Dublin: 8°C Monday 2 August 2021

The Irishman who made his La Liga debut in front of 90,000 at the Camp Nou

Liam Buckley on a remarkable career that encompassed stints in Canada, Spain, Belgium, Switzerland and Ireland.

Liam Buckley won two caps for Ireland.
Liam Buckley won two caps for Ireland.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

FOR 59 YEARS, Liam Buckley’s life has been dominated by football.

And almost continually, ever since Leeds United legend John Giles came to his parents’ house as a teenager and gave him the opportunity to become a full-time professional, he has been operating either as a player or coach at League of Ireland level or higher.

This day week, Buckley will be involved in another critical game, as his Sligo Rovers side face Dundalk in the FAI Cup semi-final.

Such big matches are nothing new for the Dubliner, whose career has featured no shortage of remarkable moments.

He started out with local side Manortown United from their U12 team onwards. Then, at 17, he spotted an advert in The Evening Herald drawing attention to upcoming trials for Shelbourne’s U18 team. Despite around 50 boys turning up that day in Harold’s Cross, Buckley did enough to earn a permanent spot at the club.

After a year with Shels, Buckley signed for Shamrock Rovers in 1979. It was an exciting time in the club’s history. Giles had taken over as manager two years previously and had grand ambitions for both domestic and European success.

It was an experienced Hoops team that included former Ireland internationals Eamon Dunphy, Paddy Mulligan and Ray Treacy.

Buckley admits to being “in awe” of Giles, having grown up watching him play starring roles for Leeds and Ireland, while he was not the only influential figure at the club.

My best playing days were with Shamrock Rovers,” he tells The42. “And I made a career in football because of Shamrock Rovers. There’s no two ways about it. I was brought in as a professional player there. I had some good tutors — Ray Treacy, God rest him, he played centre forward and I ended up playing centre forward. I remember Ray wouldn’t have been a particularly big fella, but by God could he jump and could he head it.

“I remember the power and dynamism he had, and I tried to get that myself. One of the strengths I had in the game was my heading ability. Looking at him, he was a great teacher from my end of it.”

eamon-dumphy-and-john-giles Buckley's first spell at Shamrock Rovers coincided with John Giles and Eamon Dunphy's time there. Source: ©INPHO

In 1981, Buckley would enjoy the first of many stints abroad. At the time, Giles was combining two jobs, managing Rovers, along with coaching Vancouver Whitecaps in the off-season. One summer, he took his young striker with him to Canada.

“It was slightly different to a lot of all-weather pitches. It was my first time living away from home as such. So my girlfriend came over then. Orlaith is her name. We obviously got married and had three great kids. But we enjoyed our time over there, as we did everywhere we went.”

It was not the only trip abroad Buckley would experience around this period. He was also part of a League of Ireland XI that travelled to face Argentina in the River Plate Stadium. A highly promising young player by the name of Diego Maradona — somewhat controversially left out of the World Cup-winning squad two years previously — scored the game’s only goal.

“God rest him, [former FAI president] Louis Kilcoyne organised some fantastic trips. We had over a month in Argentina. There were a few highlights on that trip and that was one of them, playing in River Plate. The place was absolutely jammed.

All the ticker tape you would have seen in the World Cup final in ’78 [was there]. And to hear your national anthem, it was the first time I’d heard my national anthem as a sportsman, in the cauldron of River Plate Stadium. I don’t know how many Irish people there was watching us, but there wouldn’t have been too many.

“They obviously won 1-0. Maradona scored [on his 20th birthday]. He didn’t play in the World Cup in ’78, because I think they thought he was just too young.

“We also had a mini-tournament we played in there. Independiente, some other team and ourselves. They were two local teams, so it was a derby for both of them to play each other. There were maybe 20,000 at it. And then when we played the other team, the rival team’s fans came out to support us. It was fascinating. One of the games went to penalties and once we beat the opposition, because they were the local rivals [the fans celebrated].”

And as for Maradona? Was he as impressive as you would expect?

