Alan Buckley: Swinton rugby league centre

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The Independent Online

In the early to mid-1960s, when Swinton briefly had the best rugby league team in Britain, they rejoiced in a three-quarter line that sounded as though it was named with its purpose in life in mind. John Speed and Bobby Fleet spoke for themselves, while John Stopford, quite apart from his own heavy try-scoring, could have been christened for his ability to halt opponents. Alan Buckley might have had the least resonant surname of the four, but he stood out as the quality player even in that company.

Buckley was born in the Ardwick area of Manchester, and played his first rugby under union rules for Broughton Park. In 1959, however, at the age of 18, he signed for Swinton Lions, making his first-team début the following January in a 5-0 victory over Barrow. He had established himself as first-choice centre by the end of the 1959-60 season, which Swinton finished a creditable eighth place in the single division in operation at the time.

The sense that Buckley was something special really began to take hold the following season, with a brilliant overhead pass to Stopford that clinched a Lancashire Cup quarter-final victory at the home of the Lions' local rivals, Salford. Swinton went on to reach the final at Wigan's Central Park, losing 15-9 to St Helens.

They did not finish the season empty-handed, however, winning the Lancashire League Trophy as the highest-placed club west of the Pennines. It was Swinton's first post-war trophy, but a long way from being their last.

Buckley missed almost all of the 1961-62 season following major shoulder surgery. The issue that season was for Swinton, ardent opponents of the split into two divisions, to finish in the top half and earn a place in Division One. They managed it, and again reached the Lancashire Cup final – only to lose to St Helens once more – but their league form was poor enough to raise fears of relegation.

Then came the famous Big Freeze. With no rugby for almost two months, it was an invaluable opportunity for the team to regroup. From the low point of a mere 11 points from 13 games, the Lions went on a run of 17 victories in a row, with Buckley's skills at centre a vital component in their success. Victory at Widnes clinched the Division One title, which Swinton eventually won by a handsome six-point margin.

Perhaps even more remarkable was the way Swinton, no longer sneaking under other clubs' radar, defended the title successfully in 1963-64. It was a memorable season for Buckley personally, bringing him his débuts for Lancashire and for Great Britain.

The first of his seven Test caps was won in the infamous Battle of Headingley, in 1963, which Great Britain won after two heavy defeats by Australia in a series more notable for its violence than its rugby. Buckley played alongside Stopford in a 16-5 win and also appeared against France in Perpignan that season.

On the club scene, his undoubted highlight was the match against Salford in April 1964 when he scored a club record-equalling five tries, all before half-time. In his club history, The Lions of Swinton (1999), Stephen Wild recalls that Buckley could easily have set a new record after the break "but he unselfishly passed on a simple opportunity to lay a try on a plate for Ken Gowers". Buckley had the classic centre's virtue of taking as much pleasure from tries created as from tries scored, and the vast majority of those claimed by the prolific Stopford emanated from him.

After those two magical seasons, Swinton were never to touch such heights again. There was another Lancashire Cup final defeat by St Helens in 1965, before the elusive trophy was finally won in 1969. Buckley was leading try-scorer in both seasons and it was his break in the final at Central Park that produced the crucial try in an 11-2 win over Leigh.

Swinton had remained a major force, as evidenced by their club-record four players – Buckley, Stopford, Gowers and Dave Robinson – on the 1966 tour to Australia and New Zealand. Buckley was first choice at centre, playing in three of the five Tests and missing the other two through injury.

For his only professional club he played on until 1974, postponing retirement in order to try to help Swinton regain their place in the top-flight after the reintroduction of two divisions. He played a total of 467 times for Swinton, fifth in their all-time records, scoring 192 tries, a total bettered by only three players.

A draughtsman during his playing days, he was later well known as the landlord of a pub near Swinton's Station Road ground where he had done so much of his best work.

Dave Hadfield

Alan Buckley, rugby league player: born Manchester 23 October 1941; married (one son, one daughter); died Manchester 12 March 2008.