“If we had won that day at Old Trafford it would have been very difficult for me to leave the football club”
“We’ve interviewed Sillsy and Alex Rowe recently so it’s only right to complete the ‘Catch Up’ trilogy by speaking to the gaffer! ‘Bucks’ was a young coach who returned to his former club in 2007 determined to do things his way and bring the good times back to a beleaguered and battered Torquay United. Despite a few bumps along the road, he did just that. With sunny days out at Wembley, promotion challenges and FA Cup runs to get the town buzzing, it was an tremendous time to be a Gull. May I introduce to you a A Catch Up with Paul Buckle“
TT – Hi Paul, thank you for answering TT’s questions. How are things going over in the USA and remind us what you are up to these days?
PB – Well there’s been quite a change in my role these days to when I was a manager in the UK. I started working at Sacramento Republic as Head Coach and Technical Director in Summer 2015 (Sac Republic are in the USL, one division below MLS) and loved it – we won the Western Conference League and got to the last 16 of the US Open Cup (best equivalent is FA Cup). I then decided to change direction but still wanted to live in Northern California with Rebecca and our little boy Teddy.
I took a break to reflect on my next challenge and that ended up being with the U23s at Southampton last season, which was something I always wanted to do. I assisted Radhi Jaidi for 4 months back in the UK; they have some of the best young talent and facilities in the world, so all in all it was well worth being away from home for so long – not only for what I could give but also for what I could learn and improve on.
When I got back I had some offers to go back into management but I decided that after a break away from it I wanted to pursue other options. So now I’ve started my own consultancy business to advise chairman and managers on running and building a club. Right now I work with Hartford Athletic FC and I’m senior advisor to Landon Donovan who is manager of the brand new club San Diego Loyal FC.
Playing-wise you represented Torquay from 1994 to 1995; what stands out from that spell at Plainmoor and how would you describe yourself as a player?
The two things that stand out the most – fantastic manager in Don O’Riordan and team as well plus making it to the play-off semi final to be knocked out by Preston, which we all remember. As a player I guess I would call myself hard-working, committed and reliable – and capable of a goal!
You started your coaching career at Exeter City alongside Alex Inglethorpe and then Paul Tisdale. What did you learn from those two guys?
I learnt way too much to say in this interview, which says it all really – and I enjoyed working with them and Steve Perryman of course. The main thing was organisation and being clear on a style of play. Both managers delegated to me, which gave me great experience of working with senior pros that I believe served me well in the 9 years of being a head coach myself.
I always knew that I was working with two fantastic coaches and history has proven that with Alex now leading the Academy at Liverpool FC and Paul becoming the longest serving manager behind Arsene Wenger at the time. I’m still in touch with them both regularly as I am with my mentor (and former boss at Brentford FC) Steve Perryman. Another person who really has to take credit is Julian Tagg. He was the one who got me into coaching in the first place at Exeter and I will always be indebted to him.
We move forward into the summer of 2007; tell us about how you came to be the new TUFC manager and how difficult was it rebuilding a squad from scratch?
I literally got a knock on my front door from Colin Lee, completely out of the blue. It was amazing to see Colin after so many years, as he was my youth coach at Brentford and played a huge part in me becoming a professional footballer. Colin explained to me very quickly that I was his first choice to take the role at Torquay, but Paul made me a new offer to stay at Exeter as we’d just been beaten in the play-off final – so I had a choice to make. But after a few days I decided to take the step into management.
On reflection, to have a blank canvas, really did help me. With only a couple of players, no staff all the way down to groundsman, I worked around the clock to make sure that the people we brought in had the right characteristics to suit the needs of the club. It was easy to do the job in a way, as I loved my time there as a player and was now driven to make this a success.
The 2007-08 season was full of exciting drama but ultimately ended in disappointment; what are your main memories of that eventful first year in the Conference?
