For a man born in Cardiff, who served the Bluebirds with such distinction across a five-year career in which he netted 74 league goals in just 162 games before moving to Liverpool, joining bitter rivals Swansea City as Player/Manager must have been looked on by fans from the Welsh capital as some kind of treachery. To deliver unheralded success with the club could hardly have helped salve the open wounds, and surely must have left those Cardiff supporters thinking about what might have been.
John Toshack stayed at Anfield for eight years, precisely mirroring the number of league goals scored for the Reds as he had plundered for the Bluebirds, but while he only had a couple of Welsh Cup triumphs to show for his toils in South Wales, at Anfield things were very different. It seems a little strange to consider that his 100 goals in a shade over 200 appearances across all competitions for Cardiff actually stacks up favourably when compared to his strike rate at Liverpool with 96 strikes coming in a just less than 250 games. The difference of course though, is that at Anfield the level of opposition was much higher, and the rewards for each goal much more valuable.
Three league titles, and FA Cup triumph, plus two UEFA Cups and a UEFA Super Cup illustrated Toshack’s worth to Shankly’s team, and when paired with Kevin Keegan, he would also be the provider for so many of his partner’s goals. It was the classic ‘Big Man, Little Man’ combination, and Keegan was fully aware of his partner’s value. “I always knew that he was going to win the high balls,” he recalled when talking to the LFC History. “From then on it was just a question of me reading which way the ball was going to go and from those situations we created many chances.”
As time went on though, a growing list of nagging injuries increasingly gnawed away at Toshack’s ability to deliver at the highest level. By March of the 1977-78 season, he had made just three league appearances in the entire league campaign to date, and Toshack secured his release from Liverpool to take over as Player/Manager at Fourth Division Swansea City.
The player had initially contacted his former club about a coaching position with Cardiff, but the approach had been rebuffed by the then manager Jimmy Andrews as he, perhaps understandably, considered the ex-Bluebirds star as not being experienced enough for such a role. It would have been understandable had Andrews also harboured thoughts that Toshack would have an eye on rapid promotion towards his own chair. After all, clubs appointing former terrace heroes as managers was always a popular move with fans. Losing such an ex-hero to your local rivals, who would then kick sand in your faces over the next few years, was very much less popular.
Rumours of both the approach and the rejection must have leaked out somehow though, and Swansea Chairman Malcolm Struel telephoned Toshack to invite him to a meeting at Vetch Field. It seemed that the talks went well and on the first day of March 1978, he became the Football League’s youngest manager at the tender age of just 29. Just how much Swansea wanted Toshack quickly became clear, when the club’s manager at the time, Harry Griffiths, stepped down to concentrate on coaching, creating the vacancy, although the move may well have also been guided by health concerns for Griffiths. Something that would be tragically brought into sharp focus shortly afterwards.
The potential success of the appointment was illustrated in Toshack’s first contest as manager. A home game with Watford attracted more than 15,000 fans into the Vetch Field, more than double the existing average gate. It surely fuelled aspirations of what potential the club had if success on the field could be achieved. It may also have been the first of many factors that encouraged the club to back their young manager financially, a step on an often slippery slope that some may argue would lead to the eventual collapse of the club, as financial reality turned dreams of success into a nightmare.
Over the years, a number of successful top division players have sought to turn their hand to management, often still adding in the benefits of a fading career that surely still held out the promise of being prominent when playing at a lower level. Of that number, the vast majority had but a short shelf life as the harsh realities of football at the less salubrious end of the game quickly led to frustration, fatigue and failure; all not necessarily in the order.
Financial restraints, ill-equipped facilities and journeyman players of lesser ability can quickly destroy enthusiasm for the task of management. Throw in the sort of agricultural challenges often delivered by lower league players out to make a name for themselves by cutting a big-name performer down to size, and the glamorous side of the game can rapidly turn to smoke and mirrors just as you reach out to touch it again.
