Major Buckley ruled nothing out – even monkey glands, so the story went

  • September 04, 2018 17:14
  • Jon Henderson

Leeds United was one of seven clubs served by the First World War veteran who was one of the game’s greatest innovators.


It was a Lancashire Combination match between Clitheroe, the home team, and Darwen in the early 1950s – and it was pouring with rain.

Roy Wood was in goal for Clitheroe and remembers the pitch was a terrible one at the best of times, laid out on a pronounced slope. This particular day the weather was making it even worse.

What Wood couldn’t understand was that although ‘it was still banging it down with rain, there was this chap behind the goal. He’d got on a trilby and a military mac and was soaked to the skin.’

Wood told him he was going to get his death of cold. ‘Don’t worry about me,’ the man replied.

Before leaving at halftime, the stranger approached Wood with an unbelievable offer for someone who thought of himself as a jobbing goalie. ‘I’d like you to sign for Leeds United,’ he said. ‘You don’t have to make up your mind now. You’ve got until the end of June. When you make up your mind, ring this number and we’ll do the rest, your travel and everything like that.’

The man was Major Frank Buckley whose name may largely have disappeared into the mists of long ago but was a substantial figure in football’s postwar development. As a character he would almost certainly have stamped his personality and ideas on whatever profession he had chosen in whatever era.

With limited funds, it is reckoned he served Leeds exceptionally well as manager between 1948-53, during which time he oversaw the early years of John Charles’s outstanding career.

Buckley was born in Urmston, Lancashire, in1882. Photographs of him in middle age show a strong face with a slightly wry expression. A physiognomist would almost certainly have concentrated on the well-set chin. Had he been a Hollywood actor in the 1940s and ’50s he would have been much in demand as a gunslinger. Gary Cooper might not have got the High Noon part.

He had served in the army briefly from 1900, advancing rapidly through the ranks before buying himself out to play football professionally until the outbreak of the First World War. On 15 December 1914 he travelled to London where he was among the first to sign up for the Footballers’ Battalion, officially known as the 17th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment.

Sir William Joynson-Hicks, Conservative MP for Brentford, addressed Buckley and his fellow recruits, telling them: ‘I am inviting you to no picnic. It is no easy game against a second-rate team. It is a game of games against one of the finest teams in the world.’

None of these ‘games’ was more hideously fought than the Battle of the Somme where Buckley received lung and shoulder wounds.

Generally, despite the wounds, he had a good war and given his previous military experience he was awarded a commission, rising to the rank of Major. Although intended only as a temporary title, Buckley chose to keep it. It chimed so perfectly with his character as an unbending disciplinarian and organiser that even his wife took to calling him the Major.

Despite being wounded at the Somme, Buckley played on briefly after the war before turning to management. He took the reins at seven clubs in all and made his name as the most innovative manager of his time. Some of his ideas and methods survive to this day.

His shrewd deals, such as when he was at Leeds acquiring the unproven Roy Wood, went largely unnoticed but were the sort of thing that could transform a club’s finances. As manager of Wolverhampton Wanderers from 1927-44, Buckley was remembered for making the club a six-figure profit in transfers in a single year.

He also came up with numbering on shirts and the first structured scouting system.

Above all, though, it was his attention to coaching that singled him out. Coaching hardly existed before the Second World War and sports psychology was a distant whisper. Buckley engaged with both. In particular, he was at the forefront of introducing routines with a wider purpose than simply keeping players fit.

For a start he challenged the quaint notion that practising with a ball was unnecessary because players saw quite enough of it on Saturday afternoons. Buckley put practice matches at the centre of his coaching and demanded a direct style of play rather than excessive elaboration.

He developed a contraption that shot out balls in no particular pattern to sharpen players’ close control and stressed the importance of being able to kick with either foot. He even encouraged players to do ballroom dancing to improve their poise and balance.

He also introduced rowing machines so that fitness sessions were not simply a case of running up and down the stadium terracing.

Some of his other ideas were downright strange, including his opposition to players marrying. He thought it suited neither partner: the wife being a distraction to the husband and the threat of a career-ending injury to the husband being a constant worry to the wife.

