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Panthers coach Ivan Cleary.

After his very own annus horribilis, Ivan Cleary collects his thoughts before answering the question: Has your reputation as a coach been damaged over the past 12 months?

The Penrith Panthers mentor leans back in his chair, hands behind his head as he looks to the ceiling.

Let's recap before he answers.

Cleary's exit from the Wests Tigers late in 2018 had some players feeling like they were left high and dry. Some thought they'd get nearly four years with him and received barely 18 months.

Then his re-entry through Penrith's doors was supposed to be a happy homecoming. Instead, he was confronted with players involved in lewd videos being distributed on social media.

Throughout it all, there was commentary Cleary was being driven by an urge to coach his son Nathan, to the exclusion of the needs of others, or his own integrity.

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To cap it off, Penrith was nearly everyone's tip to finish in the top four in 2019 and many expected them to challenge for the premiership.

Cleary had taken the Warriors to the 2011 grand final, gone to the 2014 preliminary final with the Panthers, and moved the Wests Tigers from the cellar to one spot shy (ninth) of the finals in 2018.

In the end, the Panthers finished with 11 wins and 13 losses in 10th spot.

So some might call all that hitting the ground with a thud.

Despite all that has transpired, Cleary believes his reputation as a highly regarded figure in the game remains intact.

It’s not a re-build because you're always building. But there has been a cultural shift

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"Simple answer from me: No," he tells after a lengthy pause.

"But it's all part of the journey. I feel much better equipped having been through the last couple of years in terms of my coaching, and the job I want to do.

"From the outsider's perspective I'm not sure but from inside, not at all. I've got great support here in terms of my coaching."

He does concede that his 13th season as an NRL head coach was not a pleasant one.

"It was extremely difficult. It's hard to measure a season against others but it was definitely one where I faced things I'd not faced before," he said.

"It's still one that I feel was necessary in the way we want to improve things here. The lie of the land at this club was a little different to what I expected.

"So it was a difficult year but a good year in the sense we're much further advanced 12 months on."

The pre-season mood this time around is definitely different – and that's not just because of the fairly high turnover in personnel.

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

"There's definitely a good level of determination," Cleary said. "I'm pretty happy with training although it's only early stages.

"I'm happy with the balance of the squad. It's obviously young so while there's a long way to go we're tracking reasonably well."

Coaching his son, and starting halfback, also threw up its challenges. Nathan – the oldest of Cleary's four children – moved out of the family home in 2019 although that was always pre-arranged and not because he wanted a break from his father.

"It was just coincidence but I think it didn't hurt," Cleary said, referring to not being in each other's presence 24-7.

"It's been fine. There's some things that we experienced last year that were hard to predict, and we kind of knew that.

"Me personally now, I feel less conscious of it [coaching Nathan] which is good.

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"I felt like there was a big focus on it, and mainly negative I thought. I didn't necessarily expect that. There seemed to be a negative vibe around me and the media – or so it seemed – and that went on Nat a bit as well.

"So that was a bit difficult to deal with for me.

"I always used to say to him 'You're going to have a season where you're not considered young anymore'.

"Last year that was it for him. And he'll be better for that.

"And for me, I'm nowhere near as conscious of it now as I was. Our relationship didn't change throughout it all – we're as strong as ever."

The roster has lost a host of experience in players like James Maloney, Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Waqa Blake and Tim Grant.

Does Cleary feel now it's his team rather than the remnants of Anthony Griffin and Phil Gould?

"A lot of that was through necessity and a few for other reasons. Our club is a development club. Pretty much our whole mandate is that we grow our own, and we recruit what we don't have," he said.

"Yes we did turn over a few but it’s not a re-build because you're always building. But there has been a cultural shift for sure."

Hopefully, 2020 brings finals football – one more win in 2019 would have snuck them in.

"Obviously to get better and I've got no doubt we will," Cleary said.

Ivan Cleary and Panthers assistant Cameron Ciraldo.
Ivan Cleary and Panthers assistant Cameron Ciraldo. ©Gregg Porteous/NRL Photos

"I know things are ruled by wins and losses but we'll just be playing better. Our style will be a bit different – the main thing I'm working on is teamwork, leadership, connection.

"We are much further ahead from where we were last year and it takes a bit of time for guys to get used to it."

Success for Penrith might elevate Cleary back into international coaching ranks. He was assistant to Stephen Kearney for the Kiwis at the 2013 World Cup.

He led the 2015 Prime Minister's XIII to victory in PNG, and he almost took Lebanon to the 2017 World Cup before the Wests Tigers job came along.

"I honestly haven't thought that far ahead," Cleary said.

"I was assistant coach to Steve and I absolutely loved it. I had to let the Lebanon job go because I got the Tigers – and I was really looking forward to that.

"But right now, I'm not thinking about it. I'm not saying 'No' but it's really not in my sights."

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