It wasn’t until Pep Guardiola was midway through his third season in England, that the English public finally started to warm to the man who had arguably created one of the most entertaining and dominant Premier League sides in history.
Johan Cruyff is credited with helping nurture and educate Pep, which has allowed Pep to develop the ‘total football’ philosophy that Rinus Michels made famous.
Michels, the man who was most certainly Cruyff’s mentor. He was the person who had the most influence on arguably the greatest footballing man, ever in terms of both playing and coaching.
But was there anyone before? Did anyone else help lay the foundations for a philosophy that keeps growing and achieving all over the world?
My personal love affair with F.C. Barcelona started with watching Ronaldinho as an early teenager then seeing the rise of Leo Messi. Upon reading books like Graham Hunters ‘BARCA- the greatest team in the world’, I quickly became attracted to the work of Johan Cruyff.
This led me to read more on the history of the link between Ajax Amsterdam and F.C. Barcelona. There was a name who would constantly pop up. An Englishman. Who managed both clubs, with remarkable links to everything we now praise as good, entertaining and what I like to call, proper football. His name is Victor Frederick Buckingham.
As a footballer, Buckingham spent almost all his playing career at Tottenham Hotspur as a defender (centre half and left half). A career that was pretty mundane as this was a time when Spurs played their football in the Second Division during the years 1935-1949, racking up over 200 appearances without ever playing top-flight football.
However, towards the end of his playing career, he was part of the early stages of the famous Spurs team that would go on to win the Second Division and then the First Division back to back under the influential push and run style football that Arthur Rowe brought to England.
Somewhat ahead of his time, Rowe’s possession-based football caught the big clubs in England on their heels, something that in some ways is happening all over again with Pep Guardiola some 60 years later. Remind me how long it’s been since England won the World Cup?
This countries stubbornness towards different styles of football may have contributed to driving one of the most forward-thinking coaches. That could’ve helped shape English football for centuries to express his style overseas.
A MANAGER WAS BORN
Before turning pro, Buckingham managed a few amateur teams, the most significant being his stint at Pegasus (a side made up of players from both Oxford and Cambridge) where he led them to an FA amateur cup victory in a capacity Wembley in 1951.
His first job was in the professional game at Bradford Park Avenue in the Third Division North, before being propelled into the elite division where he became West Bromwich manager in 1953.
West Brom became one of the countries most successful sides and Buckingham led them to the FA Cup in the 1953/54 campaign. It could have been an even more historic season as they finished runners up to Wolves in the league, a title race that at one point had West Brom in the lead.
The FA Cup win came in what was described as an entertainingly open and attacking game against Preston North End and would be the last of the major honours for Buckingham at the Baggies (apart from a Charity Shield win in 1954).
He did manage to keep West Brom at the top of the English game, narrowly missing out on another trip to the FA CUP final in 1957. Bobby Robson played under Buckingham, which is clear now to see just the influence that Buckingham has had on the game. As we all know what Robson went on to do for the game.
It was this desire to inspire and coach that would drive the man who was comfortable at one of England’s top 5 clubs to an almost amateur Ajax Amsterdam. Vic had attempted to change the mentality of football in England. While at West Brom he was a man who was way ahead of his time, arguably 70 years to be precise but back then he wasn’t fully appreciated.
THE MOVE TO AMSTERDAM
The move to Ajax at the time would have been seen as a major step down and very bizarre. However, not for Buckingham. He comes across as a man who felt his way was the best way. If you (English football) ain’t going to listen then he will take his ideas elsewhere. Which he did to Holland and the city of Amsterdam.
“Football is a serious game but an elegant one” is a quote from Buckingham. “If he smiled at you, you knew you were on the bench”. This is how the Ajax assistant Bobby Haarms described Buckingham’s gentlemen like nature, which was accompanied with fine tactics and tough discipline.
