The term ‘Whanau’ means family in Maori. And in 2020, when the New Zealand FA did not renew the then New Zealand U-20 head coach Des Buckingham’s contract, the players of the national team reportedly wrote a letter to the federation, requesting an extension for the Englishman.
Buckingham had created a sense of whanau – a family within the national u20 team – and that helped the All Whites qualify for the 2020 Olympics and win two consecutive games in an under-20 FIFA World Cup for the first time.
With Danny Hay taking over the national side, the Oxford-born manager moved thousands of miles away from the Island nation, to take charge of the Islanders (Mumbai City FC) in the Indian Super League in October 2021.
In his second season in charge, he guided MCFC to the ISL League Winners’ Shield – its first silverware in two years.
“On the back of 50 wonderful months of building something that’s very special to me now and there are obviously, some benefits of that, in certainly the last 17 games,” he said.
The football coach who flies an aeroplane
At first glance, Buckingham hardly looks like a manager – no white hair on his head, neither sign of age nor vast experience on the outside. His portfolio also has certain features quite unlike those of a football coach – most importantly, a flying license.
The very mention of it brings a grin to his face as he continues to say “So, for my 30th birthday, I was given a trial flight on a light aircraft where you go up and you fly with an instructor for 40 minutes.
During those 40 minutes, the instructor convinced me (I live 5 minutes from the airport in Wellington) that it would be a good idea to look at maybe going through the initial stages of my licence.”
He describes how it took him over 100 hours and six different theory exams over three years to finally complete his flying course.
“I think there are some things from flying that have helped me in my personal life and my coaching. Like you said, around remaining calm in certain situations following a process rather than panicking. Those types of things that I think have had a crossover that has helped me be a better coach as well,” he says.
Emphasis on youngsters
Buckingham has maintained a reputation for building young squads into winners.
Under him, the New Zealand U20 team, with youngsters such as Sarpreet Singh, Joe Bell, Liberato Cacace and Elijah Just, finished second in Group C in the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2019, limiting Erling Haaland and his side, Norway, to secure a comfortable 2-0 victory.
“I had Sarpreet as a young 17, 18-year-old in Wellington when I was in charge of the Wellington Phoenix in the A-league and I did give him his professional debut,” smiles Buckingham, talking to Sportstar.
“I was fortunate to share a bit more of a journey with him when I came back to New Zealand and coached the U-20 National team. There, his performances and the team’s collective performance at that World Cup turned a lot of heads,” he adds.
Sarpreet – a player of Indian descent in the New Zealand National football team, created history when he became the first footballer from the country to ever play for Bayern Munich.
At Mumbai City FC, too, youngsters such as Lalengmawia Ralte, Gurkirat Singh, Mehtab Singh and Phurba Lachenpa have flourished as MCFC finished as the runner-up in their maiden appearance in the Durand Cup last year.
“My approach has always been to get the best of our abilities with the players that we have. We focus solely on what we want to do and how we want to do it.
And (in the last 10 years in particular) that focus has really helped not only develop players but has also allowed teams to go on and (in other people’s eyes) maybe surpass what they were expected,” he says.
Snubbing New Zealand job for Mumbai City
When Hay left the New Zealand job late in 2022, Buckingham made headlines as one of the frontrunners for the NZ job. The Englishman was at an old crossroad again, but he signed a contract with Mumbai City FC till 2025.
“New Zealand is a place that is home to me. I’ve got my permanent residence and it is a country that I love and will buy a house live in at some point. So yes, there was an attraction to that role,” he tells Sportstar.
“But you know when that came about, the movement of the club here and then, the movement of City Football Group as well, I want to be the best coach.
With the support that comes with CFG and the development opportunities that I certainly had in the last two-and-half years, I think is the best place for me right now,” he adds.
Buckingham excelled under City Football Group even before moving to India. With A-League side Melbourne City in 2020 as its Assistant coach, under head coach Patrick Kisnorbo, he helped the team to its first-ever A-League title and Championship in his very first season.
Under him, Mumbai became the first Indian club to register a win in the AFC Champions League, beating Iraq’s Al Quwa Al Jawiya (Air Force Club) 2-1.
“When I reflect back on our Champions League journey, it’s one of the proudest coaching moments I’ve had in my 21 years (of coaching). We won two matches and we got a draw as well. So, we got results in three of the six games.
Although the results were very pleasing, it was more the manner in which we went about playing our game and showcasing some of the abilities that not just Indian players but Indian clubs could compete and challenge and win at that level,” Buckingham says.
Building an invincible Mumbai City FC
Mumbai City FC missed out on the playoffs last season, by three points and under Buckingham, built a formidable squad this season, signing some crucial players.
The Golden Ball winner with Jamshedpur FC last season, Greg Stewart, joined the Islanders alongside Jorge Pereyra Diaz, creating a menacing attack in the front, while a fit Ahmed Jahou and Mourtada Fall together complete the puzzle for MCFC.
Both Diaz and Greg Stewart have a goal contribution in each match – Diaz has 21 (goals+assists) in as many games, while Stewart has 25 in 25 matches.
In terms of youngsters, too, the club has invested judiciously, bringing in players like Gyanmar Nikum, Ahan Prakash and Ayush Chikara, and working on existing young prodigies such as Lallianzuala Chhangte, Phurba and Gurkirat.
“We have a lot of young players, but they’re also surrounded by some very good senior players, both Indian and foreign, and work goes on with (them) on a daily basis,” says Buckingham.
“We sit and go through their training footage and game footage. For the majority of them, we’ve highlighted certain things we want them to work on, to get better.”
In September 2022, Lalengmawia (21), travelled to Belgian side Lommel SK to train for a couple of months, honing his football skills alongside European footballers.
“We want our young players and Indian players in particular to go on and be as good as they can,” Buckingham added.
Jamshedpur FC had won the ISL League Winners’ Shield last season with 13 wins and three draws, scoring 43 points in the process – the highest in a season.
Mumbai City FC, with a 5-3 win against FC Goa, surpassed that tally with ease, scoring 53 goals and conceding just 18 so far. No team has remained unbeaten throughout the league in ISL since the league’s inception.
If the club avoids defeat in its next two games, it will become the first team to be dressed in the famed robe of invincibles.
While Bengaluru FC – which missed the ISL semifinals last season by five points – changed its head coach, Mumbai City FC stuck by Buckingham and the patience has borne fruits.
Winning the League Winners Shield, breaking the ice in the Champions League and finishing as runner-up on the Durand Cup debut – Buckingham’s Midas touch has not just turned Mumbai City into a group of Champions, but has found him a ‘Whanau’, thousands of miles away from his old home, New Zealand.
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