An even wackier idea associated with Buckley was the use of monkey glands.

The story went, and maybe/probably it was just a story, that Buckley was persuaded that monkey-gland implantations helped with stamina levels, recovery and improved mental performance. It was said he tried them on himself and the Wolves players.

Nothing was conclusively proved and after Wolves lost by three goals to Portsmouth in the 1939 FA Cup final – sometimes referred to as the Monkey Glands Final because Portsmouth were also said to be sampling the treatment – the whole episode was consigned to being one of Buckley’s more bonkers ideas.

Roy Wood had heard all the talk about Buckley’s plans ‘to plant monkey glands into footballers to give them a boost’ but was offered nothing more stimulating than a bog-standard contract. It carried with it the promise, maybe, of a slightly better life than his current one.

Buckley’s journey to Clitheroe and decision to sign Wood on the flimsiest of evidence demonstrated a keen intuition, although the early signs were not promising. Wood took time to settle after making his debut for Leeds in the 1953-54 season when the regular goalkeeper, John Scott, was injured. He played in ten games that season, letting in 20 goals, including five at Nottingham Forest on Christmas Day.

As things turned out, though, Buckley’s judgment proved flawless. In the three seasons from 1955-58, which included the season 1955-6 when Leeds gained promotion to the First Division, Wood played 125 out of 126 League games. In all he appeared in 196 League games for Leeds and seven FA Cup ties.


This is an edited extract from When Footballers Were Skint by Jon Henderson / @hendojon published by Biteback Publishing.


From Fergie Suter to Paul Pogba – it’s been some journey

  • August 31, 2018 10:39
  • Jon Henderson

Football’s first professional travelled to England in a sturdy steam locomotive nearly 150 years ago; Manchester United’s World Cup superstar chose a sleek, chauffeur-driven Roller for his transportation earlier this week.


A film director charged with telling the story of football could do much worse than create a road movie. Travel has been at the heart of the game since the very beginning, a key element in precipitating its spread.

The palaces on wheels that convey the twenty-first century footballer around the country lack the Carry on potential of the 1950s, when players and fans travelled in the ramshackle vehicle hired from the local coach company.

The modern monsters that announce the opposition’s arrival as they nose through the crowds suggest a rather sinister kind of movie, with its occupants lurking behind tinted windows. They exude the same sort of menace as prison vans taking criminals to court.

The old-style coach came with its obligatory operative, the driver with the massive gut straining his braces to snapping point. Likely as not he had a fag pinched between his lips as, for mile on end, he intuitively directed his vehicle from behind a thick veil of smoke. In the passenger seats the finely honed athletes smoked just as devotedly while, almost without exception, they whetted their competitive juices by playing cards.

Plenty of comedians have picked up on the humorous possibilities of football teams and their followers on the move. Billy Connolly told the one about the drunken man, wrapped in a Celtic scarf, lying face down on the pavement, who was rescued by the supporters bus as it travelled back to Scotland from an away fixture in England. On the outskirts of Glasgow the man mumbled his address, but when the bus got there no one was in. A neighbour, woken by the knocking, stuck his head out of an upstairs window: ‘You’ll nae find anyone there. They’re in England on honeymoon.’

In its earliest days football was indebted to the railways for kindling mass interest in the game by providing fast, affordable travel. Acknowledging this, many clubs positioned themselves close to train stations. Manchester United, for example, moved to Old Trafford in 1909 to be near the rail network while most London clubs made sure they were adjacent to a railway or underground station.

In 1875, a young Glaswegian rode this railway system on an historic journey. Fergie Suter was bound for England where he would gain notoriety as the player credited with being football’s first professional. On a late December morning he crossed the border to catch his first glimpse of England through the trailing smoke of a steam locomotive that was battling to reach a speed of more than 40 miles an hour.

For more than 20 years now it had been possible to go directly by train from Glasgow to London, a 400-mile journey that on a day with the weather set fair could be completed in a punchy twelve and a half hours.

In many instances when I was collecting material for When Footballers Were Skint I travelled down the same lines and gazed out at the same pastel landscapes as, decades earlier, the veteran footballers I was going to see had done on their way to matches. They were young men then, the heirs of Suter, full of hope and wonder. They were the stars of Saturday afternoons and yet their everyday lives were no different from those of the ordinary working men who idolised them.

