Des Buckingham loves to fly planes. He also loves to help football teams fly high. Buckingham coached New Zealand to the Olympics, was the youngest manager in Australia’s A-League and, more recently, navigated Mumbai City’s journey to the ISL League Winners Shield in some style. The 38-year-old from England spoke to The Hindu in Kozhikode during the Super Cup, in which he fielded an all-Indian squad that went on to tie for first place in its group. Excerpts:
What made you accept Mumbai City’s offer? Indian football must have been an unknown quantity for you at that time.
Yes, it was. It was two things [that influenced my decision]. The first one is my connection with the City Football Group. So I was working in Melbourne City, a sister club within the City Football Group network. The other was I could see a lot of similarities between the Indian Super League and the A-League in Australia. This was the ninth season of the ISL. And the A-League is only 17 years old, so they are relatively new.
If you look from where season one of the ISL was in terms of length of time, amount of games, and where it is now, there has been a massive development and there is so much that comes with that. I see the excitement of Indian football and what I felt I could bring to try and enhance it from the players here, the club here, both in the short term and hopefully the long term.
How do you look at your time at Mumbai City so far?
I think most people would look at the externals and people often judge on trophies and winning. Winning the league [ISL League Winners Shield] this year was nice because it was the first trophy out of Covid. And playing at the AFC Champions League was another big moment. But for me, it has been the journey of 18 months; those moments are cherries on top of the work that has been achieved, not just by me and my coaching staff, but by the whole group of people we have at the club. It is also about how we won the league, the records that we broke — I think we were unbeaten in 18 games and had 11 consecutive wins — and the way we played football, which people said was something that they hadn’t seen here before.
From what you have seen of Indian football, where does it stand on the global stage?
I spent six years in New Zealand and three of those with the national teams. And I see a lot of similarities: there are a lot of good players here. On the world stage, players aren’t perceived to be as good as they actually are. And we certainly found that with New Zealand, where we were always the underdogs; when you put us on paper compared to others, it wasn’t a match-up of any sort. So for me, when I look across the league now, after being here two years, I’ve seen enough where players here are more than capable of competing with and challenging their peers on the international stage.
You took New Zealand all the way to the Olympics. Do you think India has the potential to do that as well?
I don’t see why not. In New Zealand, there was a journey that started maybe 10 years ago and it was called the Whole of Football Plan, which pretty much aligned the game across the country from grassroots to the professional game. I am excited now to see this vision of 2047 that has just been rolled out [by the AIFF]. I think if this roadmap for 2047 can help not just the clubs, but the community as well, I don’t think there’s any reason why India in the future can’t put themselves in a position to do that.
You have worked quite a lot with young players in different parts of the world. How good do you think the young Indian talent is?
There is a young boy I’m sure you’re aware of called Sarpreet Singh, who is of Indian heritage. He was with me in New Zealand, at the Wellington Phoenix first. We took him to the Under-20 World Cup and he was then signed by Bayern Munich. When I look at our team here, from two years ago to now, we’ve got players like Phurba Lachenpa, Mehtab Singh, Vikram Partap Singh, Lalengmawia Ralte, who was already a very good player before he came to us, and Vignesh Dakshinamurthy. We have many young players who are now making the starting eleven on a very regular basis. I can’t speak for other clubs and players, but what we do and how we work with our players here, there is massive potential for growth, because they are so keen to learn.
Would you be interested if you were, at some time in the future, offered the role of coaching the Indian — senior or junior — team?
I don’t look too far into the future. Who knows? I certainly didn’t expect to be in India maybe two years ago. So it has been a wonderful journey that football can be. It is an exciting one to see where I can go.
Which football managers have you admired over the years?
I have been fortunate to work with lots of good managers, like Chris Wilder, from my time at Oxford, Mickey Lewis, who got me into coaching in the first place, Ernie Merrick, who was the most successful coach in Australia. And then there are others that I look at, like Pep Guardiola.
What makes the Premier League special?
It has arguably the world’s best players in it. You have got very good clubs with excellent fanbases. The standard across the English football pyramid, from the Premier League even down to League Two now, is high, it’s very well organised, very well set up. You will often see even League Two grounds that are of full capacity for most of their games. That drip-feeds all the way down into non-league. And all of these clubs have their own academies. All of them are linked with their own communities. Very often it’s more than just football for those clubs.
What have you been doing with your pilot licence?
I haven’t been able to do anything with it since the last off-season when I went back to New Zealand and was able to use it. I will be back in New Zealand after the Super Cup. I will certainly be making use of it over there. So I’m very much looking forward to it and hopefully remember how to do it.