“He was ‘the next up-and-coming star’ and they were 100% right, whoever wrote about him that way. He picked up the ball on the halfway line, skipped past one of our lads, skipped past a second fella, up around the edge of the box and stuck it in the top corner. It was a top goal and he played well the whole match. So did we. It was a very memorable occasion.”

imago-19810101 Buckley came up against a young Diego Maradona at River Plate Stadium. Source: Imago/PA Images

Buckley’s increasingly impressive form at Rovers enabled him to gain a reputation as one of the top forwards in the country. In 1984, he was rewarded with international recognition. Though he would earn just two caps during the Eoin Hand era, featuring in friendlies against Poland and Mexico at Dalymount Park, both of which ended scoreless, he considers himself privileged to simply have been afforded the opportunity to play in such esteemed company.

“It’s just a great family occasion. Everybody is so proud. To represent your country, I was playing with Liam Brady. This guy, he’s had a fantastic career with Arsenal, he’s got to Italy and won stuff over in Italy. He’s a legend. He was playing and Frank Stapleton was involved. Mick McCarthy, I think he was making his debut the same night I did. There were some fantastic footballers there.

I would have liked to [have made more appearances], but obviously managers come in and there was a lot of stiff competition for every position at that time. Frank Stapleton, Michael Robinson, there were quite a few players ahead of me. They were in England and had reputations and could score goals et cetera. But listen, I enjoyed it. I played underage and senior level. Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing.”

At Rovers, the Giles era had been underwhelming, with the 1978 FAI Cup the only major trophy the club won during that period. However, once Jim McLoughlin came in as manager, greater success followed. 

In the 1983-84 campaign, Buckley scored 14 league goals, as the Hoops ended a 20-year wait to the win the title in what was the beginning of their incredible four-in-a-row haul.

A broken collarbone saw the forward miss part of the end-of-season run-in, though he recovered in time to score the winning goal amid an FAI Cup semi-final replay against Shelbourne. Nevertheless, they would go on to suffer a shock 2-1 loss against UCD in the final.

“Jim McLaughlin was a top manager, in fairness to him,” Buckley adds. “Arguably the best manager we’ve had in this league. His recruitment was very good and we got a balanced, experienced team.”

Buckley missed the remainder of the club’s dominant period thereafter, as he transferred to Belgian outfit KSV Waregem in July 1984.

“I got a call from an agent, Fernand Goyvaerts. He was an ex-player who actually played for Real Madrid and Barcelona. Not many do that.

“It was a two-year contract I had at the time. I went over there with my wife and once I had her with me, there was never going to be an issue [with homesickness].”

jim-mclaughlin Buckley worked under Jim McLoughlin at Shamrock Rovers. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Buckley arrived in Waregem at a time when Belgian football was flourishing. The country would finish fourth at the World Cup just two years after he joined.

“The standard was very good in comparison to where I was coming from. Mechelen won the Cup Winners’ Cup. They had Standard Liege, Club Brugge, Anderlecht, a lot of top teams that were doing well in Europe. They were getting further than they are now.

“When I went to Waregem first, and looked at the group, I thought it isn’t much better than Shamrock Rovers, bearing in mind that I left a league-winning team. Probably not individually, but collectively, it was just a different way of playing. We passed the ball particularly well and that year, the club qualified for Europe and I played in Europe the following year.

“It was probably one of the best teams I played in from a team perspective, because of the way they played. There was a real collectiveness about how we played. Everybody had a role to play in the team and if you understood your role, the team did really well.

“We probably kept the ball better as a group [compared with Rovers], which they do emphasise. 

We had some good players in Waregem’s team. Two players called Luc and Marc Millecamps — both of them would have earned a number of caps for Belgium. They were into their 30s, they were experienced lads. We had another lad, Danny Veyt, he went to Mexico [for the 1986 World Cup] with Belgium. We had a German fella, Armin Görtz, he went on to get capped for Germany.

“It was fortunate enough that the coach had us playing in a certain style and certain way that the team looked good, the players looked good and the rest is history.

“Another player, Alain Van Baekel, went to Anderlecht for £750,000 and that would have been a big sum at that time. But a lot of it was down to the coach [Urbain Haesaert] — the way he set up the team and wanted to play.”

