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Q & A: Former Sacramento Republic FC coach Paul Buckle

Note: NorCal Premier Soccer regularly sits down with an influential figure in the youth soccer landscape to pick their brain about a variety of different topics that are relevant in the current soccer environment in the United States. For this edition, we spoke to former Sacramento Republic FC head coach and academy director Paul Buckle. After making his professional debut at age 16 for Brentford Football Club in England, Buckle went on to appear in over 500 league games for 11 different clubs. Following his playing career, Buckle managed teams in England for a decade before moving to the United States to work in the youth game. Since his time at the Republic, Buckle has stayed working in the area, save for a stint in Southampton’s youth academy. 

NorCal: You’ve been around the youth game both in the United States and Europe, what are the differences between here and there?

Buckle: One of the reasons I went to Southampton was just to keep up to speed. There are a lot of different opinions on how to develop players. Clubs have all sorts of different resources, so if you go to Southampton, they have incredible resources, not only for the players, but for the coaches in terms of educating the coaches and making it very deliberate in your approach. Everything that you do with the players, you’re fully cognisant of what you’re doing. It’s all very deliberate, that’s the big word there. I think that clubs have to adapt. If you’re someone like the Republic, what you can and can’t do is going to be different than Southampton. You make the best of what you’ve got. From working in Europe at somewhere like Exeter City in League Two, they don’t have anywhere near the resources of the Premier League, but there’s a clear path for the players to get into the first team if they’re good enough, whereas sometimes in the Premier League level, even if the players are good enough, they don’t get an opportunity just because of all of the players there that can be a bit of a roadblock. The biggest thing that I learned at Southampton was communication and having a clear way of working with all of the staff. I think that’s why they’ve had major success with players that they’ve brought through the academy and also players that they’ve paid for and developed. I think that’s the biggest thing there, that everyone is working towards the same mission.

NorCal: You came over to the United States in 2013. Just in that timeframe, have you seen the youth game grow in the country?

Buckle: I’ve seen the game grow, that’s for sure. I’ve been married to Rebecca (Lowe) so I’ve seen the growth of the Premier League here, but I’ve also spent two years at (New York’s Metropolitan Oval) and when I got there, they were really struggling. We not only turned that around, but we actually affiliated with New York City FC and had all the guys from Manchester City come over. They set the standards for us. So I saw a big change just in those two years in the way that professional clubs were affiliated with youth clubs like Met Oval, who were really developing kids brilliantly with limited resources. Then going back to the pro game with Sacramento, you saw the talent there, you saw the hard work the coaches did with those players in the academy. My job there was to create a pathway for the players into the first team. That’s the crucial part for the players, the pathway. Of course you need coaches to be open, you need coaches to keep wanting to learn, but the players need somewhere to keep developing year after year, especially as they get to 16, 17, 18. I know here the collegiate game is here for them, but I always wanted to give them that experience in and around the first team because that’s where they really grow.

NorCal: So is the next step then bridging that gap for that age group to get into the first team rather than maybe going to college and only getting to play in a two month season?

Buckle: I think certainly getting them in training around the pros is crucial. Because at 16, 17, 18, I’m not going to say that you’ve learned the game, but you’re well on your way. You’ve gone through all the basics, you’re now on the tactical side. Once you get the players up to the speed of play around the pros, the pros are professionals for a reason — they’ve done a lot of things right to make it there so they’re great educators for the young player. In terms of speed of play, the player that’s dominated youth football comes to the final hurdle. You’re up against men, the expectation is greater, the demands are greater, and they’re around a head coach that needs to trust them. I think development is great, of course they need development, but they need the realization at the end which is, if you want to be a professional footballer, then you need to win games. There’s a lot more too in the final chapter because you want to take all the good things they’ve done in the academy, but they also need to learn to win as well. I think that the USL is a great place for young players to develop. Take a look at Orange County SC, they’re a great example of a USL club that is bringing youth players through into men’s football right away. They’ve affiliated with Rangers so I think that type of pathway is a great pathway for a young player.

NorCal: How important was it for your career to have a clear pathway to the point where you made your first team debut at 16?

Buckle: It was huge because you need someone to give you an opportunity, you have to have an opportunity. You sink or swim. I played and then didn’t play again for 18 months so that was a challenge mentally for me, to go back to the reserve team and fight my way up. I need to get stronger. It showed me a lot of things. Getting into the first team gave me a real taste for it, but it showed me how far off I was. I needed to bridge the gap physically. I needed to mature. I needed to really speed my game up because the pro game was a lot different. I did that but I certainly had a club at Brentford that really wanted the young players in the team. I think we have to have that in whichever country we’re in, we have to have the mentality that if we’re going to have academies, we need people running them who understand how to get players into the first team.

NorCal: Right now, everyone is dealing with an unprecedented situation in COVID-19, which means that no one can train. What advice do you have for youth players right now?

Buckle: To be a professional athlete you need a bit of motivation. Every coach wants and demands ownership from the young players. This is a great opportunity and test. When I was at the Republic, if you told some of the young players to be first in and last out, it was a test for them because that’s something they have to do on their own. I would always say, “don’t wait to be trained. Of course there’s a session going on today, but you need to be doing other things yourself to get that edge and to make it and to stay there.” This is going to be a time where players are going to be tested. Can they get up in the morning and follow guidelines on their own? Can they spend time on their own and work? There’s a great satisfaction that comes out of that and that’s what’s needed. Look at Cristiano Ronaldo. We have an opportunity in this day and age to go online and see what he’s doing and he’s going way above and beyond all the other players. You’ve got to find motivation in this time. Once everybody gets back to playing, you probably will be able to see who has been putting in the time and who hasn’t.

NorCal: Anything else you’d like to add about youth development in this country?

Buckle: Just that with all the great development that’s going on in NorCal and across the country and in all of these academies, professional clubs owe it to them to create a clear pathway for the young players to come into the first team.