Delron Buckley debuted in the Bundesliga in 1995 with VFL Bochum. He left in 2004 for Arminia Bielefeld, where he enjoyed his most-successful season, scoring 15 goals and helping the team avoid relegation. After one season at Bielefeld, Buckley joined Borussia Dortmund for a reported transfer fee of €425,000 and signed a four-year contract. Buckley played 28 league matches in season 2005-06.
Buckley was loaned to 20-time champions Swiss club FC Basel 1893 for the 2006–07 season with which he won the Swiss cup before returning to Borussia for the 2007–08 season under new manager Jürgen Klopp. In February 2009, he signed for 1. FSV Mainz 05 before joining Anorthosis Famagusta FC and then Karlsruher SC before finishing his career in the South African league with Maritzburg United. The winger played 398 matches as a professional, scoring 45 goals.
Since retiring in 2014, Buckley has written an autobiography entitled “My Life.” He now runs a football-skills academy in Durban, South Africa and is married with three daughters.
Ben McFadyean (BM): Your former club Arminia Bielefeld has been promoted to the Bundesliga as champions of the second Bundesliga. a huge achievement for the Ost-Westfalen who, as recently as 2017, were battling relegation, finishing 15th and just one point above the drop zone. You played an exceptional season with Arminia scoring 15 goals a career-best in 2004-5 season that saw the team from eastern Westfalia finishing in a respectable 13th place ahead of teams like Borussia Mönchengladbach and SC Freiburg. You are known to have a special friendship with the Arminen (the fans of Bielefeld). Do you still follow the Arminia? What does the promotion mean to you, Delron?
Delron Buckley (DB): You know, I played some of the best football of my life in Bielefeld. It’s a great town, with which I associate many great memories. I got married there and my first daughter was born in Bielefeld. My wife is from Bochum, which is not far, so I go back when I am in Germany. There is even a South African restaurant called ‘Howzit’; I am in touch with its owners. I hear regularly from many Bielefeld fans and my former colleagues. For sure I am thrilled to see Uwe Neuhaus, the Arminia coach, pulling this off. He was Borussia Dortmund II coach when I joined them in season 2004-05, and has done brilliantly to get them promoted back to the Bundesliga. The Arminen deserve top tier football.
BM: Delron, you came to Germany in 1994 as a 16-year-old. Tell me, what was it like for you back then?
DB: You know what, I couldn’t speak a word of German. Coming from South Africa, where we have in winter at least 25 degrees (C) and you jump on a plane and come to Germany and the minute you leave the airport, it is minus-five outside. It was tough. I had to fight through it though, the language, the culture, the cold, a lot of challenges.
At that time as you will know, Germany wasn’t cosmopolitan. No one spoke English in Bochum, so you had to learn to speak German quickly. I remember the first club I went on trials with was Rot-Weiss Essen. And me as a 16-year-old, I came into the changing room and could see the coldness in the players’ faces. They were like, “What are you doing here? Have you come to take my position?” And they would show you that. You could feel a certain kind of coldness.
You had to show them your ability. If you showed how hard-working you were and what you could do on the pitch, then you would fall ‘into the circle’. That’s what happened when I joined my first club, VFL Bochum. Coach Klaus Toppmöller took me under his wing and supported my development because he saw talent in me; that was my luck. I was 17-years-old, but I was so fast with the ball the coach said he had never seen a player that was so dynamic. At Bochum, I got nicknamed ’Mini Ronaldo’.
BM: You had nine years at VFL Bochum, which is just 22 kilometers from Dortmund, playing initially in the second team and then breaking into the Bundesliga team. In 1996-97, the VfL finished fifth, qualified for the UEFA Cup, and reached the last 16 in that competition. That must have been a highlight of your career at the Ruhrstadion. How did the club reach those heights?
DB: Well you know, when I first started for Bochum, I was 17-years-old and had my breakthrough into the first team at 18. Bochum, as a club, didn’t have good money to spend on players, so they would buy the players they could get to have the quality to survive in the Bundesliga, but if you don’t win games, you are bound to get relegated.
Every year. we were getting relegated and next year we would then get promoted. In 1998-97, we had quality players. Henryk Bałuszyński and Tomasz Wałdoch came from Poland. We had Maurizio Gaudino and Dariusz Wosz, who was playing for the German National Team. There was great skill in the side. Coming from South Africa and experiencing playing with top players like that at such a young age was one of my greatest highlights. To play in the UEFA Cup for a team without real resources like VfL Bochum, that was like winning the Meisterschaft (championship).
I learnt so much at VFL. It’s like a ‘family club.’ But by the time they qualified for the UEFA Cup again in 2004-05, I had already been transferred to Arminia Bielefeld, and there were some differences with the club. Some of the players took to the newspapers to say they were happy I was transferred. It hardly hurt to see Bochum knocked out in the first round (by Standard Liege).
