Charlie Buchan was born in Plumstead, London on September 22nd 1891 and always took an interest in football being a fan of the local side, Woolwich Arsenal. He watched the players train but could not afford to pay the entrance fee to see the games. He received 1d per week pocket money and could not afford the 3d admission fee at the turnstiles so he waited until 10 minutes from the end when the big gates were opened to let the crowd out and he took the opportunity to sneak in for nothing. When he was 17 Charlie was approached by Arsenal and asked to play for the reserves against Croydon Common. Arsenal won 3-1 and Buchan scored one of the goals. Charlie played in three more games and trained twice a week with the team. However, when he provided a bill of 11 shillings for his travel costs, the club refused to reimburse him and as a result Charlie refused to play again for the club.
For the rest of the 1909-10 season Buchan played for Northfleet in the Kent League. Football scouts soon became aware of Buchan's abilities and the First Division club, Bury, offered him wages of £3 a week. Sir Henry Norris, the chairman of Fulham, told Buchan, "We understand you want to be a teacher. We will find you a job where you can continue your training and pay you thirty shillings a week to sign professional forms for Fulham." Buchan asked for £2 a week but this was rejected.
Buchan eventually accepted an offer from Leyton, a club that played in the Southern League. He was paid £3 a week and allowed to continue his studies to qualify as a teacher. Buchan had a good first season and soon the big clubs were trying to buy him. Leyton turned down an offer of £800 from Chelsea. However, in March 1911, Sunderland paid a transfer fee of £1,200 for Buchan. This beat the £1,000 paid by Middlesbrough for Alf Common in 1905.
The Sunderland fans did not immediately take to Buchan and he suffered a great deal of barracking from the Roker Park crowd. Buchan asked to be dropped from the side but Bob Kyle, the manager, refused. After one game in November, 1911, Buchan told Kyle: "I'll never kick another ball for Sunderland." Kyle persuaded Buchan to play one more game for the club. He agreed and scored two goals in the 3-1 victory. Buchan recalled that this was the turning point and he never again got "the bird" from the crowd.
January 1913 saw Sunderland beat Arsenal (4-1), Tottenham Hotspur (2-1), Chelsea (4-0), Middlesbrough (2-0) and Derby County (3-0). It was now clear that only Aston Villa could deprive Sunderland of the First Division championship. Sunderland also had a good FA Cup run.
On the way to the final Sunderland beat Manchester City (2-0), Swindon Town (4-2), Newcastle United (3-0) and Burnley (3-2). The final was played in front of 120,000 at Crystal Palace against Aston Villa, their rivals for the league championship. Early in the game, Clem Stephenson told Buchan that the previous night he had dreamt that Villa won the game 1-0 with Tommy Barber scoring the only goal with a header.
With 15 minutes remaining Charlie Wallace took a corner-kick. He scuffed the ball and it came into the box at waist height. With the Sunderland defence expecting a high-ball, Tommy Barber ghosted in from midfield and headed it into the net. Stephenson's dream had come true.
Sunderland won their last two matches against Bolton Wanderers (4-1) and Bradford City (1-0) to win the title by four points from Aston Villa. Charlie Buchan finished as the club's top scorer with an impressive 32 goals in 46 games.
On the outbreak of the First World War Buchan joined the Grenadier Guards. In 1916 he was sent to the Western Front and saw action at the Somme, Cambrai and Passchendaele. Buchan was quickly promoted to the rank of sergeant and in 1918 he attended the Officers' Cadet School at Catterick.
After the War Buchan returned to his teaching job at Cowan Terrace School in Sunderland. However, in his autobiography, A Lifetime in Football, Buchan admitted that he was finding that "teaching and playing professional did not mix... by the time Friday came round I could hardly talk to the class... I could not concentrate on both at the same time."
At the end of the 1919-20 season he gave up teaching and opened a sports outfitters business in Blandford Street, near the south end of Sunderland Railway Station.
Buchan was a member of the committee that ran Association Footballers' Union (AFU). After the war, professional footballers received a maximum weekly wage of £10. In 1920 the Football League Management Committee proposed a reduction to £9 per week maximum. Buchan was one of those who called for the AFU to resort to strike action. However, large numbers of players resigned from the union and the Football League imposed the £9 maximum wage. The following year it was reduced to £8 for a 37-week playing season and £6 for the 15-week close season.
Sunderland failed to recapture its pre-war form. By the time the Football League resumed, several of its best players were past their best. In both the 1920-21 and 1921-22 seasons the club finished in 12th place.
Bob Kyle completely rebuilt the playing squad and by the 1922-23 season Buchan was the only survivor of the Sunderland team that won the Football League title in the 1912-13 season. Sunderland had a much better season and finished in second place, six points behind Liverpool. Buchan scored 30 goals that made him the top scorer in the whole of the First Division.
