MANY associate the name Charles Buchan with the monthly football magazine which ran from the early 1950s until 1974, and was accompanied by a yearly book which youngsters might be lucky enough to get in their Christmas stockings. But there was a lot more to him than that.
Born in Plumstead in 1891, Charles was the son of a Scotsman who was a sergeant in the Highland Regiment who had moved south to further his career as a blacksmith.
The Last 10
From an early age Charles Murray Buchan loved football. But watching matches was beyond his meagre budget. As he would explain in his autobiography ‘A Lifetime in Football’ he was getting 1d a week pocket money and that wasn’t enough to get him into Woolwich Arsenal matches which cost 3d. So, he recalled; “I stood outside listening to the roars and cheers of the crowd, until about 10 minutes before the end when the big wide gates were thrown open to allow the crowd to trek out”. Young Charlie would go in the opposite direction and see the closing stages.
At 17, Charles, studying to be a teacher at Woolwich Polytchnic, and who had started as a wing-half before switching to inside-forward was offered the opportunity to play for the club he had supported when he was asked to turn out for Woolwich Arsenal reserves against Croydon Common. They won 3-1 and he scored one of the goals. But after three more games he ran into a problem. After presenting Arsenal with a bill for 11 shillings for travel expenses which the club refused to pay Buchan, in turn, refused to play. It would be 16 years before he donned an Arsenal shirt again.
Instead, the forward signed for Northfleet in the Kent League for the 1909-10 season. Pretty soon word began to spread of his abilities and Bury offered him £3 per week to sign for them. Fulham Chairman Henry Norris approached him. He told him that he’d heard that Charles was hoping to become a teacher. Norris offered him thirty shillings per week plus he would find him a job that would allow him to continue his teacher training. Buchan asked for £2. Norris turned him down.
Eventually Buchan found a club, Leyton of the Southern League, that would pay him £3 per week and allow him to continue his studies.
He was quickly being scouted by bigger clubs. Chelsea offered Leyton £800 and were turned down. Then in March 1911 Sunderland came in, offering a record £1,200 (beating the previous mark of £1,000 paid by Middlesbrough for Alf Common) and the Southern Leaguers accepted. He used the £10 signing-on fee to purchase a new overcoat, preparing himself for the biting North-East weather.
Buchan’s early days at his new club were unhappy ones. Regular barracking from the crowd and rough treatment from opposing defenders led to his asking manager Bob Kyle to drop him and matters came to a head when after one game in November 1911 he told to boss; “I’ll never kick another ball for Sunderland”. He was persuaded to play one more time, and turned things around when he scored twice turning the jeers to cheers.
Sunderland made a poor start to the 1912-13 season but by the end of October and with Buchan starting to click alongside centre-forward Jackie Mordue and inside-left George Holley, they’d got their act together and by the end of the year were challenging at the top. Five wins in a row in January sent the Roker men clear of their rivals and they eventually won the title by four points from Aston Villa. The Midlanders turned the tables in the Cup dashing Sunderland’s hopes of the double with a 1-0 win in front of 120,000 fans at Crystal Palace. Buchan scored 32 goals in 46 matches during the campaign and had now become the darling of the Sunderland fans.
In February 1913, Buchan was one of three Sunderland players picked to play for England against Ireland in the Home International Championship match in Belfast. The England call-up came shortly after the Scotland selectors, mindful that his father was a Scot, approached him to play for them, an approach which was rebuffed.
In Belfast it looked like it would be a dream debut when Buchan gave his country the lead after just 10 minutes. Ireland played for an hour with ten men after James McAuley went off injured but a pair of goals from Sheffield United’s Billy Gillespie turned things around and gave the Irish their first win over England at the 31st attempt. After the game he got involved in a disagreement with a member of the FA selection committee. It would be seven years before Buchan played for his country again.
In the 1914-15 season Sunderland were fairly disappointing finishing in mid-table. As soon as the season was over Buchan joined the Grenadier Guards. Sent to the Western Front, he fought at the Somme and Passchendaele and remained on the front line throughout 1917 fighting at Ypres and Bourlon Wood. At the last-named he was awarded the Military Medal.
At the end of 1917, Buchan’s name was put forward for a commission and he returned to England for officer training with the Royal Foresters. He was still in training when the war ended.
Despite those military exploits he also found the time to make guest appearances for Chelsea, Birmingham and Huddersfield Town and to play for his country in the 4-3 military international win over Scotland at Goodison Park in 1916.
After the war Buchan returned to Sunderland and also to a teaching job at Cowan Terrace School but he soon realised that both tasks were too much and focused on football.
In March 1920, over seven years after his last appearance in a full international Buchan was recalled by England for the game against Wales at Highbury. In the seventh minute he gave his country the lead with a fine goal, beating defenders and firing home but the Welsh hit back and came away with a 2-1 win.
After being demoted to reserve status for his country’s next two matches he was made captain for the goalless draw against Wales in Cardiff. Left out again for the next match, he returned, and scored in the 2-0 win in Belgium.
In total Buchan made six appearances for his country spaced out over an eleven-year period. He scored four goals and captained his country twice. A number of incidents with selectors and criticisms of their methods undoubtedly cost him many more caps.
At club level Buchan continued with Sunderland although the team was now a shadow of the side which had won the title and had fallen to mid-table mediocrity.