BM: Was it tough transferring from the Bielefelder Alm to Westfalenstadion, or was it an opportunity not to be missed?
DB: Well, signing for Dortmund was one of my dreams coming true. I signed a four-year contract for what was, for Arminia Bielefeld at that time, a big transfer fee of 425,000 DM. But I got injured early on; I tore my cruciate ligament. There was a rehabilitation centre we used to train at almost every single day. The centre was next to the Westfalenstadion, so I used to always see guys like Julio Cesar and the players who won the Champion League for BVB; that was pretty huge for me at the time.
There were crazy-high expectations on the part of BVB fans, in my view. Coming from Bielefeld with 18 goals in the league and five goals in the cup, everyone at BVB was expecting me to score 20 goals from the outset, but that is not how it turned out. It was dramatic because I just couldn’t find the net, which, for a striker, is damning.
Those were challenging times for BVB. We had a lot of players who were injured. Bert van Marwijk had the right concept because I was a good crosser. He wanted me to feed Jan Koller. He told me, “You know you can make the space. You can cross. I just want you to take on players, get down the wings, and put in crosses, and Jan Koller will finish.” Koller got injured and couldn’t play for six or seven months, so I couldn’t play on the wing anymore, but had to play in midfield, and I felt the strain. The expectations on me as a striker were so high, and I had difficulty keeping up with the demands at that level, I feel.
You will know that that wasn’t the Borussia Dortmund you see now. BVB had so much debt. I don’t recall exactly, but it would have been in the region of 120m DM. The situation was very tense in the management. The fans were very unhappy. We players had to accept cuts to our salaries. A lot of players had been earning great money in Dortmund, and there was a lot of dissatisfaction in the locker room. For a young player, to be honest with you, I came at the wrong time, in my view. Things were not working out for me, and the fans were getting on my back.
I couldn’t take a walk in Dortmund, because fans would hassle you. We were a big club. I was expected to produce and I didn’t; it’s a simple as that, frankly speaking, I just didn’t have my ‘mojo.’ I lost everything, my technique, my style. It was mostly mental. I had to leave, and I asked the club to loan me out. The move to Basel couldn’t come soon enough. Winning the Swiss cup was, after the challenges at BVB, a revelation – Buckley was back.
BM: And you returned to BVB in 2008, but I’m not going to let the first part of the story fly by like that! In your first season (2005-06), you played with players like Koller, Sebastian Kehl, Florian Kringe, Christoph Metzelder, and Ebi Smolarek. Take us back to the locker room. What were the friendships at the time. It doesn’t get much bigger than that.
DB: Yes, I was very very good friends with Koller. He was, character-wise, a top guy. Ebi Smolarek had an astounding work rate and scored some great goals; he led from the front. Also, Florian Kringe is a teammate who was a friend, too. So these are the guys who would show me the tricks of the trade.
As a player, it only clicked in terms of play when I came back in 2007-08 when I came back from Basel to Borussia Dortmund. The club was a different place. The financial situation was different. Thomas Doll had taken over as coach, and BVB wanted me back. Guys like Kehl brought me into the heart of Borussia Dortmund. When I returned to Dortmund, I realized what I had to do, how to act, and how to play, and the fans started to like me at BVB.
BM: That season, one young 17-year-old joined on loan from Bayern Munich. Was Mats Hummels’ ability noticeable in that first season? Could you see the player he was going to become?
DB: Mats Hummels was so young. Every time I used to drive to training, I had to drive past his flat. At that time, he didn’t even have a driving license. I used to pick him up from his apartment to take him to training and drop him home every day, so we became pretty close. He was inexperienced, but a very clever player. Mats was learning the game. I was his mentor. I was teaching him how to be a professional. Mats is a very down-to-earth guy, very sociable.
And when he came at that time, I think he was playing in a wrong position. They were trying to play him as sixer and Hummels was never a sixer. When they discovered that he is a centre-back, that’s when his football started to take off. His contribution to the team was noticeable. He started playing good football and became a great asset for Borussia Dortmund. I mean, he wouldn’t have won the World cup with Germany if he wasn’t that great.
BM: It’s 2007-08 . . . you are back, you are playing regularly, the fans like you, and on your 30th birthday, there was a wonderful rendition in the Westfalenstadion, a special day. Do you get where I am going with that?
DB: Yeah, I remember that. How can I not? That was one of the great memories at the time, one of the best feelings I can remember as a player, to be honest with you. I will never forget that It was after the match against Bielefeld. I came on in the 70th minute. After the game, Nobby Dickel, the stadium announcer, made a shout out on the PA system ‘Delron Buckley turns 30 today! Have we got a song for him?” Suddenly, I had 80,000 singing “Happy Birthday” for me. I mean, where do you get that many people wishing you a happy birthday when you turn 30? For me, that was something special, and I thank the BVB fans up until today for than amazing memory.
