|Younger Spurs fans certainly and many older ones may not have heard of Vic Buckingham.
Between 1935 when he signed for Spurs and 1949, he played 311 matches for Tottenham and scored only two goals, which was not unusual for those days when defenders defended. It was the impact that Buckingham made after his playing days were over that were of more significance though.
Born in Greenwich in 1915, Vic Buckingham was a product of the Tottenham nursery club Northfleet United, where up and coming players got time to show what they were capable of before being graduated to the first team. A quick defender who liked to play the ball out of defence, Vic was versatile being able to play any position across the back line, but was moved forward to play half-back. Buckingham wasn’t a player who was content to hoof the ball clear, preferring to play astute passes to retain possession and to start attacks. Just when it looked as though he was settling into a regular place in the team, World Ward II broke out, thus depriving him of League football, although he turned out in war-time games for Spurs and guested for Crewe Alexandra, Millwall, Fulham and Portsmouth. Reverting to full back when football resumed after the war, he found his opportunities limited and took on a coaching role with the Spurs Juniors, having had experience in Norway with Moss FK, the Middlesex FA and Stanmore.
Buckingham also took a role training the Oxford University team and then combining the best players from that team with those of Cambridge University to form the Pegasus side, which he took under his wing. Vic employed the “Push and Run” tactics of his former team-mate Arthur Rowe, who took over the Spurs side as manager just as Buckingham was leaving the club, but his knowledge of playing alongside the likes of Bill Nicholson and Ronnie Burgess meant that the mantras of the ‘Tottenham Way’ were inbuilt into his memory and he applied these to his new charges. In 1951, he took Pegasus to the Amateur Cup Final playing this brand of football and they beat one of the top amateur sides of the day – Bishop Auckland – 2-1 in front of a 100,000 capacity crowd at Wembley Stadium. This came at the same time that the Spurs “Push and Run” team were crowned Football League Division 1 Champions, the season after Rowe had masterminded their way out of Division 2, taking that title on the way.
Buckingham’s success had taken the eye of League teams and he left to manager Bradford Park Avenue, but the peak of his two years there was to keep the side mid-table in the old Division 3 North. Still, other clubs were impressed and West Bromwich Albion took him on as their new manager. Vic had taken over from Jesse Carver, who was a noted coach, who had just left to move to Italy to manage Lazio. The former Newcastle defender had already taken in coaching abroad before this, taking over as the national coach in Holland after club success there and took them to the 1948 Olympics Games before he returned to take on the role of England B Team Coach, but Juventus snapped him up in 1949, winning the Serie A title in his first campaign. After Lazio, Carver managed AS Roma and Torino, before a brief return to Coventry City interrupted his European sojourn and his list of other management jobs included Inter Milan, Genoa and APOEL. His time at Coventry City came at the point when the FA offered him the England manager’s position, but he had committed himself to the Sky Blues and thus turned it down.
Carver was a forward thinking coach, putting an emphasis on what would make the players more effective and efficient. He introduced a ball per player in training rather than the hard-running training of previous years and placed an onus on player’s technique. He also brought in lightweight boots for the players, although these still look cumbersome to those of modern-day players, they allowed his players to move faster and have an improved feel for the ball. His appointment of George Raynor, another talented coach of the time, as assistant manager brought more foreign experience, as he had coached the Swedish national team bringing a background in physical fitness and a student of football tactics to the job. Carver was famous long after he retired, having a series of coaching schools across the country, applying the theories he had employed during his management across the continent. It was ironic that Jesse Carver had a short spell as a coach at Tottenham in 1958, but could not settle in the UK again, so moved to Portugal.
Back to Buckingham, bringing his own ideas to those instilled by Carver, in his first season with the Baggies, he took them to an 3-2 FA Cup Final win over the star-studded Preston North End team and then they finished runners-up in the First Division to local rivals Wolverhampton Wanderers by four points, coming so close to securing the first League and Cup double since 1897. One of the players in Vic’s side at the Hawthorns was Bobby Robson, who followed in the manager’s footsteps to some of the same clubs and was another acolyte of Buckingham’s theories, probably passing some of the learning onto his translator and assistant Jose Mourinho. The fact that Pep Guardiola played at Barcelona under Robson indicates that the time he had with Buckingham as his manager has vicariously influenced both Barcelona and Manchester City’s play under the Spaniard.
“Football is a serious game
but an elegant one.”
Despite his success and the impact he had at Ajax, he left the club for personal reasons in May 1960 to return to England, where speculation had it that he was to take over at Plymouth Argyle. However, he was given the job as manager at Sheffield Wednesday, who had just finished second in the League to The Double winning Tottenham Hotspur team, with Bill Nicholson in charge putting into practice many of the lessons he learned alongside Buckingham and under Arthur Rowe.
