Following Johan Cruyff’s death, I look at the Englishman who helped create the legend.
It’s been over a week since Johan Cruyff lost his battle with cancer. The footballing world has been in mourning ever since, showing their respects to the man who helped create modern football. I’m not old enough to have seen him play live, but from an early age I was fully aware of who he was. His name was often mentioned on the television, with clips of his unbelievable skill being repeatedly highlighted. Like many kids spanning across a number of generations, I spent hours trying to master the ‘Cruyff turn’, which being a goalkeeper was a skill I never really needed! In the past week all of us have probably searched his name on YouTube or seen his brilliance on News channels. The word incredible doesn’t do him justice. As a player he had such outstanding ability, great control, amazing agility, he was everywhere. He epitomised the brand of the game he would champion as a manger, that of ‘Total Football’.
We all know his history, the teams he played for, the clubs he managed and the trophies he won. We all know the influence he has had on the great managers of this era, how he moulded the ‘Barcelona Way’ giving people like Pep Guardiola the platform to continue his philosophy. I could easily sit here and write about it all. There are many articles paying homage to that and all of them worthy of a read. I wanted to write about something else, something that during the days after his death I learnt about. Some of you may already know this, but I was shocked when I found out that an Englishman who played non-league football played an integral part in Cruyff’s development.
Vic Buckingham is seen by some within the game, especially in Holland, as the person who started the notion of Total Football. In his home country he has never been awarded much recognition but in Europe he was well respected. He started his career at Tottenham in the years before the Second World War. At that time, Spurs employed Northfleet United (now Ebbsfleet United) as a nursery club, sending youth players there to develop. Buckingham was sent down to Stonebridge Road to play during the 1934-1935 season. His performances that season lead Spurs to recall him after only one year at the Fleet. In that season he helped them do the Kent League and League Cup double, a great achievement for a debut year in Non-League.
Upon moving back to Spurs he played just over 200 times for the club, although this time was broken up by the Second World War where he served in the RAF. Once he hung up his playing boots, Buckingham took charge of non-league outfit Pegasus, a combined team of both Oxford and Cambridge University. His single season in charge of the amateur team ended in a victory at Wembley in the FA Amateur Trophy. In total he spent two seasons within the grassroots level, one as a player and one as a manager, with both seasons ending in winner’s medals. That 100% record resulted in managerial jobs within league football. He went on to Bradford Park Avenue (who were a league side then) and later West Bromwich Albion, where he won the 1954 FA Cup.
The success he had at WBA took him over to Holland where he took charge of Ajax and first came across a young Cruyff. At the time Cruyff was part of the Ajax youth set up but Buckingham promoted him to the youth side, seeing his potential. In his first season at Ajax he won the league. He left to return to England but had a second spell at Ajax in 1964. That season he handed Cruyff his first team debut, and the world never looked back. Buckingham went on to manage Barcelona and Sevilla as well as stints at Fulham and in Greece.
Buckingham began to develop the idea of Total Football during his time in management. It wasn’t until working in Europe that his methods were really appreciated. He believed in good possession and clever movement, a completely different approach to physical tactics used in England. He introduced the concept of all outfield players being able to play anywhere on the pitch, which allowed for possession and pressing football. Giving players the freedom to appear in the areas they felt they could do most damage to the opposition. Players were instructed to press constantly, to forget who they were supposed to mark and just head to the ball if it’s near you. This philosophy is seen in teams like Liverpool and Spurs nowadays, with players hunting in packs to retrieve the ball. Once his teams had the ball they wouldn’t lose it, he was quoted as saying “possession football is the thing…if you’ve got the ball keep it”. Comments that were ahead of their time but which can be seen throughout all the successful teams of our generation. His training methods were also ahead of his era, he introduced ballet dancing in order to improve core conditioning. He had an all-round approach to football. Seeing it more than a game of ‘hoof and run’.
After his second spell at Ajax and Barcelona he was replaced at both clubs by Rinus Michels who went onto develop Total Football with great success. A lot of this success is due to the foundations laid by Buckingham, his ideas allowed Michels and Cruyff to further develop Total Football. Arguable without Buckingham we wouldn’t have seen Cruyff become the legend he is. It may be footballing romanticism, but isn’t it great to think that someone who started in our non-league game went on to help develop one of the greatest players, managers, and footballing philosophy of all time.