BM: And then BVB reached the DFB Pokal final?
DB: We made it to the DFB Cup final against Bayern Munich. Even though we lost, that was the highlight, walking out in front of 80,000. I came on via substitution, and we lost 2-1. But the whole experience was amazing! I still have Ze Roberto’s Bayern shirt; we exchanged after the game. We only finished 13th in the league, so getting to the final was special. What made the difference for me through the season was that I started discovering how the Dortmund mentality works and how the fans see the players. It’s amazing how things changed with the fans from 2006-07 to 2008 when I came back.
The fans initially didn’t like me. They hated me. You can imagine what that was like? Then coming back and the game had changed; I am in the team and we make the final and the whole thing changed. The fans, they started to love me in Dortmund. I think if I had come to Dortmund at a time like, for example, the current era under Favre, when they are playing great football, you know, it wouldn’t be a problem. Things would have been different, most definitely.
BM: Right. I cannot help but ask you, what recollections do you have of Jürgen Klopp, who joined in 2008. You are now a football coach at your academy. Klopp is an astonishingly successful coach. What memories do you have of him at Dortmund?
DB: As a coach, he was unbelievable. He had a very intelligent approach. He knew exactly how to motivate a team. When you are on the field, you are going into war for Klopp; that’s how good he is. You know, as a leader, he gets the players on his side. You know the minute he will put you in, you are going to give your all for him because he knows how to motivate players to bring out their potential on the field. I think his strength is his ability to use his knowledge of psychology to get to players to achieve their maximum performance. Although I did not get a lot of playing time in my final season, looking back, Klopp is without a doubt a very smart coach. I can say I learnt a lot from him.
BM: We can’t get away without talking about your remarkable international career. Between 1998 and 2012, you were selected 73 times for the South African team, scoring ten goals and taking part in the 1998 and 2002 FIFA World Cup tournaments. You are one of few players to have gained their the first cap at a World Cup (coming on in the 88th minute against Denmark in France ’98). You are South Africa’s seventh-most-capped player in a list that includes greats like Benni McCarthy, Quinton Fortune, and Lucas Radebe. What do your international career and the appearances for ‘Bafana Bafana’ (South Africa national team) mean to you?
DB: Well you know, I was really lucky, I feel, to be called up. I didn’t expect to be at the World Cup. At the time of France 1998, I was playing my football at VfL Bochum as a youngster barely getting first-team football. I got called up to the national team. I was part of a preliminary 30-player squad invited to a two-week training camp. I never thought I would get selected for the final 22 players that go to the World Cup.
My whole family lived in South Africa. Especially for the family, it was special that one of their kids represented their country. I am a German citizen and married into a German family, but I believe, if you are born into a country, you must play for that country. I was born in South Africa and always knew I was going to play for South Africa if I had the opportunity, and I did. Every cap was special, and I have many of the shirts to remember them.
BM: You qualified as a UEFA B-licensed coach and now run your football academy. What were your goals? Why did you start the academy?
DB: The reason why I opened a football academy is that when I returned to South Africa at the end of my career to play for Maritzburg United, I realized what a huge gap in terms of the development of the young players there is. Many of the players are not taught how to stop the ball, how to play a ball diagonally, or the right technique in how to turn with the ball. So I decided to open a soccer school called “Delron Buckley Soccer School.” Teaching those skills is what I do. I teach kids the basics and work on their fitness.
I have a partnership with Manchester United. Twice a year, I bring 22 kids for a one-week training camp to Manchester, and they get coached by Ryan Gigs, Nicky Butt, and Phil Neville. They get to play against amateur teams in their age division in England. I also have a partnership with Mike Clegg, who trained Christian Ronaldo. Hopefully through this initiative one or two talents will be discovered.
BM: You live in a multicultural South Africa, but it wasn’t always multicultural, was it? At the moment, the issue of Black Lives Matters is a very big issue. How does it feel when you’re watching this as somebody who has grown up in a country where non-white citizens had to fight so hard for equality and respect? How does it make you feel to see African-Americans being oppressed in the US? Do you identify with the Black Lives matter cause?
DB: Everybody should be treated the same. I lived in South Africa and wasn’t allowed to go to some beaches because of my skin colour, which was hurtful as a child growing up. I know the feeling, what it is. I mean, the world should start by what happened now in America to stop being racist. If you cut someone’s hand open, what colour comes out? From a black man red comes out, from a white man red blood comes out. So we are all the same. So, everyone should be treated the same: with respect, you know? That’s my point of view.