The financial rewards for becoming a footballer would have been only marginally higher than driving the train on which the players travelled. For the Irishman Frank O’Farrell, being an engine driver was the aspiration that first consumed him.

During his boyhood in Cork in the 1930s, O’Farrell dreamed of being ‘King of the Cab’, just like his father. But after working his way up from engine cleaner to fireman shovelling coal into the firebox – just a footplate away from becoming a driver – he answered the call of his second great love. He signed as a professional footballer for one of England’s great clubs, West Ham United, before some years later joining another, Preston North End. He played also for the Republic of Ireland and his posts as a manager included Old Trafford.

Still, though, what brings a look of trance-like rapture to O’Farrell’s face, as he sits contentedly in his Torquay home, is not the memory of a sweetly struck goal. It is when he softly whispers the words ‘steam engine’.


This is an edited extract from When Footballers Were Skint by Jon Henderson / @hendojon published by Biteback Publishing.


What we played was football – what they play today ought to be given a different name

  • August 30, 2018 11:03
  • Jon Henderson

Seriously muddy pitches, heavy leather balls and builders’ boots were regarded as normal by the Saturday afternoon entertainers of old.


If there’s one thing, other than money, that footballers who played for buttons in the 1950s and ’60s envy their modern counterparts for it’s the pitches they play on nowadays. Oh yes, and the balls and boots, too.

‘It’s a different game from when I played,’ Roy Wood, Leeds United’s fine goalkeeper in the Fifties, says. ‘For a start, the playing surface is virtually the same every week. I look at the television and they’re playing on a blinking billiard table.

‘I remember the Chelsea ground. If I stood in one spot for two minutes my feet would start sinking in.’

‘Stamford Bridge was always a bog,’ Terry Neill, once a stalwart of Arsenal teams, recalls. ‘Upton Park was like a beach by the end of September but at least after Ron Greenwood went there as manager it was like a well-rolled beach.’

‘You look at White Hart Lane today and the pitch is immaculate. It is unbelievable and it will be like that at the end of the season,’ Cliff Jones, Spurs’ dashing winger, says. ‘When we played, at the start of the season the pitch was OK, come autumn it wasn’t too bad, come the winter and it was fuckin’ awful.’

But mud was not the only problem. Pitches had quirks. Bolton’s was the most notorious. It used to be the widest in the Football League and was cambered so that from one touchline you could not see the other one. The pitch was surrounded by a gravel running track and a three-foot drop, known as the moat.

The bottom of the moat is where many a winger’s mazy run came to an end, notably when ushered into it by Tommy Banks and Roy Hartle, Bolton’s uncompromising fullback pairing.

Neill remembers another way in which Bolton’s pitch created problems for opponents: ‘When Brian Pilkington, a five-foot-nothing, tricky little winger, was taking a corner he’d disappear down this slope and then all of a sudden he’d come up in instalments and the ball would come over… it was one of the greatest tactics ever.’

The ancients are almost as abusive about the ball they used as the pitches. ‘When I was at Chesterfield,’ Bill Leivers, who went on to play for Manchester City, says, ‘they would take the old leather T-ball, fasten a brick to it and put it in the plunge bath with enough water to cover it. This was on Friday, ready for the game on Saturday. So it weighed half a ton to start with.

‘They used to do that and people just won’t believe it. I don’t know why they did it. I never queried why they did it but they did it. If you headed it it knocked your damned head off.’

The logic behind giving the ball a bath would be interesting to know. The fact is that it was only when it was soaked that the old leather ball was heavier than the non-absorbent synthetic leather ball used now. The dry weight has remained at 14-16oz (410-450 grams) since 1937. Which may surprise some, particularly old footballers, but hardly explains why anyone would want to dip a match ball in a plunge bath.

Invariably, given the nature of English winters, the leather ball did absorb some moisture even without a pre-match dousing, which may mean heading has become safer. Time will tell.

As Dave Whelan, a Blackburn Rovers player before he became known as the owner of Wigan Athletic, points out, the weight of a leather ball when wet was not its only unwelcome characteristic.

