First published 2016
Will Buckley emerged from the Rochdale youth team during a period that would become the most successful in the club’s history.
The winger made a gradual impact rather than an explosive one as he matured and learned his craft under the tutelage of manager Keith Hill and his assistant David Flitcroft. He would go on to cement his place as an integral part of a Rochdale side that would seal promotion in 2010 (although he left just before this was achieved), before going on to prove himself at the highest level. For the Dale, he became equally devastating out wide as he did through the middle, and was an integral component of a hugely successful attacking force.
Born and raised next door in Oldham, Buckley joined Rochdale as a youth scholar in 2006 before progressing to the reserves.
He explains how he came to that point.
‘I joined Oldham Athletic’s School of Excellence when I was about nine,’ he says. ‘I was there until the under-14s age group. I’d stopped enjoying it by then, though, and said to my mum and dad that I didn’t want to play anymore.
‘I felt there was too much pressure on me. With the way it was run, being a professional environment, football simply stopped being fun. My main position was a striker back then. As I hadn’t grown as much as some of my team mates and opponents, I felt my football suffered for it. I was still confident in my ability but in most games I was just not having the impact I would have wanted. The only thing you want to do at that age is play the game that you love. Unfortunately, at this time, I’d lost the enjoyment factor and therefore the best thing for me to do was leave Oldham in order to find the enjoyment again.
‘We approached Oldham to explain, but they didn’t want me to leave because I’d signed a four-year contract with them. They did eventually agree to let me leave, but said I couldn’t sign for another professional club. I ended up playing Sunday-league football for a couple of years. It was the best thing I could have done at that point because football started to be fun again. It was back to what it should have been for a lad my age – a kickabout with my mates.
‘I realised then, though, that I did want to have a career in football after all and so I eventually went back to Oldham, as I couldn’t go anywhere else. I was fifteen and they put me on a six-week trial. After that, they decided they didn’t want to offer me a Youth Training Scheme deal and they let me go.
‘I weighed up my options and decided to go to Hopwood Hall College, in Middleton [just outside Rochdale]. I was accepted into the football academy there. The course mirrored what youth scholars would be doing at local professional clubs – training and studying. Ironically, it’s where both Oldham and Rochdale sent their youth scholars after training each day. I think the qualification was equivalent to a BTEC National. You studied sports nutrition, sports psychology, stuff like that – anything that enhanced your knowledge of sport beyond just playing. It was really enjoyable.’
Buckley cites what happened next as the slice of luck that made his career.
‘Hopwood Hall’s academy was at quite a good level,’ he says. ‘Every year, they played the Rochdale youth team. I played in that year’s game  and we beat them 3-1. It just so happened that Keith Hill was there. It was not long before he was promoted to first-team manager at Rochdale. He spoke to me after the game and invited me and another lad, Ryan Morris, for a trial. I did the trial and was offered non-contract terms. It suited me because I didn’t want to tie myself to a two-year youth contract, as I would’ve been nineteen when it expired, which would have made me too old, in my opinion.
‘As Keith Hill had been the youth-team manager previously, there was a bit of upheaval when I arrived. Chris Beech eventually became my youth-team coach; I think he’d just arrived from Bury at that point. I got on really well with him and he helped me quite a lot. It was all very different to Oldham and I enjoyed my time in the Rochdale youth team. Part of that was down to the fact that they would use us in reserve games, which meant we could play with first-team squad players. It gave you a chance to show what you could do against full-time professionals. You got thrown in at the deep end. Keith Hill and Dave Flitcroft would come to these games and watch everybody.’
Buckley’s introduction to the first team in 2008 was measured and he believes this is because his manager didn’t want to overexpose him to the rigours of league football.
‘I was still quite small and weak at that point, to be honest,’ he says. ‘I knew I had the ability to make it, but I didn’t know whether I would get the physicality. In some games I would get pushed off the ball too easily. Keith and David seemed to have faith in me, though, and they eventually selected me for a few first-team squads. I made my debut in the February of that year but only made eight more appearances that season. I was training with the first team every day by then, though. I think the management were looking out for me because, looking back, I wasn’t ready for too many games at that point.’
While Buckley would only make a handful of substitute appearances that season, one of them was in the play-off final against Stockport County at Wembley, which Dale lost 3-2.
‘I’d like to say Wembley was a defining experience for me, but, to be honest, when I think back to it, it’s a blur,’ he says. ‘I came on for the last twenty minutes but can’t remember it. I have to look at the DVD to remind me. I do remember being devastated at losing the game, of course, and I remember thinking it was ridiculous I was playing at Wembley aged eighteen. It did make me confident that I could kick on.’
After the Wembley disappointment, Rochdale once again made a tilt for promotion the following season and Buckley found himself with more game time, scoring his first professional goal in a 2-2 draw away at the nomadic Rotherham United and then again in the two subsequent games.
