While the NRL coaching merry-go-round has dominated headlines of late, Ivan Cleary’s return to the Panthers is perhaps the most peculiar.
Phil Gould’s original five-year plan to deliver the Penrith a premiership began with Cleary as head coach.
Despite reaching a preliminary final in 2014, an injury-hit 2015 season saw the Panthers slump to 11th place, leading Gould to sack Cleary in favour of former Broncos coach Anthony Griffin.
Griffin took the club to three top-eight finishes, but they were unable to make an impact in each of those finals series. Ultimately, Gould’s five-year plan to win a grand final failed.
One major positive though, was a talented young halfback named Nathan Cleary.
Both Nathan and his father, Ivan, publicly expressed their desire to work together on multiple occasions. The problem was, Ivan was midway through a multi-year contract as head coach of the Wests Tigers, while the Panthers viewed Nathan as the player which they wanted to build the future of their club around.
Rumours became rife that Nathan would leave the Panthers in order to play under his father at the Tigers, which left Gould and his board in a difficult predicament.
It was clear that the only way to keep Nathan was to lure his father back to the club, which brought about a bizarre set of circumstances.
Firstly, Gould went on record to state the club wouldn’t stand in Nathan’s way if he wanted to play for his father. Then, four weeks out from the finals and with the Panthers sitting fifth on the ladder, Gould sensationally sacked Griffin, leading to speculation he was making room for Ivan to return.
In the weeks that followed, Gould consistently delivered cryptic messages and seemingly looked to mislead the media in an effort to hide the fact he was chasing the services of Ivan.
Ivan had stated that he intended to see out his Tigers contract and agreed to join the Panthers on a three-year deal from 2021. However, the Tigers felt it was in their best interest to grant the coach an immediate release, allowing him to join Penrith from next year.
Now that Gould has got his man, many questions need to be answered.
Was the sole purpose of re-hiring a sacked former coach simply to retain Nathan? If not, what changes to team culture or coaching philosophy will Ivan bring to the club that were lacking during his first stint?
Ivan’s coaching career thus far has seen him rebuild struggling clubs from the bottom up, recruiting players, handing youngsters their debuts and developing team culture, but his return to the foot of the mountains presents a different challenge.
Because Penrith don’t need a rebuild.Embed from Getty Images
Ivan is inheriting a very talented and experienced roster that has reached the finals for the past three seasons, along with high expectations within the club and a supporter base which is demanding success.
So the pressure is on to not only deliver a premiership, which Gould’s plan failed to produce, but to ensure his son becomes the player to lead the Panthers to success for the next decade.
This must be the last throw of the dice for Gould, who many hold solely responsible for the club underachieving during his tenure.
If the purpose of signing Ivan to a five-year deal was to keep Nathan at the club, then results should lie squarely at the feet of Gould and he must be sacked if Ivan fails to deliver.