BY Vince Cooper
OF the many great managers to have graced the beautiful game over the years, there have undoubtedly been a number who have outstripped the footballing achievements of Frank Buckley. But few can claim to have given a lifetime to both the game and their country as ‘The Major’ did.
Franklin Charles Buckley was born in Urmston, close to Manchester in 1882. After winning a scholarship to St Francis Xavier’s College in Liverpool (also the school of Dixie Dean and, in later times Sammy Lee), he initially worked as an office clerk before deciding to follow in his father’s footsteps. John Buckley was a sergeant in the British Army with responsibility for the training of yeomanry and territorial units. Frank, the sixth of John’s twelve children, signed up for twelve years hoping to serve in the Boer award but was instead posted to Ireland where he spent three years.
After discovering his love for football Frank bought himself out of the army, where he had been promoted to Lance Sergeant and Gymnastics Instructor, in 1902 for the princely sum of £18 to become a professional. He signed for Aston Villa and manager George Ramsay after being spotted playing for the King’s Liverpool Regiment against the Lancashire Fusiliers in the final of the Irish Cup.
Playing days at Brighton
Within six years Buckley had played for four teams, moving from Aston Villa (where he played just once) to Brighton & Hove Albion, then onto Manchester United (where he lined up alongside greats such as Billy Meredith, Charlie Roberts, to whom he was understufy, and Sandy Turnbull) and then Manchester City. Buckley’s brother Christopher also played for Brighton and Aston Villa before moving on to join Arsenal and would eventually return to Villa Park to become Chairman of the club in 1955.
Both Buckley brothers were Centre-halves although Christopher certainly had the more successful club career being a key member of the Villa side that won the title in 1911-12
Whilst at United, in 1907, Buckley played in a reserve match against St Helens Town. Teammate Thomas Blackstock collapsed after heading a ball. Buckley helped carry the payer off the pitch and Blackstock died shortly after. The verdict recorded was ‘natural causes’, although Buckley said he had suffered a heart attack.
In 1909, Frank found himself back in Birmingham after signing for City where he finally settled down for a while, gaining a regular first team place and spending four years at the club. A clause in his contract stated that he would be allowed to move if a club bid £50 for him. Derby County offered the amount and he moved to The Baseball Ground, again becaming a first-team regular, playing alongside Steve Bloomer and winning a 2nd Division title and promotion to the top flight in 1911-12. Despite this successful season he took the somewhat surprising step, in May 1912 of placing a newspaper ad offering his services to ‘any club who wished to sign him’. Replies must have been scant as he remained with Derby.
It was during his time with County that Buckley received his solitary international call-up. He was chosen to play centre-half against Ireland at Ayresome Park in February 1914 but the match was a disaster for England as they lost 3-0 and Buckley, along with fellow debutant Harry Martin, who not chosen for his country again.
Buckley was soon on the move once more, this time joining Bradford City in May 1914. But he had little chance to establish himself at Valley Parade, playing just four times before the end of the season.
In July of that year the First World War broke out and Buckley would soon be representing his country on a much bigger stage.
In late 1914, after much controversy concerning whether organised Football should continue, MP William Joynson-Hicks founded the 17th Service Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment which became known as the ‘Footballers Battalion’. The commanding officer was Henry Fenwick, a career soldier, and one of the first to sign up for he new regiment was Buckley who joined after a meeting at Chelsea Town Hall in December of that year.
The Footballers Battalion
As he had previous experience serving, Buckley was given the rank of Lieutenant, eventually being promoted to Major. Many of the early volunteers were football fans wanting to fight alongside their sporting heroes rather than footballers. This was because many footballers, contrary to popular belief, had already signed up to fight.
Members of the Battalion, with the Major front and centre
Shortly after, the Football Association urged all those unmarried footballers who had not already signed up to do so. By March of 1915, there were 122 professional footballers among the full complement of 600 men in the battalion, including almost the entire Clapton Orient team (three of whom would later lose their lives on the Western Front).
In January 1916 the battalion reached the front line and the casualties soon began to mount with four killed and 33 injured during a two-week period. Buckley’s batman Thomas Brewer, a former Queen’s Park Rangers player, was killed and Buckley offered to pay for the education of his three children.
The Battalion suffered serious casualties at the Somme in July 1916, including the loss of England international Evelyn Lintott. Buckley himself was so badly injured when shrapnel hit him in the chest that he was thought unlikely to survive. He was sent to a military hospital in Kent where surgeons were able to remove the shrapnel, although his lungs were badly damaged.
By January 1917 the heroic Major was back on the front line. During an attack on German troops at Argenvillers, Buckley was ‘mentioned in dispatches’ after being involved in hand-to-hand fighting but, after a poison gas attack his lungs were damaged once again and he was sent home for a second time and would be unable to return to the front line.
When hostilities ended in late 1918 Buckley decided to return to football and he was recommended for the Norwich City manager’s job by Frederick Wall, Secretary of the Football Association.
Having taken over in February 1919, Buckley oversaw Norwich’s entry into the 3rd Division (South) but he stayed for just a single season with the club suffering financial problems. After playing in one game, despite his lung problems, he left in the summer of 1920 after City sold Samuel Jennings, a player he had discovered, for £2,500 to Middlesbrough.
After this Buckley decided to turn his back on football and he spent the next three years working as a commercial salesman for a confectionary manufacturer based in London.
