Phil Gould doesn't expect Ivan Cleary to reunite with son Nathan at the Panthers next year, insisting he can't see the in-demand Wests Tigers coach asking the joint venture for a release anyway.
In a candid interview, the Panthers football supremo has thrown doubt on Penrith's plot to bring Cleary back to the foot of the mountains as early as 2019, despite the Tigers board calling a phone hook-up of directors on Wednesday night to discuss their coach's future.
Cleary, meanwhile, fronted the Tigers players at Concord Oval yesterday. He is understood to have told them Penrith had made him an offer and that he was tempted by the opportunity to link up with Nathan. However, Fairfax Media understands Cleary also said he would not walk away from his contract.
Gould absolved himself from any part in the pitch to lure Cleary back to Penrith and rubbished accusations the attempt was being made to only keep Cleary's son, Nathan, the NSW halfback, at the club during a revealing podcast on Wednesday.
He also said he was responsible for delaying the sacking of Anthony Griffin, suggesting he had long tried to convince the old-school mentor "he was on his side".
Gould added that the Panthers "didn't plan" to sack Griffin but with Cleary, one of the game's shrewdest tacticians, hurtling towards talks over his long-term future with the Tigers, their hand was forced after Penrith's chairman David O'Neill had innocently raised the idea of their former coach returning to the club down the track. Gould stressed the Panthers had no replacement in the works for Griffin and said he doubted Cleary would be at the club as soon as next year.
Asked if he thought Cleary would be at Penrith in 2019 on the Six Tackles With Gus podcast, Gould said: "No. The original conversation was not about next year, it was about the future.
"I don’t know at what point it became about 2019 and I don’t know if it has become about 2019. I don’t expect Ivan at the Panthers in 2019 because he has a contract at the Wests Tigers.
"The Wests Tigers are quite right to say, ‘No, he’s got a contract’. And Ivan’s not the sort of person that will push the issue if that’s what the Wests Tigers say. This is being brutally honest, I don’t even know if Ivan is pushing to come in 2019. I could never see the Wests Tigers releasing him from that deal and to be honest ... I don’t think Ivan will pursue it."
Cleary is contracted until the end of 2020, but has made no secret of his desire to one day work with Nathan, whose deal with the Panthers has a year remaining.
Gould distanced himself from the approach to Cleary, saying he had yet to speak to the man he axed from Penrith at the end of 2015.
The approach was instead instigated by O'Neill, a long-time friend of Cleary's who had asked to meet him about an unrelated matter.
Cleary's willingness to ponder a return to Penrith ultimately forced Griffin out the door, even though he was on the verge of taking Penrith to the finals for the third year in as many seasons at the club.
"I’ve had absolutely no discussion with Ivan Cleary," Gould said. "Any suggestions that I have been a part of this Ivan Cleary approach or I’ve offered Ivan Cleary a contract or that I’ve asked Ivan Cleary to break a contract or I organised our chairman to meet Ivan Cleary are scurrilous in the extreme. They are just not true.
"My only involvement in all of this was to tell our executive if Ivan was going to have that discussion with the Wests Tigers on Monday, then we owed it to our coach to inform it exactly what was happening because it would create a media storm and make his position difficult here.
"The Cleary conversation brought it forward. Can you imagine Anthony Griffin trying to prepare the team this week with that noise going on in the background?
"I would not normally end a coach’s services unless I’ve got a plan in place. I’ve got no plan in place at the moment to replace Anthony Griffin. Even though I’ve contemplated it over the last 12 months, I didn’t really have a viable option available to us.
"I’ve been trying to convince Anthony for a long time that I was on his side. Had the executive had their way, this probably would have ended a lot sooner."
Griffin's former assistant Cameron Ciraldo will take charge of Penrith on a caretaker basis until the end of the season.
Gould said his "conscience was a million per cent clear" over his handling of the Griffin axing, which he said was exacerbated by the coach's reluctance to take help from support staff around him.
On the allegation Cleary's return to the Panthers was primarily being used to ensure Nathan remained at the club, Gould said: "It’s got nothing to do with it. The whole Nathan thing is unfortunate.
"It was Ivan that talked Nathan into staying at the Panthers in the first place even though Ivan had been terminated. Never have we thought getting Ivan back to the club would solve the Nathan situation.
"Ivan’s a great coach in his own right. Nathan’s a great player. They’ll both survive whether they’re together or not."