Buckley began his career with Nottingham Forest, but was transferred to Walsall in 1973 having never managed to win a regular place in the first team. He became a prolific striker at Fellows Park, before he was transferred briefly to Birmingham City in October 1978. He returned to Walsall as their record signing (£175,000) in June 1979. He began his managerial career with 'The Saddlers', initially as player/manager and briefly as co-manager with Neil Martin. This was an era that became a hallmark for some of the most attractive football seen in Walsall and the side gradually established itself as promotion contenders.
Buckley gained a favourable reputation during his time in the Black Country, scoring against Manchester United as a player during an FA Cup upset in January 1975, and leading his Walsall side as a manager to victories against the likes of Arsenal, and a draw at Anfield during a League Cup run which took them to the semi-finals, just '90 Minutes From Europe'. He was sacked in August 1986, when Terry Ramsden bought the club, installing his own managerial team within 90 minutes of the takeover deal being completed.
Later as a manager, after a spell with non-league Kettering Town, he guided Grimsby Town to promotion from the Fourth Division in 1990 and they reached the Second Division a year later – where they spent all but one of the next 12 seasons. In his first two spells at the club, Buckley's Grimsby sides were renowned for their attractive passing game and mounted periodic challenges for the play-offs. Buckley remained at Blundell Park until the autumn of 1994 when he joined Grimsby's Division One rivals West Bromwich Albion. His spell at the Hawthorns lasted two-and-a-half years before he was sacked for failing to get Albion anywhere near a promotion challenge.
A few months after being sacked by Albion, Buckley returned to Grimsby in summer 1997 for his second spell as manager. Town had just been relegated to Division Two, but he took them back to Division One at the first time of asking with two Wembley visits in 1998. Buckley remained in charge for two full seasons after that, but was dismissed after just two games of 2000–01. A couple of brief, short-lived spells in Division Three followed – first with Lincoln City, arriving at Sincil Bank in January 2001. Buckley left the Imps in April 2002, with the club stating that financial reasons were behind his departure. He then took charge of Rochdale in June 2003, but left by mutual consent in December of the same year after failing to revive the club's fortunes. On 9 November 2006 Buckley was appointed manager of Grimsby for a third time.
In his first season back with Grimsby, a mid-table finish was considered a creditable achievement after relegation from the Football League had looked a distinct possibility. In 2007–08, Grimsby made a slow start but soon picked up. A good run in the Football League Trophy saw The Mariners travel to the new Wembley 10 years after their first visit. However this time Grimsby lost 0–2 to MK Dons. League form suffered terribly afterwards, the season ending with eight straight defeats. After gaining just two points from the opening six games of the 2008–09 season, Buckley was again dismissed as manager.
In his three stints as Grimsby Town manager—spanning, in total, over 10 years—the club was never relegated and he also guided them to three promotions. Only 14 managers have reached 1,000 matches in charge of a Football League team by 1998 and Buckley is one of them.
On 14 June 2012 Buckley returned to Grimsby for a fourth time by joining the coaching staff as the new U17's team manager.
Since his departure from management with Grimsby in 2008, Buckley who continues to live in the area is often the co-commentator and guest pundit for BBC Radio Humberside's coverage of Grimsby Town games. He has continued to work in this role alongsided his current management duties of the clubs U17 side.