He led them to the league title as well as the national cup although in interviews years later he was quoted as playing down this achievement as he said the players he took over at Ajax already had the desired basic talents to play his type of way. He just had to mould and teach them about his possession-based football.
It was in fact another Englishman, Jack Reynolds who paved the way for Ajax to be a national name in Holland. He was one of the first to approach training with fitness work as well as technique in the 1920s. Reynolds would train all age groups from 8 am until 10 pm himself. Planting the seed for the Ajax youth system that, still to this day, produces world-class footballers.
Buckingham was delighted with what he had to work with when he arrived at Ajax. ”Dutch football was good. It wasn’t a rough-tough, got-to-win-things mentality. They were gentlemen”.
A modesty that can also be seen from Guardiola nowadays when facing ludicrously lazy questions from the English media inciting that he has ‘bought the league’. He usually replies with a “you have to have the best players to be the best team, it’s all about the players”.
This was not just a domestic beast Buckingham was creating but he undoubtedly created the foundations for the Ajax that everyone knows now. It was him that set the path for European domination, something he would always play down.
THE TOTAL FOOTBALL TREE
In England now we have Bielsa at Leeds, Pep at Man City. If they were to do a Football style ancestry programme like the BBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” they would both find themselves under the tree of Vic Buckingham. You can see it now in the way they carry themselves in the press and preach their beliefs.
Bielsa is known for his stubbornness when it comes to people not agreeing with his work, but also a man with a very warm heart and intense man-management. Pep a workaholic who is obsessed with the job, who wants to travel all over the continent for new challenges and conquering them all. Also on this family tree or Football Tree would be Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff.
Michels was dubbed the creator of Total Football,. with Cruyff being the first disciple. Arguably it was Vic Buckingham who was the godfather of it. An Englishman.
This is not a typical English claim to say ‘It was all because of us’. It’s more to try and highlight how we still haven’t moved forward as a country when it comes to accepting foreign football.
”Possession football is the thing, not kick and rush. Long ball football is too risky. Most of the time, what pays off is educated skills. If you’ve got the ball, keep it. The other side can’t score.” this, a quote from Buckingham could quite easily be from any of the other managers mentioned.
Something no one can deny was born in England is the game itself, but it has grown all over the world. At times leaving England behind, just like Buckingham had to do. But he did return and try again.
A SECOND CHANCE FOR ENGLAND TO LISTEN
He returned to England and took over Sheffield Wednesday. In the three seasons he was at the helm, he managed three consecutive sixth-place finishes. Most notably perhaps and especially in relation to Buckingham’s future was the run to the quarter-finals of the Fairs Cup. A game that Wednesday lost 4-3 to FC Barcelona, a team who was at the time enjoying life at the summit of European football having been involved in the European Cup final the season before. The chiefs at Barcelona noted the name of Vic Buckingham that day after admiring his very modern style of football.
When his contract was not renewed in 1964 he was looking for a new club., However, this decision was overshadowed by Sheffield Wednesday’s involvement in the British Betting Scandal in which three Wednesday players were found guilty and sentenced to prison time.
Whereas there was no suggestion Buckingham was involved in the scandal Wednesday did believe that he did not possess the correct qualities to lay down a strict working environment to discipline the players. Or to punish and prevent anything like that happening again, so off he went back to Amsterdam.
BACK TO THE DAM
This second spell was not as successful as the first time in the Dutch capital due to at times being forced to use youth players due to senior players moving on or running out of a contract.
This caused inconsistent results which could have ended in a relegation battle. However, both Ajax and Buckingham after only six months decided it was best for both parties that he moved on to the vacant role of that at Fulham. He was succeeded at Ajax by Rinus Michels. One thing that Vic did do in that six months was to promote a certain Johan Cruyff.
Myth has it that Vic had such an impact on the legends life that Johan Cruyff named Buckingham as the godfather to one of his children.
This transaction of Vic to Fulham and Michels to take over at Ajax can be seen as the ‘big bang moment’ for the birth of total football and helped shape the team that would dominate Europe for many years.
