Two-time premiership coach Ivan Cleary has revealed he didn’t think he was the right man to lead the Penrith Panthers after his first season back at the club.
Cleary has had a remarkable career in rugby league, playing 186 first grade games for the Manly Sea Eagles, North Sydney Bears, Sydney Roosters and New Zealand Warriors.
But it has been as a coach that he has made his biggest impact on the game.
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Cleary has spent the best part of the last 17 years of his career as a first-grade rugby league coach and the 2021 premiership win made him the first coach to have coached more than 250 games to win a premiership — having had 370 games.
Speaking on the Get the Edge podcast with Kayden Knowles, Cleary revealed he doubted whether he could be the man to get his side over the line.
Cleary had been coaching the Wests Tigers but jumped at the chance to coach his son Nathan at Penrith — a betrayal Tigers fans have not forgotten or forgiven.
Nathan was already the NSW Origin halfback but the early days of the Cleary era in Penrith were rocky.
After 10 weeks of the season and a 30-10 loss to the Warriors, the Panthers were last on the ladder with just two wins for the season, as Ivan revealed he thought he may have made a mistake.
“The messiness of my exit at the Tigers, plus the father and son thing, was a big story,” Cleary said.
“And if we failed, that was going to be a bigger story. That’s exactly what was happening.
“I remember the (Warriors) game finishing and thinking, ‘Well I’m responsible for that. That was awful’.
“I was at the lowest of the lows.
“One thing about a leader, you are responsible for how the team plays. That’s on you and we were terrible.
“I was not at my best that year in so many ways.
“I was halfway through the first year of a five-year contract and I definitely was thinking, ‘I don’t think I’m the right man for this job’.”
Ivan said he also felt as though he was affecting Nathan’s form with his coaching and praised NSW Blues coach Brad Fittler for standing by his halfback despite pressure to replace him.
But from then on, the Panthers went on a tear, winning its next seven games and nine of the last 14 as well as blooding the likes of Mitch Kenny and Brian To’o.
And although the side missed the finals in 2019, the rest is history.
A heartbreaking 26-20 loss to the Melbourne Storm in the 2020 grand final followed by two premiership victories, including the minor premiership double in 2022, it appears Cleary made the right decision to stay.
Cleary exit club’s ‘biggest loss ever’
Cleary has had a remarkable career in rugby league.
Despite a decade-long 186-game career, it took until his final game as a player for Cleary to play in a grand final in the Warriors’ 30-8 loss to the Roosters in the 2002 decider.
Cleary retired after the game before taking an assistant coach job with the Warriors.
After leaving the Warriors, Cleary did his apprenticeship as the Roosters reserve grade coach, leading the side to a premiership in 2004, before became the Warriors head coach from 2006.
Cleary lead one of the most successful periods the Warriors have had, making the finals in four of the six seasons he was in charge, including making the 2011 grand final, only to lose 24-10 to Manly.
Cleary then left for the Panthers.
Last year, former NRL player Lewis Brown said the Warriors hadn’t recovered from losing Cleary as coach.
“In my words, he’s probably the biggest loss the Warriors have ever had. That’s my thoughts on it period,” Brown told SENZ’s The Run Home.
“That’s why I get quite defensive of the Penrith boys; a lot of people say they’re arrogant (with) the way they act but there’s one person in this world that wouldn’t let his team act arrogant, especially when they don’t deserve it and that’s Ivan.
“He likes to keep his troops humble.
“They’re a bunch of kids out there, they’re just having fun together … they’re certainly one of the best teams to watch.”
When Cleary arrived at the Panthers, the club was in the cellar, having made the finals just once in the previous seven seasons and undergoing a full rebuild after Phil Gould arrived at the club in 2011.
Although Cleary led the Panthers to a top four finish and preliminary final in 2014, an 11th place finish in 2015 saw Cleary sacked and replaced by Anthony Griffin.
Gould has long taken the blame for the move but admitted it helped make him the coach he is today.
“That was a really good year for me because I reflected a lot. I’d been 10 years as a head coach,” he said.
“Talking about philosophy I really nailed what was authentic to me, what I thought what was going to work. So I was really looking forward to my next phase of my coaching.”
‘I hated it’: Reason Cleary left Tigers
Cleary didn’t have to wait too long, joining the Wests Tigers in 2017, but after his second season in charge was granted a release from the final two years of his deal to rejoin the Panthers — an act Tigers fans still haven’t forgiven.
But when presented the chance to coach his son Nathan, it was an opportunity Cleary wasn’t about to turn down.
“I’m forever grateful for that opportunity,” Cleary said.
“Things were going really well there. I was really enjoying it.
“But one thing that gnawed at me was I had to coach against my son, who was playing here at Penrith, Nathan.
“The two games I did it, I hated it. My wife hated it. I just really didn’t like it.”
Of the exit, Cleary added: “It was a really messy situation.
“The Panthers offered to get me back and it was like, ‘Oh man, I would really like that’.
“Honestly, nothing against the Tigers, but I had unfinished business here. I started a rebuild (in 2012). We’d moved our family out here and become part of the community.
“To be able to coach Nathan was just the icing on top.”
And as a two-time premiership winning coach, it appears to have turned out alright for Ivan.