Inside coach’s rocky marriage
He was the captain and then coach of the biggest football club in Australia. She was the red carpet risk-taker and high-profile WAG before the term was even coined.
After meeting at a St Kilda restaurant in 1999, Nathan Buckley and Tania Minnici were never far from the spotlight.
And they find themselves under intense scrutiny again as a year of rumours surrounding their relationship ends with the official announcement their 18-year marriage is over.
It brings to an end a union that scaled some dizzying heights including a memorable first meeting, a romantic proposal, a storybook wedding, countless holidays and the birth of their two sons, Jett and Ayce.
But the duo also endured several hardships, from Tania's struggles to fit in with the Magpie wives, a cheating rumour and a struggle to fall pregnant. This is their story.
'WHERE ARE YOUR WIFE AND KIDS?'
Before meeting Tania in 1999, Buckley was in a relationship with radio and TV presenter Shelley Ware.
He'd been single for 10 months and had just been made captain of Collingwood when he met Tania at a St Kilda restaurant owned by friends they had in common.
He had his guard up but she quickly brought it down by cheekily asking him: "Where are your wife and kids?"
"I thought maybe he was out on the town," Tania told the Herald Sun in 2011. "He said, 'No, I'm not married and I don't have kids'. So I thought, 'Oh, OK then', and I gave him a cheeky smile.
"The guys he was with were talking about going somewhere else and I said, 'I'm not going there, I'm going up the street'. And I took my bag and left. Then all of a sudden he was running up the street behind me. And he said, 'Do you mind if I join you?' So that's how it started."
Tania initially pursued a career as a hairdresser after high school before joining her father's business, managing several petrol stations across Melbourne.
Her family were Collingwood supporters and her father was quite impressed when she brought the Magpie skipper around.
After a casual start, Buckley made things official over a home-cooked meal and they moved in a month later.
She quickly became a prominent fixture during awards season, forging a reputation for risky but eye-catching outfits including the most famous of all - an exposed diamond-encrusted G-string in 2001.
It was a sign of how untouchable they were as a couple at the time.
Buckley was dominating on the field and appeared unbothered by his girlfriend's revealing wardrobe saying as long as Tania was comfortable she could wear what she wanted.
And she certainly wasn't camera-shy, regularly appearing in the newspaper to debut her latest look.
The following year Buckley surprised everyone - except his best mate and Tania's father - by popping the question at a barbecue with friends and family at their Hawthorn home.
"We had our parents and close buddies there and he stood up, got everyone's attention and asked me to marry him in front of everyone," Tania said at the time.
"I had no idea and it couldn't have happened in a better scenario - he had everything planned and did it so well.
"It was emotional for everybody. Nathan had every single girl here crying and quite a few of the blokes had tears in their eyes too."
'MOST EMOTIONAL FIVE MINUTES I'VE ENCOUNTERED'
But it wasn't all fun and games.
Tania initially found the wives and girlfriends of other Collingwood players unwelcoming.
"Originally, when I came to the club, it was one of the most difficult times in my life," Tania said. "It was very hard to sit with the wives and girlfriends. The girls made it very tough to break in as an outsider."
Buckley also suffered a crushing nine-point defeat after leading the Magpies to the 2002 Grand Final and was famously photographed being consoled by Tania in the change rooms afterwards.
"The first time they lost was the most emotional five minutes that I've ever encountered - apart from having a baby," she said.
They endured the same feeling again in 2003 as the Magpies again went down to the Brisbane Lions.
But they continued to maintain a happy balance in their relationship and were married in Melbourne on New Year's Eve in 2002 in an event billed as the football wedding of the year.
Collingwood president Eddie McGuire MC'd the reception and they sold photos of the day to a tabloid magazine.
But even their wedding week came with a touch of scandal.
A rumour about Buckley cheating on Tania with Christi Malthouse, the daughter of his then footy coach Mick Malthouse, did the rounds and even made it on to radio.
It wouldn't be until seven months later the two women would speak on the phone and finally put the matter to bed.
'I'VE LEARNED TO SAY DO YOUR THING'
In the meantime the Buckleys went about beginning a marriage. She accommodated the demands of his profession and he supported her launching a boutique shoe store in South Yarra.
"I've learnt to say, 'Do your thing and when you've got time I'll be here'," she said in 2002.
Buckley, who had spent his formative years in Darwin and Adelaide before starting his footy career in Queensland, appeared dazzled by Tania's appetite for the finer things in life.
