‘Unfinished business’ behind Cleary’s return
IVAN Cleary is sitting back on a leather swivel chair inside his office at the Panthers Rugby League Academy on Friday morning.
In readiness for his first official training session on Monday as Penrith's head coach since 2015, Cleary has spreadsheets and highlighted print-outs aligned for every player in his 30-man squad laid out across his desk.
Before pressing record on the tape for his first interview since his polarising departure from the Wests Tigers 12 days ago, we visit the academy that was opened in 2016.
Into the pristine gym, past the spacious player dressing room, recovery baths, coaching staff areas and finally, a glance out onto the two manicured training fields.
"I only came through the academy for the first time last week - and originally, I was one of the people asked for input into it's design,'' Cleary said.
"What was the biggest factor in returning to Penrith? There's plenty, but I'd say unfinished business.''
Cleary coached the Panthers for four seasons, earning Dally M coach of the year honours in 2014 when he took the side to a preliminary final.
At the end of 2015 Cleary was sacked after being told by general manager Phil Gould he was looking "tired''.
"It was a complete club re-build. And we were making progress, so to be exited when you can see what's coming was hard.''
Son Nathan Cleary debuted in 2016, part of a glut of junior talent rising through the ranks.
"I've sat back watching Nathan play for the last three years and I've watched this club, the academy and the pathways develop and grow.
"And the whole time, I'm thinking, 'I'll never be back here to finish what I started'."
Many will now wonder how Cleary could return to the Panthers given the way he was shown the door.
"I asked myself the same question, but I felt straight away that there was no one here that thought I shouldn't be doing this job," he said.
Cleary's split from the Wests Tigers with two years remaining on his contract captivated the NRL's attention.
The 47-year-old admits how the saga unfolded was far from ideal. He accepts responsibility for the situation he left Tigers CEO Justin Pascoe and so too, the club's passionate fans.
But he is adamant that he acted with full disclosure and honesty towards the club's powerbrokers and the playing group - adding that he was willing to remain at the Tigers until the end of his 2020 contract.
"I was ready to see out the final two years (2019 and 2020),'' Cleary said.
"What I couldn't do was commit to (a deal) after 2020, and that's the crux of it.
"It wasn't my decision to leave the Tigers, it was mutual.
"In a perfect world, I would prefer the circumstances to be different but they are what they are.
"When I signed the original contract with the Wests Tigers (in 2017), I had absolutely every intent to not go anywhere.
"Everything I said, everything I did, I was 100 per cent authentic. I'd like to think that everyone who worked with me would've seen that.
"People can have their opinions about the decisions I've made, but I was transparent and I was 100 per cent honest with the Tigers.''
The Panthers' first play for Cleary occurred in late July when Penrith chairman David O'Neill asked if he would consider ever returning.
"It was nothing formal, it was very loosely that he asked would I be interested,'' Cleary said.
"And I said yes, I would be.
"There was nothing specific, because we all understood I had a contract at the Tigers.
"They (Penrith) just said they were considering the head coaching position moving forward.
"I had a contract until the end of 2020, so my thought was I better go talk to the Tigers, which I thought was only fair, including Justin, (Tigers chair) Marina (Go) and I spoke to a couple of board members and that's when they told me, there's no way you're going anywhere, you've got a contract.
"The next morning I told the players exactly what I had told the board, but also, the club has made a strong stance and I'm not going anywhere.
"At the time, that was the position, which is why there was no need to elaborate in the press.
"We were trying to win games and no (the speculation) wasn't ideal but I was happy to bury it and get on with the most important job of winning games, so we did.''
Cleary's silence continued in the media because he felt there was nothing to explain. He was fulfilling his contract until the end of 2020. End of story.
That was, until a formal offer from Penrith arrived a week before the grand final on September 30.
"Some time after the Tigers season had finished, they (Penrith) came back with a formal offer from 2021 onwards,'' Cleary said.
"Unfortunately that was leaked (to the press) as well, so by the time I got back to talk to the Tigers, there was already external pressure.
"However, I offered full disclosure to anyone that needed to know.
"All I said (to the Tigers hierarchy) was, it's my intention to sign with them (Penrith) in 2021.
"That was a pretty tough thing, obviously.''
The Tigers were unwilling to stick with a coach who had already signed with a rival club.
Cleary was formally granted a release from the Tigers 11 days ago, yet he only put pen to paper on a five-year deal with the Panthers last Wednesday.
He texted the Tigers players to thank them, but wished now he had the chance to speak to them individually.
"When the first question was asked if I would consider coming back (to Penrith), I spoke to the players almost immediately face-to-face and I would've much preferred to do it like that again,'' Cleary said.
"But time, circumstances, it was impossible to do.
"The hard thing is, with text messages, you can't say what you want to say.
"There was a bunch of other stuff in there I would've liked to say and thank God I didn't because it would've ended up in the media.''
Cleary said his relationship with Pascoe is "strong", but concedes, "I put him in a pretty awkward position, which I don't feel good about.
"But he's doing a really good job, he's handled this situation and gained a great outcome for the club.''
As for his hopes for the Tigers next year under Michael Maguire, Cleary said: "The best.
"The club is in a really good position. They've made some really good strides the last few years. Off the field, they're going really well.
"I honestly wish them all the best and I don't see any reason why they won't achieve that.''
Coaching son Nathan - who will move out of the family home for the first time after Christmas - was an obvious lure for Cleary, but perhaps not the grapple hook most believe.
"It's a factor, but again, there's a lot of factors,'' Cleary said.
"I did have a sense that if I didn't take this chance, it may never happen again.
"That's the thing about the NRL, opportunity only knocks once and I wanted to get him (Nathan) to the Tigers, that was something we wanted to do (together) as well.
"And part of that was, if we wait any longer, there's a good chance it won't ever happen.''
Asked how he would handle resting or dropping his son should his form warrant it, Cleary said: "He's going to be like everyone else.
"There's going to be some things that we can't envisage, there'll be some difficult situations and he knows that and I know that.
"But we'll deal with those like I would with any other player.
"He's moving out soon and I think that's good timing.''
Cleary is under no illusion why he's been brought back to Penrith - to win the club's first title since 2003.
A rich nursery of talent, proven NRL stars and experienced representative players have the Panthers primed for a premiership in 2019.
The pressure is on at the foot of the mountains, and Cleary knows it.
"There's always pressure. I read an article last week about all the coaches under pressure and that wasn't even about winning comps,'' Cleary said.
"The pressure really is, to improve the players and improve the team each year.
"The biggest pressure on me is that we improve the team and I'm looking forward to doing that.
"It's a little bit scary, but that's the thrill of it too.''