From ski(es) to the grassroots: MCFC head coach Des Buckingham’s incredible coaching journey

Mumbai City FC head coach Des Buckingham is one of the most admired coaches in the Hero Indian Super League (ISL) and has been gaining prominence lately for his attractive, attacking brand of football. The 37-year-old, who stepped up and took the mantle from former MCFC head coach Sergio Lobera at the start of the Hero ISL 2020-21 season, had big shoes to fill after the Islanders attained a historic Hero ISL double. However, the appointment of Buckingham was not just a typical one as the Englishman had a 20-year coaching expertise behind him.

It might seem unusual that at 37, Buckingham is just three years older than the oldest player in his squad - Senegalese defender Mourtada Fall, and yet he finds himself as the youngest head coach in the league.

“If you’d say I have 20 years coaching experience over being 37-years-old, you’d say I’m a very experienced coach. It’s something that I’ve had all the way through up to this point. Generally, I’ve always found myself being younger than a majority of the people I coach. I’m now starting to tip the other side of that when I’m older than most of the people,” Buckingham told scroll.in.

A coach renowned for developing young talents across the globe, Buckingham guided his former club Melbourne City to the A-League title (Australia’s top-flight football league) before his switch to the Islanders. He was also instrumental in leading an U-20 New Zealand team to the round of 16 stage at the U-20 World Cup.

While his debut Hero ISL season with Mumbai City FC might have been wayward given the lofty ambitions of the a club who had just won the historic double, Buckingham found the magic touch with his newly-coached team as they became the first Indian team to win a match at the AFC Champions League. A feat, which had never been accomplished before in Indian football history, Buckingham helped MCFC punch above their weight in the continental competition in his very first season with the club.

Though coaching might be the focal point in his life, the Englishman has keen interests outside of football that includes being a certified pilot and a ski instructor.

“For me, it was always trying to get some kind of work-life balance. Even though I was young, I was 26 and working full-time at a club with four different roles, I was always trying to have something going on that was different to football,” he said.

Hadn’t his route to football worked out fine, as it has been today, Buckingham states that he would have gone down the channel of an aviation stream, something that fascinates him till date.

“In Wellington (New Zealand), I lived five minutes away from the airport. For my 30th birthday, people I worked with booked me a practice flight. They had once asked me what I would have been if I wasn’t a coach and I think I said I’d have probably gone down into some kind of aviation stream – maybe a pilot since it always fascinated me,” the Englishman revealed.

He recalled his first flying stint and said that he was tricked into it by his friends about which he had no idea of.

He said: “You have to go through some training, do some tests and get your licence. I took three-and-a-half years, had over 100 flying hours, I flew in tests, cleared theory exams about things I had no idea about at the time. This had no crossover to my normal life. But I’m glad I did it. It was a wonderful thing to have.”

The 37-year-old has a diverse range of skillset outside of the football field. Buckingham holds a degree in sports science, which he claims, helped him a lot to achieve where he is as a coach - something that he didn’t expect.

“I was a student at Cherwell Valley College (in Oxford), and had an opportunity as a part-time lecturer to pretty much go in and lecture students that were two-three years younger than me. That was quite an experience. I was 21 and teaching 16-19 year olds,” he recalled.

“But that part-time role became a full-time role after a year. That exposed me to (knowledge) of how to help people to learn. At the same time, I was doing my coaching – what I didn’t expect was that it was all a part of my coaching journey.”

His coaching career commenced at his hometown, Oxford. He started out as a youth coach for Oxford United. Later on, he moved up the ladder and joined A-League club Wellington Phoenix as the assistant coach and later on took the reins as the first-team head coach.

“I was surrounded by so many good people, coaches, I didn’t expect it to turn into a career as such, it was something that just snowballed and progressed as I did my badges. Opportunities came up and hopefully I did a good enough job that people wanted me to come into that environment as well,” he added.

“That’s continued all the way till now. I’ve been swallowed up by City Football Group. I moved to Melbourne and then got the opportunity to be here. It’s been a wonderful journey, but because I was surrounded by wonderful people to get to where I am,” he averred.

Having already won his first-ever home game with Mumbai City FC in the Hero ISL 2022-23 season, the young albeit experienced coach has gathered quite a few expectations from fans as well as critics alike, and is one of the most promising coaches in the league.

“Still young, still a long time ahead of me. But it’s also been a long journey for me so far,” he concluded.

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