Twenty years on from his death, Vic Buckingham’s influence upon the way we see, play and think about football resonates to this day.
Largely overlooked in his homeland, yet widely respected on the continent, Buckingham is credited with shaping the thinking of some of the game’s greatest minds and laying the foundations of the “Total Football” movement.
In spells at West Bromwich Albion, Ajax (twice), Sheffield Wednesday, Fulham, Barcelona and Sevilla amongst others; Buckingham did not always enjoy trophy laden periods of success. Sir Bobby Robson, Don Howe and the great Johan Cruyff all played for Buckingham before going on to have formidable coaching careers in their own right. Ahead of his time, the legacy of the man is most keenly felt in his impact upon others than in the trophies he lifted himself.
Born in Greenwich in October 1915, Buckingham played as a defender, coming through the youth ranks at Tottenham Hotspur to make more than 200 appearances for the Lillywhites. In a playing career interrupted by the Second World War, Buckingham won his two England caps whilst serving his country in the Royal Air Force.
Having called time on his playing days in 1949, Buckingham began his managerial career with Pegasus, a club drawn from Oxford and Cambridge graduates with whom he won the 1951 FA Amateur Cup in front of a sold-out Wembley stadium. The varsity atmosphere and intelligent, spirited characters he had coached and cajoled to victory had encouraged the young coach to continue his studies of the game.
Pegasus had played in an eye-catching, expressive style and soon Third Division North club Bradford Park Avenue would grant Buckingham’s progressive playing philosophy a home in league football.
West Bromwich Albion took him to the First Division in 1953 and it was with the Baggies that Buckingham would achieve his greatest domestic success. In 1954, West Brom narrowly missed out on the first English league and cup double of the 20th century. Although the Baggies would defeat Preston North End to lift the FA Cup at Wembley; injuries and a poor run of form at the tail end of the season saw rivals Wolves wrestle the league title away from Buckingham’s grasp.
Buckingham was developing a style of football based upon the principles of good possession and clever movement. A thinker on the game, he was impressed by the great Hungary side of the 1950s who in destroying England 6-3 at Wembley in 1953, led the Times to observe that the home side had played like “firemen going to the wrong fire.”
The magical Magyars of Puskas, Kocsis, Hidegkuti and co had bewitched the English, in the same way Brazil would do in years to come. Each player was comfortable on the ball and would seldom give the ball away cheaply. Rather than pure athleticism, the Hungarians exercised the brain exploiting their opponents’ weaknesses. Buckingham would be one of the few who would learn from that Wembley mauling and adapted his philosophy accordingly.
“Don’t worry about who was meant to have marked whom,” he would advise, “just remember that if you are the nearest player then you go for the opponent with the ball. Whether you are playing well or badly, all of you must want the ball and look for it.”
After 6 years in the Black Country, Buckingham surprised his contemporaries by turning his back on English football, moving to the continent with Ajax of Amsterdam. The Dutch capital, at the centre of the trade in new ideas for centuries was the perfect place for Buckingham to expand his own thinking. Amsterdam bore witness to a post-war liberal awakening in the 1960s and Ajax would come to symbolise that expression at home and abroad.
Buckingham won the Dutch championship in 1960, a title he modestly attributed to his countryman Jack Reynolds, his predecessor at Ajax from whom he had inherited a wholly capable side.
His stay in Holland was relatively short and he returned to England in 1961 to take over the reins at Sheffield Wednesday. After 3 successive 6th place top-flight finishes, Buckingham’s contract was not renewed. Although not implicated in the 1964 match-fixing plot which saw 3 of his Owls players suspended by the FA; he was devastated by the breakdown in trust. The time was right for a return to Amsterdam.
Ajax were not the same team he had left behind. With an aging squad, Buckingham looked to the youth team for talent giving a 17 year-old Johan Cruyff his first team debut. The legendary Dutch coach Rinus Michels (and later Stefan Kovács) would build upon the foundations Buckingham had lain as Ajax grew into a team that would win 3 successive European Cups between 1971 and 1973.