He was also a committee member of the Association Footballers Union and advocated strike action when the Football League Management Committee announced that they intended to lower the maximum weekly wage from £10 to £9. But many players decided to quit the Union allowing the League to lower the wage, which they did again to £8 the following season.
In 1922-23 both a rebuilt Sunderland and Buchan were back to their best. The new-look team finished the season as runners-up. The player, now the only member of the title-winning team still in the side, finished as the first division’s top scorer with 30 goals.
In 1925 Buchan was 34-years-old and had played his last international. Many would have expected his career to be coming to a close. But he received a surprise visitor in his Sunderland sports shop. It was Herbert Chapman asking if he would consider joining Arsenal.
Back to Arsenal
After two months of negotiations it was agreed that Buchan would move back to London bringing the Plumstead boy’s career full circle. The fee was a rarity. Sunderland wanted £4,000 but eventually it was decided that Arsenal would make a down-payment of £2,000 then pay a further £100 for every goal he scored in his first season. So. Buchan left the North-East club, leaving behind a record of 209 goals in 380 games.
The combination of Chapman and Buchan truly was a meeting of two great footballing minds. Made captain, Buchan had ideas about the game beyond the way it was currently being played and with his new boss, would revolutionise football tactics. They would exploit changes in the offside law, turning the centre-half position from a midfield role into the deepest one in defence. One of the inside-forwards would move back into midfield becoming a ‘link man’ and turning 2-3-5 into 3-3-4.
Chapman was initially unsure of the new system but, after a 7-0 defeat at the hands of Newcastle United, he was persuaded to change at a team meeting. Buchan wanted to play in the new link role but Chapman chose veteran Scot Alex Neil there. Later, Jimmy Ramsey would replace Neil, then Billy Blythe took over.
In their first season using the new tactics Arsenal finished runners-up to Chapman’s old team Huddersfield Town with Buchan scoring 21 times raising the total his new team had to pay his former employers to £4,100, £100 more than the amount Sunderland had asked for.
The 1926-27 campaign was a disappointing one in the league for Arsenal where they slumped to 11th place. They did reach the FA Cup final and Buchan led his team out at Wembley but they fell to Cardiff City thanks to a solitary goal scored when a soft shot from Hugh Ferguson squirmed under goalkeeper Dan Lewis and into the net. Thus ended Charles’s last chance of adding a cup winner’s medal to his title success and the meagre total of six England caps.
There was no real improvement in 1927-28. Chairman and majority shareholder Henry Norris was keeping a tight hold on the purse strings and this was an ageing Arsenal side. Buchan managed 16 goals to bring his total with the club to 56 in 120 games for the Gunners but, at 36, was slowing down and at the end of the campaign, and after a cup semi-final loss he decided to hang up his boots.
Norris would eventually spend the money needed to bring some of the best players to Highbury and this, allied to Chapman’s managerial skills and the tactics initially inspired by Buchan would bring a golden era to the club.
But by then Buchan had turned his hand to journalism. Having written a number of columns during his playing career, along with advice columns for publications like The Scout, he now took a full-time job with the Daily News (later News Chronicle) and also worked for the BBC giving Saturday-evening radio summaries of the day’s matches, as well as writing a highly respected coaching manual.
During World War Two Buchan was in the Home Guard whilst also continuing to report on the major football matches. In 1948 he founded the Football Writers Association, which would instigate the Footballer of the Year award.
In 1950 Buchan travelled to Brazil to report in the World Cup and on England first attempt to win the tournament. He went to Belo Horizonte to watch what should have been a straight forward game against the part-timers of the USA.
Reporting in the 1-0 defeat that sent shockwaves through the game in his home country, Buchan wrote; “There was no excuse for England’s humiliation. I rated the Americans on a par with a third division team like Rochdale, yet by sheer guts and enthusiasm they humbled mighty England”.
There had been a number of sports magazines launched in the British market such as Sporting Mirror, Sport Express and the like, but although football was often the primary sport covered, Buchan felt there was a gap in the market for a football-specific title.
In September 1951 Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly was launched. The founder-editor‘s introduction to the new magazine stated; “Our object is to provide a publication that will be worthy of our national game and the grand sportsmen who play and watch it”.
The monthly magazine ticked all of those boxes and many more. It quickly became a must-read publication for football fans with exclusive articles and interviews featuring the sport’s top writers and the game’s top players. It also greatly increased the average fan’s knowledge of the world game at a time when overseas clubs were starting to appear throughout the UK in prestigious ‘floodlit friendlies’.
Throughout the 1950s Buchan continued writing for his magazine, reporting on the biggest matches, following England on tour and also covering matches, including England’s double humiliation at the hands of Hungary, for the BBC.
In 1960 Charles Buchan passed away whilst holidaying with his wife in Monte Carlo. The Football magazine he founded continued until 1974 (it’s September 1960 edition was packed with tributes to the great man); the Footballer of the Year award he instigated, and the Football Writers Association he founded, continue to this day.
Buchan was one of the foremost early thinkers of the game. His thought-provoking style of play, and opinions on the game he loved were way ahead of their time.
In his autobiography Buchan wrote; “In life, just as in football, there is always something new and interesting around the next corner”. He was clearly a man who lived up to that philosophy.