The Kirribilli agreement: North’s interest in Nathan Buckley, as reported in The Age in June 2009, prompted Collingwood president Eddie McGuire to broker a deal in July 2009 that gave coach Mick Malthouse two more years before Buckley would replace him.IT WAS nearly 20 years ago, but former North Melbourne powerbroker Greg Miller remembers the moment as if it was yesterday when he and coach Denis Pagan met a young Nathan Buckley, who at the time appeared more interested in munching on an apple than dealing with the Kangaroos.
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”I was there. That was at the Sheraton after the Rising Star,” Miller said this week. ”He met with us but, again, he was very immature, sitting in the room with the people who signed him. I remember that day.”

That day was when Buckley, who had just quit the Brisbane Bears after a season, confirmed to North officials he would not join the club in time for the 1994 campaign, ending two years of haggling between the Kangaroos, Collingwood and Brisbane Bears that even involved the Magpies, unbeknown to Buckley, briefly hiring a fake player-agent for him and a private investigator secretly recording interviews between the warring Bears and the Magpies.

It was also the first of two ”sliding doors” moments between Buckley and the Kangaroos. Had he joined North as a player, Miller believes he could have helped the club to four premierships in the 1990s. The Roos would win two.

Buckley would twice play in grand finals for the Magpies, but wouldn’t taste success.

Buckley would also spurn the Kangaroos 16 years later when president James Brayshaw and chief executive Eugene Arocca, also a good friend of Buckley’s, wanted him as coach after the departure of Dean Laidley.

It was this move that sparked the Magpies to enact their own ”Kirribilli agreement” with Mick Malthouse, and for a secret push by North director Ron Joseph to pursue Malcolm Blight and Wayne Carey in a coaching double-act.

It remains to be seen whether Buckley can guide the Magpies to a flag before Brad Scott does with a developing North Melbourne list. That picture will become slightly clearer tonight when Buckley faces North Melbourne for the first time as a senior coach.

”Irrelevant,” a no-nonsense Buckley insisted this week when asked how close he had been to accepting a deal to coach North.

That may be true but his history with North Melbourne remains a talking point for those from the club who dealt with him in the 1990s, and in more recent times.

”There is a long history there,” Miller said. ”He signed with us in ’91, a week after he played his first senior practice match in central Australia in Alice Springs with Port Adelaide.”

Buckley, as a naive 20-year-old, did sign, for three years, and was paid a $10,000 sign-on fee, literally in a brown paper bag in the carpark at Alberton Oval by Miller, a sum he would return home with and count on the kitchen table and divide into $1000 parcels.

The ”scheming and skullduggery”, as Buckley put it, which followed, makes for a ripping tale, and one that was detailed in Buckley’s autobiography – Nathan Buckley, All I Can Be.

To avoid having to worry about other clubs taking Buckley at the 1992 national draft, Miller had been able to persuade the AFL that Buckley was of Northern Territory origin, despite being born in South Australia, and therefore was zoned to Brisbane as the Bears had priority access to any Territory player at the time.

That Buckley should have at least played a reserves match for the Bears to comply with this ruling was overlooked at the time.

Miller hoped this would then allow him to deal directly with the Bears, allowing Buckley to join North in 1993.

However, the Magpies were soon made aware of this tactic, which they felt was illegal, and hijacked North’s plans.

The Bears, tired of being abused since their inception, suddenly decided to play hard ball under coach Robert Walls and not release Buckley during the 1992 trade period. Initially against his wishes, Buckley had little option but to play with Brisbane by default in 1993.

Once that year was over, though, Buckley made it clear he was leaving for Melbourne.

North was hopeful he would reject Carlton, Geelong, Essendon and Collingwood and still head to Arden Street – until Miller and Pagan met him after the Rising Star award, which Buckley had won.

Wayne Carey details these events in his book, Wayne Carey: The Truth Hurts.

”They walked into the room and, as the story was repeatedly told to us later, Nathan didn’t get off the bed to greet them. He just lay back with his head resting on his hands, occasionally moving one of them to take a bite out of an apple,” Carey wrote. ”The North officials were slightly taken aback by this offhand treatment, but went about pleading their case and selling the club as a great destination for an ambitious young footballer.

