by Stuart Moriarty-Patten
26 January 1995: Vic Buckingham the man who introduced total football to the Dutch passes away
Vic Buckingham passed away on 26 January 1995 largely unheralded in this country, but abroad, particularly in Amsterdam and Barcelona, he was held in some esteem for his views on how the game should be played.
Buckingham spent his entire playing career at Tottenham making 230 times appearances between 1934 and 1949 in a career that was interrupted by the Second World War. After retiring from playing he turned to coaching with ideas that he had learned from the Tottenham manager Arthur Rowe, whose innovative push and run style of play saw the championship title coming to White Hart Lane in 1951.
An eloquent and intelligent man, Buckingham was born to be a manager, and he started off coaching Spurs juniors, and Oxford University. It was the latter that led him to his first management position with the combined Oxford and Cambridge University amateur side Pegasus, who he led to victory in the 1951 Amateur Cup Final, in front of an incredible 100,000 people at Wembley. The Pegasus team under Buckingham became noted for playing exciting, fast-flowing football based around passing the ball quickly. This was to become the trademark for all Buckingham’s teams who he instructed, “Whether you are playing well or badly, all of you must want the ball and look for it.”
After his success at Pegasus he was offered a position as manager of Bradford Park Avenue who were then a league club. After some fine work there he got the chance to manage a top club when West Bromwich Albion came calling in 1953. He steered them to fourth place in his first season, and in the next he almost earned legendary status when his West Brom team won the FA Cup but narrowly missed out on the league title to Wolves, and with it the chance of being the first double winners of the century. The style of West Brom’s football reflected Buckingham’s philosophy as they built their game around short accurate passes. The Observer commented, “The basis of Albion’s style – and for that matter of Hungary’s – is simply the business of keeping possession of the ball…This demands accuracy in passing, and such accuracy demands in turn reasonably short passes that seldom rise much above the ground … every man, from the goalkeeper forward, is expected to find a team-mate when he makes a pass. Seldom does the man in possession hold the ball for long … his team-mates are always moving into position for a pass.” Writing in the Daily Telegraph in 2008 ex-West Brom player and manager Don Howe recounted that “Buckingham made sure that we were a non-stop pass-and-move team…I was a full-back in those days and not only did he fill me with confidence because he was a brilliant man-manager but he also stipulated, for instance, that when our goalkeeper had the ball I should make myself available and demand the ball to set things in motion. Not only did he curb long-ball tactics in favour of more measured football but he also urged me to become an adventurous, over-lapping full-back. I credit him with helping me win a place in the England team at the 1958 World Cup and I’m sure my old team-mate Bobby Robson would do the same.”
Buckingham also had modern ideas regarding fitness, booking in his players for weight training with the Olympic weightlifter Bill Watson, and adding two days of afternoon training to the traditional five-morning schedule.
In an era dominated by the more prosaic football of Stan Cullis at neighbours Wolves, West Brom never really pushed on from that near-double winning season, and by 1959 Buckingham was looking for a new challenge, and, in what would have been an improbable move in those days, he went to Ajax.
In Holland he found the less physical and frantic aspect of the game more suitable to his footballing methods, and Ajax won the League in 1960 and Cup the next year. Buckingham’s ideas found a ready home at Ajax although he modestly paid homage to his English predecessor Jack Reynolds, who spent three different periods at the club between 1915 and 1945, as already having put the groundwork in place. Additionally Buckingham also discovered the young emerging talent that was Johan Cruyff, destined to be Holland’s, and the one of the world’s, greatest footballers.
Despite his success at Ajax Buckingham returned to England after just two seasons when he took over Sheffield Wednesday in 1961. His time was not unsuccessful at the Yorkshire club; they remained in the top six throughout his tenure and reached the quarter-finals of the Fairs (UEFA) cup before losing to Barcelona on aggregate despite having beaten them at Hillsborough. The Wednesday board however wanted more, which saw him leaving after his contract was not renewed. Just three days later the news was broken of the betting scandal of 1964 which rocked football and saw three Wednesday players sent to prison after being found guilty of taking bribes to fix a game and betting on their team to lose.
Buckingham’s reputation was tarnished by rumours of his involvement in the scandal, but he fiercely denied any knowledge about it and nothing was ever proven about him. He was reported as being incredibly disappointed that players could behave in such a way and his love of football was seriously dented. He left England for a second spell at Ajax but in January 1965 he was back in England when he joined Fulham. He tried to implement wholesale changes to the club that would ensure it would be run along his ideas that the everyone at the club, from the youth team to the first team, should be playing along the same lines of football based around quick short passes and possession. The board however ran out of patience with the pace of change and after three years he was fired.
Despite the failures in England his stock was still high in Europe and he went to manage the Greek club Ethnikos where he was loved by the fans. Next he moved to Spain where he coached Barcelona, becoming the first of a chain of Ajax people to manage there. When he went to Barcelona they had been languishing throughout the sixties and were lying tenth in La Liga. He got them to improve and they finished the season in fourth. Next season he took them to second place, finishing behind Valencia, who Barcelona got some revenge over by beating them in the final of the Copa Del Rey that season. A recurrence of a back problem meant that Buckingham cut his stay at Barcelona short and was replaced by the man who had carried on his good work at Ajax, Rinus Michel. Perhaps the greatest thing he did for Barcelona was pave the way for the eventual transfer of Johan Cruyff, who was to become a Barcelona legend.
Buckingham rounded off his career with spells back in Spain with Seville and in Greece with Olympiacos and Rodos, before his managerial career came to an end in 1980. Perhaps it can be considered English football’s loss that Buckingham never again managed in England after his time at Fulham, and it is regretful that his knowledge and passion for playing skillful football on the ground was ignored by the FA, much to the detriment of English football, which during the seventies and eighties was at its lowest ebb as the long-ball game took over.
On his death he was remembered fondly in Barcelona and Amsterdam and it can be argued that his approach to the game was the precursor of the ‘total football’ of the Ajax and Dutch national sides of the seventies, and the ‘tiki-taka’ of the all-conquering Barcelona side of today.