Love him or hate him, Phil Gould has one of the greatest minds in rugby league.
A veteran of over 100 first-grade games - and coach of nearly 300 - 'Gus' is still better known for his decades of commentary, and his years spent as Penrith's General Manager.
The man has certainly left his mark on the game.
Gould took the reins at Penrith from mid-2011 until 2019, and, while he departed the position nearly two years ago, his fingerprints still remain all over this side. While he has been criticised for his 'five-year plan,' and lack of overall on-field success in his tenure, Gus has laid the foundation for this Penrith Panthers side's current-day success.
During his nine seasons in the role, Gould's Panthers made the NRL finals on just four occasions, with only one preliminary final appearance to boast of, finishing 10th or lower in the other five seasons. Though his squad didn't collect any silverware, Gus continued to tick boxes off the field, turning Penrith into the powerhouse it is today.
The Call Up
Phil joined Penrith as their GM in mid-2011, a season where the club would finish a lowly 12th, but Gould delivered results instantly in the role. Less than seven weeks after Gould's appointment, the Panthers announced the signing of Warriors head coach, Ivan Cleary, on a three-year deal, beginning in 2012.
While on the ladder they regressed to a second-last finish, a bloke by the name of Josh Mansour would earn his maiden first-grade jersey, and local junior Tim Grant earned a State of Origin debut for the Blues.
Suddenly, the Panthers' brand was starting to lift.
It was labelled a rebuild by the media, with an absolute overhaul of the club's roster prior to the 2013 season, farewelling one-club stars in Michael Gordon, Michael Jennings and Luke Lewis, and bringing in a host of consistent players. The likes of Lewis Brown, Jeremy Latimore, Wes Naiqama and Dean Whare entered the club - not stars in comparison to the side's departures - but role players.
Players that would excel in a system.
Junior development was always Gould's major focus though. Recognising the rich nursery at his disposal in Sydney's west, 'Gus' brought a focus on developing youngsters as opposed to recruiting from the outside.
Their Holden Cup team would win the youth premiership in 2013, ushering in a new era for the Panthers.
A large chunk of Penrith's next stars were within that Under 20's side, the likes of Waqa Blake, Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Bryce Cartwright, George Jennings, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Isaah Yeo and James Roberts in that particular team, while Matt Moylan had just debuted in the NRL.
Gould had a plan for the club, and while it did unfold - slowly - not all went to plan.
The Five-Year Plan
Gould admitted when he entered the job that it would take five years to take Penrith back to the top of the NRL.
And for a while, things looked promising. The Panthers would make the preliminary final in 2014 after a fourth-placed finish on the ladder, and despite losing the game to Canterbury, there were good signs for Penrith. Seven players in their starting side were one-club players, all having debuted at the Panthers.
Unfortunately for Gus, he'd have the right idea - at the wrong time.
As the years rolled on, Penrith would debut more and more local talent, unearthing a swathe of freakishly talented young kids, but it just wasn't the class that fit Gould's plan.
The club would fail in the second week of the finals for three consecutive years - 2016 through 2018 - bringing with it, criticism towards Gould. In his first five full seasons at the helm, the club had played finals twice, with nine Penrith debutants in their 2016 semi-final side.
It simply wasn't the squad that was going to take Penrith to the upper echelon of the NRL.
Gould wasn't happy just being there to make up the numbers. He wanted this club to be up with the likes of Melbourne and the Roosters, the best of the best.
So the Panthers' GM blew up the squad, and started again.
The man the club had once deemed their wonder kid - a State of Origin and international representative - Matt Moylan, was released at the end of 2017. In return came in journeyman James Maloney. Maloney was bought to mentor Nathan Cleary, the club's new wonder kid, who had 41 NRL games under his belt when Maloney arrived.
More and more Penrith juniors departed under Gus' watch, losing a host of players between the end of 2017 through to the 2019 season.
The five-year plan had been destroyed, and 'Gus' was ready to start again.
The foundation the future was built on had been scattered across the league.
The Penrith Panthers Academy
Penrith opened up 'The Panthers Rugby League Academy' at the start of 2016 - a $22 million facility that became the training spot for both the junior and senior sides, as well as housing the administration. Equipped with two all-weather fields, two gyms, pools, an auditorium, medical rooms and rec areas, Gould knew how big this was for the club.
"We believe the Panthers Rugby League Academy is now the best of its kind for any sporting organisation in this country. It represents a huge investment by the Panthers in not only the game of rugby league, but the sporting landscape of Western Sydney, as well," Gould said at the opening.
The academy has since become a monumental success, you only need to look at the 2021 Penrith side to see that. From the Round 1 side that demolished the Cowboys, 13 of the 17 debuted at Penrith. Isaah Yeo is the only member of that 13 that debuted prior to the opening of the academy, with the other dozen all running out for their maiden NRL games between 2016 and 2020.
To add to the $22 million facility, Gould set up academies further west, tapping into the nursery that is the Central West, and further. He also assisted in setting up the annual home game at Carrington Park, in Bathurst, a clash that has seen the Panthers play there each year since 2014.
As Liam Martin is named to make his Origin debut, we can't help but reflect on his journey.