”A short time later, Nathan sent back word to the Roos saying he wanted to play in a premiership side and he didn’t think that North Melbourne was going to see much September action in the short term so he was politely declining our invitation.

”Well, didn’t that get a few people riled at North? Denis [Pagan] was all steamed up, as were others, not so much at Nathan’s decision to spurn the Roos – although that was hard enough to take given that we had been the first to sign him up and paid him $10,000 – but the reasons he gave. As though we were a bunch of no-hopers.”

Pagan would remind his players before every Collingwood game how Buckley, ”looking like f—ing Marilyn Monroe”, had disrespected them, prompting many of his players to mercilessly sledge the champion midfielder.

”You didn’t want to play here, but who’s playing in the finals now?” was one sledge.

Carey, who has recently scolded Buckley over the Magpies’ decision to suspend Dane Swan, told The Saturday Age this week: ”The Denis Pagan story. He would bring it up every time that we played them. I heard that story a few times.”

Said Miller: ”There was an ongoing angst by our players against him because he said to us when he reneged under contract that he wanted to play finals because during the ’90s, when we were playing finals and Collingwood wasn’t, the boys kept reminding him.

”We had a very loud-mouth group of players who wouldn’t play with the current no-pushing, no-mouthing-off rules.

”We had guys like David King, and [Mick] Martyn, and [Dean] Laidley, [Glenn] Archer and Carey, we had some of the biggest mouths in the game. That was just the way of the time, they were all pretty good at it.”

One player who did not sledge Buckley was Wayne Schwass, who would match up on the six-time Copeland Trophy winner.

”He was probably one of the only blokes I didn’t get stuck into. He wasn’t one of the guys that you could have a crack at because he wouldn’t have a crack back. You would leave it alone,” he said.

According to Carey, Buckley would struggle to dominate the Kangaroos through his career. Buckley later admitted he had not handled the contractual discussions well with his eventual player manager, Geof Motley.

”Despite my justification at the time, I’m not proud of the way I treated Greg Miller and North,” he wrote. ”I had a choice – to stand firm and see where it all ended, or to jump ship. The fact is, I reneged on a contract, legal or otherwise, and there’s no sidestepping that. I was an immature 20-year-old, ignorant about the circumstances I found myself in. But at the time I felt more like a pawn being moved by far more influential characters than me.”

What North had conveniently forgotten through the years was that Buckley had returned the $10,000 in 1992, secretly directing the money into a North bingo account after the club had refused to take the money because Buckley had felt ”they wanted to maintain the moral high ground”.

When Brayshaw approached Buckley to lead his club in 2009, it was a very different man the Kangaroos were dealing with. As captain of the Magpies, Buckley had emerged as one of the great leaders and his tactical acumen meant he was destined to become a coach.

Just where, though, was an intriguing debate, even though it was felt he would eventually land at Collingwood. That did not stop North from wooing him, a move that heaped pressure on the Magpies and prompted worried Collingwood president Eddie McGuire to broker a deal that gave coach Mick Malthouse two more years before Buckley would replace him.

The North Melbourne board would have endorsed Buckley had Brayshaw and Arocca been successful but some directors did have concerns.

Ron Joseph said this week: ”In my view, I felt that, just like a boss, he needed to go out in the world and learn under somebody who had experience.”

Buckley would do that under Malthouse for two years and now has the Magpies primed for another run at a premiership.

Miller, for one, has been impressed with Buckley’s development through the years and what he has achieved this season. Any bitterness from the post-season of 1994 has long gone.

”He has grown up an immense amount since then and he has made his quiet apologies and he has written things in books and done all sorts of things,” Miller said.

”You have got to admire him, the way he has handled it since then. He was a very young kid at the time, was seduced by Collingwood. Obviously he would have played in premierships [at North], maybe more than two … if he had stayed in Brisbane, he would have played in [three].

”At the end of the day, he has been at a great club and he is now coaching that great club. While he has missed out on match-day premierships [as a player], he now has the opportunity to coach a day premiership.

”In those days, when he was young and he had those nicknames, players used to give it to him on the field because he made some naive junior comments.

”I have got to say, personally, he got his peace with me pretty early because he was very open and very honest and said it as it was. Personally, I am proud of him at what he has achieved.”

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