Vic Buckingham: the Englishman history forgot

Vic Buckingham: the Englishman history forgot

“Fuck Betis” boomed the respectable-looking but somewhat eccentric Englishman to his bemused Barcelona players in the Camp Nou dressing room. He then proceeded to take them by further surprise as he aimed a perfectly placed karate kick at the tactics board, rendering it flat on its back. It was Victor Frederick Buckingham, Barcelona coach from December 1969 to the summer of 1971.

Vic Buckingham (pictured, grey tracksuit, third from the right) was a name I first stumbled across almost 15 years ago when reading David Winner’s excellent homage to the Dutch psyche (through the admittedly sometimes vague conduit of football) in the book Brilliant Orange. It was a book that informed that Buckingham had undertaken two spells in charge of the mighty Ajax Amsterdam where, during his first spell, he’d unearthed a prodigiously talented 12-year-old by the name of Johan Cruyff.

In his second spell at De Meer he went on to give the then 17-year-old Cruyff his first-team debut. Legend has it that Buckingham’s influence on Cruyff’s life and career was so pronounced that the former Bradford Park Avenue manager became a godfather to one of his children.

Buckingham’s playing career, at least at Football League level, was played out entirely with Tottenham Hotspur, initially as a centre half before switching to left half, straddling both sides of the Second World War in which he served with the RAF. A spell spent at Northfleet United in 1934-35 came prior to his breakthrough into the Spurs first team the following season, at what was then an unofficial feeder club for the White Hart Lane side. His time with Spurs erred on the side of steady if unspectacular, with all 204 of his league appearances being made while the North London club were lost to the clutches of Division Two. Top-flight football remained out of Buckingham’s reach as a player.

The most valuable part of Buckingham’s playing career was arguably being a close witness to the dawning of Spurs manager Arthur Rowe’s revolutionary push-and-run style of football. The two seasons following Buckingham’s retirement as a player in the summer of 1949 would see Rowe’s Spurs win back to back Division Two and Division One titles, catching the snoozing giants of English football cold with their short ball, possession-based fluid movement of play.

Buckingham set off on a startling coaching odyssey that took him through a variety of outposts from the Middlesex County FA onwards to Norway for a short time at FC Moss, then to the lush surroundings of Oxford and Cambridge Universities with the Oxbridge amateur side Pegasus, leading them to FA Amateur Cup glory in front of a packed Wembley Stadium in 1951. He subsequently moved into professional management, firstly in the less subtle backdrop on offer at Bradford Park Avenue in Division Three North, only to be fast-tracked to the big time of top-flight English and continental football with an eclectic array of clubs that took him to West Bromwich Albion, Ajax twice, Sheffield Wednesday, Fulham, Barcelona, Sevilla and Olympiacos.

Remarkably, he walked away from West Brom in 1959 at a time when they were one of England’s leading clubs to take over at a then borderline amateur Ajax. If the concept of English coaches walking away from the domestic game even now in 2014 would be seen as a bit outside the box, then imagine how big a leap Buckingham took to join the Dutch club.

Having cut his Football League teeth with that short spell at Bradford Park Avenue, it was at West Bromwich Albion that Buckingham had his most tangible domestic success, winning the FA Cup in his first full season 1953-54, beating a Tom Finney-inspired Preston North End 3-2 in an open and attacking cup final, a game where there is footage of Buckingham’s West Brom players taking on pure oxygen at half time. West Brom also finished as runners-up to near neighbours Wolverhampton Wanderers that season in a title race that at one stage seemed to have West Brom’s name written on it as they seriously threatened to become the first club of the 20th century to complete the league and cup double.

Aside from a shared Charity Shield a few months later, further trophies eluded Buckingham’s West Brom although they would remain in the hunt for honours during the remainder of the 1950s. Buckingham came within two minutes of taking West Brom back to Wembley in 1957, conceding a late equaliser in the semi-final before losing out in the replay against local rivals in the shape of Aston Villa. Two years later, Buckingham’s last act in charge at the Hawthorns was to relegate Villa on the final day of the 1958-59 season in front of a delighted full house. It was a remarkable way to bring an end to his time with the club, during which he’d also influenced the future coaching minds of the likes of Bobby Robson and Don Howe who were players under him.

It was next that the quantum leap to Ajax was made as he headed off to Amsterdam. Footballing missionaries had left these shores before to preach the ways of the round ball but most of those that had gone before had been held back or passed over for jobs higher up the domestic food chain. Buckingham was different as he gave up a job at one of the late ’50s’ ‘Big Five’. These were the actions of a man way ahead of his time, preaching a short passing game that relied on possession and intelligent off-the-ball movement, flying in the face of the traditional bludgeoning English style of the game.

In his two years at de Godenzonen, Buckingham won the Eredivise title and the Dutch Cup, later playing down his role in these successes when he claimed in an interview with David Winner in Brilliant Orange that the Ajax players he inherited already had the basics right and that all he had to do was teach them to own more possession of the ball. As much as Buckingham would downplay his role in the emergence of the monster that grew into the multiple champions of Europe, there are plenty willing to go to the opposite extreme and class him as the godfather of Total Football.

Between his two spells at Ajax, Buckingham headed back to Yorkshire and into the open arms of Sheffield Wednesday, who had just lost their manager Harry Catterick to Everton. Wednesday had spent the 1950s yo-yoing between the top two divisions, with a remarkable three relegations and four promotions over the course of the decade, but had confounded expectations after the fourth of those promotions to bounce on to better things.

Division One runners-up in 1960-61 brought Everton knocking for the services of Catterick and it was to Buckingham that Wednesday turned. Three seasons yielded three consecutive 6th place finishes as well as a run to the quarter-finals of the Fairs Cup, losing out 4-3 to a Barcelona side that had contested their first European Cup final less than ten months earlier. Buckingham didn’t know it, but Barcelona had been impressed with his very modern style of football. His name had been noted for future reference.