The job entailed travelling up and down the country and it was during one of his trips to Lancashire that he met up with a Blackpool director who arranged for him to meet chairman Linsay Parkinson about the manager’s job.
Parkinson appointed Buckley in 1923 and one of his first moves was to change the club’s shirts from white to tangerine as he wanted them to appear ‘bright and vibrant’. He was instrumental in setting up a new scouting system and in implementing tactical changes for the Seasiders as well as installing physiotherapists at Bloomfield Road, the first English club to use them. But with the club’s best players being sold on for profit he failed to lift Blackpool out of the 2nd Division in his four seasons in charge.
Whilst he had won no honours with either Norwich or Blackpool, Buckley’s skill in finding cheap players and turning them into top class footballers didn’t go unnoticed and in 1927 he was offered the manager’s job at another then-2nd Division club, Wolverhampton Wanderers.
As befits a man with his army background, Buckley was a strong believer in physical fitness and discipline. He gave each of his players a pocket book detailing the conduct expected of them and ensured Wolves fans knew the rules, asking them to inform him if they became aware of any players transgressing them.
As with Blackpool one of his early moves at Wolves was to change the kit colour, the previous yellow shirts becoming ‘old gold’ with black trimming, a colour, like his previous change, that the club became synonymous with.
One of his early signings at Molineux was former army man Billy Hartill, who had been playing for the Royal Horse Artillery. After scoring 33 goals in 1929-30 and 30 in the following campaign, the forward scored another 30, including four hat tricks, in the 1931-32 campaign, leading the team to the 2nd Division title and a place in the top flight.
In 1934 he brought Stan Cullis to the club, quickly signing him after a one-week trial period to ward off interest from others. Soon after signing him and while he was still playing for the ‘A’ team Buckley took the youngster aside and said to him; “Cullis, if you listen and do as you are told I’ll make you captain of Wolves one day.
Stan Cullis; a Buckley protege
Cullis said of his manager; “Major Buckley implanted into my mind the direct method of playing which did away with close interpassing and square ball play.
“If you didn’t like his style of play you’d soon be on your bicycle to another club”.
Throughout the 1930s Buckley gradually improved Wolves to such an extent that in 1938-39, with Cullis now skippering the side, they finished runners-up for the second season running in the 1st Division and reached the F.A. Cup final, losing to Portsmouth.
During his time at Molineux, Buckley became know for his eccentricities. After one disappointing cup loss to Mansfield he ordered his players to train in Wolverhampton city centre forcing them to undergo a hard physical training session with fans looking on.
But Buckley wasn’t always popular with the fans, mostly due to his approach of establishing players then selling them for good profit (such as Bryn Jones who was sold to Arsenal for £14,000) and bringing in youngsters who became known as ‘Buckley Babes’.
Along with Cullis, these ‘Babes’ included Billy Wright, a player he initially rejected before changing his mind and bringing him back to the club. Wright would, of course, eventually replace Cullis as captain of the club and win 105 caps, most as skipper, for England.
With 14-year-old Cameron Buchanan
When the 2nd World War broke out Buckley attempted to join the Army but was rejected as being too old at 56. Instead he took command of the Home Guard unit in Wolverhampton. He continued managing the club and they won the War Cup, beating Sunderland in the final and he also gave a debut to Cameron Buchanan who was 14 years and 57 days old.
Buckley surprisingly left Wolves in 1944, with four years still remaining on a 10-year-contract. His replacements, Ted Vizard and then Stan Cullis himself, both enjoyed great success and reaped the benefit of the systems he had put in place.
Buckley joins Leeds
Buckley followed with somewhat nondescript two-year spells at Notts County (who he joined for an unprecedented £4,500 per year) where his ability to unearth gems was proved once again with the free-transfer signing of Freddie Pye, later sold to Wolves for £10,000, then at Hull City before, in 1948 he took charge at Leeds United.
John Charles; a Buckley discovery
While at Elland Road he signed Jack Charlton as a junior, as well as the great John Charles. He was instrumental in increasing the ‘Gentle Giant’s’ versatility. Unsure of the player’s best position he employed him in a variety of roles helping to create one of the game’s greatest-ever all round players.
At Leeds he again improved the team but failed to actually win anything of note and five years later he moved to Walsall, his final managerial post where he suffered the indignity of relegation in 1953-54, a year after which he retired.
Buckley lived quietly in retirement before passing away in Walsall in 1964 aged 82.
Major Frank Buckley was undoubtedly an innovator as a manager. He was at the forefront of the famous ‘monkey glands’ scandal of the 1930s when Wolves players were said to have been using the glands to improve their fitness. Players had been photographed being injected and rumours quickly spread that the club were using a mysterious formula, rumours which the Manager did little to dispel initially. He would later admit that the injections were simple flu inoculations. He also used psychiatrists to help players improve their form and, monkey glands aside, there is little doubt that he would resort to any methods that he felt might bring about improvement.
He also clearly had a unique ability in spotting talent. The likes of Cullis, Wright, Charles, Charlton, Jimmy Mullen and many others benefitted from the Major’s skill at finding talent and then from his tutelage as a mentor and manager.
But perhaps his greatest legacy is as a patriot; a man who was always keen to stand up for his country and who instilled the same feeling of pride in those he employed and commanded (it is said that 91 men from Wolves joined the armed forces during the 2nd World War, many at the urging of Buckley).
Whilst Major Frank Buckley’s record as a manager may have fallen just short of the best, that as a servant of his country knows few equals.