“If you have got the ball, keep it. The other side cannot score.”

The tale of Vic Buckingham at Ajax

According to number of sources there was once a respectable English coach who’s pre-match talk to his Barcelona players consisted of ‘f*ck Betis’ and a well aimed kick at the tactics board which sent it flying across the dressing room. (Alex Ferguson in his heyday would have been proud).

Who was this coach? It was a man called Vic Buckingham. What has this got to do with Ajax I hear some of you say? Well, Buckingham managed Ajax on 2 brief occasions. Perhaps more importantly though, during his first spell at the club he unearthed a talented 12 year old called Johan Cruyff and in his second stint was responsible for giving the then 17 year old Cruyff his first team debut. Legend has it that Buckingham’s influence on Cruyff’s life and career was so great that he became Godfather to one of his children. (No doubt this is probably untrue but what a wonderful touch it would have been)

Buckingham’s playing career at Football League level was spent entirely with Tottenham Hotspur. He played 204 times for the club during the1930s and 40s. Interestingly Tottenham were in the old second division during all of Buckingham’s playing career and he never got to play top flight football. In fact the most valuable part of his playing career was probably towards the end, when he was on hand to witness the advent of the Spurs manager, Arthur Rowe’s, revolutionary push and run type of football.

I was going to say that Buckingham was better known as a coach than a player, but these days when his memory has all but been forgotten I’m not sure that is true. I can just about remember him as manager of Fulham in the late 1960s but have no memory of him managing Barcelona after that. I didn’t know, until researching this article, that he had managed Ajax either. It’s a sad fact the we English constantly bemoan the lack of forward thinking native coaches like Buckingham, but when we have them we don’t recognise them or their achievements, particularly if they happen in other countries.

Buckingham watches Steve Earle doing light training.

Vic Buckingham managed a number of clubs in England, The Netherlands, Spain and Greece. As this website is about Ajax, I will concentrate on the circumstances that led him to coach Ajax on two occasions and the legacy that he left the club.

His first spell at Ajax was between 1959 and 1961. Prior to this he was manager of West Bromwich Albion. At that time ‘the Baggies’ were one of the ‘big 5’ of English football. It was quite remarkable therefore that Buckingham should choose to come to Ajax. Sure, managers had left England before to coach overseas, but these tended to be managers that had been held back or passed over for the big jobs in English football. To me this showed he was a man who was ahead of his time as he wanted to coach a short passing game that relied on possession and off the ball movement. This of course was an anathema to most of the English professional game at that time.

During Buckingham’s first spell at Ajax the club won the Eredivise title and the Dutch cup. However he downplayed these achievements preferring to give the credit to the work done by his predecessor, fellow Englishman Jack Reynolds. He is reported as modestly saying that ‘the Ajax players I inherited had the basics right already, all I had to do was to teach them to own more possession of the ball’. Although Buckingham himself would no doubt play down his role in the development of the team that went on to be serial champions of Europe, there are many pundits who go to the opposite extreme and class Buckingham as the Godfather of total football.

In 1961, Sheffield Wednesday came calling for Buckingham’s services and he returned to England. He achieved 3 consecutive 6th place finishes In his time at Wednesday. Not too bad for a club that had spent the 1950s yo-yoing between Divisions 1 and 2. Buckingham also guided them to the quarter finals of the Fairs Cup where they lost out 4-3 to Barcelona. It is reported that the Catalan club were so impressed with the style of Wednesday’s football that they noted Buckingham’s name for future reference.

Buckingham’s time at Sheffield Wednesday came to an end in April 1964 as a result of the bribery and betting scandal that engulfed English football in that year. Two of Buckingham’s Wednesday players along with a former team member were implicated in the scandal. Although there was never any suggestion that Buckingham himself was involved, The Sheffield Wednesday board, rather unfairly in my opinion, decided that had Buckingham been a stricter disciplinarian then the players concerned may not have got involved in the scandal. So despite never finishing outside of the top six, Buckingham lost his job.

Thus, Buckingham returned to Ajax in the summer of 1964. Unfortunately this time his tenure was not a success. He found a squad of senior players in advanced decline and was forced to field a large number of youth players, most notably a young Johan Cruyff. Results were poor and with a relegation battle on the horizon, it was agreed in January 1965 that both parties would be best served if Buckingham took up the vacant manager’s job at Fulham. He was of course succeeded by Rinus Michels and within 4 years Ajax were contesting the first of many European finals. Despite Buckingham’s second spell at Ajax not working out, as I have mentioned previously, there are many who contend that his time at Ajax laid the foundations for the all conquering total football side.

Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff at Barcelona.

After 3 years with Fulham and a year in Greece, Buckingham was unexpectedly appointed as manager of Barcelona. (They had obviously noted his name when they played Sheffield Wednesday). When Buckingham joined in late 1969 Barcelona were just four points above the relegation zone. He guided them to 4th place that season. In the following season Barcelona finished runners up to Valencia but beat the same team in the Spanish cup final.

Buckingham was forced to step down as Barcelona coach after a year and a half in charge due to the need for surgery on a persistent back problem. Remarkably his successor was once again Rinus Michels. Buckingham was also indirectly involved in Johan Cruyff’s move to Barcelona in 1973, as he had been at the forefront of the campaign to lift the ban on Spanish clubs signing foreign players.

Vic Buckingham went on to manage Sevilla and two Greek sides, Olympiacos and Rodos before retiring in 1980. Buckingham died in 1995 largely unheralded in his own country but remembered fondly by both Ajax and Barcelona fans.

Vic Buckingham’s said the following words in 1993 to David Winner in his book ‘Brilliant Orange’. To me they sum up his approach to football and why he was a great coach who was well ahead of his time:

Possession football is the thing, not kick and rush. Long ball football is too risky. Most of the time what pays off is educated skills. If you’ve got the ball keep it. The other side can’t score.

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