‘I had a really good pre-season and became a lot more regular in the first team when the season started,’ he says. ‘I got my first professional goal and I remember how good that felt. I remember the confidence it gave me. We were away against Rotherham, who were playing at Sheffield’s Don Valley stadium at the time. It was a shocking pitch and the game wasn’t the best, but I remember scoring and sprinting across the running track, which surrounded the pitch, to the Rochdale fans. It felt like they were half a mile away but I wanted to celebrate with them. At the end of the day, you can score twenty goals in the reserves but that first professional goal beats them all. That is one feeling you never forget.
‘It did feel special at Rochdale during that time. There was a buzz that was created by Keith and Dave and it was felt by everybody – not just the players, but other people at the club and the fans, too. After Wembley, everybody felt we had a chance to go one better. It was my first professional club in terms of being in a first team, so I guess I was spoilt looking back. I thought this is the way it was everywhere. Training was so enjoyable and both Keith and Dave maintained a closeness with the players that made them approachable. You knew both of them were your boss but you never felt you couldn’t go to them. If something ever needed to be said, you could say it to them. It just created a kind of harmony – a feeling that everyone was on the same side.
‘Since then, I’ve obviously learned some managers can be a lot more distant. That was never the case with Keith. It was a relaxed environment but nobody was ever in doubt of the job that needed to be done. Gary Jones, the captain, personified this. The way he trained and played was an inspiration to us all. It was great to be involved with him. We definitely had the right players at Rochdale, but Keith, Dave and Gary brought a steadiness and calmness that was needed to ensure everybody performed to their best.’
While Rochdale would again miss out on promotion via the play-offs, Buckley had established himself as a rising star. Rumours of his departure were rife. By the January of the following season, the one that would see Rochdale achieve promotion for the first time since 1969, Buckley was sold to Championship side Watford for a reported £250,000, with Rochdale sitting at the top of the League Two table.
‘My contract was coming to an end that season,’ he says. ‘It was January and I had six months left. My agent mentioned that Watford were interested and it was worth considering because it was an opportunity to play in the Championship. I didn’t expect it. I knew I was playing well, but I didn’t expect to leap up two divisions. Dave Flitcroft took me to one side and had a word. He wanted me to stay and experience a promotion with Rochdale. He promised I could leave at the end of the season if I still wanted to. I didn’t want to let the opportunity slip away, though. I think there was an element of Rochdale realising that if I left at the end of the season they wouldn’t get any money for me. I think it turned out well for both parties in the end. Rochdale still got promoted, so I was delighted.
‘This was my first experience of a transfer, so I was trusting my agent a fair bit. I didn’t really hear about Watford’s interest until a few days before it all happened. I was actually injured at the time. A few weeks earlier, we were away at Cheltenham and I felt my quad go in the warm up. I told Keith Hill about it and I think he thought I’d been told by my agent to throw one in. To this day, I still reckon he thinks I was at it! My dad sees Keith now and again and Keith always winds him up about it. Agents do ask players to chuck one in ahead of moves, I’m sure, but I genuinely was injured. I got to Watford and couldn’t play for a while because of it.’
Buckley, nursing his quadriceps injury, had to wait until March to make his Watford debut.
‘I arrived at Watford and was really impressed with the training facilities and the sessions,’ he says. ‘The pace of everything was that little bit quicker. No disrespect to League Two, which is a difficult league to play in, but everything here had to be done at extra pace – even thinking. It took me a while to get used to that. It took me five or six weeks to adapt to the step up. It was harder than I ever expected it to be. I had to set myself the goal of achieving the standard, or I knew I wouldn’t get a game.
‘The manager, Malky Mackay, helped me with this. He was patient and knew what I could offer. He was heavily involved in the team on a daily basis. Maybe he didn’t have the banter that Keith and Dave had, he was a different kind of manager, but I enjoyed working with him no less.’
With Watford struggling in the Championship by the end of the following season, Brighton & Hove Albion looked to boost their own promotion chances when entering the division and signed Buckley for a then club record fee of £1 million. Thanks to a sell-on clause insisted on by Rochdale, some of that money made its way to the Spotland coffers.
‘I went on to do well at Watford and played a lot of games for them during the next full season,’ Buckley says. ‘Personally, when the season ended, despite the club’s league position, I thought I had done alright. Brighton had just won promotion from League One and, unknown by me, they had been watching my games. I went on holiday with one of my best mates in the summer and got a phone call from my agent while I was away telling me I’d been sold to Brighton and that I had to sort out terms with them. They’d put in a few bids for me that had been rejected and I thought that was the end of it. Then they put in a record bid and it had gone through.
