John Toshack – saviour or sinnerman?

With John Toshack’s autobiography Toshack’s Way hitting the shelves of bookshops in time for Christmas, Leon Barton reviews the book and assesses the kid from Canton’s unique footballing career as player and manager.

John Toshack must surely be the most polarising figure in Welsh football.  Actually, scrap that.  Welsh sport. For every fan like Mark Bowen (not Sparky’s mate), aka @ToshFan44, who thinks he saved Welsh football and gave it a future, a quick glance at any twitter or message board debate on the big man will throw up plenty with opposing views.

Cards on the table from me: I think of John Toshack as stubborn, arrogant, pig-heading, aloof, egocentric and very probably a football genius.

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There’s never been a career like it really: Three league titles, two UEFA cups, an FA cup and a European Cup…and that’s just as a player.  The likes of Bobby Robson and Terry Venables – Brits who also enjoyed managerial success in Spain – can’t point to playing careers like that. Also, they came back after a few years – Toshack is still out there.  Age 66 he won the league in Morocco. Mental.

The Barry Horns recently tweeted that considering his coaching successes he really deserves to be more revered than he is.  You get the feeling his abrasive personality is why he isn’t – he lacks Robson’s Grandfatherly charm, and Venables tabloid-friendly dodgy geezer-isms.  Also, of course, he’s Welsh, not English and therefore an outsider, certainly when it comes to football. The man himself thinks this is one of the main reasons he feels at home at Real Sociedad, a club he’s managed three times; a Basque club, not a Spanish one.

Toshack was brought up in Cardiff’s Canton district to a Welsh mother and a father from Scotland.  George Toshack – a carpenter turned RAF pilot – wasn’t the only Scottish male role model.  Jimmy Scoular, his first manager at Cardiff City, and the great Bill Shankly – who signed him for Liverpool in 1970 – were also, of course, Scots. But the young Tosh’s biggest hero was the great John Charles, a veteran at the Bluebirds when he was starting out. The Wales and Juventus legend took the young striker under his wing; taught him about heading technique and regaled him with tales from his glory days in Italy. The idea of being treated like a king, while enjoying the southern European sunshine, seems to have had an influence…

Faith in youth is an early theme in Toshack’s career that was to become a running one.  Having signed for Cardiff City after being rejected by Spurs, Toshack scored on his debut vs Leyton Orient at the age of 16, becoming club’s youngest player.  It was a record that stood for over forty years until a certain Aaron Ramsey came along.

But it’s the seven years he spent at Liverpool that define Toshack as a player, where he won trophies galore, and was especially productive following Kevin Keegan’s arrival from Scunthorpe in 1971.  Irish winger Steve Heighway’s contribution was vital and should not be overlooked though, with Toshack himself seeing the three of them as the attacking fulcrum of the side.  He’s never really been one for 442….

Injuries, sadly, were another defining characteristic. Toshack was never really a Bob Paisley favourite, so following Shankly’s unexpected resignation in 1974, it became harder and harder for him to feel fully at home at Anfield.  With a thigh problem keeping him out of the team, both player and club accepted a transfer to Leicester City in November of that year, only for a failed medical to scupper the deal.  At the age of just 25 Toshack looked in limbo. It’s a sign of the man’s admirably large well of self-belief that he was able to turn things round and force his was back into the team, winning a second UEFA cup in 1976 and taking part in the club’s famous run to the 1977 European Cup final (although Toshack was injured by the time the game – won 3-1 by the Reds – came around)

His recently released autobiography Toshack’s Way goes into great detail about the mighty Red machine of the seventies and what made it so great. Which makes the lack of detail on his international playing career that much more of a disappointment. I asked ghost writer Dan Sung about this and his response was that the content of the book was what the man himself wanted in there. Which is fair enough, but it leaves me perplexed about what motivated him to take the job of Wales manager in 2004. We get only vague clichés; “time felt right”, “everyone wants to manage their country” (not true, Arsene Wenger and Ottmar Hiztfeld didn’t/don’t) I had assumed that a certain level of patriotism would have been a factor, but that’s unconvincing given the way his book largely skips over representing Wales as a player.

It’s a shame, because Toshack’s playing days stretched over a very interesting period for the national team. He came into a side with excellent, well-established centre forwards in the two Davies: Ron and Wyn. But such was his goal-scoring form for Cardiff City that manager Dave Bowen saw fit to force all three into the team.  Plenty of goals were scored – three against Scotland at Wrexham’s Racecourse in 1969, including a 25 yard volley that Toshack rated as his best strike for Wales – but, almost inevitably, goals were shipped too.  Scotland won that particular match 5-3. To be fair to Bowen, he was without two of his best defensive players in Mike England and Terry Hennessey (Wayne’s uncle) for the game.  Toshack particularly enjoyed having the former Birmingham City, Nottingham Forest and Derby County man as a teammate: “Terry didn’t get the recognition he deserved…he was a class player who had everything.  He was strong in the tackle, had immense skill and was such a good reader of the game.  Him and Mike England were a formidable partnership”.

