The Original Football Doping Scandal

So far, I’ve written at length about foreign footballing people who have had a big impact on the game across the world, ones who are all but forgotten within our borders in the United Kingdom.

It may seem that England, the great originators of the game, were arrogantly standing still while the rest of Europe progressed and advanced ‘our’ sport. That is broadly true: the authorities in England didn’t really embrace the need for change until that fateful day in 1953 when the Magical Magyars destroyed 90 years of misplaced confidence.

However, there were several individuals who were far ahead of their time working in football throughout the formative years of the game. One such character was responsible for many of the advancements off the pitch we see today: including the introduction of what could be termed the original footballing doping programme.

Born in 1882 in Urmston, Lancashire, Frank Buckley was a nomadic defender during the pre-Great War years of English football. Never staying at one club for more than two seasons (with the one exception being a four-year spell at Birmingham City), his playing career was finished by the outbreak of conflict in Europe.

Joining the famed ‘Football Battalion‘ of the Middlesex Regiment – so called because all of its soldiers were professional footballers – Buckley saw action throughout the War, receiving wounds to his shoulder at the Battle of the Somme. By the end of the War, he rose to the rank of Major, an epithet he would carry for the rest of his career.

His first job upon leaving the Army was at Norwich City, where he served as secretary-manager for a solitary season. He gave up that job to become a travelling confectionary salesman for the next three years, before Blackpool lured him to Bloomfield Road in 1923.

At Blackpool, he began implementing many things that seem commonplace nowadays. Chief among those was a properly organised youth and scouting setup, although Buckley never saw the fruits of his labours. Success was difficult to find, and he left the club in 1927. Perhaps his biggest legacy at the club is a significant one though: for just £1,000, he brought all-time top goalscorer Jimmy Hampson to the club from Nelson.

His next post was the one that inspired this article. In July 1927, he was appointed manager at Wolverhampton Wanderers, a club in some financial difficulty. The previous season they had lost over £1,500 and were indebted the bank for £14,000.

Buckley solved this problem with a very modern solution. He was the original Harry Redknapp, wheeling and dealing in the transfer market in a fashion never before seen. Between 1935 and 1938, at the peak of his financial prowess, Wolves made over £100,000 purely on transfers – a profit of £68,000.

This was all because of the youth and scouting innovations brought with him from Blackpool. He created a ‘nursery system’ for boys aged 15 and 16, trialling over 100 per season. In addition, he persuaded former player Mark Crook to establish a proto-feeder club in Yorkshire to help in discovering young players to sign.

He was also responsible for the purchase of a hostel in Wolverhampton for his team’s young players, with recreational and medical facilities: perhaps the original version of Barcelona’s famed La Masia. Most of the city would be covered by a ruthless network of spies, ensuring his youngsters were adhering to their curfews and abstaining from the local pubs and clubs. Both Stan Cullis and Billy Wright were both effectively discovered by Buckley, both of whom would go on to become Wolves greats.

Unlike Hugo Meisl, last week’s focus, Major Buckley didn’t have any particularly revolutionary ideas on the pitch. His Wolves side were increasingly long-ball orientated, and preferred such a physical style of play they were barred from touring Europe by the FA in 1937 after picking up 17 cautions the previous season.

Off the pitch, though, Buckley brought in several methods that were far ahead of his time.

Instead of the traditional training schedules – little more than laps, sprints and the occasional head tennis to keep the players ‘hungry for the ball’ for the weekend’s game – Buckley attempted to introduce more mechanical aids.

He had a machine purpose-built that would fire a football at different speeds and heights at a player for him to control, in an attempt to improve their technical ability. Along the same vein, a whole room at Molineux was lined with rubber for the players to kick a ball around in, again improving their control of the ball.

In a move that was absolutely revolutionary at the time, Buckley demanded that all of his players – goalkeeper included – could kick the ball with both feet. He would often make his wingers switch sides for practice games, so that his players were comfortable in several positions. He even made them visit a psychologist to instil them with confidence.

Perhaps the most intriguing of the ‘above-board’ methods was his insistence on his players attending ballroom dancing classes to improve flexibility and balance: he was advocating this a full 80 years before yoga and pilates became the technique du jour for lengthening the careers of Ryan Giggs et al.

However, despite all of these innovations, Major Frank Buckley will forever be remembered for one thing and one thing only: the original systematic doping plan in football.

In 1937, Buckley began what was known as the ‘Monkey Gland Affair’. Spurred on by the works of Russian scientist Serge Voronoff, he began to inject his players with a solution of monkey testicles, which he claimed would improve their performance.

Keen to protect his players, Buckley first trialled the technique on himself:

Long before it was over I felt so much benefit that I asked the players if they would be willing to undergo it and that is how the gland treatment became general at Molineux.

His players were given an injection every three or four days for the whole season, and monkey glands soon became the talk of the footballing world. It was debated in Parliament, the FA had discussions about its legality and almost every other professional club considered undertaking it.

Buckley claimed the injections were behind his team’s exceptional performance that year – Wolves would finish runners-up in Division One, a feat they repeated with an FA Cup final the season after. The scientific community wasn’t convinced, and no other club that tried the treatment had the same success as Buckley. Voronoff’s work was soon forgotten as a fad, and the outbreak of War soon after left this early attempt at doping as little more than a footnote.

As for Buckley, his career never quite hit the advanced heights of his inter-war Wolves side. Short spells at Hull City and Notts County (becoming the highest-paid manager in the country on £4,500 a year in the process) preceded a disappointing five years at Leeds United. Despite trying all manner of modern techniques to improve his side – including playing loud music on the PA system during training and yet more specially-built machines to help on the training pitch – his only real success was again on the youth side.

John Charles was one of his early discoveries, while he could only watch as the infrastructure he implemented at Wolves allowed them to dominate much of the early 1950s.

While his trophy cabinet may not have been as full as some figures of his time – the 1939 FA Cup final being the closest he got to a winner’s medal – his foresight was unparalleled. Almost all of his introductions at Wolves are still used today by modern managers, and his autobiography contains even more.

He foresaw football being played “indoors, on rubber pitches, illuminated by powerful floodlighting”, while there would be the formation of “a super international league embracing all of the leading European clubs”.

A true visionary, perhaps English football needed some more people like Major Buckley driving its clubs into the modern age. Despite his slightly dodgy legacy of doping, many of his techniques form the basis of modern football management – and I think that is a fact worthy of remembering.


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