As the Buck Shaw Stadium game-day crew went about readying the grounds for tonight’s match against D.C. United, a curious case of déjà vu overcame the collected observers of the San Jose Earthquakes’ early-morning training session. With tattooed arms proudly displayed, and trademark spiked hair perfectly coifed, none other than Darren Huckerby was gliding down the left touchline on the Buck Shaw pitch and sending in shots on goal with that signature right-footed boot. In fact, if not for watching the likes of Earthquakes rookie Sam Garza sending in crosses for Huckerby to blast home during finishing drills, one would be excused for thinking it was 2008 all over again.
Huckerby, making a quick swing through San Jose during a visit to the States that culminates with a conference in Las Vegas, was the guest of honor at Earthquakes training Tuesday morning, and he seemed to lap up every minute of the attention. Following a kick-around with the boys, some fine displays of finishing in the late practice shooting drills, and a 20-minute cool-down that saw the Englishman complete no less than 10 running circuits of the Buck Shaw Stadium grandstands, Huckerby finally called it a day and took time to bask in the warmth of the California sun.
“It felt good,” said Huckerby of his morning training with the Quakes. “It’s been nearly two years since I’ve retired from San Jose, so it was nice to be back out in the sunshine. It’s always good to come back and see some old friends. I still keep in touch with Frank (Yallop) and the others, so I am pretty pleased to be out here.”
Huckerby plans to stick around until Thursday, at which point he’ll need to leave San Jose to continue his busy stateside agenda, but he was especially pleased that not only was he able to spend time with the team during his visit, but that he’ll get to reconnect with Earthquakes fans at tonight’s match against D.C. United.
“Luckily enough for me, the Quakes had a home game on the Wednesday, which was unheard of, really, when I played here. It seemed everything fell perfectly for me to see the team.”
For those curious as to whether Huckerby still follows his old club, the former Earthquakes midfielder was very quick with an affirmative. And while he admitted that in the crowded media landscape of soccer in the United Kingdom, it was not always easy to catch up on the daily details surrounding MLS, he always does what is necessary to follow along when San Jose is in season.
“I’ve got an app on my iPad, and I watch all the highlights of the Quakes games, so I’m pretty lucky,” Huckerby shared. “I do keep a keen interest, and things have been going great this season. It probably took a bit longer than Frank would have wanted it to, but these things take time. It’s especially hard in MLS because you can’t just go out and buy players; you’ve got to build it up slowly.”
The player that was once labeled an “English Legend” by a local news reporter, said that often MLS only makes the sports news in the UK when David Beckham or Thierry Henry do something special. However, Huckerby was clear in his assessment that the league was getting more and more notice from the people that matter within professional football. Recent comments in the press from a Tottenham executive, stating that current Earthquakes midfielder Simon Dawkins returned to Spurs after the 2011 MLS season a better player, were backed up by Huckerby when sharing his thoughts on how such loan agreements help both the players and the league.
“Especially young players, they have to go out and play. You only get better by playing games. You don’t get better by training. You get better by playing games and putting your wits against other players who are in the same boat as you. It’s good to see (Dawkins) come over here to San Jose and make himself a better player.”
The big-name stars like Beckham, Henry and Robbie Keane still get the headlines in the English press, but according to Huckerby, MLS is making all the right moves when it comes to growing their footprint among the best leagues in the world.
“When I played here, the level was very similar to what we have in the Championship (the league one level below the Premiership).”
Huckerby continued with a comment on the league allowing for well-known and established players to sign as Designated Players in MLS.
“I think the changes the people at the top have made about better options for player contracts will help the league grow. I think it is moving in the right direction.”
Since Huckerby retired as a player in 2009, he stated that his life is busier than it’s ever been. Father to two young football-mad boys, the former player has turned his attention to the coaching side of the game, and he has been working diligently on securing his coaching credentials.
Huckerby has also found time to start a children’s trust which in less than two years has done a great deal to help local Norwich youth. And if that wasn’t enough to fill his days, Huckerby completed a detailed autobiography of his playing days titled Hucks: Through Adversity to Great Heights.
“It’s an honest assessment of my career,” described Huckerby of his autobiography. “People here might only remember me for the short time I was in San Jose, but I played for over 16 years. It goes through all my clubs, the ups and the downs, and what it is like to be a professional footballer. I think it gives good insight into how difficult it is to be a footballer, especially at the top level. If people read the book, I am sure they will enjoy it.”
On the field or off the field, Huckerby has always been enjoyed. So if you make it to tonight’s match at Buck Shaw Stadium, look out carefully for the Earthquakes legend. Sure, you won’t see him terrorizing opposing defenses with his blazing runs down the left wing, but he promises to cover as much ground around the stadium as he can. Huckerby sightings in San Jose have become rare since his retirement in 2009, so don’t miss the chance to say “Thank you” and wish him well.