Major Frank Buckley: From the Somme to a Cup Final

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Major Frank Buckley is truly one of the game’s most fascinating figures. Born to a sergeant in the British Army, Buckley followed in his father’s footsteps, signing up to the army in 1900, where he quickly advanced through the ranks. A keen sportsman, Buckley bought himself out of the army in 1903 and joined Aston Villa. As he approached the end of a very respectable playing career, he was called into action on the dawn of the First World War, where he became Major of the famous ‘Football Battalion’. As a manager, Buckley was known as an eccentric and disciplinarian, his greatest achievements coming with Wolverhampton Wanderers. He introduced many new training methods and styles of man-management, which would influence the likes of Stan Cullis, Matt Busby, Bill Shankly and arguably those of Brian Clough and Alex Ferguson. He also supposedly injected his players with small slices of monkey testicles, but more on that later.

Buckley was born on November 9th 1883 to Sergeant John Buckley, in Urmston, Manchester. He attended the Roman Catholic St Francis Xavier’s College for boys in Liverpool, where he gained a scholarship. The heavily religious secondary school has proved something of a breeding ground for footballers, with the likes of Dixie Dean, Sammy Lee, Mike Newell and Jon Flanagan among the school’s former pupil’s. Buckley enjoyed the numerous sports on offer as a child, excelling in many, but never thought of them as serious career paths, and he became an office clerk in 1898, standing as a volunteer of the Manchester Regiment. In 1900, at the age of 17, Buckley signed up to a 12-year agreement to fight in the Boer War.

He was never sent to South Africa though, and instead headed to Ireland, where he served for three years moving up the ranks from Corporal to Lance-Sergeant. An avid sportsman, Buckley played cricket, rugby and football whilst in Ireland, and was discovered by an Aston Villa scout playing the latter, who recommended that he returned to England for trials in Birmingham. Buckley took his advice, paying a fee of £18 to buy himself out of the armed forces, and was successful in his trials, joining Villa in 1903. English champions in 1900 and FA Cup winners in 1905, Buckley had joined a highly-successful club and the 20-year-old failed to break into a strong first team.

Buckley subsequently moved to Brighton, where he struggled once more, before short-term spells at Manchester United and Manchester City. Whilst at Manchester United Buckley was involved in a shocking incident when he had to carry Thomas Blackstock off the pitch and into the changing rooms. Blackstock had collapsed after heading the ball and tragically died soon after. An inquest claimed Blackstock had died via natural causes, but Buckley was insistent  that the young defender had suffered a heart-attack or seizure. By 1907, Buckley had played for some of the country’s top teams but was 24-years-old and had only played a handful of games. He needed stability and first-team football, so he moved to Birmingham City, where he spent two years and played much more football.

A no-nonsense defender, Buckley was a tall, solid and well-built player who led from the back throughout his career. In 1911, he joined Derby County. It was with Derby that Buckley would play his best football and earn his first and only cap for England. He played 92 times for the Rams, earning promotion to the First Division in his first season and remaining a stalwart of Jimmy Methven’s team. Buckley’s England call-up came in 1914, aged 30, making him still one of England’s older debutant’s. A strong England side was roundly beaten 3-0 in a shock defeat to Ireland, and Buckley never wore the white of England again. Buckley played almost a century of games for Derby when, in May 1914, he joined Bradford City; but after just four games for Bradford, war broke out.

There was a general consensus within football that continuing as normal throughout the war would be the best plan of action, in order to keep public spirits up during a difficult time. However, it soon became apparent that the British public did not agree. Many complained about footballers lack of involvement and by the end of 1914 the pressure had become too great. Controversial Home Secretary William Johnson-Hicks founded the 17th Service Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, better known as the ‘Football Battalion’, on December 12th 1914, and Frank Buckley was the first to sign up. Despite 1,800 footballers being eligible for the regiment, after 14 months there were only 122 members, which were largely down to the entire Clapton Orient and Hearts teams signing up.