It was Mike Smith’s appointment as manager in 1974 that was to be the catalyst for a much more successful period, with Wales becoming the only British Isles nation to reach the last 8 of the 1976 European championships. Toshack looks back on this period fondly.

“I was at my peak in 1974/5 and so was (winger) Leighton James. Arfon Griffiths was also breaking through from midfield to score goals.  Our 2-1 victory over Hungary at the Nep Stadium when I scored and so did my cousin John Mahoney is a memory to cherish.”

The side was captained by fellow Cardiffian Terry Yorath and the pair had known each other since childhood.  “Terry was great captain – a real player’s player”. The respect was mutual:

“I had a very good relationship with Tosh because we’d known each other since our Cardiff schoolboy days. Tosh had a certain arrogance that would rub a lot of people up the wrong way but because I’d known him since the age of nine, it went over my head and I was able to communicate with him. He was a great player who scored some wonderful goals.”

Was taking the Wales job in 2004 about attempting to right some historical wrongs perhaps? Well, the infamous game against Scotland on Toshack’s Anfield home ground in 1977, in which Joe Jordan quite literally handed Scotland a World Cup berth at our expense, gets a grand total of ZERO mentions in Toshack’s Way.

The home international against Scotland two years later features heavily though, a match Toshack describes as his ‘most enjoyable international’. A hat-trick from the recalled then Swansea City player-manager helped Wales to a first victory over the Scots for fifteen years.  It was a day to particularly forget for young Liverpool defender Alan Hansen, who got a bit of a going over from the former red he was facing. 1979 was to be his final year as an international, before concentrating on his extraordinary management odyssey.

This journey was to take him back to Wales in 1994, following Terry Yorath’s dismissal in the devasting aftermath of losing out on a World Cup place to Romania the previous year. Yorath had a few words of warning for his old friend, “‘Don’t think you can ride in there like a knight in shining armour…if you don’t get it right, the public will have you’. He didn’t know what he was walking into. But that’s Tosh… even at nine years old he had a huge ego”.

“If there’s any trouble I’ll walk out” was the reply, and with his ‘day job’ as Real Sociedad manager taking up the vast majority of his time, Welsh captain Barry Horne was sceptical about Toshack’s passion for the role anyway, “He didn’t give me the impression he was all that bothered about the job”.

Despite the ego (“I’d just won La Liga and felt like I could manage 8 or 9 teams at the same time in those days”) the hostility of a Ninian Park crowd still pining for the vanquished Yorath seemed to shake Toshack.  Granted, he didn’t help matters by picking an inexperienced side that contained Cardiff City’s Jason Perry (his only cap) and choosing to play goalscorer-supreme Ian Rush as a holding midfielder, but the negative atmosphere surrounding Welsh football at the time meant winning over the fans was always going to be an uphill task.  A pretty average Norway team strolled to a 3-1 win and Toshack was true to his word.  He walked after just 47 days in the job. Barry Horne was scathing about the state of Welsh football post-1993 when he said “the FAW made a series of catastrophically bad decisions”.

Despite the bad feeling surrounding the mess of 1994, a decade later Yorath had warmed to the idea of Toshack returning to his homeland. “His contribution to Welsh football as a player and manager with Swansea City has been immense and could have been a lot bigger.  Not making use of his experience of working abroad in Portugal, Spain, Turkey and France is nothing short of an indictment of the people who run football in Wales” Yorath wrote in his 2004 autobiography.  Just weeks after its publication, Toshack did become Wales manager once more, this time on a full-time basis.

So maybe he was excited about the chance to work with our most talented players like Ryan Giggs and Craig Bellamy? Our current manager is only mentioned in passing, and one of Toshack’s Way’s most memorable passages is a brutal takedown of Bellamy’s career. I laughed loudest at the line “the positives outweighed the negatives.  By 51% to 49”.  It is a touch churlish of Toshack, considering Bellamy – despite also suffering with injuries – played nearly twice as many games for Wales (78/40), scoring six more goals (19/13) and produced one of the greatest individual display I’ve ever seen in the 2007 5-2 thrashing of Slovakia. But no-one, save for intermediate team boss Brian Flynn, seems to warrant any credit for anything that happened under his watch with Wales.