Initially, Toshack would still don the shirt – increasingly often from the bench as substitute – and deliver the goals as Swansea began an upward movement. Six league goals in 13 games in the final months of the 1977-78 season were a big help in guiding the club to promotion. The following term, he would score 13 times in 28 games again being a big part of promotion, continuing the club’s climb through the leagues. In Division Two, for the 1979-80 season, he scored five goals in 16 league games.
Age, coupled with those injuries tugging at his abilities, plus coming up against more polished opponents, was now catching up and the day to hang up the boots and move full-time into the manager’s chair was near. Indeed, for all his contributions on the pitch, it was John Toshack the manager that had the greatest effect on the fortunes of Swansea City as he guided them to three promotions in just four short years, achieving a feat that former boss Bill Shankly said would make him “Manager of the Century.”
What promises were made to Toshack at the that meeting in the early spring of 1978 are unknown of course, but whatever deal was struck, Toshack tore into his commitment to honour his side of the bargain with early gusto. As a finishing school for how to manage a successful club, Toshack’s time at Liverpool under Shankly could hardly have been bettered, and whilst Swansea’s rank at the time precluded many of the changes Toshack would ideally have been able to implement, attentions to a number of basic issues brought a general improvement in outlook and a more progressive attitude.
A regime designed to improve players’ conditioning involved overhauling of diets and prescribing alcohol intake to produce a more professional feel to the club and its employees. To be fair, Swansea were hardly a ‘bucket case’ when Toshack arrived. They had narrowly missed out on promotion the previous term when last day results condemned them to another season in the fourth tier, missing out on promotion by a single point.
The new season had promised much, but by October, with the club languishing in mid-table, Griffiths announced his intention to resign and would step down as soon as the club could find a replacement. An upswing in form coupled with a failure to find an appropriate candidate to take over however led to Griffiths reconsidering and agreeing to take the club on.
By February, with Swansea in a healthy fourth place, Griffiths again decided the pressure of management wasn’t for him and stated his desire to concentrate on coaching at the club, and Toshack stepped in. The new manager gave the club an increased emphasis, and after a brief settling in period, seeing two home draws and a defeat at York, Swansea went on a six-game run of victories, taking them into third place. A loss at Crewe was then followed by four more victories in the last six games. At the end of a few short months at the helm, a third-place finish in the league meant promotion and an immediate dividend on the appointment. The joy was tempered however by the death of Harry Griffiths who suffered a heart attack and passed away in April.
Toshack was quick to acknowledge the role that Griffiths had played in the club’s progress, and how the promotion was as much down to the native of the city and stalwart of the club where he had played for fifteen years before becoming manager in 1975. It was a heritage and affinity with the club that Toshack saw as important and would factor into his staff appointments as time went on.
Promotion to the third tier was important for the club, but something that may well have happened anyway, had Griffiths not stepped down and suffered the tragic events that followed. If Toshack was going to prove his worth, he would need to take the club on from there to bigger and better things.
He set to work on bringing in some of his old Liverpool team-mates to both improve the quality of the team on the pitch and add to the growing professionalism at the club. Phil Boersma, who would have a growing importance at the Vetch Field as time went on, was one of the first recruits from Merseyside. He would be joined by the redoubtable Tommy Smith. The Liverpool hard man defender was entering the veteran stage of his career, and whilst there were still options for him to stay with Liverpool, playing time would inevitably be limited and decreasing. Instead, he opted to join Toshack, although his training would still take place at Melwood before travelling to South Wales on match days.
Toshack also persuaded the club to lay out a combined total of £54,000 for Leicester City forward Alan Waddle and Crewe Alexandra goalkeeper Geoff Crudgington. Not all of the changes in the playing staff brought about by the new manager were purchases though. He also introduced local talent, with Alan Curtis, Jeremy Charles and dynamic midfielder Robbie James to the fore.