The low numbers were not a sign of cowardice among footballers, but rather that many footballers had simply joined other regiments, and the numbers for the battalion would soon grow as the war went on. The Football Battalion are well-known for their admirable service in a number of difficult battles, suffering many heavy losses. Particular examples include the Battle of Arras, the Battle of Delville Wood and the Battle of Guillemont at the Somme. The Battalion included the great Walter Tull, who was the first mixed raced outfield player in the Football League. Tull was noted for his gallantry and coolness, and was killed in 1918 during the Spring Offensive. There were calls for him to receive a Military Cross but they never materialised. Meanwhile Lyndon Soe of Cardiff City was honoured with the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

It was Buckley though who was the most highly ranked of the battalion, becoming a Major during the war, and he remained known as Major Frank Buckley having survived the war once peacetime football resumed. Aged 36, and having suffered gas attacks, there was little point of Buckley trying to revive his playing career and he instead turned to management, where he could utilise his excellent leadership qualities. Buckley took the helm at debt-riddled Norwich City in 1919, where he grew a reputation for recruiting talented young players through the contacts he had made across the country during the war. His time at Norwich was short-lived though, and after disagreements and financial disputes with the board he left in 1920.

Failure at Norwich seemed to signal the end for Buckley in football management, and he took up a post working as a commercial traveller for Maskell’s, a confectionary manufacturer. After three years with Maskell’s, Buckley had a chance encounter with Albert Hargreaves, a director at Blackpool. Buckley had no intentions of leaving Maskell’s, but after a meeting with president Linsay Parkinson in which Buckley was convinced he would not only be well-paid but also given funds to spend in the transfer market, he joined the Seasiders in 1920.

Buckley’s first move as manager was to change Blackpool’s playing colours, which had been mainly red, to a very bright orange which is still worn by the club today. The idea behind the change was to display a type of vibrancy, freshness and newness to Blackpool which Buckley hoped to bring to the Second Division side. Buckley immediately introduced strict and regimented fitness regimes, and even introduced rules regarding what players could eat and drink, well over half a century before such rules became commonplace. Buckley is, as far as we know, the first manager in British football to have done so.

During his time at the helm, Blackpool were regarded as the fittest team in the country, and their physical conditioning was far better than most Second Division sides. Buckley brought through two of the most clinical strikers in England in the forms of Harry Bedford and William Tremelling but lost the pair of them to bigger teams in Derby County and Preston North End. Buckley brought physiotherapists in to Blackpool before any other club had them and the Seasiders soon gained a reputation for returning injured players to first team football sooner than other sides were able to.

After over four years at Blackpool, the Major moved to Wolverhampton Wanderers. By this point Buckley had a reputation for buying players for a pittance and selling them on for a fortune, which made him an attractive option for all financially savvy directors in the Football League. He continued his impressive recruitment at Wolves, where he had one of the most extensive scouting systems in the country. Whilst most teams would look to the local schoolboy systems for future players, Buckley wanted to recruit on a national scale, and was just as happy to poach players from Plymouth or Carlisle, as he was those based in Wolverhampton.

It was at Wolves that Buckley really became known as one of the game’s great eccentrics. After a humiliating cup defeat to Mansfield, he made his players train in Wolverhampton town center, drilling them with a hard physical training session with a lot of running. It is now that we must come onto the oh-so-tricky issue of monkey testicles. It sounds like the stuff of myth and legend, and some claim it is just that. Buckley was known for liking to drum up media attention and publicity, and such a rousing story garnered mass interest and hysteria around the club.

However, the story is not so easily dismissable. Buckley was first approach by a chemist named Menzies Sharp in 1937. Sharp had learnt from the famous French surgeon of Russian descent by the name of Serge Voronoff. He was at one time highly respected for his theories regarding the grafting a monkey testicles, but the results Voronoff had witnessed turned out to be mere placebo effects, and he lived out his old age in ridicule. A sceptic, Buckley took the treatment for 3 months before subjecting it to his players, but was impressed by the results. Two Wolves players, Dicky Dorsett and Don Bilton, refused the injections despite techniques described as “bullying” by Buckley.