‘I never thought that would be the last time I’d be at Watford. I never got to say goodbye to half of the lads. The last I said to them was: “I’ll see you in six weeks for pre-season training”. It was a strange one and one of the harsh realities of football. You rarely get a leaving party.
‘The size of the fee Brighton paid for me surprised me, too. It was a record fee for them, well, until they signed Craig Mackail-Smith a week later. It made me feel wanted, though. For them to go back two or three times for me showed how much they wanted me.
‘Brighton were a new club to the Championship, true, but they had the big new stadium and big ambitions. Gus Poyet was the manager and obviously he was a great player in his day. I learned so much from him. My first season there, along with my Rochdale days, rank as my favourite in football.’
Brighton finished tenth in the league and reached the fifth round of the FA Cup, beating Newcastle United, and the third round of the League Cup, beating Sunderland.
‘The Amex Stadium was packed and created a buzz around the town,’ Buckley recalls. ‘It was a dream come true for Brighton, what with the league performance and the cups, turning Premier League teams over.’
The next season was even better for Buckley and Brighton, as the club finished fourth, where they then lost out to Crystal Palace in the play-offs. Two days later, manager Gus Poyet and his assistants were suspended. The Uruguayan was famously sacked live on air the following month while working as a pundit for the BBC.
‘We got into the play-offs and then it all ended quite badly between Gus and the owner,’ Buckley says. ‘I think he felt the owner wasn’t giving him the money to move the team forward. Gus wanted automatic promotion and had identified a few players. I don’t know what happened in any detail after that, but all the lads were gutted that he went, because the influence he had on the club was massive in the three or four years he was there.’
Buckley would stay on the south coast until 2014. During the August transfer window of that year, he finally got his Premier League move when Sunderland paid a fee for him reported to be £2.5 million.
‘I had another full season with Brighton, managed by Oscar Garcia now, and Sunderland, where Gus was now manager, put a last-minute bid in for me in the January. Brighton rejected it because they couldn’t get a replacement winger for me. I understood that. I finished the season at Brighton and we got into the play-offs again, losing to Derby this time. Sunderland came back in for me and I was allowed to leave at the end of that summer.
‘From when I was a boy I wanted to play in the Premier League and then I was there. I never once thought: “I can’t handle this”. The standard increased, obviously, but I felt ready for it this time. My debut was in an away game. I came on at West Brom for twenty minutes. I’d only signed a couple of days before and Gus put me straight in.
‘Did I feel pressure? Yes, but not in the way people might think. The TV cameras and the crowd don’t matter so much as the pressure you feel from the money. The money players are paid, the money clubs pay for you, and the money TV companies pay the clubs. There is a pressure to perform constantly as a result of that. I felt it. I was sat on the bench with the worst butterflies I’ve ever had.
‘The way the game is played in the Premier League is totally different to any division below it. There is a gulf in class within the league itself for a start, but I was surprised by how much things slow down. People talk about the pace of the Premier League, but you have a lot of time in your own half. Then you’re in the final third and it’s like: “Woah, what happened there?” All of a sudden, you need to make something happen fast and you’re up against the fittest, strongest, quickest left back around. Bang. It took some getting used to. You watch players every week on the TV and they make it look easy. Trust me, making something happen consistently in the final third, at that level, is so difficult. I’ve so much respect for the players that can do that time and time again.’
On 16 March 2015, Poyet was sacked by Sunderland after a run of just one victory in twelve Premier League games. Former Rangers manager Dick Advocaat replaced him and, as a result, Buckley found his opportunities limited. He has since spent a bit of time on loan at Championship clubs Leeds and Birmingham City.
‘I’ve been sent out on loan, but I look back and think: “I could be doing something else right now”. I played one game against Rochdale for a college side and the opposition manager happened to be there. What if he wasn’t? Would I have got the same chance somewhere else? Maybe not. Obviously you’ve got to have the ability, but you need that luck. You also need a thick skin. Some managers rate you, some don’t. You can’t take things personally. That’s what happened to me during my loan spell at Leeds. The manager preferred someone else in the end. That’s fine. You just prove yourself to a different manager.
‘I mention Dave Flitcroft frequently to this day because he spent a lot of time with me on the training pitch while I was developing at Rochdale. I needed that time and it’s time that a lot of players don’t get. The club gave Keith Hill the freedom to do things the way he wanted to, which gave players like me a chance to shine. A lot of teams don’t rate youth, or are too scared to put young players in. Rochdale did the opposite. They would take the young lads getting released from Man City, Man United and so on, and they would get played against other reserve sides. If they were good enough, they’d get signed. It didn’t matter where they’d been before or where they’d been rejected from − if they were good enough they were good enough. If it wasn’t for Rochdale, I wouldn’t be a Premier League footballer now and for that I’ll always be grateful.’
Photos: Mark Wilbraham and Dan Youngs