There’s so much in this fascinating short book to appeal not only to followers of Tottenham Hotspur but to people who really want to understand the origins of the English game. The reality is that the Spurs angle will probably ensure the audience remains niche, but the loss is entirely the wider audience’s.
The insight into and affection for the man who was one of the famous group of schoolboys who formed the club under the light of a gas lamp in Tottenham High Road in 1882 comes because the book itself is the product of efforts by a group of family members, alumni of Bobby’s school – Tottenham Grammar – and Spurs fans. Independently published and graced with some excellent photographs and artefacts that only the family have had access to until now, the book is part of a wider push to ensure Bobby Buckle is given the recognition he deserves; and what a story it is.
Spurs differ to many other clubs in that they were not formed out of a factory or local manufacturing enterprise, not a spin-off of another business, and not rooted in the local working-class or inner city. The founders were a group of schoolboys who were part of the emerging middle class of Victorian Britain that was rapidly spreading through the suburbs that the club came to represent.
In those early days, Tottenham Hotspur also represented the south of the country. While London was the biggest city and the heart of Empire, it was football teams from the industrial north that dominated the game’s early years. Spurs would emerge as the side that could challenge northern supremacy, dubbed the Flower of the South by the press and supporters as the challenge grew. The tumultuous FA Cup Final clash with northern giants Sheffield United in the 1901 FA Cup Final drew an extraordinary crowd of over 110,000 because this was seen as a pivotal moment, a time when a new era could be ushered in. The attention given to the fact that victory made Spurs the first – and still the only – non-league side to win the FA Cup tends to overshadow that geographical shift that victory represented.
Less than 20 years after formation, Tottenham Hotspur had won the most prestigious club competition in football, had spearheaded a shift in footballing power, and changed the game forever. And yet when Buckle and his friends first had the idea to form a club, it was in the most modest of circumstances. It was literally an idea by a group of schoolboys to form a team and play some games. Bobby Buckle was 13 years old, a kid mesmerised by the rapidly emerging game of football who tested the patience of his mother by forever kicking stones along the road and scuffing his boots.
Speaking to a newspaper in his later years, Buckle describes how simple the beginnings of one of the most famous names in world football were. “When I was a boy at Tottenham Grammar School, a few boys – with myself as one of the leading figures – decided that we would form a football team.”
Over the next few years, young Bobby would become the first Spurs player to score a goal, the first captain, and then club secretary. His vision of how his side should play and what it should represent, and his relentless drive to make his club the best, laid the foundations of a famous set of traditions and attracted growing numbers of supporters; and his business sense proved pioneering.
The quality of this book is not only that it paints a portrait of an individual, Bobby the conscientious product of a chapel family, but that it sets out his role in key areas of the development of the club and the English game. There are intriguing parallels with discussions today about the balance between football and business in the club’s journey.
It was Buckle who was instrumental in developing a ground as a source of income, in bringing early investors on board, in putting and winning the argument that the club needed to go professional in order to pay its players, and in making the club an incorporated company. There’s a lovely quote from Buckle in the book that arguably wraps the hard-headed capitalist sentiment in more romantic packaging than it deserves. Speaking at the club’s annual dinner in 1891, he says that with money “the club has gone on growing gradually” when other clubs “came out like stars in beautiful colours for a time and just as suddenly collapsed”.
It seems our man was quite the public speaker, and he was never afraid to put his point, something which led to some rancour in later years as he continued to speak at meetings and challenge what he saw as wrong directions. He was particularly concerned to keep the focus on the players as the most important people at the club, not the directors, and incurred their ire when telling those who succeeded him in running the club that “It is in the interest of big clubs like Spurs to pay high wages.” Proving perhaps that, when it comes to discussion about the club, there’s nothing new under the sun.
With a foreword, fittingly, by Steve Perryman – a club captain who shared Buckle’s views about what Spurs should stand for – this is a fine addition to a growing body of work that provides real insight into how the game in England came to exercise such a grip on the public’s imagination. Highly recommended to football fans of any persuasion.