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30 years ago: Walsall sack Alan Buckley

Walsall | Sport | Published:

The legend of Alan Buckley has reared its head again as his 37-year-old transfer record move back to Walsall is broken.

Buckley was the Saddlers' most costly acquisition when he transferred from West Midlands rivals Birmingham City in 1979, writes Craig Birch.

When you think about it, the prolific goal-getter is not believed to have cost them anything, as he was joining for the same fee he'd been sold to Blues for a year earlier.

That record has now been surpassed by the shock £300,000 arrival of striker Andreas Makris from Cypriot side Anorthosis Famagusta.

If Makris enjoys the success club-record goalscorer and later popular manager Buckley achieved leading the line, he will be more than happy.

But it would all end on a sour note for him 30 years ago today, when Buckley was controversially sacked as boss with his Walsall ties severed for good.

The supporters had loved him ever since he first arrived aged 22 in the summer of 1973, initially on loan from Nottingham Forest before an £18,000 permanent move.

He made 241 appearances in his first spell alone, netting 125 goals before the move to Birmingham. He rejoined and played another 178 games, notching 49 more strikes.

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His second stint saw him return to Fellows Park as player-manager, chairman Ken Wheldon splashing the cash after the team had just been relegated to Division Four.

With general manager Bert Johnston for support, he led the side back to Division Three before becoming joint boss with Neil Martin, which was supposed to help him focus on playing.

Two seasons struggling against relegation followed before 'Bucko' took sole charge, under the proviso he would pick himself less. He still got his 200th goal for the club at Plymouth in 1983.

He remains the only one to score 20 or more goals for the club in five successive seasons and played until 1984, finishing with 205 goals from 484 matches in all competitions.

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His exploits drew national attention in 1984, as the side he built into a fine footballing outfit punched well above their weight, reaching the semi-finals of the League Cup.

That magical Milk Cup run saw Blackpool and Barnsley disposed off before they started dumping out higher-level opposition, starting with the scalp of Shrewsbury Town.

They deservedly stunned 2-1 Arsenal at Highbury, before coming back down to earth in seeing off league rivals Rotherham United to land a semi-final with Liverpool.

The reigning European kings were rulers of the roost, at the time, but Buckley's men would give them a few frights on the way. The first leg at Anfield had ended 2-2.

They eventually succumbed to a 2-0 defeat in the return game at Fellows Park, but got as close to qualifying for European football or a Wembley final as they ever had.

Liverpool midfielder Graeme Souness famously hailed Walsall afterwards, claiming he would have rather faced Italian giants Juventus as they totally "outplayed us" at times.

The 1985-86 campaign would prove to be Buckley's last at the Saddlers, with the club finishing sixth in Division Three before the play-off system was brought into force.

But, behind the scenes, Wheldon's stock with the fans had reached an all-time low. Fellows Park was falling to bits and he wanted to ground-share with Birmingham.

The Save Walsall Action Group was backed by the Express & Star and then the Football League Management Committee, who blocked the proposed move completely.

Wheldon was eventually ousted and sold up, on 1 August 1986, to London-based businessman Terry Ramsden. This would not proved to be good news for Buckley, though.

Ramsden wanted to bring in his own people and had already made the decision to replace Buckley and his assistant Garry Pendrey, who were axed within 90 minutes of the purchase.

In came new boss Tommy Coakley, who had been at the helm of non-league Bishops Stortford, with former Bristol City defender Gerry Sweeney taking on the job of coach.

It was no way to treat Buckley and all he had to soften the blow was a golden handshake. The three years he had left on his deal was thought to have been honoured at a cost of £75,000.

Wolves were in absolute chaos, at the same time, relegated to Division Four and days away from closure before the Bhatti brothers' ownership was finally ended and the club saved.

Their boss Sammy Chapman had been pushed into the role and never wanted to be any more than the club scout. Buckley was linked to Wolves by the Express & Star that same week.

The late Jack Harris had also left Walsall when Ramsden bought the club and wanted to take Buckley to crisis club Wolves with him, but he ultimately didn't follow him there.

Buckley instead ended up at non-league Kettering Town before taking charge at Grimsby Town, for the first of what would become three periods in charge of the Mariners.

He did return to the West Midlands, but as manager of West Brom in the the autumn of 1994. He was sacked two-and-a-half years later. He later bossed Lincoln City and Rochdale, too.

His first-team managerial career would also end with the axe, from Grimsby after gaining just two points from the opening six games of the 2008-09 season in what is now League Two.

But no one can take away Buckley's experience in a record-breaking career, as the first manager to reach 1,000 first-class games with clubs who did not appear in the top two divisions.

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