” Buckley recalled before his first game with Collingwood. “That’s part of the game. It’s business, and out on the field you’ve got no friends on the opposition side.”
But the intensely driven young footballer desperately wanted to play for a traditional Victorian club. And while there were suitors aplenty armed with chequebooks ready, willing and able, many suspected it had always been Collingwood who was at the head of the negotiations.
As Patrick Smith wrote on the eve of Buckley’s first game: “Distraught wooers of Nathan Buckley, their hearts broken and cheques torn up, will tell you that under the centreman’s Brisbane Bears’ jumper last season beat a heart of Black and White.”
Buckley’s recruitment to Collingwood was one of the trade stories of the 1990s. After one season playing for the Bears, he was always going to head to a Victorian club in 1994. What’s more, he wanted to play for a team steeped in history, and the Magpies fitted the bill perfectly.
He gave a succinct explanation of his mindset in a “Hero Poster” published in the Herald Sun on the day of his first game, against Fitzroy (who would merge with Brisbane within a handful of years).
Asked by Oula, 11, from Spotswood Primary School, why he had left Brisbane, Buckley answered: “I chose to change because I was keen to play for a Victorian club with tradition.” And he gave an indication of his confidence and ambition when he answered questions from Lauren, 12, and Jamie: “Life’s a competition, and once I had the chance, I felt compelled to do it. It’s something I do well.”
Buckley wasn’t worried about the pressure or the expectations that would have weighed down others, nor even the suggestion from some that he alone would put the Magpies back in the flag frame.
With refreshing honesty that some saw as over-confidence, he would say: “I’ve said 100 times before that the expectations I have of me can’t be outweighed by whatever other expectations might exist. I like to win.
“I’m excited with the prospect of playing for a club that has such a tradition of playing important games every week, playing in games when something is riding on it and your reputation has to be proved every time.”
His former Brisbane coach Robert Walls predicted Buckley would thrive on the challenge: “He’ll love the big games; the big crowds; the MCG; the 90,000 fans; it will bring out the best in him.”
The first time he wore the Collingwood No. 5 jumper wasn’t at the MCG nor were there 90,000 fans in attendance.
It was Victoria Park, and 25,602 fans, including this reporter, went to cover the first chapter in Buckley’s life as a Magpie.
The chapter would end on a winning note, but only after a bitter struggle against an old rival.
If Buckley wanted footy tribalism, this walk down footy memory lane would be right up his alley.
He had played earlier in an intra-club at Glenferrie Oval, matched up at centre-half-forward on Michael Christian. There were other non-official games – one against St Kilda in what was Nicky Winmar’s return to Victoria Park after the racial storm from a year earlier, a Foster’s Cup clash with North Melbourne (another team that desperately wooed him), and a clash against Aboriginal All-Star team in Darwin, where he had played some of his junior footy.
By the time he ran out for his first official game, the fans were excited by what they had seen in the pre-season and what they could expect to see in the coming decade or so.
Members of the so-called “Collingwood unofficial selection committee” – grass roots fans who went by the names of Alf, Brian, Lou, Jack, Bruno and Johnny – were clearly excited, telling one newspaper reporter that “Boom recruit Nathan Buckley’s been a fantastic get. We’re talking Brownlow Medal this year for him. Best recruit since Phil Carman, and a nice bloke with it.”
Who knows if it was them, or others, who launched a Brownlow plunge on Buckley that month, backing him to win $55,000, cutting his quote from 25/1 to 14/1? He wouldn’t win the Medal, but he would more than win over Collingwood supporters and his own teammates in the coming weeks and months.
Even before that first game, the Herald Sun’s Mike Sheahan forecast that Buckley and Saverio Rocca would become Collingwood’s “most lethal combination” since Barry Price and Peter McKenna in the 1960s and ’70s.
Matthews would say of Buckley leading into that first game – “He is not the perfect player. He knows that…that’s what he works at all the time.”
Buckley would be overshadowed by an unlikely figure in that opening game for Collingwood, kept relatively quiet by a kid called Tom Kavanagh, who was the son of Brent Crosswell, who had caused his own share of trouble for Collingwood in two Grand Finals – in 1970, for Carlton, and in 1977, for North Melbourne.
Fitzroy coach Robert Shaw took the punt on Kavanagh playing on Buckley, and for at least for three quarters, it paid dividends.
Collingwood had only played seven of its 1990 premiership team that day. A number of them had moved on, or been moved on, while others were nursing injury and form concerns.
One of them, the ever popular James Manson, had transferred to Fitzroy and was playing his 18th game for the Lions.
