I recently had a chance to catch up with former Sacramento Republic FC Manager Paul Buckle from his office in Southampton, Hampshire, England at the headquarters of Southampton FC of the English Premier League (EPL).
From our 20 minute conversation, it was clear that Buckle was clearly ecstatic and energized by the opportunity to be coaching the Saints’ U23s. And what’s not to like? He is coaching in the EPL (England’s top-tier football league), which by the way, is considered among the best soccer leagues in the world, but maybe more importantly, he is once again working in the academy where he is responsible for developing and mentoring players.
Buckle and I discussed how the position came about, how coaching in the academy is different than coaching a first team, the difficulty of being away from his wife Rebecca Lowe and family (where he was incredibly transparent), and I got his thoughts on the Republic’s latest development on its MLS bid.
So, without any further delay, below is my interview with the Republic’s former gaffer. It’s worth noting that the interview is a tinge long, so grab your favorite beverage and settle in.
Good to catch up with you coach. Thank you for taking the time. How have you been?
[I have] been really well William. I have always wanted to work at the top level and in a top level environment, and I think anybody in any profession wants to get to the top. I wasn’t expecting this offer, but it was one that I’m so pleased that I took because to work with these types of players [is incredible]. I think we have something like 25 internationals between U16 and U23...so to come work in an environment where resources are incredible, the training ground is incredible, and the people here are immense [is great]. I am delighted and I am thoroughly enjoying it.
How did this opportunity come about? Can you walk me through it?
[Laughs]...I’m trying to figure that out myself. I think football is a global village. It’s just nice to be able to come back across [to England]. I wasn’t expecting the phone call. I think the job I’ve done developing younger players [played a role]. When I was a head coach in England, I was always taking players out of the Premier League and developing them...you know, taking them on loan.
Southampton made it clear that they wanted me to come in and work with the U23s, and it’s an age group that I know well. So I think it came from a mixture of work I’ve done in the UK and also coming to America. That improved me as a coach I feel by working in the academy in Brooklyn and then coming to Sacramento for three incredible seasons there. I do think club’s keep an eye on coaches.
I can share with you now...I’ve had some really, really good offers in the U.S. after leaving the Republic, but none of them were quite right for me. I am reluctant to share names...obviously I don’t think that’s the right thing to do, but I had three or four good offers to work in the U.S. with other clubs.
But in many ways, I was very satisfied with the work I’ve done since coming over from England. But when this opportunity came....to work in the Premier League...it’s something that I’ve always wanted to do. The timing was perfect.
Like I said, I’m so pleased I accepted it. With any move in football, there is always risk attached to it, but it’s really helped my development as a coach, and I have been able to add value to such a great football club.
To expand on what you’re saying if I may, did it have to be an opportunity for you in the EPL to get you back coaching in England?
Yeah, that’s a 100 percent right. That’s no disrespect to anyone or any club. This was the only one. We work so closely with the first team. We’re on the same floor, we’re right next door to the [first team] head coach. They take the players from us on a daily basis, which is what we want...which is the biggest part of our roles in U23s....to get players into the first team.
There is a pathway for that at Southampton. There is a history of producing players for the first team and selling them on. I am seeing that first hand how that operates.
I have always been a believer that you have to get [younger players] around the first team for their development. So we work super close with the first team. We play on Friday nights with the U23s so I get to the opportunity to watch the first team games when they’re home.
It’s just a high-quality learning environment and a great place to work. So yeah, I wouldn’t have taken any other job probably outside this level of football.
What is the connection for you or satisfaction that comes with developing academy players?
I think hard work is everything. I’ve always stood by that. You also have to have the talent in the first place. But certainly with the players...it doesn’t matter what level you work as a coach, you’re looking to maximize the potential of the player. There is an enjoyment when you see a player finally click. You start to see them grow up.
It’s a tough challenge in England. We ask the players to between 18 and 23....there’s decisions made on their futures. So it’s a fast-tracking mechanism in many ways, where you need a club like Southampton that is going to show a clear path for the players.
On a daily basis, we wait for our numbers of who we got. Sometimes we get first team players come back and train with us for whatever reason. But when players go, the other lads that see that player even go and train with the first team is a big deal. That’s a massive incentive, which I think as a coach, you need to have or sometimes things that that you say may fall on deaf ears.
So we’re very lucky that we work in a environment where there is pressure on us to get those players ready to go into a first team environment. So yeah, I am a massive advocate for it. At every club I’ve been at, I’ve always tried to get the young players involved and through, so this suits me nicely.
You touched on it, but how is coaching in the academy different than coaching the first team? Obviously you still want to win, but the mentality on how you approach it is different.
Well, yeah. We beat Manchester United U23s 1-0 away from home, which is great for the players, but then the next game, we had three players go up to the first team, so your eyes can’t be on wins. It can’t. [But] you’re never going to say to the player that we don’t want to win...because of course we do.
The rewards and challenge for us is to get players to the first team and that’s what we will be judged by. Because what’s the point of having an academy system if none of your players come through to the first team?
I think the one plus for me when Southampton appointed me was I’ve got a record of bringing players through, but I’ve also been a manager, so I know what the head coach is looking for. I’m not going to get disappointed when he takes players from us, because I know it’s development. It’s definitely not about winning.
But not only [getting them ready for] the first team, players will leave us and go to league clubs...you know, the period in England...they’ll go to the Championship or go to League 1 or League 2. We lose players on international duty...it’s a totally different animal.
But it’s an absolute pleasure to be working here.
How difficult is it being away from Rebecca, Ted and the rest of your family?
It’s very difficult. When you’ve been in the professions that we’ve been in as long as we have, you sort of get used to making sacrifices William. You don’t expect everyone to understand that, but it’s something that we understand with each other.
When the news came for Rebecca to join NBC and come to America, there were huge sacrifices that were made. But we are very much together...making sure we do the right things [for] our family, but also our careers.
Thank goodness for FaceTime, because you do feel like you’re there when you see each other every day. But also, Rebecca’s mom has come out for three months, which is a huge plus. It’s not just to make it easier on us, but to see Ted.
There’s a lot going on, but we make it work. I am looking forward to coming back in May and we’ll re-asses everything then.
Have you been following the latest development out of Sacramento with their MLS bid?
Oh yes. I have everything crossed [laughs]. Rebecca bumped into Kevin the other day, and as you know, he has worked extremely hard with everyone at the Republic. There is no one who deserves it more than Sacramento Republic. It’s been such positive news, [especially] after not hearing anything for quite a while.
That was positive news with Kevin bringing someone on board who can help our push. Long may that trend continue because we deserve it.
We need to keep doing as well as we can in the USL again this season. They’ve found some good players again and keep pushing right? That’s the key...keep pushing.
As we said at the start of this conversation, the harder you work, the luckier you get, and nobody has worked harder than Sacramento. That’s everyone..staff, fans and players to give us a chance of getting there.
Many thanks to Paul for making himself available during what is a busy time for him. Indomitable City Soccer wishes him and the U23 Southampton FC Saints’ the best!