Neil Balme’s outstanding AFL career has taken a stunning turn, with Collingwood enticing him back for a second term as their football director.
The Magpies head-hunted Balme, one of the game’s most respected figures, from the football manager’s role at Geelong.
They only approached him a week ago as a replacement for Rodney Eade, who vacated the position to coach Gold Coast.
Balme’s return comes eight years after he left Collingwood in strained circumstances.
The Magpies did not sack him in late 2006, but there was a strong sense that his time had come at the club.
One of the first questions for Balme at Monday’s announcement in Geelong was how he felt about working again with Collingwood president Eddie McGuire.
It was put to Balme that eight years ago, he was sick of dealing with McGuire.
The shrewd media performer turned the loaded question back on the reporter, who briefly was stuck for words.
“Why do you say that? What do you mean I’m sick of working with Eddie?,” Balme said.
“I don’t understand what that means.
“It’s a wonderful challenge working under Ed – most of the things he does are outstanding.
“When I first went to that club (in the late ’90s), we were in debt and struggling and the worst team in the comp.”
But Balme confessed to having mixed emotions about leaving Geelong.
He will stay until the December 3 rookie draft, when fellow veteran Cats official Steve Hocking will take over his role.
Balme said he accepted the Collingwood job because it was too good an opportunity to miss.
“I’m challenged at the moment with the whole thing,” he said.
“I’m very ambivalent about the Geelong-Collingwood thing – I’m sure once I get there I will see it’s a great idea.
“But right now, I can only really think about Geelong.
“I’m really excited about the new opportunity, but I’m still wedded to this place right at the minute.”
Balme’s move had none of the rancour that marked Eade’s move to Gold Coast.
Cats chief executive Brian Cook said, unlike Eade, Balme was an employee rather than working on a contract and he went with their blessing.
Geelong will fondly remember Balme as one of the pivotal figures in their 2007-11 golden era.
When he took over as football manager, they were on the verge of wasting their vast potential after a disastrous 2006 season.
He played a crucial role as Geelong sensationally turned around their fortunes in 2007, breaking a 44-year premiership drought.
During Balme’s eight-year stint with the Cats, they also won the ’09 and ’11 flags and made the finals every season.
“He was the glue, at the leadership level, of our football department for some time,” Cook said.
“I’ve seen him as a wonderful relationship builder, someone who calms the waters, someone who does provide the glue, a pragmatist and someone who’s good to be with.
“I can assure you, in football, you do search for people (who) you actually like their company.”
Balme said he was looking forward to working with ‘Pies coach Nathan Buckley, who was captain in his first term at Collingwood.
While they missed the finals this year, Balme said the Magpies were a powerhouse club.
“They are a great club with enormous potential,” he said.
Balme was asked what his greatest contribution had been at Geelong and he replied that it was an impossible question.
Hocking immediately said he would answer.
“Relationship building – he’s been absolutely exceptional,” said the Cats’ new football manager.
WHEREVER NEIL BALME GOES IN FOOTBALL, SUCCESS TENDS TO FOLLOW
* Two-time Richmond premiership player
* Two-time premiership coach with SANFL team Norwood
* Coached newly-merged SANFL team Woodville-West Torrens for two seasons, leading them to the finals
* Under Balme, Melbourne reaches 1994 preliminary final and he is named AFL coach of the year
* During his first term as football manager, Collingwood reach 2002-03 grand finals
* Balme becomes Geelong football manager in late 2006 – Cats win three flags and make finals every year during his eight years in the job.