He went from sporting a mullet haircut and wearing flannelette shirts and holidaying with the boys in Bali to a sharply-dressed international jetsetter with Tania on his arm.
"Tania's got very refined tastes, she knows what she likes and doesn't like. I think when you share time with the person, the one, you meld and you take on traits of the other, there's no doubt," he said in the early 2000s.
"She definitely likes quality. She likes quality places, quality people. She's not as comfortable in places and situations she doesn't rate. She lives life the way she likes to live it. I've always been very accepting of things, of people and situations and that's a quality I'm proud of. "That's a quality I learnt from my mother and father, particularly my mother. I don't think I've lost that, but I think it's been modified. When I do get the chance to do something away from footy, for myself, or for us, I do the things I really enjoy rather than bending over and making someone else happy."
After each season they would head overseas, holidaying in places like Italy, France and Hong Kong, while renovating their lavish home in Middle Park.
But all the trappings couldn't fill the space of what Tania truly wanted.
'ALL OF A SUDDEN I WAS GOING THROUGH IVF'
Now in her 30s, she'd made no secret of the fact she wanted children, but falling pregnant proved hard.
Determined to take the next step in her life, Tania sold the shoe shop and the couple began IVF treatment.
It came at a testing time because Buckley's football career was being derailed by persistent injuries but they were thrilled to fall pregnant at their first attempt.
"Nathan was going through a hard time with injuries and then all of a sudden I was going through IVF, which is physically and mentally taxing," Tania later revealed.
"So I was relying on Nathan to help me through it. But it all worked out and we were really lucky that I got pregnant on the first attempt."
Again the Buckleys were on the up swing.
Their first son, Jett, arrived in December, 2006, and the following year they bought a $4 million mansion in Toorak, Melbourne's most exclusive suburb.
They'd stopped using birth control because Tania didn't think she could conceive naturally but on a holiday to Dubai to celebrate the end of Buckley's playing career she fell pregnant again and in September, 2008, a second son, Ayce, was born.
Without the daily pressure of preparing to play footy, Buckley was a new man in his wife's eyes.
"He's so much more relaxed and happy. His humorous side has come out," she said in 2008. "He's a totally different person, actually."
'EVEN ON HIS DAY OFF, HE HOLDS MEETINGS'
But despite his obvious talent in his early years as an AFL media analyst, the itch to return to the inner sanctum proved too great and in late 2009 Buckley signed a five-year deal that would eventually see him take over from Malthouse as Collingwood coach.
His spare time immediately evaporated.
"Because (Nathan's) so dedicated, he might work seven days a week. Even on his day off, he still holds meetings,'' Tania said in 2011.
"He doesn't have much down time at all. Monday to Friday, he'll work in his office three or four nights a week. I knew it was going to be like that. From player to assistant coach, the extra workload is incredible."
Collingwood tumbled down the ladder in Buckley's early seasons in charge leading most to think his days were numbered.
But he was given the backing of the Magpie board and during a period of reflection was able to transform from a micromanager to a more hands-off empowering leader.
An October 2017 yoga retreat in Bali with Tania during the AFL Trade Period highlighted Buckley's evolution as he disconnected and allowed others to do their job and it resulted in Collingwood going all the way to the 2018 Grand Final, where it would fall by five points to the West Coast Eagles.
While she didn't seek the spotlight like she had earlier in their relationship, Tania was once again on hand in the changerooms after the shattering defeat.
Buckley - who had his detractors during his playing days - was widely hailed as a fine example of the modern coach in the wake of the loss.
But it appears his celebrated professional growth came at a low point in his personal life.
A few months after leading the Magpies within a kick of back-to-back grand finals, he and Tania separated.
'A TOUGH AND CHALLENGING YEAR'
The Buckleys were able to keep their separation out of the media for almost all of 2020 as he spent most of the year on the road with his football team as it tackled a COVID-impacted season.
But it was still a year of negative headlines for the 48-year-old after he breached COVID protocols to play tennis in Perth with former Aussie pro Alicia Molik, was thrashed in the finals by Geelong and then oversaw an end-of-season trade period that was savaged by the media and Pies fans alike.
But the toughest moment of all arrived on Friday when Tania officially announced their marriage was done.
They plan to co-parent Jett, 14, and Ayce, 12. The Herald Sun reports Buckley is currently living in a South Yarra apartment owned by a sports executive where fellow ex-footballer Billy Brownless stayed when his marriage fell apart.
Originally published as Inside AFL coach's rocky marriage