Paul Buckle had a decade of experience of UK club management under his belt before he made the move to Sacramento and had to ‘start all over again’. It was, he says, the best decision he ever made.
You had a successful career in English football before moving to the US, initially with no job in place. Why did you feel that was the right thing to do?
I was manager of Luton Town at the time and was proud of what I’d achieved there, in particular having led them to the play-offs and achieving a win against Norwich City in the FA Cup. But when, in 2013, my wife was offered a job at NBC I chose to move to the US with her. It was a massive decision for me, but I felt that having enjoyed a long career as a player and then as a coach in England I’d made a good go of it there, so why not?
I didn’t know very much about US football at the time, but the LMA was a great help, providing me with support in making my decision and reassuring me that football was really growing in stature in the US. So I decided to go for it and moved to Connecticut.
Your first job in the States was that of technical director at the Metropolitan Oval. How useful was that in preparing you for US club management?
The Met Oval is an academy in New York and provided a great opportunity for me to travel around this huge country and get a feel for how the industry operates here. I learned, for example, how the college and youth development systems work in the US, and I went to Florida to coach at the ‘combines’, which I’d never heard of before. Combines are trials for college students who want to become professional players; they are players’ first real opportunities to showcase what they can do in front of professional coaches and managers.
To outsiders the US college system can seem very complicated, but it is brilliant. For four years kids get their college education, which I believe is very important, and when they come out at 21 they can go into the professional game. They enter what is known as the draft system, a complex process whereby clubs take turns to pick who they consider to be the best college players for their teams.
It would be easy for an experienced English coach to think that they can just step into a new role abroad, but that isn’t the case. I found it tough at first, as I had to learn all of the systems and processes from scratch, but I think that starting from the ground up is usually the best approach.
When I wanted to become a coach in England, for example, I didn’t just walk straight from being a player into a manager or assistant manager role; I went to work at an academy because I thought that was the best way to learn the ropes.
So my time at Met Oval was a really good grounding and meant I felt ready when the opportunity to manage presented itself.
That opportunity came at Sacramento Republic, where you’ve been since July 2015. How have you found the experience so far?
First I actually returned to the UK to take the manager’s job at Cheltenham, because having worked in English football since the age of 16 I was missing it. It didn’t work out, but I think it was important for me to give it another shot in the UK to get the idea out of my system.
I knew then, with confidence, that moving to the US really was the right thing for me to do. I came back to the US to take the job of head coach and technical director at Sacramento having spent quite a bit of time at the club and built a rapport there.
I’m now totally settled and feel that this club is a great fit for me. Sacramento Republic is only two years old and we’re building it up, with a new stadium and development of the academy in particular. In my early career I helped to build Torquay United over four years when it dropped out of the Football League and managed to get it back there again, so that growth element is something I’m familiar with and that excites me. The facilities here are great and the people have treated me very well.
How does working at a US club compare to what you were used to in England?
In some ways things aren’t so different. The football is the same – the same pitch, the same number of players, the same problems – and I work with players from many nations, including Serbia, Ireland and Columbia. Other things about working in the US are very different, and not only the climate, which offers so many possibilities and a very different lifestyle. I don’t think managers are under as much scrutiny in the US as they are in the UK. You only have to look at the statistics on dismissals to see that being a head coach or manager in England is a cut-throat business. But having worked in that environment I’m now instilled with the need to work hard and prove myself in the role. I’m proud of my record to date and I know that to maintain that and build on it will require hard work and dedication. When I joined Sacramento we had about 10 games left in the season and were just outside the play-off positions, so my immediate priority was to ensure we made the cut, which we did. Since then we’ve moved some players on and recruited new team members, which was a useful learning experience for me.
As a manager in England I used the loan system a great deal and built up a good database of players and contacts, but coming to the US I needed some help in getting to know the market. Thankfully I have had fantastic support from my director of football, Graham Smith, an ex-player who has been in the US for over 20 years now. With him I’ve been to Mexico and to the UK to spend time with Liverpool and Southampton, and I’ve really worked to promote our club and to draw on all the contacts I’ve built up over the years.
Moving to another country is never going to be easy, even to somewhere that seems so familiar to many Brits. Just how much of a challenge was it and why was it worth it?
I don’t think I was prepared for the change initially. Having worked for nearly 30 years in English football you think you know the game, the area and the market, but to be dropped down somewhere like Westport Connecticut is quite a shock to the system. You basically have to start all over again.
I went from being manager of Luton Town and playing games to a full house to working at an academy in the middle of nowhere.
But hard work pays off and I worked very hard to start again over here. Above all else, that would be my advice to other coaches looking to work abroad – if you get offered opportunities or are head-hunted for a role that’s great, but you will still have to work hard and do your homework so that you are familiar with the culture, the processes and the systems in place.
English football was great for me, but one thing it taught me is that if you fail in your first job it’s likely you won’t get a second chance to show what you’re capable of. That’s why, from the start, I was determined to ensure I was prepared.
Taking myself out of my comfort zone and gaining this experience abroad has been a massive step forward in my development as a coach and I have no desire to leave in the short term. With Major League Soccer coming to Sacramento there are big challenges ahead, so I’m totally focused on the job in hand.