Major Frank Buckley - Warrior and football visionary

Major Frank Buckley was one of the biggest characters football has seen. A soldier and England international, he commanded the 1st Football Battalion at the Somme where his wounds ended his playing career. He became a legendary and controversial manager, helping to lay the foundations of the modern game with methods way ahead of his time.

The Major was furious. A young whippersnapper of a groundsman had asked him to cough up 30 shillings for the six buckets of weeds he had just removed from the pitch at Leeds United.

“Get out of here!” he screamed at the lad. “You're already getting paid to do that – don't ever let me see you up here again with your buckets.”

The whippersnapper was Jackie Charlton, who would win the World Cup with England and go on to great success as manager of Ireland. The Major was Frank Buckley; warrior and football visionary.

Setting the mould for Clough and Ferguson

Tough as old boots, Buckley set the mold for legendary managers such as Shankly, Clough and Ferguson. His influence also helped shape the great Wolves and Blackpool sides of the 1950s and the all-conquering Leeds United of the early 1970s.

Son of a soldier and professional for seven clubs before the war, he was the third man to sign up for the 1st Football Battalion at its launch at Fulham Town Hall in December 1914. Buckley would never play football again after the war, but for 40 years, his rugged, inspirational leadership captivated soldiers and footballers alike.

Punched an opponent for ‘filthy language’

Born in 1882 at Urmston, Lancashire, the ninth of 11 children, his father was a musketry and gym instructor with the King’s Liverpool Regiment. He won a scholarship to St Francis Xavier's College for Boys, Liverpool, and after working as an office clerk joined the regular army in 1900 aged 18.

Buckley had expected to be sent to the Boer War but was posted to Ireland, gaining the rank of Gymnastics Instructor. Three years later, after an Aston Villa scout spotted him playing in an army match, he bought himself out for £18 and signed for the club. But the 6ft centre-­half did not make it into the first team and his career stuttered as he played only handfuls of games for Brighton, the Manchester clubs and Birmingham City.

It was only when Derby County signed him on a buy-­out clause for £50 that he settled, playing 96 games and earning an England call-­up in February 1914. The game against Ireland at Ayresome Park, Middlesbrough, was a sensation as England lost 0­-3.

Even in those early days, Buckley took no prisoners. Up before the FA for punching an opponent he told the disciplinary committee he would do it again if necessary. A committee member recalled: “The other man he said used filthy language every time he came near an opponent and as he persisted after being warned ‘he let him have it’.”

Hit by shrapnel and gassed

Despite his Derby success, Buckley took out a newspaper ad, offering himself to any other club. He was signed by Bradford City for £1,000 but played only a few games before stepping up to the platform at Fulham Town Hall. He had actually been the first volunteer for the Football Battalion, putting himself forward a few days before the meeting.

Because of his army experience Buckley was installed as a 2nd Lieutenant, in charge of No 1 Platoon which was made up entirely of professional players. By January 1916 he and his men were in France.

In the vicious battle for Delville Wood at the end of July 1916, Buckley was hit by shrapnel and with a badly damaged shoulder and punctured lungs, he was not expected to survive. George Pyke, centre forward for Newcastle United after the war, wrote: “The [stretcher party] took Major Buckley but he seemed so badly hit you would not think he would last out as far as the casualty station.”

Buckley was saved and surgeons at a military hospital in Kent removed the shrapnel. His lungs were badly damaged but by January 1917 he was back. He was mentioned in dispatches in 1917 after the 17th Middlesex were involved in hand-to-­hand fighting but when he was later gassed his already ­injured lungs could not cope and he was sent home.

Footballers’ wives ‘get in the way’

In 1919 Buckley became secretary-manager of Norwich City FC but left the next year and worked for three years as a commercial traveller for London sweets firm Maskell’s. In 1923 he met a director of Blackpool on a train – and so began his extraordinary career in football management, with jobs at Wolves, Notts County, Hull City, Leeds United and Walsall.

At Blackpool Buckley brought in a youth system and the tangerine strip, designing it himself as “bright and vibrant” for the “new age”. Unusually for managers of the time, he also pulled on a tracksuit and joined the players for training.