Perhaps Toshack’s second spell as Real Madrid boss was an influence. Having been happy to work with the players at his disposal during his first spell there in 1989/90 – winning the league with a record 107 goals – by 1999 the situation was very different.  The club had won its first European Cup for 32 years in 1998, but coach Jupp Heynckes was still sacked shortly afterwards due the team’s 4th place La Liga finish.  Those players – the so called ‘Ferrari brigade’ – were still dining out on their success the following season, with a severe dip in form leading to succession of managers.  Not even Gus Hiddink could sort it out. Cue Tosh, with a remit to get in there, tear the place to bits and get the club back into the following season’s Champions League (which he managed). He seems to have relished the task, even if not all the attempts to get players out were successful. Clarence Seedorf was especially problematic. During Toshack’s decent spell with Besiktas, where he was known as ‘Gally Hoger’ (Welsh coach), he became aware of, and was impressed by, Cameroonian midfieder Geremi, whom he signed for Real to replace Seedorf. The fans and Spanish press were sceptical about an African signed from the Turkish league but Toshack takes great delight in the fact the player won two Champions leagues and a Ballon D’or nomination before being sold to Chelsea for a tidy profit.  Seedorf only lasted a few weeks under successor Vincente Del Bosque but claimed in his autobiography that Toshack had taken a bung for signing Geremi, a claim that lead to a court case (dealt with in double quick time when Seedorf didn’t even turn up to the hearing) and the book being taken out of circulation and pulped. It left a sour taste for a while, and although he’d had some other continental club jobs in the intervening period, perhaps the simplicity of returning ‘home’ was appealing after dealing with the politics involved in managing big clubs. We all know Real Madrid is a basketcase, but the sheer craziness described in Toshack’s Way is eye-popping.

I’m also left with the sense that he partly took the Wales job because it was likely to involve fucking shit up.  He actually enjoyed it – ripping apart Real’s Ferrari brigade had given him a taste for blood. And let’s face it, when you’ve faced down Clarence Seedorf and his entourage, Robbie Savage is small fry. (“I didn’t like him as a player…he wasn’t disciplined… you got the feeling he thought it was all about him out there”).

Robbie Savage was never going to fit in with his plans, which put succinctly, I think successfully turned Wales from British team into a European one.  Sacrificing short-term success for the greater good of placing your national football team on a more enlightened long term path, was a noteworthy act of bravado, an act that perhaps only some with a Jupiter-sized ego would have even considered, let alone carried out.  Make no mistake, Wales would never have reached the semi-finals of Euro 2016 if we’d just done what we’d always done: pick the 11 best players available and hope for the best. Brian Flynn carried out a huge amount of the work, but Toshack was the architect who drew up the plans in the first place. All Wales fans owe John Toshack a massive debt of gratitude, if we like it or not. Yes, even you Robbie (or are you more of an England fan these days?)

Although very understandably proud of his extraordinary record at Swansea City in his first job in the dugout (fourth division to sixth place in the top flight in five seasons) another interesting thing about Toshack is his astonishing lack of parochialism.  He’s never signed a British player to a foreign club, and indeed, his first act upon returning to Real Sociedad in 1991 was to get rid of the club’s trio of English-born stars (John Aldridge, Kevin Richardson, Dalian Atkinson) Despite Aktinson’s talent (evident upon his return to the UK with his excellent spell at Aston Villa) the manager didn’t think a player who threw a gift of local cheese out of the window of his car in full view of the supporters who’d handed it to him, was ever really the right fit to play for the proud Basque people.

These issues were never really a problem for Toshack, who always embraced the local culture wherever he went; he recently said:

“If you go to European countries, you owe it to the people and the club to learn the language to try and converse with people. Even if you make mistakes, they will respect you for that and will help you out.  When I first went to San Sebastian, with the Spanish language and the Basque language, I found that even if you pick up just a few words and you can throw a few phrases it’s a huge benefit.  Languages were always my strong point. The only O-level I got was in French and I did German when I was in school too. I also had lessons in Portugal. I could always do all that stuff”

Toshack had offers to return to the UK following his spell with Deportivo La Coruna in the mid 90s, but preferred to take on the challenge of working in Turkey to coaching Manchester City or Southampton.  Liverpool even came calling after he’d taken the job at Besiktas, offering a job share with Roy Evans (a role eventually taken up by Gerard Houllier) but by this point Toshack didn’t consider Britain to be “home anymore….I’d become European”.  Although he says “I’m not interested in politics…I’m a football man”, considering the Brexit bollocks spouted by the likes of Michael Caine and Roger Daltrey, it’s heartening to hear someone of Toshack’s generation express a wider worldview (especially for me, also happily residing on the continent now).

For all his faults (listed in the second paragraph), and for all the frustrations during his time as national team manager, I now happen to think John Toshack was exactly the right man at the right time for the job of Wales manager in 2004. Having been on the continent for twenty years, his ‘outsider’s eye’ was exactly what Welsh football required, having struggled for decades to break the cycle of failure and underachievement.

He’s a man much easier to admire than to love, but that goes for a great many sporting heroes.

Now bring on the arguments!

This blog is adapted from an edited version that first appeared in International Wales

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