Kent: How Gus got Cleary back on the bus
FINALLY we know who shot Bambi. It was Gus Gould, consigliore for Penrith Panthers.
The hit took place last week when Penrith chairman Dave O'Neill, in a move orchestrated by Gould, called Ivan Cleary to a meeting.
Cleary has told Wests Tigers he thought the meeting was about the future of his son Nathan, the NSW and Penrith halfback.
The Tigers had no idea of the meeting but would not have objected. The club was quietly optimistic Cleary might be delivering them his son at some point in the future.
Gould had already conceded he thought the father and son would work together at some point in the future.
What followed was one of the great double crosses in rugby league, a code that celebrates a certain level of chicanery.
This one will take its place among some of the best ever.
Cleary was as surprised as any, he told his club, that Gould had something completely different in mind with his O'Neill meeting.
He wanted Cleary to leave Wests Tigers and coach Penrith.
From that moment on, Anthony Griffin's fate as head coach of the Panthers was sealed.
And now the deal is all but done.
Forget the charade both Gould and Cleary are expected to perform as they go about putting some respectable distance between an offer being made and the offer being accepted, Cleary is off to the Panthers.
So long as the Tigers let him go.
On Tuesday, the Tigers sat solid on their position that Cleary is under contract for two more seasons and that he is going nowhere.
"We're going to hold our position," a Tigers official said.
"Until your position changes," I said. This is, after all, rugby league.
"Yep," he said, "but you've got to hold it."
Gould has pulled off one of the most audacious signings in football history.
It was only three years ago he sacked Cleary, claiming he was "tired". Apparently, he needed more than a good mattress and a lie down.
And it was only last year Cleary signed on at Wests until the end of 2020.
The ramifications are widespread for a game slowly being beaten down by poor management and enough PR blunders to sink a small fleet, than simply a coach changing clubs.
When Cleary walks out on Wests Tigers it will punch a great hole of disillusionment in the game.
Cleary sold something bigger than football at the Tigers.
The Tigers have emerged as the feel-good story this season. The Little Train That Could.
They opened the season with wins against the two premiership favourites, Sydney Roosters and Melbourne.
A follow-up win against Melbourne three weeks later, in another tight defensive performance, showed they were no fluke success.
Tigers fans realised it was real.
On the back of that they became the equal most watched team on Fox League, with Brisbane, where television numbers are up five per cent this season.
Home crowds grew from a 13,500 average last season to 18,000 this season.
All built on a simple philosophy that began last year. A simple sentence that became a catchphrase, that came at a time when the Tigers were most vulnerable
James Tedesco and Aaron Woods were weighing offers from rival clubs. Mitch Moses was about to go.
So Cleary quickly put a deadline on their contracts, saying they could either "get on the bus" or get going.
The fans bought in.
Finally, their little team had found an attitude. Somebody to take them where they wanted to be. Nobody was bigger than the club.
Cleary has not taken a wrong step since.
He set about fixing the club's salary cap, refusing to pay overs for players. A past sin.
He bought intelligently, luring Ben Matulino and Russell Packer. He threw a lifeline to Benji Marshall, a club legend, then doubled down when he hired back Robbie Farah midway through this season.
A mural of Marshall in Tigers kit screaming was painted on an inner west wall. To the side it read "On the bus".
They are all part of why Gould set the Cleary meeting last week after sacking him as Penrith coach in 2015.
In a swift sentence O'Neill quickly whitewashed Gould and Cleary's fractured history, saying that was then and this is now.
Gould has always been adaptable. His talent as a player and a coach was his speed between the ears. His nickname "Gus", a carry-over from his playing days, speaks to his adaptability.
Sent out on a pre-season road run Gould trotted along the asphalt only so far before a certain kind of logic prevailed.
He was a footballer, he realised, not a marathon runner. He stopped and caught the bus back to training.
His teammates quickly named him "Gus" after the line in the Paul Simon song, 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover.
So Cleary met his manager George Mimis on Monday to talk about a deal those closest to the truth believe is already done.
And the song continues.
"Hop on the bus, Gus … Make a new plan, Stan …"