Ivan Cleary's side of things for his return to the Panthers. He has unfinished business. If Gould sacks him again will he return to the Warriors or Tigers due to unfinished business. He has unfinished business at the Tigers seeing as he barely got the bus out of the station.
Gould told him to get a blue chip club for his next role after being sacked. Usually clubs looking for coaches are near the bottom of the table not the blue chip premiership ready ones Gould states. It happens but its rare.
'It's unfinished business': Why Cleary needed to return to Penrith
The weeks Ivan Cleary had to coach a team against his son Nathan, they were the hardest. His stomach would be twisting and turning, asking himself how he could instruct his own players to be even more aggressive in an already aggressive game against his own blood?
"Straight up, I didn’t like it," Cleary tells Fairfax Media. "I found it really difficult. You feel self-conscious when you do a preview on the opposition and your son’s involved. I left it to the assistants in many respects. I’ll be quite frank, I hope I never have to do it again."
As it stands now, he won't.
Together again: Ivan and Nathan Cleary will reunite at the Panthers in 2019.CREDIT:NRL PHOTOS
But Cleary wants people to know his son is not the only reason he will walk back into Penrith and take charge of Panthers pre-season training this week, the NRL's coaching carousel having finally ground to a halt.
A publicly stated desire to one day work with his son is part of the reason, but not the only reason.
There's the squad in which he's had some role in almost every player's development. There's the $22 million academy and training facility he helped design, but only walked into for the first time last week. There's the local community his family still lives in.
But maybe those reasons pale in significance compared to the chance to finish what he started at the end of 2011. His old role is his new one, but he still doesn't feel completely at ease. Not yet.
"I’m not comfortable yet," says Cleary, his exit from the Tigers with two years remaining on his deal made official late last month. "It’s been an uncomfortable situation, but I take full responsibility for it.
"There was never really a timeframe on [what we wanted to achieve at Penrith] and it was one of the things that was so disappointing when I left; there was definitely unfinished business on my part. That vision is now coming to life."
From the moment he was informally approached by Panthers chairman Dave O'Neill only a month before this year's finals series about whether he had ever considered returning to Penrith, Cleary has largely kept his counsel.
In his own words, the question from O'Neill had been "completely out of the blue and never for one minute did I think [returning to Penrith] was a possibility". But deep down, he knew it would be an opportunity too good to refuse.
Gone: Panthers coach Anthony Griffin was sacked a month before the finals.CREDIT:AAP
It started a chain of events which led to Anthony Griffin's axing at Penrith with his side banging down the door of the top four, and just a few weeks out from the finals. Whispers the Panthers wanted Cleary back – at the same time Nathan was weighing up a rich extension at the club – turned into a roar.
Cleary was trying to nurse the Tigers into the finals for the first time since 2011. He'd spent almost two years championing the cause of being "on the bus", but had an opportunity to jump off himself when he least expected it.
One of the NRL's calmest men walked into a press conference almost a week after news of Penrith's intent to lure him back broke, shaking like an autumn leaf. He read from a prepared statement, claiming his intention was to see out the final two years of his Tigers deal. He took no questions on his future.
"I used the word misinformation in that statement, which obviously pissed a lot of people off in the media," Cleary says. "Not for one minute did I mean [to do that].
"But there were five or six different stories going around that just weren’t true. I wanted to clarify my position. At the time I never had a formal approach, there was no offer, I didn’t ask for a release. What I did do is I told the people that needed to know at the Tigers, including the team [about the situation straight away].
"It was an emotional time and I was dealing with it the best way I could, all the while trying to protect the team and the club in pursuit of the finals."
Getting off the bus: West Tigers chair Marina Go and CEO Justin Pascoe with Ivan Cleary.CREDIT:AAP
Over the course of a lengthy interview, Cleary can't stress enough how bad he feels about hurting people close to him in the past couple of months. He doesn't name names, but it's not hard to guess he's talking about the Tigers' top brass, including chair Marina Go and chief executive Justin Pascoe, "someone I definitely consider a friend".
"It’s probably more difficult for other people – and I’m responsible for that," Cleary says. "It hurts yourself when you hurt other people. That’s the best way I can explain it. [But] it’s one of those things that happens in your professional life and you get an opportunity and you have to go one way or the other.
"I wanted to get [Nathan] to the Tigers. One of the reasons was we wanted to work together, but I thought he’d be a really good addition to what that squad needed. All the while I’m thinking, 'if it [working together] doesn’t happen now it may never happen'.
"The thing that crosses your mind is, 'I hope he doesn’t feel like he has to come [to the Tigers] because if he doesn’t he’s letting me down'. I felt that he was probably always going to stay [at Penrith] and if he left it was going to be really, really hard for him."
Cleary has spoken to some Tigers fans in the past fortnight who insist they understand his decision and have wished him well. He knows others won't think the same way, having inked a five-year deal which ties him and Nathan down to the Panthers until the end of 2023.
The Tigers' playing group has equally had mixed reactions. The likes of Russell Packer, Ben Matulino, Josh Reynolds, Benji Marshall, Moses Mbye and Robbie Farah were all lured to the joint venture by Cleary. They'll now be coached by premiership winner Michael Maguire. Cleary insists the Tigers' future is bright with Maguire, both on and off the field.
Future: Retaining Nathan Cleary was a key plank in Penrith's long-term plans.CREDIT:AAP
"I had no thoughts of ever going anywhere from the Tigers," Cleary says.
"And I absolutely care about my reputation and I care if people think of me otherwise. I understand also, I’m responsible for this situation. Some people won’t see it this way, but I can look myself in the mirror and know that I’ve given the Tigers full disclosure through this whole journey. I’ve tried to consider everything to make sure this was done in the right way. That’s all I can do.
"If people see it the other way, I understand that too. That’s how I feel I’ve tried to operate, honestly and transparently. I get the decision I made will also upset some people and put people I care about in some pretty difficult and awkward situations – and I don’t feel good about that.
"But I suppose I’d just like to say, anything I did with the club I did it authentically, I believed everything I said and I never for one minute thought I’d be leaving but it’s just kind of how it happened. I think the future is really bright for the Tigers."
For once, Cleary is taking on a side that is premiership ready. Ironically, it may be the blue-chip club Phil Gould told him to chase for his next job when he sacked him three years ago.
It's not a patch-up, rebuild job he's done in the past at the Warriors, his first coming at the Panthers and Tigers – clubs he has dragged into grand finals, finals and in the Tigers' case, the brink of the top eight. They're a team ready to challenge for a title.
Nathan, who turns 21 on Wednesday, will play a big part of that. Ivan knows if the boat starts rocking at Penrith, there might be extra heat to bear on the family. Pressure?
"Not really," Cleary says. "There’s going to be some people out there that will still talk of nepotism, but the fact is it’s going to be a lot easier now than if he was first coming into the team."
The final piece of Cleary's conundrum was knowing he would be welcomed back at Penrith, by all
of the staff. That includes Penrith's executive general manager Gould, who tapped Cleary on the shoulder after the 2015 season, citing he was "tired".
In the past few weeks, Cleary and Gould have talked. The contents of that conversation Cleary wants to remain private. They will talk some more over coming months. He insists as professionals they'll have "no problems" working with each other, finishing what they started seven years ago.
"There will be no dramas," Cleary says. "We’ve known each other a long time. I’d pretty much processed and dealt with [being sacked in 2015] anyway, but when I had the feeling everyone at the club wanted to welcome me back, then that was probably the last piece of the puzzle in terms of me processing. That’s a good feeling.
"Deep down, I know it’s the right decision. There was no other club I would have considered. I’m just glad to be back and trying to finish that business."