Sue Buckett: England’s original goalkeeper
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Born: c.1946, Portsmouth
Debut: Scotland (A) 18 November 1972
Occupation: Clerical supervisor (1972), Senior project engineer (1992)
Sue Buckett is an English football great. As England women’s first ever goalkeeper she won 30 caps in a 12-year international career which took her all over Europe. In a brilliant club career with Southampton, she played in 11 WFA Cup finals and won eight of them. Those who saw her play describe a calm and unshowy presence, who made acrobatic saves and plucked crosses out of the air with minimum fuss.
Most of the following info about Buckett’s achievements comes from the indispensable works of her former team mates, Sue Lopez (Women on the Ball 1997) and Wendy Owen (Kicking Against Tradition 2005)…
In 1966 the intersection of England’s World Cup win and Southampton FC’s promotion to the top-flight kick-started a women’s football revival in the unlikely setting of leafy Hampshire. The famous Dick, Kerr’s Ladies of Preston had folded the previous year, so the lights had all but gone out on women’s football in England.
Buckett was part of a ‘new wave’ of women’s footballers, who had little in common with Dick, Kerr’s hefty northern lasses who puffed Woodbines and ate bread and drippings. Instead these well-mannered young ladies sprang from a Tory heartland and espoused a “jolly hockey sticks” ethos.
A pupil at prim Western Park Girls’ School in Southampton, Buckett was a talented netballer and came close to representing Team GB in canoeing. After getting bitten by the football bug she quit the other sports, except badminton which kept her reflexes in tune.
By necessity, she was a completely self taught goalkeeper. She admired Gordon Banks and started going to The Dell in order to study the top professional goalies at close hand.
A women’s league popped up with matches played on a Sunday at the public pitches on Southampton Common. Buckett played for Flame United, a team of office girls from Southern Gas.
Flame narrowly won the first ever league title in 66–67, then inked a sponsorship deal with local bookie Charlie Malianza. They rebranded as ‘Inter Malianza’, a tongue-in-cheek homage to Helenio Herrera’s Inter Milan, who dominated Europe in the 1960s before being laid low by Jock Stein’s Glasgow Celtic.
Buckett made her bow for the Southampton representative XI on 7 October 1967, in a 9–0 destruction of Ipswich at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Netley. Interestingly she played outfield, Lynn Attwood of Cunard was the original Southampton custodian.
Lopez reports that Buckett’s first game ‘between the sticks’ came on 18 July 1969, in a prestige friendly against crack Czechoslovakian outfit Spartak Jihlava at Nursling recreation ground. A 4–1 win sent Spartak back behind the old Iron Curtain with their tail firmly between their legs.
The match was attended by Welshman Ron Davies, who was the star centre forward of the male Southampton FC team recently promoted into the top-flight. He was the Rickie Lambert of his day!
In August 1967 Davies bagged a four-goal haul against Manchester United at Old Trafford, after which United boss Matt Busby hailed him the best in Europe. Sue Lopez remembers down-to-earth Davies as fantastically supportive of the women’s team’s endeavours.
At the 1970 Deal Tournament final, Buckett was party to a curious one–v–one sudden death penalty shootout between Southampton’s Sue Lopez and Cambuslang Hooverettes’ Paddy McGroarty. Buckett saved future England teammate McGroarty’s first effort and saw the second kick missed. Lopez also missed her first kick but secured Southampton’s first trophy with her second.
In 1971 Southampton beat out more Scottish opposition, Stewarton Thistle this time, to secure the Mitre Trophy (also known as the WFA Cup). Ultimately Buckett played in all ten of Southampton’s WFA Cup finals and collected eight winner’s medals.
When other Southampton players started to hang up their boots, around about 1978 or so, Buckett was determined to soldier on. She had won everything it was possible to win, but as a relative latecomer she had plenty of football left in her and wanted standards kept high.
When Southampton WFC folded in 1986, Buckett was among a group of players who headed to Red Star Southampton.
Hardy perennial Buckett was still around when the inaugural National League kicked off in 1991. In the opening match Red Star hosted Merseysiders Knowsley United at their Cam Alders ground on 15 September 1991.
Irish international Geraldine Williams famously netted the League’s first ever goal to put Red Star ahead after 17 seconds. Lee doubled the advantage on seven minutes, before Knowsley’s Woollam crashed a volley past Buckett on 17 minutes.
Red Star held on to win 2–1 and finished second to all-conquering Doncaster Belles that season. They also lost 4–0 to the Belles in the 1992 WFA Cup final at Prenton Park.
Forty-seven-year-old Buckett made a record 11th final appearance, but Donny’s Karen Walker extended her record of scoring a hat-trick in every round to ensure there would be no fairytale finish for Buckett.
Sue Lopez reported that Buckett hung up her gloves in 1994 and became the club physio. These days that would mean many years of exams and poring over boring diagrams. Luckily back then you only needed basic first aid training and an ability to hold a wet sponge.
Red Star were promptly relegated, but linked up with Southampton FC men and became Southampton Saints in 1995. In Saints’ 2–0 Cup final defeat to Arsenal Ladies in 1999, Fifty-something (!) Buckett was named on the bench as substitute goalkeeper.
While coaching at the Saints Buckett unearthed promising goalie Aman Dosanj, who later signed for Arsenal and won a scholarship to the US. Dosanj made a little bit of football history when she won a youth cap and became the first British Asian to represent England at any level.
Buckett later became a more than useful golfer on the veterans’ circuit, turning out for the prestigious Royal Winchester club.
Buckett and Sue Lopez were among a handful of Southampton players in Harry Batt’s England XI, which travelled to Northern Italy for the FIEFF European Cup in 1969.
When the WFA put together an official England team in 1972, Buckett was the obvious choice at number 1. But she still had to go through the regional trials to secure her place alongside young understudy, Susan Whyatt of Macclesfield.
England team mate Wendy Owen (2005) wrote:
“Sue Buckett, at twenty-eight years old, was their highly experienced goalkeeper. Eric [Worthington] chose her to be the backbone of the England team, a role she was to fulfil for many years. She was a supremely agile shot stopper, decisive on crosses and prepared to marshal her defence with calm authority.”
In the first match at Greenock’s Ravenscraig Stadium, England went behind when Buckett was beaten by Scotland’s Mary Carr. The ball came through a ruck of players—what the Scots might call a “stramash”— and past unsighted Buckett who dived in the icy mud.
Things looked ropey when England went 2–0 down in the first half, a corner kick sailing over Buckett’s head and straight into the net. To be fair, the scorer was a certain Rose Reilly – one of the greatest players of all time. Buckett’s blushes were spared when gutsy England hit back to win 3–2.
Redoubtable centre-half Wendy Owen gave Buckett’s safe hands much of the credit for England’s success in the following years, when they saw off all comers until being soundly beaten by Sweden (1975), then Italy (1976).
England’s 3–0 win over Belgium at the Dell on 31 October 1978 was a big deal for Buckett, who had often stood on those terraces as a paying supporter.
With evergreen Buckett maintaining top form into her mid-thirties and beyond, 1980s England boss Martin Reagan nevertheless had to do some long-term planning.
Terri Irvine, the Irish-born Aylesbury stopper who found fame on TV’s It’s a Knockout, was drafted in for a few games. But Buckett’s long-term successor in England’s gloves proved to be Terry Wiseman, the footballing illustrator who eventually became a legend in her own right.
Buckett collected a total of 30 England caps from 1972–1981 and a brief comeback in 1984. She never played in a major tournament because UEFA and FIFA shamefully dragged their heels in setting them up.