The story of Frank Buckley and monkey glands at Wolves

The story of Frank Buckley and monkey glands at Wolves

In 1927, the board of Wolverhampton Wanderers took the bold decision to hire a man known for his unique managerial methods, authoritarian style, keen eye for detail and innovative approach. Frank Buckley, or the Major as he became known, did not suffer fools, but the results spoke for themselves.

Within a few years of his appointment, the Major had made Wolves a team to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, the Major’s revolution was not without its controversies, with the man from Manchester sparking off football’s first widespread doping scandal in 1937 when he began to inject his players with monkey gland extracts.

Before going into that, however, it’s important to examine Buckley’s background to understand the man behind the scandal.

Born in Manchester in 1883, it was clear from a young age that Buckley was destined for the hallowed turf. As a boy he excelled at sport, particularly football, and even when his family persuaded him to join the British army, Buckley found a way to continue to play the game. At the ripe age of 20 Buckley was signed by professional English club Aston Villa where he spent two years at the heart of Villa’s defence. Buckley would spend the greater part of the next decade representing teams across England, even earning himself an England cap in their infamous 3-0 defeat to Ireland in 1914.

When the war erupted across Europe in 1914 Buckley, alongside several other footballers, joined the 17th Middlesex Regiment to fight for king and country. His second stint in the army saw Buckley eventually promoted to the rank of Major, a title that would follow him in his post army life. Indeed, when he returned home to England to manage Norwich City in 1919, much was made of his military past, and with good reason too. His year long stint with the Canaries saw Buckley completely overhaul training regimens, diets and the atmosphere of the club. Sadly, finances and disputes would see the Major leave Norwich to take up a career as a travelling salesman, a role he held for three years.

Nevertheless, Buckley’s brief time at Norwich had caught the eye of Blackpool who, in 1923, appointed Buckley as manager. Buckley wasted little time in leaving his mark on the club. In fact, it was Buckley who changed Blackpool’s jersey to its iconic orange colour in a bid to drum up more support from the locals. In many ways it was a desperate move from the Major as his style of play had alienated much of the Blackpool faithful early on. Reports from the time detail the hoardes of fans complaining that Buckley had sucked the fun out of football in exchange for better results on the field, a complaint that routinely emerges even today in the English game.

In any case it was Buckley’s diet and training methods that soon caught the eye of rival managers. Soon after his appointment with the Seasiders it was reported that “a pleasing feature of the training … is that the manager dons the jersey and joins the boys giving them advice and practical demonstration of what to do and how to do it”.

Buckley also held practice games on Friday afternoons aimed at developing a better understanding between the players. This was revolutionary at a time when many managers denied players the chance to train with a ball midweek lest they lose their ‘hunger for it’ come match day.

Buckley combined modern training methods with an eyebrow-raising supplementary regime. Notably, the Major gave ‘pep pills’ to players before cup ties to give them the competitive edge. What exactly constituted a ‘pep pill’ is difficult to ascertain but historian Neil Carter believes a similar product given by Arsenal manager Leslie Knighton to his players in 1925, most likely amphetamine. If this too was the case for Buckley, ‘pep pills’ were perhaps an understated label. Nevertheless, Buckley’s time with Blackpool revealed his willingness to try all means to gain the competitive edge, a trait that followed him to his next club.

When Buckley finally left Blackpool for Wolves in 1927, he brought his new ideas with him. At Molineux Buckley solidified his reputation as one of football’s toughest authoritarians, becoming famous for his own particular brand of hair dryer treatment. Don Bilton, who joined the club just before the outbreak of the Second World War, said that he ruled by fear:

“If you had a rotten game you’d hardly dare go in at half-time, you were going to get the biggest bawling at … cursed and swore at you. So from that point of view he was a terrible chap.‟

Another footballer would later describe the Major as “a very frightening man who could make grown men have tears in their eyes.”

Buckley was far from a bully, however, as he mixed his harsher side with a soft paternalism. The Major oversaw the establishment of a youth academy at Wolves and was known for taking care of his younger charges. In many ways it was his foresight that laid the building blocks for Stan Cullis’s formidable Wolves sides of the 1950s. He was also responsible for the purchase of a hostel in Wolverhampton for his team’s young players, with recreational and medical facilities.