In Buckley’s second season at the club, the team got as far as the semi finals of the Uefa Cup.

“I played in the semi-finals, but I didn’t play in one or two of the previous games, because I fractured my cheekbone. I had to get it wired up because I fractured it in three places — that had me out for a few months. 

“We beat Aarhus from Denmark. I was delighted, we played well. Then we played Osasuna of Spain, we beat them. 

“Then we got AC Milan — we beat them over two legs. The next round was Hadjuk Split, who were very good at the time.

“Then we played Cologne in the semi-final and Real Madrid were in the other semi-final. We drew 3-3 at home and got beaten 4-0 away. But that Waregem team had a style, a way of playing and it was more so playing by design than by chance.

“A few years back, they had a 20-year anniversary. We all went there — wives and kids and whatever. It was great to catch up with everybody.”

Source: TheGaryLineker/YouTube

After five goals in 25 appearances, Buckley opted to leave Waregem in 1986, moving to Spanish side Racing Santander. As glamorous as the prospect of playing in La Liga sounds, he felt it was a step down ultimately.

“The way that team played, the one in Belgium was far better from a collective style point of view. I’ve no doubt that team in Waregem would have done well in La Liga, whereas we didn’t with Racing Santander. We struggled for consistency.”

For all the team’s flaws, there were plenty of unique experiences during the year-long stint, such as playing in front of around 90,000 fans at the Camp Nou in his first game.

Buckley would be upstaged by another debutant, however, as two early goals from England striker Gary Lineker saw Terry Venables’ side earn a 2-0 win.

“I remember most of the places that you win in. I’ve played in both Real Madrid and Barcelona. We lost both matches, 2-0 and 1-0. I don’t remember too much about them, because we lost.

Gary Lineker and Mark Hughes were making their debuts for Barcelona. I was making my debut there. But it was a great experience. The place was full. I thoroughly enjoyed it.”

And was he nervous beforehand about playing in front of such a massive crowd?

“Not so much nervous, more excited. It’s all about excitement and focusing on the gameplan. In Belgium, we definitely had a way of playing — that’s why the team did so well. In Santander, it was left more to the individual to paint the picture.

“We had a lot of good players, we just didn’t play well enough collectively.”

Buckley’s next destination was Switzerland, as he joined FC Montreux-Sports in 1987, spending two years there ultimately.

“They were just hiring in a few professionals from abroad and I was picked to be one of them. [Ex-Ireland international] Don Givens would have [helped facilitate the move], he would have played in Switzerland himself.

“I really enjoyed it. The standard wouldn’t have been anywhere near as good as La Liga or Belgium — it wasn’t a top league in Switzerland. It was the next one down.

“Our first son was born there. So it was an interesting experience having a child speaking French when you don’t actually speak French. My wife communicated a bit better. But it was a beautiful country, a beautiful spot, Montreux, and we look back with fond memories of it.”

don-givens Ex-Ireland international Don Givens played a part in Buckley's move to Switzerland. Source: ©INPHO

Playing in a variety of countries brought with it some unique challenges, with the language barrier a factor in some places more so than others.

“It was difficult to some degree. I had a dressing room of Spanish-speaking players [at Santander]. Only two of them had pidgin English. So both Orlaith and myself went for Spanish lessons. We tried to pick it up as quickly as we could — I picked it up quicker than she did. She’d disagree with that, but there you go.

“In Belgium, it was Flemish, but everyone spoke English. Their English was fantastic, so there was no problem communicating there. And we were in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, which was distinct from the Italian or German side. A lot of them spoke a bit of English, so it wasn’t overly difficult.”

As a new decade approached, however, Buckley opted to return home, re-signing with Shamrock Rovers. The club was in a less healthy state compared to when he left it. They had left their Milltown home by then, much to the anger of a large contingent of supporters, and were undergoing a transitional phase. Having been perennial title winners during the 1980s, the club had become essentially a mid-table side when the striker came onboard for a second stint.