Soon after the treatment, Wolves rawed on to some incredible results. A 7-0 thrashing of Everton was followed by a 10-1 demolition of Leicester City, although four of the ten goals scored against Leicester were by the injection-free Dicky Dorsett. After both of these games, Everton and Leicester complained to the relevant authorities, with Everton legend Tommy Lawton claiming “he [Stan Cullis] walked past me with glazed eyes”. The claims were largely put to bed after Wolves’ FA Cup final defeat to Portsmouth in 1939.

Wolves were hot favourites to win the cup against an industrious Portsmouth side, but were roundly beaten 4-1. The 1938/39 season would prove the closest Buckley ever came to silverware, as Wolves became the first team in England to finish as runners-up in the two biggest competitions, the First Division and the FA Cup. Buckley had also guided Wolves to a second place finish in the previous season, when they finished an agonizing one point behind champions Arsenal. When the club were arguably at their peak, the football season was halted due to the Second World War. After the cup final defeat the Football League ruled that the injections were not against any rules, providing they were not forced upon players.

Buckley’s time at Wolves can prove tricky to evaluate. The club made a fortune under his stewardship, although supporters often grew frustrated at the sales of star players. In the 2013 Football League 125 year celebrations, Wolves fans voted Buckley as the club’s third greatest ever manager, but the man who topped that poll was perhaps more telling. Stan Cullis unsurprisingly scored a massive 72% of the overall vote. Cullis was brought to Wolves by Buckley, and the Major had a great impact upon the young centre-half, eventually making him club captain and instilling him with the leadership qualities that would see Cullis guide Wolves to three league titles, one FA Cup and scalps against some of Europe’s biggest clubs.

There was to be some silverware for Buckley at Wolves. The team lifted the 1942 Football League War Cup, with a 4-1 defeat of Sunderland. After the war, Buckley joined Notts County, to the shock of the Wolves supporters and directors. Buckley had been offered a colossal £4,500 a year contract in Nottingham, and so he swapped the First Division runners-up for the Third Division strugglers. The Major hadn’t lost his touch, signing Jesse Pye on a free transfer in 1945, he sold him for £10,000 to former club Wolves only a year later. Buckley didn’t spend long at County though, and soon headed to East Yorkshire, and another ambitious Third Division side in the form of Hull City.

Buckley spent only two year at Boothferry Park but he did make a real contribution to the club, signing the likes of Jack Taylor and Raich Carter, the latter of whom would replace Buckley as Hull City manager, when the Major headed to Leeds United. By now, Buckley was getting old. He was 65 when he joined Leeds, and failed to achieve his objective of getting the team into the First Division. The Major did have one last great gift to the world of football though. Buckley brought a young man of big build by the name of John Charles to Elland Road. The Major was unsure of Charles’ best position, an issue that would divide opinion long after his retirement. As such, Buckley played Charles in a variety of positions for the reserves; and the result was one of the most complete footballers in the history of the game.

Buckley left Leeds after 5 years of service to the club, without a promotion to his name but he had signed John Charles and Jack Charlton, who would gain promotion under Carter two years after Buckley left Leeds. The Major headed to Walsall. Now aged 70, the majority of Buckley’s connections and scouts across the country were either dead or retired. His recruitment skills were massively depleted, and the club were relegated in his second season at the helm, Buckley knew it was the end and retired.

Buckley remained in Walsall for another 10 years, where he died, aged 82. His ashes were scattered on the Malvern Hills. Major Frank Buckley made a great contribution to both the world of football and the war effort. He revolutionized training regimes, dietary requirements and scouting systems. At Wolves, he inspired the greatest team the city has ever seen, even if it only came to full fruition under his pupil after Buckley had left the club. Seven of the starting XI in the victorious 1949 Wolves FA Cup team had been signed by Buckley. In the forms of Stan Cullis, Billy Wright, Jimmy Mullen, John Charles, Jack Charlton and more, Buckley gave Britain some of it’s greatest ever players. In April 2015, Buckley was awarded the prestigious ‘Contribution to League Football’ award by the Football League.

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