Panthers coach Ivan Cleary was in a reflective mood as he sipped his first celebratory beer inside the winning sheds on Sunday night.
An hour after clinching his second title in as many years, Cleary admitted to foxsports.com.au “I still base a hell of a lot of my coaching on what I learned from him”.
‘Him’ is Phil Gould, the man who famously sacked Cleary at Penrith in 2015 before the latter’s triumphant return three years later to build a dynasty alongside his son Nathan.
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Cleary became the second coach in NRL history to win back-to-back premierships on Sunday following his side’s emphatic 28-12 win over the Eels.
It was only 12 months ago his ability was questioned, as Cleary owned the unwanted title of second-longest serving coach in rugby league history not to win a premiership.
Nobody had won a grand final after coaching more than 250 games until Cleary did it last year with 370 to his name over 16 seasons.
If next season he becomes the first coach since Jack Gibson in 1983 to win three straight premierships then there’ll be talk of statues.
It’s a fickle old game, rugby league.
But few would argue Cleary hasn’t worked for everything he’s achieved in the game.
Not many coaches return to a club they’ve been sacked from, and even fewer take that club to the promised land.
Gould brought him to Penrith to rebuild it, after Cleary had impressed taking the Warriors from perennial underachievers to title contenders in six seasons.
Cleary admits the Panthers were at “rock bottom” when arrived in at the end of 2011, just weeks after he’d guided the Warriors to the grand final.
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But the rebuild wasn’t happening fast enough for Gould and despite a fourth-placed finish in 2014, he sacked Cleary the following year.
Cleary didn’t coach in 2016 before replacing Jason Taylor at the Wests Tigers on a four-year deal in April, 2017.
But the opportunity to coach his son back at the Panthers proved too enticing and Cleary was released from the final two years of his Tigers contact at the end 2018.
Cleary has had a testing relationship with Gould over the years, but in the sheds on Sunday night he found praise for the now-Bulldogs general manager.
“I came to the club, he got me to the club in 2012, it was pretty much rock bottom then,” Cleary told foxsports.com.au.
“He’s done an amazing amount of work for this club, we wouldn’t have the academy we have now without him.
“On a personal note, I still base a hell of a lot of my coaching on what I learned from him.
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“He’s just one of so many people and you could name – everyone I’m seeing in this room for starters.
“We can’t do what we do unless everyone is aligned and everyone’s got the same common goal and that’s what we do.”
Cleary has missed finals in 11 of his 17 seasons coaching but he now sits on the cusp of a genuine dynasty.
The 51-year-old emphasised his struggles have made him the coach he is today.
“It’s hard to explain, I love coaching you know and losing is all part of the journey and you learn along the way,” Cleary said.
“But winning a premiership is just, to be able to be the last man standing and the last team standing at the end of the day, nothing beats it.
“It really feels unbelievable, I just can’t believe we’ve done it, it was obviously a goal at the start of the year, whether it’s back to back or to win another title.
“Then just to have the year we had, it was such a good year and you can stumble at any point, it’s so hard to win every game.
“They are mates who turn up every day for each other and they have fun but they switch on when the work’s on, they always look to get better and they’re relentless.
“They’re just so consistent.”
The Panthers are losing grand final players Viliame Kikau (Bulldogs) and Api Koroisau (Tigers) and five fringe first-graders.
Penrith successfully replaced Matt Burton, Kurt Capewell and Paul Momirovski this season, and Cleary backed the nursery that Gould built to keep producing.
“Unfortunately the salary cap bites and it’s a really sad situation but I’m so glad that we could fulfil our dreams tonight,” he said.
“We can really enjoy the next couple of days but our mantra as a club is to produce our own players, grow our own.
“We’ve been able to do that for decent period of time now with some success so we’re going to have to keep doing it.”
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