The second spell was consequently less fruitful than the first. To make matters worse, Buckley suffered a cruciate injury that restricted his game time significantly and eventually prompted his temporary retirement.

I was told I was the second person in the country to get that operation, the one I did on my cruciate. I tried to get back after that, but I was having great difficulty. I’d pull a hamstring or do something else.

“Then, lo and behold, I got a phone call from Brian Kerr. I’d retired at that stage, because I was having too much difficulty with injuries. Brian asked would I give him a hand with the [St Pat’s] team down in Inchicore.

“He asked me first of all did I want to go down and play. I signed for a few games, but I tore my hamstring again. I said ‘there’s no point in doing this, I’m letting the team down and the hamstring keeps going on me’.

“So he had Noel O’Reilly, Cyril Walsh and myself as assistants. The three of us were helping out with whatever. It was a good experience from my end of it.

“And through that, helping out with the few bits and pieces, my leg got a bit stronger, I got into training, left it for that season, got back in the following season, we started particularly thoroughly and Brian asked me to play. I said ‘lookit, if you don’t think you could do any worse, put me in’.

“We went up to Derry, Dave Campbell got one goal, I got a goal, I think Johnny Glynn got a goal and we beat them 3-0. I think we finished in the top four and the following season, we won the league. I was about 35 at this stage, winning the league and getting to the cup final. We got beaten by Shels in a replay. But from my end, it was a learning curve in relation to the coaching and managing side of it.”

brian-kerr Buckley worked under Brian Kerr at St Pat's. Source: INPHO

Not long after the 1995-96 league triumph, Kerr stepped down as manager in order to take up a role as FAI technical director. With Pat Dolan appointed the new boss, Buckley also departed the club and became player-manager of Athlone in 1997.

“I’m sure it was after one game, I thought it was madness to try to play and manage at the same time. You just can’t do it. It’s nearly impossible to do. So I stopped playing then.

“My biggest memory of my experience with Athlone would have been getting to the play-offs for promotion [in 2001], which was an achievement, bearing in mind the previous record. We beat UCD at home, they won in the other game. It was extra-time and penalties, and we lost out on penalties. Nevertheless, it was a good season. We got beaten in the semi-final of the cup. We actually beat Shamrock Rovers in the quarter-final that year.”

After a relatively successful time in Athlone, Buckley returned to Pat’s as manager. He inherited a team that had won the league with a record points tally the previous season under Pat Dolan.

It was obviously going to be a pressure season to repeat that, but we did repeat it. We had a fantastic season. We broke quite a few different records — goals scored, goals against, Paul Osam got the Players’ Player of the Year. I changed the style to 3-5-2 that year. That Belgian team [I played with] for those few years had a 3-5-2. It was a bit of a continental [approach], because it was all 4-4-2 at the time.

“We had so many standout players in that team. Packie Lynch was fantastic at the back, Noel Collins, Stephen McGuinness — he couldn’t get in the team the previous year, but boy did he put in a shift. And I knew I could trust them.

“Keith Doyle was brilliant on the left. Then you had a midfield with Martin Russell, who had a magic wand of a left peg, his passing range was great.

“The two other players we had that year were Trevor Molloy and Ian Gilzean, who we signed [from Drogheda]. One had 20 goals and the other had 19 — something like that. They were the first and second goalscorers and the whole season was just extraordinary.”

trevor-molloy1471999 Trevor Molloy was a key player for Buckley's 1999 league-winning Pat's team. Source: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

Despite the title success, Buckley departed the club midway through the following season, after their form badly declined.

“I have to be careful what I say here, because it might be [interpreted] wrongly. I probably knew three weeks after the winning of the league that the following year, I wasn’t going to be there. I just knew, because I had a meeting with the chairman.

“They wanted to change things around a bit and I didn’t. I said: ‘Why would you need to change anything bearing in mind we had a league-winning team with a record number of points and a style that was brilliant?’

Once we juggled it around, it lasted a few months and that was it then. It was unfortunate. St Pat’s had been brilliant for me in relation to winning stuff. I won stuff with Brian Kerr. I won stuff through that period we’re talking about and recently for the last few years, I had been managing Pat’s and we had a bit of success there as well. It’s just unfortunate the way I’ve left.”

