“It seems like a nice narrative but Gus has always said the role he is in will come to an end at some point.
“He was the one who was always going to know that. For him to come to that decision, I certainly respect that decision and feel indebted.
“It’s now our job as a staff, and me leading that staff, to take it from here.”
While both parties claim their relationship was amicable, it’s understood the final straw was the recent re-signing of a player. In the past, Gould would hire and fire as he saw fit, but a new retention and recruitment committee had been set up to ensure Cleary wasn’t undermined. When the former NSW coach made the signing without going through the agreed protocols, it became apparent something had to give.
Cleary said there were no issues and that they had worked out their differences after Gould sacked him with a year to run on his contract in 2015.
“I guess it depends on how you define dramas,” Cleary said.
“Obviously when I left here before it was Gus’s decision at the time. It was under his governance, he felt he could make that call and it was in the best interests for me and the club at the time.
“I’ve got on record that I respected that. I didn’t agree with it, but that was OK. I wouldn’t have come back if I couldn’t have gotten on with him or if there was going to be dramas. It was one of those professional decisions that was made and we moved on.”
Cleary denied that he returned to Penrith onlyon the proviso Gould wouldn’t interfere in football matters.
“There was never any discussion about that. We never had a discussion about that,” he said.
“I’ve leaned on Gus throughout my playing career, my coaching career. I’ve spoken to him when he wasn’t even involved in the club I was in. I’ve always asked him for support, why wouldn’t I?
“Most of my coaching principles and foundations have come from what I learned under him. It makes no sense, that never happened.”
When the club needed a new coach, Gould had entered into an agreement with Bennett. However, his chairman, Dave O’Neill, instead went for Cleary. Fittingly, Cleary comes up against Bennett’s South Sydney side in a must-win game on Friday night. Having been preferred to Bennett, coupled with the departure of Gould, the pressure is now even more intense on Cleary. Not that he was acknowledging it.
“I don’t think that’s possible, I don’t feel any added pressure,” he said.
“I take my responsibility very seriously, I’m the leader of the club here. The results will always fall on my shoulders. By nature I believe in collaboration and one thing about rugby league is I love the team environment and the buck will stop with me.”
Asked to describe his relationship with Gould, Cleary said: “My relationship is fine, I’ve known him for 25 years. He’s taught me more about rugby league than anyone else, probably daylight second.
“I’ve heard things about power struggles – if anyone knows me, the last thing I’m ever going to do is get involved in a power struggle. I understand I’m the coach but I love collaboration, I love being involved. I would always lean on anyone for advice and certainly someone I respect.
“I don’t understand [the fascination].”
Adrian Proszenko is the Chief Rugby League Reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald.