WHEN it comes to making a first Premier League start, it doesn’t get much more testing than taking on the most successful side of the last two decades.
For all that Louis van Gaal’s team might have lost a great deal of their aura in recent years, the name ‘Manchester United’ continues to evoke powerful emotions, so as he prepared to step out at the Stadium of Light for the first time on Sunday evening, Sunderland midfielder Will Buckley admits to having experienced a few nerves.
Ninety minutes later, and any lingering uncertainties had been comprehensively allayed. As he was cheered from the pitch by a near-capacity Wearside crowd, the 24-year-old, who arrived in a £2.5m move from Brighton earlier this month, had confirmed his arrival as a Premier League player.
Bright and confident down the right-hand side, his direct running was a major factor in winning the corner that led to Jack Rodwell’s equalising goal. Signed to enhance Sunderland’s attacking threat from the wide positions, he had more than lived up to his billing. Not bad for a player who was still representing Rochdale as recently as four years ago.
“I’ve always had confidence in my ability, so I was pretty sure that none of this was going to faze me,” said Buckley, who became Brighton’s club-record signing when he joined the Seagulls for £1m in 2011. “I always knew it was going to be a step up from the Championship, but that’s why everyone wants to play in the Premier League.
“I always felt I was ready to make that step, and as soon as I arrived at Sunderland I expected to be playing with better players. I was certainly up against a different class of player facing Man United. It’s a big step, but I’m confident it’s one I can take.”
Having managed in the Championship with Brighton, Gus Poyet appears much more willing to dip into the second tier to recruit players than the vast majority of his top-flight contemporaries.
Buckley follows Liam Bridcutt on the path from the Amex Stadium to the Stadium of Light, with Leeds defender Sam Byram also having been lined up as a potential addition before the end of the month.
With the domestic market increasingly offering poor value for money, managers tend to look abroad rather than scouting the lower leagues, but Poyet clearly had confidence that both Buckley and Bridcutt could handle the step up to a higher level, and on the evidence of Sunday’s performance, his faith in the former at least appears to be justified.
All three of last season’s promoted sides are still waiting for their first Premier League victory, a statistic that suggests there is still something of a gulf between the two divisions.
In deep-lying positions, Buckley actually feels it is easier to play in the top-flight, but once the action switches to the final third, the winger admits it is a totally different ball game.
“The main difference between the Premier League and the Championship is just the pace of things,” he said. “When you’re deeper in the pitch, you probably get more time on the ball in the Premier League, but once you’re into the last third, it gets a lot more difficult and you don’t have as much time to think.
“That’s what I have to adapt to because my aim is to get into that final third as much as possible and score goals and create chances.”
Last season, Buckley only managed three goals for Brighton in the whole of the campaign, but his role on the south coast was slightly more defensive and Poyet clearly wants to give him the freedom to attack as much as possible in a Sunderland shirt.
It will be interesting to see whether he retains his place once Adam Johnson shakes off the illness that ruled him out on Sunday, although Poyet always has the option of restoring Johnson to his former position on the left-hand side.
While Johnson has cut in from the right to decent effect in the past, Sunderland looked more balanced for having a naturally right-footed winger on the right-hand side, and with Connor Wickham and Steven Fletcher both strong in the air, there is much to be said for fielding a wide man whose natural game is to get to the byline and deliver.
“That’s the way I like to play,” said Buckley. “I try to stretch the game and that’s what the manager has brought me here for. Getting the ball as much as I can and trying to get at players – that’s probably the best aspect of my game. That’s what I need to do as much as possible.”