Buchan played his last international game for England on 12th April 1924. The game against Scotland ended in a 1-1 draw. He had managed to score four goals in six games but the First World War and his conflict with those in authority severely restricted his international appearances.
In May 1925 Herbert Chapman visited Charlie Buchan in his sports outfitters shop. He asked him if he was willing to be transferred to Arsenal. Buchan, who had scored 209 goals in 380 games for Sunderland, agreed and after two months of negotiations, he joined the London club. Bob Kyle explained to Buchan the complex arrangements of the deal, "We pay Sunderland cash down £2,000, and then we hand over £100 to them for every goal you score during your first season with Arsenal."
At that time, most teams played in the 2-3-5 formation. This system dominated football until 1925 when the Football Association decided to change the offside rule. The change reduced the number of opposition players that an attacker needed between himself and the goal-line from three to two.
Charlie Buchan suggested to Herbert Chapman, that the team should exploit this change in the law to create a new playing formation. At that time the centre-half played a much more attacking role. Buchan argued that the club should now have a more defence-minded player in that position and that he, rather than the two full-backs, should take responsibility for the offside trap. The full-backs played just in front of the centre-half whereas one of the inside-forwards should act as a link between attack and defence.
The formation was therefore changed from 2-3-5 to 3-3-4. This also became known as the "WM" formation.
That season Arsenal finished in second-place to Chapman's old club, Huddersfield Town. Buchan scored 21 goals that season which brought the amount paid by Arsenal to Sunderland to £4,100.
Henry Norris refused to allow Herbert Chapman to spend too much money to strengthen his team and in the 1926-27 season Arsenal finished in 11th position. However, they did enjoy a good run in the FA Cup. They beat Port Vale (0-1), Liverpool (2-0), Wolverhampton Wanderers (1-0) and Southampton (2-1) to reach the final at Wembley against Cardiff City.
With 17 minutes to go, Hughie Ferguson hit a shot at the Arsenal goal that was partly blocked by Tom Parker. As the goalkeeper, Dan Lewis, later explained: "I got down to it and stopped it. I can usually pick up a ball with one hand, but as I was laying over the ball. I had to use both hands to pick it up, and already a Cardiff forward was rushing down on me. The ball was very greasy. When it touched Parker, it had evidently acquired a tremendous spin, and for a second it must have been spinning beneath me. At my first touch, it shot away over my arm." In the words of Charlie Buchan: "He (Lewis) gathered the ball in his arms. As he rose, his knee hit the ball and sent it out of his grasp. In trying to retrieve it, Lewis only knocked it further towards the goal. The ball, with Len Davies following up, trickled slowly but inexorably over the goal-line with hardly enough strength to reach the net." Soon afterwards, Arsenal had a great chance to draw level. As Charlie Buchan later explained: "Outside-left Sid Hoar sent across a long, high centre. Tom Farquharson, Cardiff goalkeeper, rushed out to meet the danger. The ball dropped just beside the penalty spot and bounced high above his outstretched fingers. Jimmy Brain and I rushed forward together to head the ball into the empty goal. At the last moment, Jimmy left it to me. I unfortunately left it to him. Between us, we missed the golden opportunity of the game." Arsenal had no more chances after that and therefore Cardiff City won the game 1-0.
After the game Dan Lewis was so upset that his mistake had cost Arsenal the FA Cup that he threw away his loser's medal. It was retrieved by Bob John who suggested that the team would win him a winning medal the following season. Herbert Chapman believed that Lewis was the best goalkeeper at the club and he retained his place in the team the following season.
Buchan was bitterly disappointed as he was now approaching his 36th birthday and he knew it was his last chance to win a cup-winners medal. Buchan, who had scored 49 goals in 102 games for Arsenal decided to retire from playing professional football at the end of the season.
Two sporting “greats”, Charlie Buchan and Jack Hobbs meeting in the London restaurant of the Daily News, later the News Chronicle, in January 1928. Buchan 36-years-old, retired at the end of the season and started work immediately as the Daily News’ Football Correspondent, a post he held until 1956. Jack Hobbs, who was 45 when the picture was taken, scored 98 centuries after he was 40 – his 197th and last when he was 51.
Charlie also made radio broadcasts for the BBC. In 1947 he helped establish the Football Writers' Association (FWA). One of the FWA's first decisions was to introduce an annual Footballer of the Year Award, decided by a vote amongst FWW members. The first winner, in 1948, was Stanley Matthews. In September 1951, he launched the highly successful Charles Buchan's Football Monthly. He published his autobiography, A Lifetime in Football in 1955.
“A local lad made good” ought to be understated epitaph for Charlie Buchan. Hailing from Plumstead by way of Sunderland, he was a key piece in the Herbert Chapman’s Arsenal jigsaw albeit retiring in 1928, before the glory of the following decade. Buchan is often attributed with conceiving the ‘WM’ formation that brought the club success following his retirement.
Charlie Buchan died on 25th June 1960 while on holiday in Monte Carlo.