Things started well in the league, and a magnificent 1-3 victory over Spurs at White Hart Lane in the League Cup after a draw in South Wales, suggested there was plenty of potential in the team. Things had plateaued out a bit by the festive season, but the arrival of the reliable Ian Callaghan, another refugee from Merseyside who would commute along with Smith, kicked things on. It was their form from late March onwards though, following a defeat to Lincoln City, that set things on a crucially upward trend. A twelve-match unbeaten run that included a priceless 1-0 victory over fellow promotion chasers Swindon Town, took the club to a last day denouement with promotion tantalisingly close.
Toshack had put himself on the bench for the last game of the league season, at home to Chesterfield, with nearly 23,000 fans crammed into the Vetch Field. It was a day set for drama, and so it turned out. If the vast majority of those fans had been expecting a home victory against a club that would finish a single point above relegation and with little to play for, they were brought up with a sudden start when the visitors went ahead inside the first fifteen minutes. A reply from Waddle less than three minutes later eased worries somewhat, but a victory was needed to ensure promotion.
The remainder of the first half was played out with Swansea pressing increasingly, but Chesterfield insisting on a stubborn resistance belying their lowly league position. After the break, the intensity only increased, but with just 20 minutes remaining, the breakthrough still eluded the home team. Then, to cheers from the crowd, Toshack stripped off his tracksuit and sent himself into the fray. It was the crucial move of the game, if not the defining moment of the whole league campaign.
A cross from Danny Bentley saw the Player/Manager rise, as he had done so many times during his career in the past, to head home the decisive goal. It saw Swansea to promotion and the Vetch Field faithful in ecstasy. The new man at the helm had delivered a second successive promotion, with Swansea finishing the campaign a single point in front of Gillingham.
Third place had become a recurring slot for Swansea in their league campaigns. Two successive finishes in the ‘bronze medal’ position had seen them climb out of the fourth tier, and then the third to take their place in Division Two for the 1979-80 season. In this more rarefied atmosphere however, with only two promotion places initially available to the top flight, an even larger step up in achievement would be required.
Toshack’s men would inevitably find their cavalcade rides through the two lower divisions a much steeper task now, as they joined bitter rivals, and Toshack’s former club, Cardiff City in the second tier of the English league structure. A 2-1 home victory against the Bluebirds would be satisfying for the Swansea fans, but they would have to feast on the result as rare pleasures in a mixed season that saw the club finish mid-table. At the time, Division Two contained a number of more celebrated clubs, including, Newcastle United, Chelsea, West Ham United, Sunderland and QPR. Having ran straight through Division Three after promotion from the fourth tier, a mid-table finish was no mean achievement, but Toshack’s ambitions were still burning.
The following season, those ambitions were realised, as a third place finish this time was enough to take them to the Division One. West Ham United tore clear of the pack to lift the title by a clear thirteen points from runners-up Notts County. Behind those two clubs though was a battle for the remaining place to book a berth in the top echelon. On the final day, a 1-3 victory for Swansea over Preston North End locked out the promotion on goal difference. Leighton James who had joined the club in 1980, when speaking to the WalesOnline website recalled the days leading up to the promotion, and how Toshack’s confidence and belief flooded over the squad, washing away any doubts.
“He had so much belief it just rubbed off on you as players,” the winger said. “I can remember during the closing stages of that 1980-81 season it was a really tight battle for promotion, it was going down to the wire. It could have been a nervy time, we beat Chelsea at home and then we drew at Luton which meant that we needed to win at Preston on the final day to be sure of going up. Had Blackburn won and we had drawn it would not have been enough, and to add into that Preston were fighting relegation. But Tosh just said to us that we were a good team, it was in our hands and we were going to go to Deepdale and win, it was like there was never any question and we went there and won 3-1.”
The Welsh club finished their programme on 50 points with a goal difference of 20, whilst Blackburn Rovers also clocked up the half-century in the points column, but were seven goals adrift. To add to the success of the club, they also secured the Welsh Cup for the first time in 15 years after defeating Hereford United, securing a place in the following season’s Cup Winners Cup competition and the club’s bow into European competition.