— Penrith Panthers (@PenrithPanthers) May 30, 2021
Incumbent coach, Matthew Elliot, was sacked effective immediately just five games after Gould's 2011 arrival, Ivan Cleary joining the club for three years starting from 2012. Cleary did well to bring through so many class first-graders into the NRL, though when it came to getting results on-field, one finals appearance in four years wasn't cutting it.
Cleary's tenure was terminated by Gould at the end of the 2015 season after finishing 11th, however, had they lost their last game of the season, Penrith would've finished the season with the wooden spoon just 12 months after making a preliminary final appearance.
That was nowhere near the biggest coaching decision Gould would make in his tenure at the club. That wouldn't come until 2018.
Anthony Griffin arrived at the foot of the mountain in 2016, immediately taking the club to NRL finals football. The former Brisbane head coach enjoyed 6th and 7th placed finishes in his first two seasons at Penrith, a second-week finals loss ending both Panthers' seasons.
Despite sitting in fourth place four weeks before the 2018 finals series, and holding a 58% win record at the club, Griffin was sacked immediately.
Caretaker coach Cameron Ciraldo stepped in and won three of the six matches he managed, two in the finals, resulting in a third consecutive week two exit.
A revelation arrived in late 2020, with reports leaking that Phil Gould had told the Penrith board that Anthony Griffin couldn't coach, and that Griffin and Gould's relationship had 'broken down,' having not spoken in months, resulting in the board feeling forced to sack Griffin.
All good things must come to an end
After eight years in the job, Phil Gould walked away just six weeks into the 2019 NRL season, claiming his position with Penrith had been made 'redundant'. A rugby league icon had reportedly lost the faith of the board at Penrith, overruled on his call to bring Wayne Bennett to Penrith after Anthony Griffin's sacking, the board preferring Cleary.
While there's nothing alarming about a disagreement at this level, this was the first time Gould had been overruled on such a major club decision. He knew his time was running out, so he took back control of his own domain to make the call himself.
He had already stepped back a touch when Cleary took the job, though was adamant his decision to walk away wasn't about his relationship with the coach, despite NRL360 host Paul Kent claiming there was indeed 'hostility' between the two.
Phil rode off after eight years of putting the pillars in place, laying the foundation. It was head coach Ivan Cleary, CEO Brian Fletcher, and chairman Dave O'Neill's job now to take this club to its final hurdle - a premiership.
These 2021 Penrith Panthers
In the two years since Phil Gould left the Panthers, the club has finally achieved one of Gould's greatest dreams, for the Panthers to join that upper echelon of NRL clubs.
They now sit one win away from snapping their 18-year premiership drought.
While coach Ivan Cleary will reap the rewards and the plaudits for this side's success, it's impossible to deny the fingerprints of Phil Gould scattered across this team. The western academies that delivered Staines and Burton to Penrith, the $22 million facility, the way the club shapes their roster, his fingerprints are everywhere.
Some people suggest that it's Phil Gould's absence from the club that has allowed Ivan Cleary to launch this side to the place it is now, Kent stating last year that Gould's departure helped Penrith "get off the launchpad."
But without Gus, would they even be close to where they are now?
Without throwing so much time, attention and funding into their junior system, would Jarome Luai and Nathan Cleary be the halves pairing for New South Wales? Would they have played in last year's NRL Grand Final as well as this year's?
The short answer is, no.
"I’m the most proudest father ever. Love you.” 😭
— ZeroTackle.com (@zerotackle) June 1, 2021
The man has spent close to a decade orchestrating the rebrand and rebuild of this club. They were perennial cellar-dwellers when he walked through the door, and walked out on the verge of a dynasty. Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai are just 23 and 24 respectively, it's almost impossible to see either departing this club during their career.
It's clear to see in these players, these young men, the meaning the area and this club has for them, as well as their relationship with the other players. They've come through the system together, spent time in the Academy together, and, with Gould's careful planning, Penrith has become a desirable club.
His influence - both to the club as well as each individual in it - is immense, and while he's now taken up a role as senior consultant for the New Zealand Warriors, there's little doubt he would be enjoying watching this Penrith team thrive.
He could spend half a year with every club in the NRL, but Phil Gould's name will always be synonymous with Penrith, just as Penrith will be for Gould.
Phil Gould has transformed the Panthers into one of the premier clubs in the NRL, blessed with a nursery that would make any club jealous, with a rich culture, and one that opposition players want to be apart of.
When this side wins a premiership, and they should, sooner or later, Gould should be one of the first people congratulated. He is a pillar of their modern-day success, and will go down in history as one of Penrith's all-time key figures. There is no Penrith success without him.
The five-year plan worked, just not when it was first brought to attention.
'Gus' built a side like the one today in 2017 - predominantly Penrith juniors sprinkled with some veterans and role players - but it just wasn't the right fit. So he blew it up, moved on a large portion of Penrith's youngsters, and started fresh. Names like Bryce Cartwright and Matt Moylan became James Fisher-Harris and Nathan Cleary, and suddenly there was success.
Whether he's there for it or not, this is the house that Gus built. It's time he bathes in some of that glory.
How does that make you feel, Panthers fans?