‘In my day,’ he says, ‘not only did the leather balls become much heavier by taking water in, they had big, protruding laces in them. If you caught that lace on your head it would hurt, cut you even. Bang. But you had no option. The ball now is a constant weight. It doesn’t matter if it’s raining or whatever – the ball doesn’t get any heavier.’

The synthetic ball with its smooth surface also behaves differently. Wood, a goalkeeper who knew where he stood with the old leather ball, says: ‘I think a lot of goals today are scored by accident because with the ball they use anything can happen.

‘The old ball was a different kettle of fish altogether. If some of them had to play with the old ball on a muddy ground we’d see how good they are. They wouldn’t be able to do all the tricks they do today, back-heeling and God knows what.’

Boots have undergone the greatest change in the kit players wear. The heavy, natural materials once used to make shirts, shorts and socks were abandoned long ago, but this was mere window dressing compared to the effect that modifications to footwear would have.

The boots England played in at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil would not have looked out of place on a building site. And three years later before the Hungary match at Wembley the England captain Billy Wright was deriding the Hungarians before kick-off for wearing boots that looked as though they came from a fashionable shoe shop.

Bolton’s policy was to allow each player one pair of what would now be regarded as ludicrously heavy boots. These had to be purchased from Albert Wood’s sports shop in the centre of town – and any player paying more than two pounds for a pair risked the wrath of the club secretary, who scrutinised receipts.

‘At Chesterfield they gave you a pair of boots twelve months in advance,’ Leivers says. ‘So you had two pairs of boots, one that you were wearing and another pair that you had to wear now and again and they were for the following season.

‘Some of them had metal toecaps inside. Totally different from the carpet slippers they wear nowadays.’

What we played was football,’ Wood says, ‘what they play today ought to be given a different name.’


This is an edited extract from When Footballers Were Skint by Jon Henderson / @hendojon published by Biteback Publishing.


The star of club and country who put far more into the game than he ever took out

  • August 28, 2018 11:16
  • Jon Henderson

Bill Slater won three Football League titles with Wolverhampton Wanderers, an FA Cup and played for England at the 1958 World Cup finals – but earned his living as a PE teacher.


Bill Slater’s route to becoming an indispensable member of the great Wolverhampton Wanderers sides of the 1950s will seem a strange one to the modern reader but English football did things very differently more than half a century ago.

In 1951 Slater, having completed a course at Carnegie Physical Training College in Leeds, started lecturing in PE at Birmingham University. At the same time he was playing as an amateur for Blackpool in the Football League and such was the limit on footballers’ earnings – they were then capped at £12 a week – that he preferred to carry on as an amateur.

In other words he was running parallel lives, lecturing in PE at Birmingham University while still turning out for Blackpool for no pay.

Something else happened to Slater in 1951. ‘I met my wife-to-be,’ he says, reminiscing at his home in Ealing. ‘She was teaching in London, she was from around here, and because I wanted to see her at weekends I decided to see if a London club would have me.’

With his future bride at his side Slater set out in search of a club in the capital who might sign him. First they went to Chelsea who gave him a frosty reception.

‘We don’t take on people like that. You have to be a good player,’ the man at the Stamford Bridge door said.

‘I think I am a good player,’ Slater replied, which was a fair point considering he played for Blackpool in the ’51 Cup Final alongside Stanley Matthews. ‘Will you speak to someone in the club for me?’

‘No – no, no. Don’t waste my time,’ the man said and closed the door.

‘So, a bit disappointed,’ Slater says, ‘we set off round to Brentford where they at least said they would have a look at me.’ Jackie Gibbons was the manager, took a look and liked what he saw.

Slater began playing in the Brentford reserves but was soon promoted to the first team. ‘Jimmy Hill was the other wing half and Ron Greenwood was the centre half, so I was in good company.’

When Slater made it into Brentford’s first team the club agreed to pay his travelling expenses, which was the only remuneration he received. He still did not want to commit himself as a pro having just landed his post as a lecturer.

A versatile player who is probably best remembered as a defensive midfielder, Slater played only one season at Brentford before, now as a married man, he moved with his wife to the Midlands to be close to his university job.