Given that Swansea were a Division Four club when Toshack arrived, just over three years previously, to have achieved three promotions in four seasons was an outstanding achievement and led his old manager to deliver the accolade quoted above. To climb the mountain is a challenging task of the highest order. To remain there however can often be even more difficult. The history of football is scattered with clubs that scaled the tree with amazing speed but then fell again, hitting all of the branches on the way back down. Clubs such as Northampton Town, Bristol City and Carlisle United have had broadly similar experiences and now the challenge was for Toshack to ensure that Swansea were in the big time to stay.
Having scraped into the promotion spot, the club were many pundits’ favourites for a hasty return to Division Two, but with new signings coming in, Swansea initially kicked against such expectations. A first day 5-1 victory over Leeds United confounded many expectations, with new club record signing Bob Latchford nabbing a hat-trick. Amongst the Leeds United players on that day was boyhood Swansea City fan Brian Flynn, who would later describe his old favourites’ performance as something out of ‘Roy of the Rovers.’
Swansea headed towards the top of the table, suffering a mere two defeats in their first ten league fixtures. For a promoted side, expected by many to struggle, it was further evidence of Toshack’s ability to drive his team forward, and the board’s decision to back him financially.
Midway through the season, his success was marked by an MBE award and with just less than three months of the season remaining, it seemed that the Welshman had made the impossible, distinctly possible, as another nine-game unbeaten run stretched through February and March. Swansea were sitting on top of Division One, and amazingly in sight of the most improbable of championships. The dream was exposed as precisely that, however, as injuries to key players stymied Toshack’s drive and five defeats in the last half-dozen games of the season, albeit that four of those six games were away from the Vetch Field saw the club slip down to what was still a highly commendable sixth position.
Talk at the time suggested that current Liverpool manager Bob Paisley who had followed Shankly would soon retire and there was an approach from the Reds to secure Toshack as the ready-made replacement when Paisley stepped down. Such things always hinge on timing though, and when the Liverpool job did become available, at the end of the 1982-83 season, the Welshman would no longer be the flavour of the month.
In May 1983, Toshack was reported in the Sunday Express as saying that, “only Bob Paisley and Brian Clough are better managers than me.” Pride cometh before a fall though, and offering up such hubris is fraught with dangers when the fickle fancy of the football gods petulantly replace their smile with a frown. His team had fallen from the heights of their debut season as financial reality gripped the club and the spending days came back to haunt the Vetch Field with a wraith-like countenance. Swansea and Toshack were relegated, and Liverpool appointed Joe Fagan.
The following season, Swansea suffered a second successive relegation, finishing bottom but one of the table, no less than 18 points short of survival. By this time Toshack had left his post in October of 1983 as things were pointing to a nosedive. He would return a couple of months later, but with all hope of survival gone, he resigned again in March 1984. The club ended up with a winding-up order placed against them for unpaid debts and the profligate spending under Toshack was cited as on of the main reasons for the parlous financial state. It had been a giddying journey up the tables, but the problem with roller-coaster rides is that for every up there is a down, and inevitably you end up just where you started. Perhaps there had been little reason for Cardiff City fans to feel slighted after all.
Swansea were marooned in Division Three for eight years, but eventually after selecting a new breed of young ambitious managers, a move to the Liberty Stadium and a board that were keen to back the man in the big chair, but also had a care to frugality, they climbed the leagues again. For Toshack, his managerial learning curve traversed, a journey to Europe beckoned with a whistle-stop tour across countries and clubs including Real Madrid, Real Sociedad, Sporting Lisbon, Deportivo de La Coruña, Beşiktaş Saint-Étienne and two spells in charge of the Welsh national team.
Both club and manager seemed to have progressed from lessons painfully learnt on a journey that soared to the height from seventh in Division Four to the top of Division One with scarcely a pause for breath on the way, before a tumble back down to earth and painful reality. It was a five-year spell that saw all dreams fulfilled and all fears realised. On such journeys though are futures often defined, and this one was no exception.