Cleary focused on Panthers success after mending Gould rift

Trying to work out where he stood in his relationship with Panthers supremo Phil Gould was one thing gnawing at Ivan Cleary as he considered returning to Penrith.

Three years have passed since Gould, as general manager of football at the club, sacked Cleary saying he looked "tired and burnt out".

Cleary has now signed a new five-year deal but the memories of how his previous four-year tenure ended so abruptly in October 2015 were flashing through his mind.

He maintains he's not bitter despite the implication at the time he couldn't take the heat of being a head coach. He also doesn't think it damaged his reputation.

"Not at all. It's fine. It was a decision that was made but it's in the past. He made the decision and whether it was right or wrong is immaterial now," Cleary told NRL.com.

"The funny thing is though, when I got the approach to come back that was always going to be the last piece for me to process.

Nathan and Ivan Cleary.
Nathan and Ivan Cleary. ©NRL Photos

"I needed to know that it was OK and that the club really wanted me back."

Cleary and Gould have since held several conversations with neither wishing to revisit October 2015.

Simply dealing with August, September and October 2018 has been enough for both men.

As soon as former coach Anthony Griffin was sacked in the first week of August, the rugby league universe has been waiting, perhaps expecting, Ivan Cleary to make his second coming at Penrith where he spent 2012-to-2015 after taking the Warriors to the 2011 NRL grand final.

But Cleary still had two years to run on his Wests Tigers deal. He took them from 14th in 2017 to ninth in 2018 and had brought international players like Ben Matulino, Russell Packer, Benji Marshall and Robbie Farah into the den.

Surely he wouldn't break those bonds. However, that looked likely once Nathan Cleary signed a five-year extention with Penrith on September 24. His father's four-year deal was announced October 29.

Surprisingly, Cleary says his son's lengthy deal was not the key to getting him back.

"Firstly, the situation with Nathan is only part of it. It wasn't the be-all and end-all," Cleary said.

"My decision was not made because Nat is staying at Penrith – yes, it is part of it, of course.

NSW halfback Nathan Cleary.
NSW halfback Nathan Cleary. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

"It was more like, I don't think you can ever wait in rugby league if you actually want to do something. Opportunities only knock once and that was the case here.

"I never, ever thought this opportunity would come. It was a complete shock to me – a shock that I'd be going back to Penrith and a shock I could link with Nat so soon.

"But definitely going back to Penrith was the stronger shock. When I left the Panthers I had a real sense of unfinished business.

"That feeling eventually went away but I never thought I'd get that chance again – then the opportunity pops up and I felt like I needed to take it.

"I had respect for the contract I had with the Tigers and that was communicated by the Tigers to me, and that was cool.

Tigers prop Russell Packer.
Tigers prop Russell Packer. ©Paul Barkley/NRL Photos

"But it [the Panthers offer] still was such a great opportunity."

Many Tigers fans may not be feeling so joyous. Cleary sent a group text to his players at Concord Oval but has also spoken to many of them, especially players like Matulino and Packer who followed him to the club to reunite with their Warriors old coach.

"I was concerned with all the players but I definitely thought about those kind of guys. It is a difficult situation and that's the nature of our industry as well. It is such a volatile industry, not just for coaches but players as well," Cleary said.

"I've spoken to a lot of those guys since and I think everyone understands. But if anyone was actually disappointed or is still disappointed I would understand that as well."

As for the Tigers fans, Cleary knows some of the consequences of his actions.

"The fans are the lifeblood of our game and I completely respect their passion. I was a fan once too so I get it.

"There will be a range of emotions that fans feel. I've already had some Tigers fans come up to me, and while they're disappointed I'm leaving, they thanked me.

"But of course there will be other Tigers fans that think the complete opposite and I understand that too.

"I would say to them that they've got a really good club to follow and that the club is in a really good position – a really strong and intelligent leadership and the future is going to be very bright."

Cleary has the same sentiments about Penrith. He coached Cameron Ciraldo and Peter Wallace when he arrived in 2012 and the pair will be his assistants in 2019.

Panthers executive general manager Phil Gould.
Panthers executive general manager Phil Gould. ©NRL Photos

Players like Josh Mansour, Waqa Blake, Dean Whare, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak and Sam McKendry will again be coached by Cleary, as will former Warriors five-eighth James Maloney.

"I'm connected to almost every player in this squad, either through coaching them previously or being part of their recruitment like [Viliame] Kikau and [Trent] Merrin.

"The other guys I've watched come through the Penrith system. I feel like I have a really strong connection not just with the players, but with the staff and the community."

Nathan is one of those players. He came to the Panthers as a 14-year-old in late 2011, made his NRL debut as a 20-year-old in 2016 and is now the NSW State of Origin halfback.

"He had enough knowledge of what was going on but we only spoke occasionally about what may or may not happen," Cleary said of father and son living under the same roof while contract talks and speculation swirled around them.

"It went on for nearly three months like that.

"The road ahead is not all clear either. I'm sure there will be situations coming up we're going to have to deal with, but I'll be objective at all times.

"I'll be treating him like all the other players."

When I left the Panthers I had a real sense of unfinished business.

Ivan Cleary

And after taking over at Penrith in 2012 and at the Tigers in 2017 with both clubs in a rebuilding phase, the situation at the Pathers in 2019 is very different – it's an established and talented roster that finished the 2018 Telstra Premiership in fifth spot.

"Possibly the pressure is more," Cleary said. "It's not something I can control but we do have a good roster.

"In the 13 years as a coach I've never gone into a season where I've felt there hasn't been expectation to perform. It's just that the weight of expectation can vary.

"What you need to do is help produce an environment where players can improve; where you can get the best out of them," he said.

"So my job is no different for the upcoming season. I won't lie but it is a little scary as well. Then again that's the thrill of it."