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Buckley then had another two-year stint with Athlone, before returning to Rovers for a third spell, this time as manager.

“It was an honour to be involved in the football club from my end of it. We were going through a difficult period and the club was [in transition]. Joe Colwell would have employed me. That year, we finished third and got to the cup final. It was an enjoyable season. We were building for the future.

“It was just unfortunate that the club changed hands and the business side of it wasn’t working out, so the whole thing fell asunder.

“I still see fellas now up in Shamrock Rovers that I went through that period with. I’m delighted they’ve come through that spell and they’re back where they belong at the top end of the table.”

liam-buckley-digital Rovers chairman Joe Colwell with manager Liam Buckley, after his appointment as manager in 2002. Source: INPHO

After leaving Rovers in September 2004, Buckley would not manage again in the League of Ireland until 2008. He was not exactly idle during this period, however.

“I took some time out. I was working on a few business ideas and concepts that I had. I tried my hand at one or two of them. I also got approached by Fingal County Council through Niall Quinn. Niall had been talking to Fingal County Council and they were saying they wanted to do a soccer plan for Fingal.

“Niall was a friend mine who I’d known because he was planning stuff with Shamrock Rovers. Both myself and Niall had spoken about Shamrock Rovers going through that period of [difficulty], they did meet up with one or two entrepreneurs, so I had [an involvement] in that as well.

“But Niall had recommended my name to this guy in the Fingal County Council. So I got a phone call from a lad called John O’Brien, he invited me out to have a chat, I asked him what did he want to do, he wanted to put in a development plan for all soccer in Fingal.

“Fingal is based in North County Dublin and it’s basically just a couple of hundred thousand people.

“A lot of the plans I had for Shamrock Rovers, I would have raised them again, went back to Fingal County Council with a plan for soccer in Fingal, which would have encompassed the North Dublin Schoolboy league, they have their own academy out in the northside.

I suggested that they could put a professional team in the league. They looked at me and said: ‘Where would we play?’ ‘You could play at Morton Stadium.’ ‘How much would that cost?’ I gave them the figures in relation to my experience at the time — I had quite a lot of experience in it, how much it would cost to run the club et cetera, how it would be financed, who would our sponsors be.

“They got back to me and said ‘we like your plan, what will we call the team?’ I had given it plenty of thought. I said Sporting Fingal, because you could have a Sporting Fingal soccer team, a boxing team, hurling, any sport you want, it’s a brand name.

“I sat down with the county manager. He embraced the plans. But we had to get it cleared through the chamber, which was another presentation, and the standard with these people, it’s a big investment, a big project and I would have been more nervous being in that environment trying to convince these people that it was a worthy project to get involved with [than in matches during my football career].

niall-quinn Niall Quinn helped put in motion the formation of Sporting Fingal by recommending Buckley to the county council. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“Anyway, long story short, myself and John had to do a presentation. I did it on the football side of things, what we would do and how we would do it, and John did it on the business side, the community side, which we were very big on.

“I remember the Cathaoirleach saying at the time ‘congratulations, let that be a benchmark for presentations in our chamber’. I thought it was a big compliment to both John and myself, after we put in a whole load of work to get it up to that level.

“So now we had to set up Sporting Fingal. We went to the FAI and set up all that. But it would have been the guts of a year to get that going.

“It wasn’t just about Sporting Fingal, the football club, it was about all the clubs. I went out, met them and sat down with them. It was expensive what we were trying to do and I got great encouragement. The county manager was looking at potentially putting it in a new stadium. We had a training facility passed from a planning perspective in the council.

They went out and got a local entrepreneur. We put out an expression of interest and a fella called Gerry Gannon from Gannon Homes [came in]. It was unfortunate, he went into NAMA and that sort of brought down the whole project. But he was a fantastic help, very encouraging, very demanding, but he pushed us all on and in fairness to the project, for the three years we were in existence, we qualified for Europe twice.

