Where next for Paul Buckle?
Forget Roy Keane, among the weapons the now former Bristol Rovers manager Paul Buckle had in his armoury was an icy stare that could single-handedly re-freeze the polar ice caps. I’ve seen it used on misbehaving players in training, at fans who’ve had a differing opinion, and at journalists (including myself) who’ve asked questions that he doesn’t think are worth answering (which, on some occasions, has been a fair response).
This icy blast may well have been unleashed earlier this week when he was relieved of his duties as Rovers manager, but it is Buckle who now finds himself out in the cold to reflect on why a promising managerial career has stalled so soon.
The combative midfielder certainly won’t be the first or last highly-tipped lower league boss to find his career come to an abrupt halt after moving to a theoretically bigger and better position, but the speed of Buckle’s demise has been particularly swift. Less than six months ago he was the man to lead the Gas to glory after working miracles at Torquay. Today, he sits nursing his P45 while Bristol Rovers fans – not usually noted for their vitriol or aggression – still pen angry good riddance posts on their forums.
If Buckle’s career were a Shakespeare play, one passage from Macbeth would be particularly relevant.
“I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself,
and falls on t’other.”
Both at Torquay, and Exeter before that, hindsight suggested the 41-year-old was in his position only until another, more attractive option arrived.
But despite no shortages of potential Banquos or Macduffs at the Memorial Ground, Buckle’s demise came simply down to ever-worsening results. For the first time in his managerial career, his team was in a slump and the much-travelled midfielder was powerless to arrest it.
A snarling, all-action central midfielder who had done the rounds at a number of lower league sides, Buckle did not necessarily seem the most obvious candidate for management when then Exeter boss Alex Inglethorpe appointed him player-coach in 2005, but even just a short amount of time in his company revealed a depth of thought and a willingness to learn.
Although Buckle often seemed to view the media as a chore, and developed a neat set of stock answers to counter some of the more inane or difficult questions, on the days when he received the press in a good mood he could offer some incredibly thoughtful pointers that showed a strong tactical insight and awareness of the strengths and limitations of his team.
Learning, too, seemed to be part of his make-up. When Paul Tisdale replaced Alex Inglethorpe in the Exeter hotseat, it wasn’t uncommon to see him deep in thought, absorbing what Tisdale or director of football Steve Perryman were considering.
Although many tipped Buckle for management success, there was still a degree of surprise when he walked away from his position at Exeter a few weeks after their Conference play-off final defeat to Morecambe to take charge at recently-relegated Torquay United, taking three of the Grecians’ players – Chris Todd, Lee Phillips and Martin Rice – with him.
Plainmoor was certainly an opportunity, but also a risk. The Gulls were in disarray after the disastrous ownership of Chris Roberts and had just four professionally contracted players when their new manager walked through the doors. However, there was also cash to spend and Buckle put this to good use securing a number of talented non-league players such as Chris Zebroski, Tim Sills and Chris Hargreaves.
Given the state of Torquay when Buckle took over, reaching the play-off semi-finals and FA Trophy final was a decent return and a year later the Gulls went even better by winning promotion back to the league. The signs were clear. Here was a talented young manager who had revitalised a club at its lowest ebb and restored pride and glory to the South Devon coast.
Yet you’re unlikely to find many Torquay fans campaigning for a statue or stand to be named after him. As with Exeter, Buckle was respected rather than loved at Plainmoor and, as Ben Mayhew pointed out on these pages back in September, his surly demeanour made it hard for fans to truly warm to him.
But it was the nature of his departure that still rankles in South Devon. Despite taking Torquay to the League 2 play-off final in their second season back in the Football League, his somewhat cryptic answer to speculation linking him with the Rovers position on the eve of the Stevenage final went down badly with the fans, as did his abrupt departure after Torquay’s defeat and his failure to tie down several key players during his final months with the Gulls.
At the Memorial Stadium, Buckle’s modus operandi was remarkably similar to his start at Torquay. Virtually an entirely new squad was brought in to the newly-relegated Pirates, with 21 players arriving in Bristol for the current campaign including a few who’d spent time with the Gulls, such as Craig Stanley and Zebroski. As with Torquay, many were induced with longer-than-usual contracts for a lower league club. Buckle was sticking to a tried-and-tested formula.
But Bristol wasn’t Torquay and expectations were very different. The Gulls were happy to exist, albeit with eyes on regaining their league status soonish. At Rovers the expectation was quite simply nothing less than promotion.
And while Buckle embarked on an overhaul of the Gas’s playing squad, this wasn’t a blank canvas for the new manager to start work on his masterpiece – many of the relegated squad still remained and eyebrows were raised when club stalwart Stuart Campbell was forced out, while useful striker Jo Kuffour was shipped out on loan to Gillingham.
Both as a player and a manager Buckle has been uncompromising, but that trait appeared to fully come to the fore in Bristol, with rumours of fallings out with players, staff and fans. Buckle may have headed to the Memorial with a long-term masterplan but in the short-term, he had just six wins from 24 games to show as Rovers collapsed into a relegation battle rather than the expected promotion campaign.
Excuses of the squad needing time to gel soon became wearying for supporters and, although injuries to key players such as Matt Gill and Adam Virgo didn’t help, the board finally grew tired of defeat after defeat. Losing to basement boys Plymouth after leading 2-0 hardly helped, and Buckle’s terse, aloof attitude – played as an asset at Torquay – saw Gasheads turn on their manager with venom.
What now for both parties, then? A scan of the Rovers squad list reveals a side that is low on confidence, not quality (although hardly title-winning, either). Buckle’s revolution may not have succeeded but there is no reason why a different manager can’t at least make it a happier end of the season for the Pirates.
As for Buckle, his capacity for learning will need to come to the fore now. If the stories from the Memorial are true, then being forced to reassess his career may be no bad thing. He has shown a capacity to absorb lessons from across football in the past and his reflections and experience with Rovers may make him a better manager.
Given his achievements with Torquay, there will no doubt be a League 2 or ambitious Conference team willing to employ him and Buckle certainly deserves another shot at management. A willingness to occasionally compromise as well as use the media as a PR tool to communicate to fans rather than a giant charity mugger to only occasionally be grumpily tolerated would also go a little way to restore his reputation.
Buckle’s time at the Memorial was short but most definitely not sweet; a relationship that neither party will look back on fondly. But there’s enough to suggest both can take a low point, and reflect on their time together before rising again.