Des Buckingham: Meet the only English coach at the U20 World Cup

Buckingham arrived in New Zealand after spells at Oxford United and Stoke City 

Buckingham arrived in New Zealand after spells at Oxford United and Stoke City 

WHEN the Under-20 World Cup kicks off tomorrow afternoon in Poland, just one man will be carrying the flag for English coaches.

With reigning champions England having failed to qualify as one of the 24 teams, it isn’t who you would have expected a year ago. Step forward son of Oxford Des Buckingham, who leads New Zealand. At 34, he is also the youngest coach at the tournament.

Buckingham took the role last June, following spells with Oxford United, Wellington Phoenix and Stoke City. The All Whites kick off their campaign against Honduras in Lublin, before moving on to Lodz for games against Norway on 27th May and Uruguay on the 30th.

Buckingham took advice from England counterpart Paul Simpson - who led his country to glory in South Korea in 2017 - before leaving for Poland.

“I met Paul shortly before Christmas and had two-and-a-half hours with him,” Buckingham told TGG. “He gave me advice about how to prepare for the tournament and how to approach our matches. After the disappointment of failing to qualify, that really was a mark of the man.”

New Zealand arrived in Poland 18 days ago and have the largest group of support staff they have ever taken to an age group World Cup.

“Our thoughts around preparation were to acclimatise as early as possible, undertake sessions and play two international friendly games with the full group of 21 players and 12 staff in the environment we will be competing in,” explained Buckingham, who also doubles up as U23 coach and senior men’s assistant.

“Ultimately, this should be a long-term project. After the World Cup, the work continues into the U23 Olympic cycle and beyond, as the majority of players eligible for this age group could form the bulk of the full national team in 2026.

“We have worked hard over the past 15 months to best prepare this group of young men to represent both themselves and the country proudly. The focus will very much be on ourselves, our strengths and who we are. We’ll approach the first game like that and try to put ourselves in a good position.”

The All Whites have won just two games of their previous 17 games at U20 World Cups and were beaten 6-0 by USA in the round of 16 last time round.

The goal is to get at least that far again and help to further promote the sport in a country synonymous with rugby union.

“The All Blacks are the most successful team in world sport and an inspiration, but football is the most popular participation sport in New Zealand up to the age of 17 and we need to build on that grassroots popularity,” Buckingham said.

PERSONAL JOURNEY

Buckingham turned to coaching at 17 after stints as a youth player at Reading and Oxford. By the time he was 23, he had gained his Uefa A Licence while balancing a career as a teacher at Oxford & Cherwell Valley College.

Away from the classroom, he was coaching at Oxford United, starting with the U9s and progressing to Head of Coaching and then first-team coach under manager Chris Wilder.

“A week before the start of the 2013/14 season I went with the first team to Portsmouth and we won 4-1,” he remembered. “I was promoted full-time to the first team after that.

Buckingham (second from the right) spent 10 years at Oxford United

Buckingham (second from the right) spent 10 years at Oxford United

“Chris Wilder was fantastic and it’s no surprise to see what he’s done and the longevity he’s had in the game. Players want to play for him, it’s as simple as that. He’s honest, looks after his players and staff, and is very clear about what he wants in terms of tactics, standards, fitness.

“He’s innovative too and even at that time was very creative when it came to things like set pieces. Man management and building relationships with your players is a huge part of coaching and managing and Chris is outstanding at that.”

Buckingham watched four players of his U9s progress all the way to the first team.

“I remember watching Callum O’Dowda make his professional debut (in August 2013, at the age of 18) which made me incredibly proud, but also reminded me how long I’d been at the club," Buckingham said.

"I decided it was time for a new challenge in a new environment."

That challenge arose on the other side of the world, when he took a role with the New Zealand FA as their Football Development Manager. After that he was appointed assistant manager of the Wellington Phoenix, New Zealand’s only professional side, who ply their trade in the Australian A-League.

During his time as an assistant to Ernie Merrick, he was also awarded his Pro Licence, which held him in good stead when he graduated to head coach a month later at the age of just 31, making him the youngest head coach in the competition's history.

Despite a decent performance for the rest of the season, he was replaced as head coach at the end of the season and decided to return to the his homeland with Stoke City as U23 assistant in 2017.

That saw him link up with Stoke Academy Manager Gareth Jennings, who he had known for many years, and he also delivered Uefa B Licence qualifications on behalf of The FA in conjunction with his role at the club.

Then, in early 2018, the opportunity came to take over with the U20 men’s side as well as an assistant with the senior national team.

U20 WORLD CUP

Buckingham's first mission was a difficult one: navigating the Oceania U19 Championship in Tahiti. They won the competition, defeating the hosts 1-0 in the final, and became only the fourth team not to drop a point throughout and also scoring a record 23 goals.

Not content with just qualifying, Buckingham then set about ensuring no stone was left unturned in a global pursuit to identify the best 21 players available to represent New Zealand at the World Cup.

His overall approach has been meticulous. Buckingham has racked up more than 200,000 km of air miles and 61 flights in order to spend time with players in their own football environments. This has included 50 days with ISPS Handa Premiership clubs and 80 days working with local federations in New Zealand to create connections and build on positive relationships with players, coaches and clubs.

He also took the same approach overseas, paying his own way to travel to Australia, Canada, England, Germany, the Netherlands and the USA to meet with players and coaches.

"I'm confident we have done everything we possibly could in terms of preparation," he said. "We have some good players and now it's about doing ourselves justice in the group matches."

Buckingham also felt there was a need to draw on elements of New Zealand’s cultural identity that he discovered as part of the High-Performance Sport New Zealand Coach Accelerator Programme.

The programme is a three-year professional development initiative that aims to increase New Zealand’s pool of world-class coaches, capable of producing more world, Olympic and Paralympic champions.

Key graduates include current All Blacks Coach Steve Hansen, former Black Caps coach Mike Hesson and two-time Halberg coach of the year Gordon Walker who excels at coaching multiple World Champion and Olympic gold medallist Lisa Carrington

“It’s just getting started but one of the things that struck me was how quickly 11 strangers were able to form bonds through this process," he said. "I thought that could be applied to our group to see each other as more than just football players and build better connections to enhance our on-field performances.”

Together with significant contribution from the playing group, a series of team cultures and values have been built, tying the team back to their homeland.

It should come as no surprise that he has been accepted into the prestigious programme as he places a strong emphasis on personal development, both on and off the football pitch.

In addition to his Pro Licence, he is due to complete a Masters Degree in Advanced Performance Football Coaching through the University of South Wales shortly after the upcoming World Cup and away from the training pitch, he attained his pilot’s licence in 2017.

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