In his time at Hillsborough, the Owls finished sixth three times, but he was relieved of his post in April 1964, just days before the match fixing scandal that involved three Wednesday players – David “Bronco” Layne, Peter Swan and Tony Kay – and while there was no implication that Buckingham had been involved in the arrangement, there was an underlying suggestion that he did not have a tight hold on discipline at the club, which was a little strange as that was one of the things that he was praised for in Holland. So, it was there that he returned, replacing fellow Englishman Jack Rowley, who had added a fitness regime to the club’s training.
He spotted Johann Cruyff playing on one of the many youth pitches outside the Ajax stadium and thought he was “a useful kid” and his nurturing of the youngster’s abilities freed him to play an uninhibited role within the side following his debut in November 1964. But having to field young teams due to player’s contract disputes, the team had a few good wins, but after a 4-9 defeat by Feyenoord, the inevitable was only delayed by a few months, as Buckingham was sacked in January 1965 with the team threatened by relegation becoming the last Englishman to manage Ajax to date. His successor Rinus Michels was to take on the possession based “Total Football” that Vic had developed and the Dutch adopted this philosophy, where players could play in any position, so when one player moved forward another filled in to take their place. With the former Spurs man employing the old WM formation (a 3-2-2-3 set-up with two full backs flanking a centre half, two “defensive” half-backs in midfield, with two inside forwards just behind a centre forward and two wingers) encouraging players to play with freedom, they were safe in the knowledge that someone was covering for them and that allowed them to exploit the opponents’ confusion to create attacks from popping up in unexpected positions. The emphasis on keeping the ball was key to Buckingham’s system, as without it “the other side can’t score”. And it was that possession football that changed the Dutch game and was to change the way football was played at other clubs Vic went on to manage. He was also a formative influence on Cruyff, who took his teachings with him throughout his career as a player and a manager.
Buckingham returned home to England and was given the job as Fulham manager in January 1965. The Cottagers were a struggling First Division side, hamstrung by player ill-discipline and a comedian – Tommy Trinder – for a chairman, so, despite signing a young striker called Allan Clarke (who went on to have great success with the Leeds United side of the 1970s) from Walsall whose goals kept them up until 1968, when Fulham suffered relegation. Clarke was then sold for a British record transfer fee of £150,000, thus confirming that Vic was still a good talent spotter. Despite the tough times, Buckingham had masterminded a great escape from relegation in 1965-1966, when the club were in a desperate position at the end of February, but only two defeats in their last 13 matches ensured that they retained their First Division status.
“Possession football is the thing
if you’ve got the ball, keep it.
The other side can’t score.”
Not happy about the football scene in England, he moved abroad again; firstly to Ethinkos in Greece before Barcelona brought him in as their manager in 1969, having been impressed by Sheffield Wednesday’s performance against them in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup when he managed them. Vic took the team to the 1971 Copa del Generalisimo (now the Copa del Rey) and the same season they finished runner-up to Valencia – the team they beat in extra time in the Cup final. While he was given authority to change things at the club – most notably over-turning the ban on signing foreign players – it proved to be not enough for the Barcelona board, who went Dutch and again it was Michels who replaced him. Sevilla moved for Buckingham to try and stave off relegation, but this was unsuccessful, although he took the matter into the final day of the season, so after a few months he was on the move again. A return to Ethnikos followed and after a two year stint there, Vic became manager of champions Olympiacos. When he was unable to replicate their success, he stayed in Greece with AS Rodos, but only for a season, being dismissed when they were relegated. A dip into managing in Kuwait in the late 70s signalled the end of his managerial career.
When Buckingham died in 1995, there were few tributes or fanfares about the man’s career. Johann Cruyff’s Barcelona “Dream Team” was soon to get him the sack from the Nou Camp and his replacement was none other than Bobby Robson, thus carrying on Vic’s ideals at the club.
While Rinus Michels is widely touted as the founder of Total Football, the seeds of the system were firmly planted at Ajax by Vic Buckingham – a manager much overlooked in his own country, where innovation and a focus on technique and tactics were viewed with suspicion in the 1950s and early 1960s. Buckingham’s ideas were out of keeping with a lot of what was going on in England at the time he was in management. The preference propounded by the bigwigs at the FA was to get the ball forward as quickly as possible as that was the route to the “Position of Maximum Opportunity”, which subsequently led to defences being set-up to deal with balls being lumped into the box. For those sides around the early 60s – Wolves, Spurs and Manchester United – who tried something different came success. The prevailing attitude set England back many years, as other countries overtook the national team and on occasion humiliated them.
It is something we will never know, but how might Tottenham have turned out if Bill Nicholson wasn’t around at the same time as Buckingham ? Bill Nick did the Double, won the first European trophy with a British club and set up a period of great success for the club using the things had had learned under Arthur Rowe. Having been developed through the Tottenham Way, Vic’s style may well have suited Tottenham equally as well, being steeped in the Spurs ethos. Having paved the way for many of the top managers in Europe and further afar (Michels, Guardiola, Robson, Cruyff, Bielsa), it is a crying shame that his ideas failed to bring him the success that his beliefs on the way the game should be played deserved.
Marco van Hip