Right to the last, it was painted as a marriage made in heaven.
Even as Nathan Buckley’s departure from his beloved Collingwood was being confirmed by way of a stuttering Zoom press conference, his stature as the ultimate Pies man was being protected.
This exit, one seemingly reached by sudden and mostly mutual agreement, was just one more act of devotion to the black and white by the figure who has carried the club’s hopes and dreams throughout three decades.
But when conversations within Collingwood turned to the future, namely the “three-to-five year project” that the club is about to embark upon, there was doubt on both sides as to whether Buckley was the right man to lead it.
The degree to which Buckley acquiesced or was pushed from the position will be debated, but isn’t particularly important. Either way, Nathan Buckley and Collingwood have now cut ties, ending a relationship that we can now say always promised more than it delivered.
There was more than a tinge of pain in Buckley’s voice when he spoke of how close he has come to a premiership, both as a player and coach, and how he has to come to terms with the fact his 20-plus-year career will end without a flag.
There have been plenty of hard luck stories in Australian football history, great players who for whatever reason have missed out on achieving the ultimate success, but few have been greater or come closer than Nathan Buckley.
Perhaps the worst part is that so much of that can be put down to straight-up bad luck.
How a couple of kicks could have changed a career. If one from Anthony Rocca and another from Dom Sheed had travelled on slightly different trajectories, we could be talking about one of the most decorated football figures in the game.
Instead, Buckley has become Collingwood and the modern AFL’s nearly-man, defined by the missed opportunities that will haunt him no matter how “fulfilling the journey itself” has been.
In many ways, that’s entirely unfair. Buckley was a phenomenal footballer, became an excellent coach and is widely considered a thoroughly decent man.
You could argue he did all he individually could to deliver glory to Collingwood, even in those particularly fateful 2002 and and 2018 grand finals, and he always served his club with dignity, never weighed down by the immense pressure that came with being the face of the country’s most scrutinised football club.
But throughout it was rarely smooth, and never easy.
Simply getting to Collingwood in the first place, back in 1993, was a struggle as Buckley was forced to spend an uncomfortable year with the Brisbane Bears before the Pies exploited a contractual loophole and won the bidding war for the rising star’s services.
There was acrimony in Buckley’s ascent to the coaching job too, as he and Mick Malthouse tiptoed their way through an awkward succession plan that, on the face of it, seemed to disrupt a team that had won a premiership and played in two grand finals in the years before Buckley formally took over.
As Collingwood slipped into mid-2010s mediocrity, Buckley’s grasp on the top job appeared to be slipping. Contracts were extended, but only by a year. Faith in the club’s favourite son remained, but not without the growing fear that things weren’t going to end as planned.
2018 changed all that. Here was the new-age Nathan Buckley, humbled by his relative failures and emboldened by the love and support of his playing group. The year ended in heartbreak, but Buckley’s reputation had never been greater.
And then, this.
The club’s steady disintegration from the MCG in September 2018 to an empty, low-res Zoom press conference in June 2021 cannot be put entirely down to Buckley.
As has been very well documented, the club’s issues run deep and stretch well beyond the football field. If these problems of culture, governance, recruitment and retention can force Eddie McGuire out of the club, then nobody is safe.
The Do Better report, highlighting the club’s issues with systemic racism, forced urgent introspection and change. That came on the heels of a disastrous off-season in a football sense, in which key playing personnel were unceremoniously let go and the all-important PR was botched.
In light of all that, it comes as no surprise that the on-field product has been so stale in 2021. The entire club has been on the back foot for months, and that internal defensiveness has manifested in safe, negative, conservative football. Something had to give.
Buckley was right when he said he has had “a fair crack at it”. Few have ever cracked in harder. But he was also right when he said “everyone has their time”.
He leaves Collingwood on good terms, as an undisputed club legend and with near-universal respect. In lieu of the prizes that have conspired to elude him, that might be enough.