Ken Hinkley and Nathan Buckley. Pictures: AFL Photos

THERE aren't many lonelier places than an AFL coach on borrowed time.

Ask those who have been there. The experience is a combination of humiliation, anger, hurt and maybe the most disheartening of all – a lack of trust in people who once gave it in spades and demanded it back.

It is one of the game's ugliest facets, as men with usually impenetrable mental toughness can become stricken with self-doubt, and it does not discriminate. No one is spared. Unsuccessful coaches are most prone to it, but even multiple premiership-winning coaches can find themselves subjected to it, too. Just ask Mick Malthouse and Denis Pagan.


Port Adelaide's Ken Hinkley is either in this ugly zone, or nearing it, as of last Saturday's bad loss to Brisbane at Adelaide Oval. And this isn't Hinkley's first borrowed-time rodeo, either. He knows how it works, and extraordinarily staved it off last time after the Power missed the finals in 2022, and when he started the 2023 season badly, without a contract for 2024.

Thirteen consecutive wins helped him stare down that borrowed-time trauma, and a fresh contract was presented for the 2024 and 2025 seasons.

Ken Hinkley and Connor Rozee after Port Adelaide's win over the Western Bulldogs in round 13, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Just as he got to work last year, Hinkley, who possesses one of the great fighting attitudes, will be viewing his current plight in positive light. Such as the Power's 8-6 scoreline being worthy of eighth place on the ladder after round 15, and that being a better tally than both Carlton and GWS boasted at the same stage of 2023 before they reached preliminary finals.

From the moment Port Adelaide fell out of last year's finals series in straight sets, I was of the strong view that only the 2024 part of Hinkley's new deal was guaranteed, and that 2025 would require new negotiation, even if the finals were reached this year.

The Port Adelaide board owes it to Hinkley to let him coach out the 2024 season, at least until the point the finals cannot be reached. Hinkley knows how it works in the AFL, that even a win in an elimination final in 2024 may not be enough to satisfy everyone that he should remain. As good as his record is – with three preliminary finals and a 60 per cent winning strike rate part of his CV – he knows that history says coaches without a Grand Final on the records don't survive longer than him.

The Port board also owes it to Hinkley to look after him respectfully, which in my eyes it has done since he was appointed coach late 2012. But at the time of writing this column, neither the chairman David Koch nor CEO Matthew Richardson had publicly done anything since Saturday's loss to support their man against the pathetic supporters who were booing their man during and after the round 14 match.

If and when the Port board ends its time with Hinkley, it must also start from scratch a search for his replacement, and not be beholden to the nudge-nudge, wink-wink arrangement that seems to have been given to Hinkley assistant Josh Carr, who rejoined Port from Fremantle after the 2022 season.

As Hinkley's senior assistant, Carr must also be viewed as culpable for the Power's problems. That is not to say he should be ruled out as future coach, only that other candidates need to be given an equal crack at pitching for the job.

Ken Hinkley leaves the ground after Port Adelaide's loss to Brisbane at Adelaide Oval in round 15, 2024. Picture: Getty Images

When it is determined Hinkley's time at Port is done, there is a candidate who must be approached: Nathan Buckley.

Buckley, too, has experienced the coach-on-borrowed-time nightmare. And as tough as he already was, is even tougher for having lived through it.

The final year, 2021, of Buckley's 10 as coach of Collingwood pitched him headfirst into that dreaded place, after being exposed to conversations with his players and decisions about their futures that were forced by dreadful financial decisions made by others in list management.

As a coach, Buckley lost a Grand Final by five points, in 2018. On two other occasions, he reached a preliminary final, and lost one of those (2019) by four points.

Chris Mayne and Nathan Buckley after Collingwood's loss to West Coast in the 2018 Grand Final. Picture: AFL Photos

There is already interest in him to be the inaugural coach of the Tasmania Devils. But that club won't begin AFL life until 2028 at the earliest.

Buckley knows what Hinkley is enduring right now, would feel for him in a way few would be able to relate to, and he has too much class to be pushing his own claims on a potential job vacancy while Hinkley is still in charge.

But remember, before his extraordinary first-ballot Australian Football Hall of Fame playing career in the AFL began in 1993, he won a Magarey Medal, a Jack Oatey Medal, a Port best-and-fairest, and a premiership as a Port player in 1992.

The Port Adelaide board is obliged to ring Buckley, whenever Hinkley's time is ended.

X: @barrettdamian