THIRD TIME LUCKY?
His three-year stint at Fulham was close to disaster most of the time, with players not showing the respect and desire that previous players had given him.
A very tight budget and an eccentric chairman contributed, but it was a great accomplishment to avoid relegation in all three seasons. From his time at Fulham, some great stories have been told. This help shows what a character Buckingham was.
There are a number of accounts that say Buckingham would call a team meeting the day after a bad performance. He would turn up, enter the room without speaking or allowing anyone to say anything, put his hat and coat back on and walk out, get in the car and go home. Baring in mind he’d just dragged the whole squad, to work on what would usually, be a Sunday morning (day off).
Buckingham tried to introduce and implement a more universal system for Fulham to follow a system like the one he helped create at Ajax.
He wanted Fulham to play to the same style, as well as develop a clear pathway for homegrown and youth players to progress to the first team. To scrap the English traditional set up of separate clubs that worked on their own but fell under the same club.
Again, it seemed England wasn’t ready for him. He was replaced by another one of his protégés a man mentioned earlier, a man who arguably became one of the most successful and adored English managers ever, Sir Bobby Robson.
BARCELONA COME CALLING
After a stint in Greece, an unexpected call from Catalonia came. As discussed earlier that game in the Fairs Cup. where his Sheffield Wednesday side had impressed FC Barcelona. They came calling for Buckingham to come and help them remarkably avoid relegation.
He did, turning the campaign into a relative success and guiding the club to a fourth-place finish and European football.
The following campaign (1970/71) was even more successful and followed a trend of Buckingham being especially successful in domestic cup competitions.
This season saw Barcelona lift the Copa Del Rey. Notably in a great final which finished 4-3 AET, against a Valencia team that only beat Barcelona to the La Liga title on the Head-to-head rule. The cup final was played in the Bernabeu home to eternal rivals Real Madrid and the cup was handed over by a furious General Franco.
Barcelona had given Buckingham the tools and trust to totally revamp the club. He was also effective in campaigning the end of the Spanish FA’s ban on signing foreign players which served as foundations for Cruyff’s transfer to Barcelona in 1973.
Cruyff would not be signing for Buckingham however, as he had to stand down as the club’s manager to receive treatment on a chronic back problem after the great cup win in 1971 and was replaced by, you guessed it, Rinus Michels once again. Michels, as he did at Ajax, took the club to new heights with the help of Cruyff.
A NAME THAT SHOULDN’T BE FORGOTTEN
After undergoing surgery Buckingham was out of the game until 1972 where he once again ended up in Greece. Then a spell in Sevilla where he was granted a near-impossible task to keep them in the league.
With only 11 games left including tricky games against the divisions’ top sides, he managed to prolong the inevitable, and in the end, came away unlucky. It was only in the final game that Sevilla’s fate was sealed. This was thanks to games against Barcelona, in the second last game, then Real Madrid on the final day, losing both games and ultimately his job.
It was back to Greece and after spells, with Olympiacos and Rodos in the late 70s, his managerial career would come to an end.
Victor Frederick Buckingham passed away in late 1995. A man whose name constantly pops up around the world of football, but is so often looked over and ignored.
He was mourned by the fans of Ajax and Barcelona like he was a native but he was born in Greenwich and died in Chichester, England.
He paved the way for great managers, who in turn took the torch and passed it on to their successors. Sir Bobby Robson arguably igniting many a successful career, none more so than his once upon a time translator Jose Mourinho. A man who was allowed to make his stamp on English football and continues to get opportunities at top clubs
Cruyff created the famous ‘dream team’ in Barcelona. He was later sacked and was replaced by Robson in 1996, not long after Buckingham passed away.
Guardiola will, of course, one day move on from England. His legacy will have a huge impact on future coaching styles.
The beliefs and the practices of Vic Buckingham will continue to bring success to those who follow it. Nevertheless, he should definitely receive greater recognition for his work.