Wolverhampton Wanderers signed him and he became an indispensable member of the mighty Wolves sides who won three Football League titles in the 1950s and the FA Cup in 1960. ‘I played my first two years or so with Wolves as an amateur,’ he says. ‘I never became a full-time professional, but the club told me they were keen to pay me something.

‘I’d never really thought about it, I just didn’t think it would be possible, but I checked at the university with my head of department. I suggested that if I received payments from Wolves I would acknowledge in my contract that my teaching duties at the university had priority.’

Slater, who also had a successful international career, playing for England at the 1958 World Cup finals, gives an interesting picture of what it was like to be a First Division footballer in those days when huge crowds came to watch but with no live television coverage of their league matches the players’ stardom was restricted to Saturday afternoons. For the rest of the week many of them were largely anonymous.

He says: ‘I suppose I felt quite important in the sense that I was playing for a successful club but players weren’t recognised as they are today.

‘When playing for Wolves, even living a short distance away in Birmingham meant I wasn’t noticed, which I rather welcomed.

‘There was one occasion in Birmingham, after some small boys came running after me, I said to my wife it was the first time anyone had recognised me there. When I was in Wolverhampton young people mostly might come and ask for an autograph. It wasn’t something I resented. I was always quite polite. There was always a crowd of them waiting outside the ground after a match.’


This is an edited extract from When Footballers Were Skint by Jon Henderson / @hendojon published by Biteback Publishing.


Once football’s glittering centrepiece the FA Cup’s future is now history

  • August 24, 2018 12:37
  • Jon Henderson

The preliminary qualifying round of the world’s oldest football competition will be completed this weekend – but it has long since suffered a total eclipse by the Premier League.


The FA Cup, first played in 1871-72, is the world’s oldest – and, for many years, was its most popular – football competition.

The World Cup followed nearly 60 years later, only to be ignored by the English for its first three stagings. The FA finally deigned to enter the national team in the global event in 1950, but very few in England took much notice. The domestic game’s competitions were what mattered, surpassing the relevance of whatever was on offer elsewhere.

Of these competitions the FA Cup was the glittering centrepiece – and not simply as far as the English were concerned. For many around the world its renown was even greater than the Mundial’s.

It was not until towards the end of the twentieth century that domestic interest in the FA Cup started to wane. The really steep decline in its popularity came after 1992 when massive investment saw the First Division repackaged, rebranded and reborn as the Premiership.

Having been the fancy dan of the English game, the FA Cup suddenly found itself being pushed aside by a hustler not afraid to flex its commercial independence to exploit football’s popularity like never before. Players’ wages surged as clubs fought for the considerable financial rewards, made possible by TV money, for success in the new league.

The FA Cup was now a distraction viewed, increasingly, with condescension by the top clubs. Infamously, the FA themselves did not help by backing the disrespectful idea that Manchester United, the holders, skip the 1999-2000 competition to play in the world club championship.

There had been a steady improvement in what players earned since the cap on their wages, which had risen to a heady £20 a week, was removed in 1961. But it was no more than steady, climbing hesitantly from its very low base.

For the last Cup Final before the demolition of the wage ceiling, Wolves v Blackburn in 1960, Dave Whelan recalls the Blackburn players each received a princely six quid from a Milk Marketing Board advertisment of the team drinking the board’s product. This bumped up Whelan’s Cup Final extras to eight pounds. He cannot recall the source of the other two pounds.

With his £20 weekly wage and with Blackburn’s defeat meaning he was denied a win bonus, Whelan made £28. It was the most he ever earned from football in a single week.

Howard Riley was on the losing side a year later when Tottenham completed the Double with their 2-0 win over Leicester City. ‘The maximum wage had ended shortly before the final,’ Riley says, ‘but I think we were still probably on 20 quid a week or not much more – and I’m not sure we were on a win bonus even if we had won, in front of 100,000 spectators.’

The improvement in pay would continue but the relentless upward mobility of the Premier League means the Cup is unlikely ever again to achieve the status it enjoyed when footballers were paid buttons.


This is an edited extract from When Footballers Were Skint by Jon Henderson / @hendojon published by Biteback Publishing.