Manson’s unusual kicking gait sometimes proved a frustration to Magpie fans, but nowhere near as much as his 50m-plus goal (yes, it really did happen) for the Lions against Collingwood that day. It was one of the most enjoyable goals he would kick in his footy career.
One of the Pies’ 1990 heroes was making a brave comeback from a debilitating illness that day. Graham Wright was playing his first game since being diagnosed late in 1993 with Guillain-Barre syndrome, which had brought about a short-term limited paralysis and a loss of 11 kilos.
And on a day that reached more than 30 degrees – prompting Magpies fitness conditioner Mark McKeon to call on the AFL to institute night or twilight matches in early season games – Leigh Matthews wondered post-game whether it had been the right thing to play Wright.
He said: “You shouldn’t say it, but I suppose if it’s over 25 degrees, we really shouldn’t play him.”
The Fitzroy team had two future senior AFL coaches in their side that day – Paul Roos and Ross Lyon – while the Magpie team would produce Buckley and Tony Shaw as future coaches.
Buckley wasn’t the only first time Magpie that day.
Jon Hassall played his debut match, while Brett James, Jon Ballantyne, and Stephen Ryan, recruited from Norwood, Footscray and Richmond, also turned out in Black and White for the first time.
A kid called Andrew Tranquilli was buttering up for his second game, and he would make it a memorable one, kicking a goal.
It was a strangely fluctuating match of many twists and turns. Collingwood led by two points at the first change after a scrappy first term, then Fitzroy responded with seven goals in the second to lead by 14 at half time. Midway through the second term, it looked as if there would be a big upset in the offing, with the Lions leading by as much as 26 points. Then the Magpies edged into the margin, and by three-quarter-time had cut it back to a more manageable, but still difficult 14 point deficit.
As the Collingwood team gathered to hear Matthews’ final speech just in front of the Ryder Stand side wing, the Collingwood crowd began to chant and urge the home side onto a special final term.
Almost on cue, Buckley began to break clear of his tag, and some outstanding play from the recruit saw him kick the first goal of the final term after only one minute had elapsed.
The chant got bigger, and fans were pleased to see the new boy was earning his keep.
If there were two turning points, one of them came from Matthews and the other from some undisciplined play from Fitzroy forward Darren ‘Doc’ Wheildon.
The first one came in the third term when the coach switched Jason McCartney from centre half-back to centre half-forward, He responded with one of his best performances in a Black and White jumper.
The second was when Wheildon “flattened” James after he had taken a mark and the resulting 50m penalty saw James fire the ball off to McCartney, who kicked one of his three goals of the final term.
Fitzroy didn’t throw in the towel, though. We should have expected nothing less from a team The Age described as: “a team that refuses to be bowed by defections, disasters, and dire predictions of financial destruction.”
McCartney’s second goal 12 minutes into the final term finally gave the home side the lead for the first time since the eight-minute-mark of the second quarter.
And then Paul Williams’ fifth goal came from a free kick and it extended the lead to nine points.
But the Lions gained one back when the busy Matthew Armstrong set up Ross Lyon for a goal.
But Collingwood’s most effective player, Mick McGuane, swept the ball away from the next centre bounce and McCartney outpointed Roos and kicked the sealing goal from outside 50m.
The Magpies held on to win the match by 11 points, all due to a seven-goal final term that was partly inspired by Buckley’s best quarter for the match, and some brilliance from Williams and McCartney.
Matthews said: “They (Fitzroy) started well and we just never quite picked them up to the very end. We were just fair today, just reasonable.”
That might have summed up Nathan Buckley’s game, though it was said a lack of opportunity was as much a cause as the close checking of Kavanagh.
It was a start, however, and his 18 touches and 1.3 gave those there that day a glimpses of what was to come from Buckley.
And even now, 20 years on, there is still more to come from him at Collingwood.
Round 1 1994
Collingwood 3.1, 6.5, 10.10, 17.12 (114)
Fitzroy 2.5, 9.6, 13.6, 16.7 (103)
Collingwood: Williams 5, McCartney 3, Rocca 2, Ryan 2, Buckley, McGuane, Richardson, Shaw, Tranquilli
Fitzroy: Armstrong 3, Boyd 2, McGregor 2, Sartori 2, Hogg, Lyon, Dunstan, Manson, Wheildon, McCarthy, Sporn
Collingwood: Brown 24, McGuane 21, Buckley 18, Fraser 15, Watson 15, Williams 15
Fitzroy: Roos 27, Armstrong 26, Boyd 22, Sartori 18, McCarthy 18
Crowd: 25,602 at Victoria Park on Saturday 26 March, 1994