He was authoritarian and a stickler for fitness, imposing strict rules on diet and behaviour. Players were ordered not to smoke and had to have two early nights in before games. He frowned on footballers who were married, believing wives would “get in the way”. The 40 players in his Wolves squad of 1937 were all single. But Buckley was not against wives for himself, marrying Dorothy, his second, in 1936.

He also had a powerful hairdryer. Keeper Don Bilton recalled: “If you had a rotten game you’d hardly dare go in at half-time, you were going to get the biggest bawling at ... [he] cursed and swore at you. So from that point of view he was a terrible chap."

Spies, pep pills and monkey gland jabs

Players were given printed booklets which set out what was expected of them – and Buckley made these rules public, asking locals to report anyone they spotted breaking them. He brought in physiotherapy and exercises with weights and clubs, getting injured players back much more quickly than usual. He also used a psychologist, which was virtually unheard of.

Wolves centre forward Gordon Clayton, viciously barracked by the crowd during a long goalless spell, was considering giving up the game. Buckley said it would be a “football tragedy” if he quit and sent him for “a course of psychology” with a local doctor. Clayton scored 14 goals in the next 15 matches and wrote to Buckley’s wife: “The very name of Wolverhampton Wanderers was a nightmare to me. I detested the place. I do not think I was liked or respected by a single person with the exception of Major Buckley.”

Buckley was known to give “pep pills”, probably some form of amphetamine, to his players, and in 1937, chemist Menzies Sharp approached him with a remedy made from animals’ testicles which he said would improve strength and confidence. The controversial “Monkey Gland” treatment, which took 12 injections, was used widely at Wolves but not before Buckley had tried it first.

‘Every club will have a helicopter’

“To be honest, I was rather sceptical,” he said. “And thought it best to try it out on myself first. The treatment lasted three or four months. Long before it was over I felt so much benefit that I asked the players if they would be willing to undergo it.”

The injections, which surprisingly appeared to work, led to a doping scandal and questions in the House of Commons. After several other clubs tried the treatment, the FA issued guidelines but it was not banned. The 1939 FA Cup final was named the Monkey Gland Final by the papers. Pompey’s apes had the edge, beating Buckley’s simians 3-­0.

The Major, which was what everyone called him, brought in yet another habit common today – arranging for his team to stay overnight in hotels before fixtures. He also argued that players should travel to games by air and predicted that every top club would eventually have its own helicopter. He also introduced commercial nous, in one season making more than £100,000 profit for Wolves buying and selling players.

At Leeds he had dance songs played over the Elland Road PA system during training and employed a contraption called a Shooting Box, which fired balls towards players at all angles to improve skills.

New brogues for Jackie Charlton

That whippersnapper groundsman, Jack Charlton, told of another side to Buckley: “Beneath the gruff exterior he was a kind man. My shoes must have been a sight... he asked me if they were the only pair I had. I nodded. The next morning, he... handed me a pair of Irish brogues, the strongest, most beautiful shoes I’d ever seen. And I had them for years.”

Buckley nurtured stars including Stan Cullis, John Charles and Billy Wright during his career and although he failed to win honours for Wolves – they were Division One runners-­up in 1938 and 1939 – his groundwork produced the great sides which claimed three league championships and two FA Cups in the 1950s.

Stan Cullis wrote: “Major Buckley was one out of the top drawer. He did not suffer fools gladly. His style of management was very similar to his attitude in the army. He implanted into my mind the direct method which did away with close inter-passing and square-ball play. If you didn’t like his style you’d very soon be on your bicycle to another club.”

When World War Two came Buckley tried to join the army again but at 56 was ruled to be too old. He encouraged Wolves staff to join and 91 men answered the call. He also ran a Home Guard unit, marching the men to Molineux for training.

After the war he managed Notts County, on the huge salary of £4,000, then Hull, Leeds and Walsall, where he retired aged 71 in 1955. He died aged 82 of heart failure at home in Walsall in December 1964. His ashes are scattered on the Malvern Hills.

Remembering the Somme

This year marks the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. The Royal British Legion is calling on communities across the UK to take the time out from their daily lives to honour those who fell. We have created a Somme 100 toolkit which contains everything you need to organise a Remembrance event in your community.

Make your own commemoration to one of the casualties of the First World War by simply placing a virtual poppy in their memory on our Every Man Remembered website.

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