“The target at the start was to stay in the season but we realised quickly that wasn’t set high enough!”
Rather than just being safe, Emma Buckley’s first season with Royal Racing Club de Bruxelles could hardly have gone any better. In their first season in the Belgian Honor Division for 38 years, they sat top of the table at the winter break, ultimately reaching the grand final in May.
They missed out on the title to Antwerp but the former Cork Harlequins goalkeeper was quickly picked up by her biggest fan Scarlett.
— Emma Buckley (@Emmabuckley567) May 15, 2019
“After the final, she came over while I was bawling crying of course – she just said ‘I don’t know why you are crying, it was a good season’. Seven years old and she puts it all into perspective!”
It was a friendship that developed amid a memorable season for the 20-year-old who took a leap of faith last summer to throw herself feet first into developing her game. With a place in Ireland ‘s FIH Series Finals squad, it looks like the fruits of those efforts are paying off.
“It was a big risk but, looking back, it has been amazing. I went over, didn’t know anyone other than maybe Conor Harte. Ended up living in a house with a couple of guys and girls from the club.
“We were only just promoted to the Honour Division for the first time in 38 years so to have a women’s team on that level was already an incredible achievement.
“At the winter break, we found ourselves on top of the league; we won our quarter-final and then our semi-final and only narrowly lost the final. It was incredible and definitely made me a better player and better person.”
Her regular week saw the team get together four times a week while she had a specific goalkeeper coach who she worked with for three sessions a week. She described it as “like an international setup” with a nutritionist, S&C and physio also available.
Part of the experience, though, was the immersion into club life, coaching a wide range of teams. Her aim was to use that outlet to also boost her French but it did not always work out that way.
“The first day with the Under-10s, this girl, Scarlett, she came up and said ‘it’s great to have someone who speaks English and not much French because my English is incredible! My brother has English and Mummy and Daddy have English and we love to speak English!’”
Scarlet’s family are embedded in the Racing club with the youngster going to every game and soon became Buckley’s biggest fan.
“She would hang around the goal and come over after each one to do 10 or 15 minutes of shooting with me. She’s happy so I am happy!”
It was one of the reasons Buckley was delighted to sign her contract for another season with Racing though she does admit she did miss the celebrations at Farmers’ Cross as Quins won the Irish Senior Cup.
“I really love the club! If I ever move back to Munster, I would go back to Quins in a heartbeat. I love everything about it – the family aspect, the kids coming up, everything.
“I was so delighted when they got to the final. I was actually coaching an Under-16 session and they were asking ‘why are you on your phone all the time?’
“Girls, I’m sorry – you may have no idea but this is a really big deal! Seeing pictures of people like Norman Deane who have been there years with the cup in their hands was incredible!”
— Emma Buckley (@Emmabuckley567) May 2, 2019
For now, her focus is on the FIH Series Finals in Banbridge where she will be involved in her first major tournament with the Green Army alongside Sarah Hawkshaw and Bethany Barr.
And Buckley says all three have benefited from the expanded Irish Under-21 and 23 programme in recent years.
“It is incredible to be selected but it’s also nice to be in with Sarah and Beth. They are two of my really good friends and so I am really happy for them but also so happy to be in there as well for a home tournament after the World Cup going so well.
“The gap between Under-21 and senior is a really big step. To have that Under-23 team that Dave [Passmore] created last year kept so many players involved in the programme and allowed coaches to see the development of people who were, maybe, not quite ready yet.
“It gives that extra two years of being involved and what the Under-21s are doing at the moment, having so many players included, will work out for all the teams, especially the seniors.”
She will be trying to put the pressure on Ayeisha McFerran – probably the best goalkeeper in the world in 2018 – for the number one shirt but she is enjoying that challenge.
“That’s the environment we are creating across the whole squad with competition for places which is great and makes training a really great place to be. It’s also fantastic to have Ayeisha by my side because I can learn so much from her.”
Ireland’s campaign starts on Saturday against Malaysia before facing the Czech Republic on Sunday and Singapore on Tuesday.
Women’s FIH Series Finals (all at Banbridge)
Saturday, June 8
Group A: Ireland v Malaysia, 3pm; Czech Republic v Singapore, 5pm
Group B: Korea v Ukraine, 11am; Scotland v France, 1pm
Sunday, June 9
Group A: Ireland v Czech Republic, 3pm; Malaysia v Singapore, 5pm
Group B: France v Ukraine, 11am; Scotland v Korea, 1pm
— Green Army (@IreWomenHockey) June 6, 2019