Buckingham’s time back in Yorkshire came to an end in April 1964 when he was informed that his contract wasn’t to be renewed, this coming on the eve of the revelation that two of Buckingham’s players and one of his former players had been implicated for their part in the British Betting Scandal. Peter Swan, David Layne and Tony Kay, who was by then playing his football with Everton, all served time in prison and saw their reputations and careers destroyed. Although Swan and Layne would make short-lived comebacks, Kay would never play again.

Despite there being no suggestion that Buckingham was party to his players placing illegal bets on games they were involved in, the Sheffield Wednesday board decided he wasn’t the disciplinarian they felt their dressing room needed. Therefore, despite Wednesday never having finished outside the top six places under his leadership, Buckingham was out of a job.

A devastated Buckingham headed back to Ajax in the summer of 1964 but had returned to England by the following January after finding a squad of senior players in advanced decline, forcing his hand to field large numbers of youth players led by Cruyff. Results were erratic and with a potential relegation battle looming both Ajax and Buckingham were in agreement that taking up the vacant managers position at Fulham was in the best interests of both parties. Buckingham was succeeded at Ajax by Rinus Michels and within four years the club was contesting its first European Cup final. Despite Buckingham’s second spell at Ajax not working out, his contribution to the club is deemed by many to be the chrysalis moment that eventually grew to become the all-conquering Total Football sides to flourish under Michels and Ștefan Kovács.

Buckingham endured three years of struggle at Fulham between 1965 and 1968. Extreme budget constraints, an eccentric chairman in the shape of the entertainer Tommy Trinder, and a set of players who lacked the respect that the players of previous generations afforded him, were just some of the problems Buckingham had to contend with. Running battles about effort and temperament with players such as Rodney Marsh were damaging.

In a bid to teach the uncompromising defender Bobby Keetch the art of balance Buckingham launched into a Fred Astaire tap-dance routine in front of the bemused player on the training pitch. “Learn that routine and you will perfect the art of balance” were Buckingham’s words of advice. Keetch’s expletive-powered reply led to his swift departure and a career in the lower divisions. Stories of Buckingham calling emergency team meetings on Sunday mornings after defeats the previous day were in circulation, where he would walk into the dressing room, unfold his newspaper, read it, fold it back up, and without uttering a single word to his under-performing players, promptly stroll back out of the dressing room, climb into his car and drive away, a scene that would have not looked out-of-place in a David Lynch movie.

Buckingham was doomed to fail at Fulham, yet in many ways he overachieved, managing to defy Division One gravity as long as he did. Avoiding relegation for three years was a remarkable feat. The 1965-66 season, in particular, falls into the ‘Great Escape’ category. Buckingham was eventually sacked in January 1968, replaced by his protégé Bobby Robson, who couldn’t avert relegation at the end of 1968.

Buckingham had tried to implement a more continental system at Fulham; he wanted the club to adopt the Ajax method of all levels of the club playing to the same system, ensuring the fluid transition of home-grown players from youth to first-team levels, instead of the then more traditional way that junior and reserve teams were considered separate autonomies that did their own thing. It was a missed opportunity for the west London club.

Buckingham again headed overseas after his time at Fulham came to an end, first to Greece where he coached Ethnikos Piraeus for a year before the unexpected call from Barcelona came in late 1969. Barcelona were just four points from the bottom of La Liga when Buckingham arrived as the Catalan giants’ third coach of the season. By the end of the 1969/70 season Barcelona had climbed to a fourth-place finish, qualifying for Europe in the process.

The following season saw Buckingham lead Barcelona to within a point of the domestic double. Finishing level on points with Valencia and with a superior goal difference, the title went to the Mestalla on the head-to-head rule instead. Barcelona took solace in beating the same opponents 4-3 after extra time in a classic cup final at the Bernabéu, the trophy handed over by an unhappy looking General Franco.

Buckingham had revitalised Barcelona and was only forced to step down as coach due to the need for surgery on a persistent back problem after just a season and a half in charge at the Camp Nou. Buckingham, for the second time in his managerial career, was succeeded by Rinus Michels. The Englishman during his time at Barcelona also lobbied effectively for the Spanish football authorities to end their ban of signing foreign players. Buckingham laid the groundwork for Cruyff’s eventual switch to the club in 1973.

After months of recuperation following his surgery, Buckingham was set to return to management in Greece in March 1972, until he got a call from Sevilla that he couldn’t refuse after enjoying his time in Spain so much with Barcelona. Sevilla had started the season well, but had hit an alarming tailspin and Buckingham was given the task of saving the club from relegation with only 11 games to go and a horrendous set of fixtures that included a late encounter with his previous club Barcelona and a final day trip away to Real Madrid.

Despite a promising start it was a mission beyond even Buckingham’s powers of motivation. The conceding of a late winner against Barcelona in a 2-1 defeat was a devastating result, and with Real looking for the points to clinch the title on the final day, Sevilla slipped to a 4-1 defeat and relegation to the Segunda. Buckingham’s spell in Spain was over.

One more high-profile job fell Buckingham’s way in the summer of 1975 when Greek giants Olympiacos hired him, yet by January 1976 he was sacked amidst the riots that surrounded a 4-0 loss at home to PAOK. His final job was to oversee Rodos befall relegation from the top flight of Greek football in 1980.

Buckingham died in late 1995, mourned by the fans of Ajax and Barcelona, but widely unheralded in his own country. A revolutionary man and coach who was way ahead of his time.

By Steven Scraggy @Scraggy_74