The club’s youngsters were kept on a short leash. During the Major’s tenure, the city would be littered with spies reporting on youth players guilty of breaking curfews or frequenting the local pubs and clubs.

On the field, his side matched the his ruthlessness. Employing the long ball game, Buckley’s side were known for their physicality. So physical were the side that they were barred from touring Europe by the FA in 1937 after picking up 17 cautions the previous season. It was a remarkable sanction from the governing body, although it mattered little to Buckley who viewed his physical approach as a means for better results.

It was the Major’s drive for better performances that resulted in what has gone down in history as the ‘Monkey Gland Affair’.

In 1937 Buckley was approached by scientist Menzies Sharp about a radical new treatment that could improve stamina, accelerate recovery times and improve performance revolving around monkey gland implantation. It was based on the work of Serge Voronoff, a Russian medic who claimed that injecting testicular implants from animals into patients would rejuvenate them faster. It was, and is, a bizarre case of alternative medicine.

The Major was clearly intrigued by Sharp’s proposal but decided to try out the treatment on himself before administering it to his players. Buckley was astonished by the results:

“The treatment lasted three or four months. Long before it was over I felt so much benefit that I asked the players if they would be willing to undergo it and that is how the gland treatment became general at Molineux.”

Soon Wolves players were given a course of treatment over a six week period during which they received an injection every three or four days, and this was to last them over the whole season. Not everyone agreed to take part, however. Two Wolves players, Dicky Dorsett and Don Bilton, refused to undergo the “gland treatment”, much to the dismay of the Major.

Bilton later recalled that when he was signed by Buckley from York City in the late 1930s, he was instructed by Buckley to report to the medical room for gland injections. Bilton replied: “I’m sorry sir, but I am only 17 and still under my father’s guidance. He will not want me to have injections.” Buckley told him that he was under contract and had to do as he was told. Bilton’s father went to see Buckley the following day and, after a heated row, the manager backed-down. However, Bilton claimed: “Buckley was not at all pleased by this and I never did much good at Wolves after that.”

Bilton aside, those who did undertake the gland therapy at Wolves seemed to benefit. Placebo or not, the treatment had a positive effect amongst the Wolves players, with performances improving on the pitch.

The marked improvement in Wolves’s performance led to suspicions amongst the greatly footballing world, and soon rumours began to circulate that Wolves players were being injected with “gland extracts from animals”. Tommy Lawton, who was a member of the Everton team that lost 7-0 to Wolves, openly stated that these injections were improving the performance of the players. He claimed that before the game he tried to speak to his England colleague, Stan Cullis, but “he walked past me with glazed eyes”.

After Leicester City were beaten 10-1 by Wolves they complained to the Leicester MP, Montague Lyons. Lyons demanded that the government conduct an investigation into this treatment. When Walter Elliot, Minister of Health, rejected this request, Emanuel Shinwell, the Labour MP, suggested that considering Wolves’ impressive form, ministers of the Conservative government should be put on a course of these injections.

The Football League eventually carried out an investigation into the monkey gland treatment. Despite refusing to ban the injections they did arrange for a circular to be posted on the walls of dressing rooms of every club in England and Wales. It declared that players could take glands but only on a voluntary basis. The monkey glands would remain a while longer in English football, giving other clubs the chance to experiment on their players.

So successful was the gland treatment deemed to be that other sides such as Portsmouth, Tottenham and Chelsea began to experiment with it. Remarkably the 1939 FA Cup final would see Wolves take on fellow ‘monkey gland’ side Portsmouth in what the press deemed the ‘Monkey Gland Final’ with Pompey winning 3-0.

Portsmouth aside, the failure of other clubs to replicate the supposed benefits of the Monkey Gland treatment, combined with the distrust of the English medical community for anything involving gland plantations, soon led to the demise of the treatment. When war broke out in 1939, the treatment faded into obscurity.

As for Buckley, his career never quite hit the advanced heights of his inter-war Wolves side. Short spells at Hull City and Notts County preceded a disappointing five years at Leeds United. Sadly when one looks back on the Major’s career nowadays, his time at Wolves is marred by the monkey gland affair, a bizarre few years in English football when animal gland extracts became the supplement of choice for the players.

By Conor Heffernan @PhysCstudy

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