First of all Lee Mansell in tears in my office at the very start because they’d been relegated out of the Football League, showed me that I had a great leader in Mans straight away and we both shared the same drive to get the club back to where it belonged.
Fantastic FA Cup run was another memory beating League 1 Yeovil at home live on BBC1 4-1, beating Exeter on New Years Day in the derby with a fantastic goal from Tim Sills, coming back from 3-0 down at Oxford to draw 3-3 live on Setanta which showed me what my squad was all about, and leading the team out at Wembley for the FA Trophy in my first season as a manager with my kids Chloe and Johnny beside me.
And of course the rollercoaster of emotions in the two legs of the play-off semis against Exeter was the best thing that happened to me, as it tested my resolve to the full. That night I met Alex Rowe and Colin Lee down at the Grand Hotel to already start planning for the following season.
I still wouldn’t swap that season for the world because that team gave us all so much pleasure, not to mention becoming the first team to reach 50 goals in English football. Mansell, Chris Todd, Wayne Carlisle, Tim Sills, Lee Phillips, Chris Robertson, Kevin Nicholson were all led by an inspirational captain in Chris Hargreaves, and that made me know there were going to be more good times around the corner.
How tough was that Exeter City play-off defeat to swallow, especially considering your history with the Grecians?
I touched on that in the answer above – I think as disappointed as I was, I had a huge amount to be thankful for and so did Torquay. We’d taken a club that had been relegated, which is never an easy task, all the way to the brink of Wembley for the second time in a season, and that season – despite losing to Exeter, I believe put Torquay back on the map.
What with the FA Trophy run, the FA Cup run and the play-offs, the only thing missing from that campaign was promotion! Looking back it was probably inevitable that we might run out of steam given that we had played the most amount of games, but we still managed to push Aldershot all the way for the title.
What did you learn from that first campaign and how did you set about re-galvanising the team for 2008-09 and another shot at promotion?
I learnt that we didn’t need to change much but at the same time I had to freshen things up. Picking the players up for the following season after such an anti-climax was harder than I thought. This was reflected in a poor start to the season and my first real difficult spell as a manager. My faith and belief in the team I’d like to think shone through and the boys in turn really dug in and showed true grit. The turning point being at home to Northwich with Tim Sills – probably by his own admission – not striking the penalty great but still scoring it and we then went on a run of 17 unbeaten. After that we quickly became once again one of the forces of the division.
Tim Sills pinpointed the last gasp Northwich win in September 2008 as a turning point in that promotion campaign, how concerned were you by the team’s form around that time?
After winning week in week out pretty much in the first year, this was just something I wasn’t used to. We were criticised and rightly so and sometimes that’s tough to accept on top of being really concerned but again this group of players deserved my support after what they’d given me the season before. The board led by Alex Rowe and the technical support of Colin Lee plus my brilliant staff of Shaun North, Kenny Veysey & Damien Davey were enormously important at that time.
The squad was full of big characters such as Sillsy, Hargreaves and Manse; what was the dressing room like to manage and how did you get the best out of them on the pitch?
Well from the start the plan was to have this type of player and character in the squad, so I knew exactly what I was going to get from these players. Training was incredibly competitive every day and in the end the ownership the players took was everything that I had wanted from the start. Getting the best out of the players was achieved by giving them licence to go express themselves in what I hoped was a very clear system of play and a real identity as to who we were. Across all 4 years at Torquay, I looked forward to the games as I knew whichever group I had would give me everything.
Tell us about that 2009 day at Wembley; how confident were you heading towards kick-off, what do you remember about the game and how were the celebrations afterwards?
I was more focussed than confident and I think I showed the players that after the victory at Histon in the semi-finals when there was no celebration and preparation would start immediately after that final whistle. I really didn’t care in a way about the performance at Wembley for once – this was about knowing how to win at Wembley.
