Nathan Buckley has the Magpies well placed for a shot at the 2019 AFL flag. (AAP: Joe Castro)
During the 2003 AFL finals series, Network Ten produced a wonderful montage of Nathan Buckley’s often brilliant and occasionally ill-fated career.
There were many tremendous highlights; customary feats of explosive play and exquisite skill from the Brownlow and Norm Smith medallist.
There were also abject lows — gut-wrenching defeats in the period when Buckley was one of few shining lights at a vastly diminished club and, later, for an improved team whose best was not quite good enough.
Thus the backing music to the video was both haunting and highly appropriate — King of Pain by The Police.
Sixteen years later, Buckley cuts a very different figure from the maniacally driven player portrayed in the early stages of his playing career particularly.
The man once jeered by opposition fans for his decision to forsake the struggling Brisbane Bears to achieve notional success at Collingwood, which allegedly symbolised a self-centred nature, has more recently been embraced by even some whose disdain for the reviled Magpies is barely concealed.
The new warmer, more thoughtful and even woke Buckley is one of the stars of the documentary Collingwood: From The Inside Out (to be shown on ABC TV at 9:30pm AEST on Tuesday), which details the Magpies’ rise to within a heartbreaking late West Coast goal of winning the 2018 premiership.
Despite the lack of a fairytale ending, the documentary provides a largely uplifting story that emphasises, particularly, the emotional and psychological challenges for players competing at the elite level under enormous duress.
But if this in turn underlines the support the enlightened Buckley provided his young charges, the most compelling moment occurs amid the post-grand final gloom in the Collingwood rooms when the coach admits he does not have the words to soothe his team’s pain.
“I don’t know how to lead you,” Buckley tells his tearful players.
To those who have been astonished and even warmed by Buckley’s transformation from supposedly self-centred star to wise mentor, this will be ranked among the now well-respected coach’s finest moments.
Buckley (right) has appeared more relaxed in his approach the past two seasons. (AAP: Julian Smith)
To those still wondering if Buckley is the man to take Australia’s most prominent — and most demanding AFL club — to a 16th premiership, the words might be regarded in a more literal sense.
Either way, entering this finals series, that question still lingers: is Buckley still destined to be Collingwood’s King of Pain, the intensely driven individual who lifts the Magpies so close to the prize that the agony of defeat exceeds the joyous climb to that place just below the summit?
Buckley toughened by Magpies’ failures
Certainly the agony that seems to have been Buckley’s making as a coach would have crushed less resilient souls.
As a player there were back-to-back grand final defeats to the dynasty-building Brisbane Lions in 2002 and 2003, a five-point preliminary final defeat in his last match against Geelong in 2007, which was washed down with the Cats’ subsequent thrashing of Port Adelaide in the season decider.
Buckley was an assistant coach when the Magpies won the 2010 flag, but he stood at arm’s length to coach Michael Malthouse whose job, it had already been decided, Buckley would take in 2012.
Buckley (right) had a stint working as an assistant to Mick Malthouse at the Magpies. (AAP: Martin Philbey)
Then, after Buckley’s appointment a steady tumble down the ladder, demands for his sacking from impatient supporters and, after a club review led to some strong practical support for the coach, the spectacular rise to last year’s grand final.
To be fair, across a period between 1960 and 2018 when Collingwood won two and lost two grand finals, Buckley is not the only man who has worn the thorny crown as the club’s King of Pain.
Bob Rose coached the Magpies to three agonisingly close grand final defeats between 1964 and 1970 and Tommy Hafey lost four from 1977 to 1981.
Magpies’ finals hopes looking bright
If there is a common theme that has run through Collingwood’s litany of grand final disasters it is that the Magpies have somehow found a way to reach the decider with teams that were almost crazily resilient but missing at least one vital ingredient.
Last season it was the lack of reliable key defenders to cope with West Coast’s tall forwards that was their downfall. This season, after a solid start, a long list of injuries and a few structural deficiencies — mostly first-rate key forwards this time — looked likely to stop the Magpies challenging again.
The Magpies lost by just five points to the Eagles in last year’s grand final. (AAP: Julian Smith)
Yet, as often seems the case in early September, fortune has suddenly favoured Collingwood in the run to the line.
Hawthorn’s shock defeat of West Coast allowed the Magpies to elbow their way back into the top four and the luck of the draw has handed them an MCG final against minor premiers Geelong.
Much to the disgust of the Cats, who have complained so vociferously you might think they were being forced to play in Eddie McGuire’s Toorak backyard.
Meanwhile, the Magpies’ long injury list has shrunk, with stars Jordan De Goey and Steele Sidebottom and the disgraced/suspended Jaidyn Stephenson almost certain to return on Friday night.
So, in a finals series where Richmond is a nominal favourite but there is no super team, there is just a hint of a documentary sequel — one in which Buckley gets his final reward, the disappointments of the past fade away and the King of Pain becomes the King of Collingwood.
Collingwood: From The Inside Out premieres this evening on ABC and ABC iview.