Workaholic Delron Buckley back from the brink

Here's comes the man in black: Former Bafana star Delron Buckley is back in SA. (Alex Domanski, Reuters)

Here's comes the man in black: Former Bafana star Delron Buckley is back in SA. (Alex Domanski, Reuters)

Delron Buckley claims he feared none of the great defenders he has confronted in his 18 years of European football.

 "They all feared me," he said this week, without a trace of self-mockery. "They feared my speed."

Buckley advises Premier Soccer League defenders to concentrate when they see him approach. "I'm still quick and I'm very fit.
I'll do the business here."

There is an edge of grim experience behind Buckley's bravado. Two years ago when the financial crisis hit German football, he found himself jobless for six months and fell into a depression. He vowed that if he ever had the chance to play again, he would sweat blood until he dropped.

"I was training with the German footballers' union with a whole bunch of unemployed players. It opened my eyes and taught me not to take the footballer's life for granted," said Buckley. "Days went past, weeks went past and I thought to myself, why is no one taking me? What's happening?"

"When Bundesliga clubs heard Delron Buckley was available, they thought they couldn't afford me," he said. "But I was willing to play for any amount. Six months later, I was still without a contract. I was lucky, because I have property and investments, so I wasn't broke.

Shock
"But your whole lifestyle is gone. You wake up in the morning and switch on the TV and see all this football being played – and it hurts that you're not there. You think: 'What am I going to do today? Take the kids to school. After that, I dunno. Go home?' It was a shock for me."

At last he was rescued from his near-dole experience by Uwe Rapolder, who was his coach at Arminia Bielefeld in 2004 when Buckley was the Bundesliga's second top goalscorer with 15 goals.

Rapolder was in charge at Karlsruhe and offered him a puny five-month contract. "They paid me petrol money. Seriously! But I helped them escape relegation and then they gave me a two-year deal. But for the last six games of the next season a new coach called Markus Kauczinski came in and benched me and all the older players. I told him: 'If you do this, we'll get relegated. Just mix the older players with the youngsters.' But he didn't want to listen – and what happened? We went down. Stupid, stupid. He thought he was clever."

Karlsruhe's relegation triggered a release clause, and an offer from Maritzburg's German coach Ernst Middendorp, who coached him at VfL Bochum a decade ago.

In Buckley, the Team of Choice have made their biggest-ever signing. Seven years ago, Buckley was one of Germany's biggest stars, playing in front of 75000 Borussia Dortmund fans every weekend in the deafening canyon of the Westfalen Stadium.

Profitable and best-attended
"You need balls to play for Borussia," said Buckley. "The first year there was shaky for me. They signed me because they had Jan Koller, a very tall striker, and I'm a good crosser. But Koller was injured for seven months and nothing worked out for the team. The club had €120-million of debt and they were focused on paying that off and the team suffered."

Since then, Borussia have beaten their debt crisis and won two successive titles, and the Bundesliga has become the world's most profitable and best-attended league.

"It helps that football is the only popular sport in Germany," said Buckley. "Stadiums are always full, even in the second division. They get behind you no matter what and that makes players comfortable."

He can expect more conditional support at Harry Gwala Stadium. It is an "intimate" ground in the way that an ancient pair of underpants is intimate – and not much bigger. Maritzburg's stock of talent is modest and it will be a gruelling campaign.

But with goal-scoring South African midfielders in short supply, Buckley could challenge for a Bafana call-up if he emulates the form of fellow prodigal sons Siyabonga Nomvethe, Benni McCarthy and Sibusiso Zuma.

Hunger
"I don't rule anybody out," said Bafana coach Gordon Igesund this week. "But let's see what happens let's see what his hunger is like."

Igesund and Buckley go way back: the coach spotted the 16-year-old winger in 1994 when he was spooking fullbacks for Durban amateurs Butcherville Rovers, and recommended him to Bochum.

Buckley also credits his lucrative Bundesliga career to his late grand­father, Godfrey Buckley, who insisted he should go straight overseas. "I'm grateful for that," he said. "He was like my father. He raised me since I was two years old.

"My father kicked it before I was even born," he said. "Left my mother. I know where he is and I even went to go visit him a couple of years ago. But there was no connection. You can't call someone a father if he wasn't there for you when you needed him."

Fateful stupidity
Buckley's sense of loyalty was sharpened by the traumatic experience of the Harare tragedy in 2000. After he scored twice for Bafana in a World Cup qualifier at the national stadium, rowdy home supporters began throwing missiles on the pitch.

The police reacted with fateful stupidity, allegedly angered by Movement for Democratic Change chants in the stands. They fired teargas canisters into the crowd and

13 fans died in the rush to escape.

At the time, Buckley was falsely accused of provoking the crowd and the memory of that day still upsets him.

He feels at home in Durban, despite spending more than half his life abroad. It helps that his German wife, Raphaela, and their three daughters, Charlize, Jada and Malia, have joined a warm extended family. Is he back for good?

"Once a South African, always a South African. But it's all about my wife. If she likes it, we'll stay. If not, we'll go back."

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