We set about on the training ground telling the players the strengths of Cambridge Utd and how we planned on controlling the game. I felt calm during the game because we had planned on allowing Cambridge to have the ball, which as it turned out was exactly what happened. Although they had a lot of possession we limited them to opportunities on our goal and made our way into the game.
The first thing that stands out was going in at half-time after that incredible goal by Greavsie, because now this was the biggest 15 minutes I’d probably ever get with the players. My first big decision was whether to keep Sills on the field for the second half or not, because he’d taken an incredible blow to the ankle which to this day I still don’t know how he managed to continue. Damien and Tim convinced me that he could give it a go, which epitomised everything I was looking for in a player and team.
Of course Tim not only stayed on but scored a fantastic second goal for us from another great counter attack involving Elliot Benyon and Wayne Carlisle. Another part of it was that Benyon grew up that day – the way he controlled the centre back along with Sills was above his years and his centre back was then shown a red. He did his job and then some.
I found it difficult to celebrate as it was everything I had ever wanted for the football club, the supporters, my chairman, team and staff – but I suppose the disappointments before had levelled me. However, there was still no better feeling than winning at Wembley as a manager and I made up for it on the journey home with the staff – no better feeling than taking that cup on the coach back to Plainmoor – the staff and I absolutely celebrated during that journey! But my focus quickly turned to the challenges of the Football League.
One of the highlights for the Yellow Army was the FA Cup runs you regularly inspired. Which cup matches stand out for you and how gutting was that Crawley defeat?
The Yeovil victory of course as I’ve mentioned – beating a team 4-1 from a division two leagues higher than us was special at Plainmoor, but also beating Blackpool at home as they were in the Championship was another great day.
The Crawley defeat was obviously tough – I always fancied our chances at home in the cup, but we were up against a team that was probably better than the division with the players they had. Of course to lose it and see them draw Manchester United next was not a nice feeling, but the upside was that we’d brought a lot of money into the club again that season which was a very important part of my job. And on the Monday ironically being told the play-off final that season would be at Old Trafford – I quickly organised a team meeting to tell the players that our chance to play at Old Trafford was not gone – I felt this turned a big negative into a positive.
What was Colin Lee like to work alongside during your successful time at Plainmoor?
Colin Lee was different class. The fact that he put his faith in me to lead the club back to the Football League was the biggest compliment anyone could pay me. He of course knew me since I was a kid at Brentford so knew I had the characteristics and drive as well as watching me coach at Exeter so he knew I knew the division. Having someone with Colin’s experience was invaluable and I will always be thankful for the opportunity he gave me in management.
After a period of consolidation the team really started to click in 2010; did you believe promotion was a possibility and which players stood out for you in that very good side?
I feel that the work I did with the squad in 2009/10 was crucial to our success in 2010-11. This has to be spoken about because that was the hardest year for me having to part ways with players who had been absolutely fantastic for me. I believed promotion would be a possibility after a good end of season the year before, where we had changed our style of play.
Bringing in the likes of Eunan O’Kane, Nicky Wroe, Damon Lathrope, Jake Robinson, Gavin Tomlin and Guy Branston as well as Chris Zebroski on a permanent deal, we became a team that dominated the ball and played through the thirds. The step up in League 2 was a bigger step than I thought and the change in style of play was absolutely the right thing to do.
We still had a good blend with Mansell, Nicho, Robertson, Benyon and then we added even more quality to those names. The evolution of the squad gave us a very good chemistry. But those changes that I referred to didn’t sit well with all the fans because I appeared to be losing leaders, but it was one of my best decisions because we had to evolve.
The United team never got going at Old Trafford versus Stevenage in that drab play-off final, what do you think went wrong on the day?
Okay so now I can share some stuff! After a brilliant 2-0 win against Shrewsbury in the semis I had every reason to feel confident against Stevenage at Old Trafford. Preparations went exactly to plan leading up to the game apart from a 2am fire alarm going off the night before the game in Manchester at the hotel. To this day I still wonder who set that off…!?
