The Monday Profile: Will Buckley
The Monday Profile was first conceived in Plymouth’s Fortescue pub over a couple of post-Christmas 2009 ales. Given that this site’s focus invariably falls on club-level and off-the-field issues and concerns, it was felt that a new column that honed in on individual players would allow us to get closer to the Football League’s rank and file. We’d spotted a niche for this; with the blogosphere still in its infancy, comprehensive, or at least readable articles on Ryan Garry or Danny Kedwell remain rare, so when your team makes a signing it can be difficult to source accurate, interesting information. So, in this spirit, The Monday Profile marches on with a piece on Will Buckley, Brighton’s new record signing. Here, supporters of Rochdale and Watford fill Seagulls supporters, as well as the rest of us, in on what to expect.
Towards the back end of the 2007-08 season, Keith Hill decided to give Will Buckley, a youth graduate, a bit of first team experience up front, which resulted in seven appearances including one start. I think it’s safe to say that the Spotland faithful weren’t overly enamoured with Buckley, who showed a few nice touches but seemed too weak and easily pushed off the ball.
That year, we reached the League 2 play-offs after finishing fifth in the league and disposing of Darlington in a 5-4 penalty thriller. With about 15 minutes to go at Wembley, Dale were trailing 3-1 to Stockport, and Hill threw Buckley into the action. Towards the end of the game the Oldham-born winger picked up the ball just inside the Stockport half, jinked his way past a number of Stockport players and went for goal.
You could see it in the eyes of every Dale fan at Wembley as he pulled his trigger; were we about to witness the birth of a new star on the biggest stage in English football?
Well, not quite as the shot sailed harmlessly out for a goal kick but, finish aside, it was a sign of things to come. After a successful pre-season, Buckley shone in 2008-09 and bagged himself 10 goals from the right wing. Every time he got the ball there was a sense of anticipation that we hadn’t experienced since the days of Paddy McCourt gracing the Spotland turf.
The ball was glued to Buckley’s feet every time he was in possession and his eye for goal (as well as a knack of winning questionable penalties) made him a fan favourite. He started the 2009-10 season in slightly less impressive form but still managed to pick up three goals and a number of assists.
When news filtered through that Buckley had been sold to Watford for the obligatory undisclosed fee, the initial reaction was one of anger as we were sat top of League 2 at the time. It’s all irrelevant now as we still gained promotion by finishing third, but one can’t help wonder if Buckley’s presence may have warded off our end of season slump.
It has since been revealed that we sold Buckley for a meagre £200,000, with £152,000 on top due to his sell-on clause after the move to Brighton. From a Rochdale perspective, Brighton is the wrong move for Buckley as we all believed he was destined for a Premiership move next which would have in turn boosted our coffers a little bit more. Sadly, if that move is to materialise in the future, it will be Watford who profit from it and not us, but that’s life…
Buckley arrived at Vicarage Road in what was, for Watford, an active transfer window in the January of 2010. In common with another recruit of the time, Stephen McGinn, he fitted squarely into the Hornets’ model for recruitment: if you spend money, spend it on kids who are good and are going to get better.
Given this, given the higher profile great-big-sodding-gap-filling recruitment of Martin Taylor at the same time, and given lack of fitness following a spell out with an ankle injury at Rochdale, the fact that Buckley didn’t feature in the first team until late March wasn’t particularly cause for comment. When he did make the team, though, the signs were encouraging. A ragged, direct, pacy forward whose scruffiness evoked memories of Rick Holden in those old enough to remember.
A key question was where he would fit. He was billed as either a winger or a striker, and was tried in both positions before the end of that season. A versatile, exciting youngster, he was one of the reasons to look forward to the season just gone.
Skip forward twelve months, and Will is Watford’s Young Player of the Season and has been sold on to Brighton for a seven figure fee. In the context of Brighton being freshly monied newish-kids-on-the-block and moving to a new stadium, one would be forgiven for concluding a steady upward trajectory for young Will.
Upward or not, it certainly hasn’t been steady. My own view last summer had been that Buckley’s dynamism and mobility would be wasted out wide; he was destined for an attacking role alongside Danny Graham. This was backed up by Buckley’s own comments on arrival suggesting that he thought that his strongest position was as a striker. We weren’t far into the season before that theory was scotched, seemingly for good. Nobody could fault Will for energy, but he lacked the discipline or awareness to get the better of an offside trap; he was very quickly earmarked as a winger.
And he could be devastating. The match that sticks in everyone’s memory is a 4-1 dismantling of Cardiff City during a particularly successful run at the end of 2010 which saw Leicester, QPR, Cardiff and Pompey tonked in consecutive games. 35 minutes into the game, with the score still 1-1, his marker Lee Naylor had been booked and substituted, so complete was his humiliation. Buckley’s direct, relentless running was responsible for creating two goals that day in an exhilarating performance.
Thing is, there were too many occasions when Buckley didn’t perform at all. Give him wide open spaces to run into and he’ll do so; deny him space and as often as not he’ll disappear. Only once, when a running feud with Burnley’s left-back Danny Fox lit a fire under him at Vicarage Road, did he rise to the challenge of an aggressive opponent, albeit unsuccessfully; the Clarets won 3-1, and Fox held sway over his less experienced opponent.
Quite visibly, Mackay lost patience with his young charge on more than one occasion. In a small, young squad there’s limited scope to leave players out, and yet Buckley was benched for two distinct periods last season when impetus was needed. The problem was suggested by Buckley’s lack of development over the season in stark contrast with many of the other youngsters on the club’s books; whether this was cause or effect of the strained relationship with Mackay is somewhat academic.
Nonetheless, the loss of a potentially exciting player isn’t without misgivings. The mangling that Buckley gave Lee Naylor is the stuff that you endure 0-0 midweek draws for, payback for the bad times. But to return to Watford’s stated model, you sign promising youngsters, you develop them, you let them move on when the time is right. The wisdom of the decision to sell now hinges on whether Will develops or not, eradicates the inconsistency that is forever the bane of young wingers and which he admits is a problem. Had he stayed and not developed that consistency, I doubt that he would be attracting seven figure offers in a year’s time.
At this point, given Watford’s model, a million pound offer for Buckley does feel rather like a gift horse, to quote my co-editor at BHaPPY, Ian Grant. Buckley may prove me wrong but as it stands now a million pounds for a winger who only completed eight full ninety minutes for Watford of 35 starts, and contributed only four goals and two assists last season outside that Cardiff game, was too good to turn down.