Nathan Buckley’s decision yesterday to spurn North Melbourne — one of the AFL clubs hoping to secure him as senior coach in 2010 — in favour of an assistant coaching role at Collingwood had many old-time Kangaroo officials shaking their heads ruefully. They’d guessed it might turn out this way. For it wasn’t the first time that Buckley had snubbed the old Shinboners.

The first rejection came in extraordinary circumstances in 1993 and precipitated almost a decade of anger, loathing even, from some North people towards Buckley, who ended up choosing to play with Collingwood instead. It was one of the great behind-the-scenes spats that few people outside those two clubs knew much about.

The saga began when North Melbourne’s master recruiter Greg Miller spotted Buckley playing for the Port Adelaide reserves team in 1991. Realising what a talent he was, Miller signed Buckley straight away on a contract for $10,000.

The following year, confirming Miller’s judgment totally, Buckley won the Magarey Medal for best player in the South Australian National Football League. Suddenly he became very hot property. Everyone was interested in him now, with Collingwood and Geelong leading the way.

But because he had played most of his junior footy in Darwin, Buckley was zoned to the Brisbane Bears and played there for the 1993 season. He had always made it clear, though, he wanted to join a Melbourne-based club and would be leaving the Bears after just one year. As if his stocks couldn’t go any higher, Buckley became the AFL’s inaugural Rising Star winner in that season.

Collingwood then ramped up its seduction attempts to a whole new level. The Pies were in Buckley’s ear for much of that year, urging him to turn his back on the Roos and to come down to Victoria Park, the true home of football. Which he eventually decided to do.

But North Melbourne’s coach Denis Pagan, Greg Miller and a couple of other officials didn’t know this when they went to meet Nathan and his manager, Geoff Motley, in a Sheraton Towers hotel room in Southbank late in 1993. They assumed they were still the frontrunners. After all, they had his contract with them and on that contract was Buckley’s signature.

But when they walked into the room they could tell straight away something was amiss. The Buckley camp seemed strangely subdued, cool even. The North officials were slightly taken aback but went about pleading their case and selling the club as a great destination for ambitious young footballers. And if there was one word to describe young Nathan it was ambitious.

A short time later, Buckley sent word back to the Roos saying he wanted to play finals football and in premiership teams and he wasn’t convinced that North Melbourne was going to see much September action in the short-term. So he politely said thanks but no thanks and a short time later packed his bags for Collingwood.

That was the genesis for much of the ill-feeling between the Kangaroos and Buckley over the next six or seven years. The Roos felt mightily miffed not just at Buckley’s decision to spurn them — although that was difficult enough to swallow given that Miller had been the first to sign him up and paid him $10,000 — but his reasons for turning them down.

From the first practice match between North and Collingwood in 1994 until several years later, that incident came to dominate proceedings. In fact, Kangaroos players — virtually to a man — would sledge and niggle Buckley all game, reminding him of the broken contract, the $10,000 payment and, most gallingly of all, his inference that the Roos were no-hopers.

Sixteen years on, history has repeated itself. Buckley this morning confirmed that, in rejecting the Kangaroos’ overtures, he will be rejoining the Pies as an assistant coach until 2012, when he will take over the senior job. That will mean the ill-will felt towards him by some at North will simmer away for a while yet.

Buckley, of course, went to achieve greatness in his playing career at Collingwood, where he was captain for nine years, won the Brownlow Medal in 2003, and was named six times in the All-Australian team.

But in what was a supreme irony — or poetic justice, or shining example of hubris, or whatever you want to call it — North Melbourne ended up winning the AFL premiership in 1996 and 1999. Then Brisbane — the team Buckley abandoned after the 1993 season — went on to win three flags in a row from 2001, beating the Buckley-led Collingwood, no less, in the last two of those grand finals, in 2002 and 2003.

Buckley, the driven young man who would sacrifice everything to play in premierships, was never able to live that dream.

Read more Charles Happell at thetoydepartment.