The day of the game – which I admit is the same for both teams – the delay to the kick-off was a challenge plus as every one of my players would tell you, the surface (believe it or not at Old Trafford) was never going to suit our style of play. I clearly remember Mansell and Nicholson asking me why the pitch hadn’t been watered, when the itinerary we were given told us the pitch would be watered pre-game. This never happened. I’m not afraid to say it – our game was without doubt built around fast football on the floor and on the day the players found it very difficult to forge attacks on such a slow surface. I believe this suited the opposition.
Although with some good chances in the game we couldn’t find an equaliser, what I would say is that I have the utmost respect for Graham Westley and his team, who would prove what a great side they were in League 1 the following season.
After that match – the feeling of walking around the stadium with Rebecca and my son Johnny to the car was one of – if not the – worst feelings I’ve ever had in my career. On refection this was probably because I knew this was the end for me at Torquay. As much as I felt I needed to move on, I also felt the club needed a fresh start (which was proven with the incoming Martin Ling, who did such a great job). What I can say is that if we had won that day it would have been very difficult for me to leave the football club.
Do you regret how the move to Bristol Rovers was handled, with the speculation of your departure looming large before the play-off final?
No. I don’t regret it because it was out of my hands. The two clubs agreed the fee before the play-off semi-final 1st leg v Shrewsbury. Bristol Rovers had made an offer which I’m led to believe Torquay Utd accepted and in turn let me know. There was no way it affected me and that was reflected in our outstanding display and victory over Shrewsbury over 2 legs, 2-0. This was always going to be discussed at the end of the season which it was.
Both clubs conducted themselves in a professional manner – as I did. This wasn’t the first time that I had had an opportunity to speak to other clubs – Colchester Utd (which was a former club of mine) asked permission to speak to me during the season, which again Alex Rowe and the club were very fair in letting me know and giving me the opportunity – which I declined. All of this is normal in football and was a reflection of how well we were all doing at the club.
Overall it was a period of upward momentum and achievement for the club; what were your personal highlights from those 4 years in charge of the Gulls?
The very first one without any shadow of a doubt was getting promoted back to the Football League. Every knows the two biggest play-off finals are the Championship one and the Conference one with so much at stake. To lead the team out at 3 Cup Finals in 4 years is everything and more than all I could have imagined at the start. Having said that our hard work and commitment as players, staff, board and fans deserved this success.
And lastly I always told the board that if we got to a stage where we were not only successful but also selling players then we really had achieved something…which as we all know happened with a number of good young players that we developed and moved on for much-needed money for the club.
Give us a combined TUFC Dream Team from the years you played and managed Torquay United?
As you know I declined this question! But I will reluctantly name one based on balance and complementing each other. Michael Poke in goal (Sorry Ashley Bayes!), Mansell at RB, CB Darren Moore and Chris Robertson, LB Kevin Nicholson, midfield of Wayne Carlisle on the right, on the left Ian Hathaway with Chris Hargreaves and Paul Trollope in the middle and upfront Tim Sills and Eunan O’Kane just underneath him.
Any eleven that I was ever going to pick for this club would have to be led by Alex Rowe who was not only an incredible Chairman but a great friend which is crucial to any football club being successful. Again to reiterate, this is the dream team on balance. I’m sure Guy Branston has already booked his flight over to hammer me – love you Guy!
Lee Mansell – Darren Moore – Chris Robertson – Kevin Nicholson
Wayne Carlisle – Paul Trollope – Chris Hargreaves – Ian Hathaway
And finally, would you ever consider a return to TUFC and do you keep track of how the Gulls are doing these days under Gary Johnson?
The only saying in football is ‘never say never’…when you’ve played for a club and had success and then managed a club and had success, it would be crazy to think I don’t think about the club. It’s the first result I look out for on a Saturday. I think they have an outstanding manager in Gary Johnson which I believe given time will absolutely see them back in the Football League.