The way Ajax played relied on each outfield player being comfortable enough to play in any area of the pitch. Individuals were free to move between positions and to the area of the park where he could inflict most damage upon the opposition. With that freedom came the responsibility to cover for their team mates.
Total Football’s principles of individuals moving within a resilient shape drew comparison to molecular biology and the kinetic theory of matter but there was simplicity behind the science. Keep possession, understand your opponent and move intelligently. It worked like clockwork and to this day, coaches from across the world travel to Amsterdam to learn the “Ajax way.”
His second spell in Amsterdam was less fruitful for Buckingham personally and in 1965, he returned home to London for an ill-fated final spell in the English game with Fulham. The Cottagers’ players didn’t warm to Buckingham’s sometimes unorthodox training methods which included ballet practice to improve balance. The sale of the mercurial Rodney Marsh to West London rivals QPR followed before his Craven Cottage tenure ended with relegation from the top-flight.
Redemption would come in Greek football at Ethnikos Piraeus before Barcelona offered him the opportunity to move to the Camp Nou. Buckingham’s short but eventful stay at Barça is fondly remembered. In his one full season with the Catalans, 1970-71, they were runners-up in La Liga behind Valencia and won the Spanish Cup (then known as the Copa del Generalísimo, this being the time of Franco).
Buckingham is perhaps best remembered in Spain for his actions in the infamous “Guruceta match” of 1970. When referee Emilio Carlos Guruceta Muro awarded a hotly disputed penalty to Real Madrid in a Spanish Cup tie for a foul “2 metres outside the area, “cushions rained onto the Camp Nou pitch from supporters suspecting corruption from the match official, Buckingham persuaded his players to play on. The match is one of the key fault lines in the Barça vs Real “El Classico” derby and however far outside the box the foul occurred, Guruceta became Spanish football’s pantomime villain. Buckingham’s dignified reaction fueled Catalan claims of moral superiority over Madrid.
However justified his image as an English gentleman, his eloquence famously deserted him when preparing his side for a match against Real Betis. Buckingham stood up, scrawled the name of opponents “BETIS” on the tactics board, screamed “Fuck Betis!” at the top of his voice, before kicking the board to the ground.
Spanish football had banned foreign player imports, a restriction that Buckingham pushed to be lifted by the Spanish FA. When he was again replaced by Rinus Michels at Barcelona, his successor was left in prime position to sign Johan Cruyff from under the noses of Real Madrid. Cruyff went onto become a Catalan folk hero as player and coach of the Blaugrana.
Michels would again benefit from Buckingham’s work at Barcelona before returning to coach Ajax and the Dutch national side, taking totaalvoetbal and the Oranje to the 1974 World Cup Final. A generation later, Michels’ claimed Holland’s first major tournament at the 1988 European Championships.
Upon leaving Barça, Vic Buckingham’s final years in management took him to Sevilla before finishing his career in Greece with first Olympiacos and then Rodos F.C. whom he was unable to save from the drop in 1980.
Legacy in sporting terms is oft remembered in titles and trophies alone rather than what is left behind for others to take forward. When Sir Isaac Newton humbly attested that “if I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” he acknowledged the influence other enlightened men had upon his own achievements.
As Vic Buckingham built on the accomplishments of his mentor, Tottenham’s visionary coach Arthur Rowe, he in turn showed the way to men like Cruyff who took the baton and passed it onto Rijkaard, Guardiola, Koeman, and Laudrup.
Barcelona take pride in playing in the Dutch style of Cruyff and Michels. The Tiki-Taka style of Guardiola’s Blaugrana is itself derived from Total Football. Buckingham’s reflected influence on the traditions of Barça and Ajax lives on to this day.
Vic Buckingham, who died in January 1995, was a man who showed the world how his beloved game could be played with expression, excitement and enjoyment.