“We won the cup from the First Division, another spectacular achievement. And I couldn’t be happier for the main people, the players that put all the effort into it, a small fanbase, but that was growing. Our average gate for a year was around 600-700, and for a brand new start-up, that wasn’t bad.

“We beat Sligo Rovers in the cup final, and they still remind me of that [in Sligo]. It was a great occasion up in Tallaght. We beat Shamrock Rovers in the quarter-finals. We beat Bray in the semis. They were all Premier Division teams.

“And people were saying Sporting Fingal were throwing money at it — we weren’t. We had a good budget, but the likes of Conan Byrne I’d signed from UCD in the First Division. I signed Ronan Finn from the First Division. I signed Shane McFaul from UCD. The three of them were outstanding footballers. I brought [future Ireland international] Shaun Williams in from Finn Harps, he was a Drogheda-based player, but he couldn’t get a game there. He was loaned out to Finn Harps, then I took him back in with us and lo and behold, he’s now playing in England. 

“Our recruitment was particularly good and we had a good style, that’s why we were fortunate enough to win the cup from the First Division.”

Source: retroloi/YouTube

Despite the initial promise, however, Sporting Fingal went out of existence after just three years amid financial problems.

“To say I was gutted is an understatement. There was so much time and effort put in in terms of where we wanted to go with the project. I was disappointed for the players who were under contract. Basically, the county council closed the project and that was it. Once they close the project, they basically close it down, much as they say they didn’t, they did, and it was unfortunate, because it was an outstanding project.

If we had a little bit more time, we might have been able to rescue it. I remember John and myself, we flew off to Malta, we flew back to Scotland, meeting people to try to put something together, but we just didn’t have enough time to do it.

“I think all the players will have enjoyed the experience. They’ll be disappointed the whole thing fell the way it did, but lookit, life has its ups and downs.”

Ahead of the 2012 season, Buckley agreed to a third stint at Pat’s, as he was appointed manager. His spell at the Richmond Park outfit would last just under seven years and encompassed league title (2013), FAI Cup (2014) and League Cup (2015 and 2016) triumphs.

“We had some cracking players and a good style. We could play and pass the ball. I would like to have done a bit better in Europe, but it is what it is. I really enjoyed it, fantastic memories.

“I’ve gone to Pat’s three times and I hugely enjoyed my time there from a personal and professional point of view. To help Brian out, with a great bunch of lads there, and then in 1999, that team when we won the league was outstanding and then the third time, though I wouldn’t look back too fondly on the last two or three seasons.”

On his exit towards the end of last season, Buckley adds: “It was just time [to leave], without getting into it in any great detail. So we moved on. I wish them every success.”

liam-buckley-celebrates Buckley is currently manager of Sligo Rovers. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Just a month after departing the Saints, Buckley was confirmed as the new Sligo Rovers manager, and since then, he has guided the team to their current position of sixth in the table.

“I’ve enjoyed it. It’s obviously been a challenge from where I’ve been at. Mid-table is probably where we’re at this season. When you take over a club initially, for instance, the first year I was at Pat’s, I think we kept five players and moved out 15. We built a team from there and implemented a style.

“I’m up in Sligo now and I’ve obviously inherited everything from last year. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about these players, because I’d only seen them from playing against them. So I think they’ve all worked hard, we’ve done really well, I’m looking forward to working with them next season and hopefully we can push on.

“And I think the best from this group is yet to come. If we could spring a few results between now and the end of the season, we’ve got Dundalk, Shamrock Rovers, Waterford, Derry and Bohs, it’s an interesting last few games. We’re all looking forward to it.

I’m relatively pleased now, bearing in mind I was unsure coming up here in the first place of the talent pool that we had, but we have a lot of good footballers.”

They go into Sunday’s semi-final against the Lilywhites as massive underdogs. A positive result would be right up there with every other major accomplishment in Buckley’s career.

“We’re not foolish. We know they’ve only been beaten twice this season. But obviously, once was us. So who knows? On the day, it’ll be an interesting game. We’re doing everything we possibly can to put things in place and give ourselves the best possible chance.”

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Paul Fennessy

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