In his autobiography, the footballing legend that is Robbie Savage tells the story of how as a young boy he once approached John Toshack for an autograph. Taking Savage’s outstretched book, Toshack committed a short message along the lines of ‘Best Wishes’ or somesuch greeting along with his name. Upon inspecting the signature, Savage says he saw that Toshack had added the numerical ‘2’.
‘What does the ‘2’ stand for, John?‘ asked a slightly baffled Savage.
‘The number of European Cups I’ve won as a player, son,‘ is how Toshack is said to have replied.
Savage is said to have simply nodded and headed off home, pleased with his brief interaction with a bona fide Welsh legend. It was not until he got home and related the story to his father that he learnt Toshack was being a tad disingenuous with the truth.
While it is true that Toshack had made appearances for Liverpool the seasons in which the club won their first two European Cups, he had been injured for the final in 1977 and had been transferred to Swansea two months before Liverpool’s 1978 Wembley final with Bruges.
However, one thing that John Benjamin Toshack was never short of was confidence and a belief in his own ability, and it is these qualities that led him to enjoy a career in football that lasted more than fifty years from the time he signed as an apprentice at his hometown club, Cardiff, in 1965, to his last job in management in Iran in 2018.
It was a footballing journey that took him from the heights of domestic and European honours as an idol of the Kop, to management of Real Madrid twice, Real Sociedad three times, national manager of the Wales side twice and a roller-coaster ride as player-manager of Swansea that saw the club promoted from the old Fourth Division to the top flight in four seasons.
Signing for Cardiff as a twelve-pounds -a-week apprentice, Toshack made history by becoming the youngest player in the club’s history as he made his debut at the age of 16. Playing as an out-and-out centre forward in his early days, Toshack showed a strength and guile unusual in one so young and soon established himself in the team. A decent Second Division team, Cardiff regularly played in Europe due to success in the Welsh FA Cup and so Toshack was able to showcase his talents on a wider scale and thus gain the attention of scouts from First Division teams.
A particularly memorable match for the young Toshack at this time was a 2-1 victory over French side Nantes in the European Cup Winners’ Cup in which Toshack scored.
At about the same time as Cardiff were doing battle with Nantes, Liverpool were on the verge of signing a new forward. Manager Bill Shankly had long been an admirer of the mercurial Frank Worthington and had agreed to a deal to sign the player from his former club, Huddersfield.
Asked to take a routine blood pressure test as part of the medical, Worthington surprisingly failed and so the transfer was put on hold. Shanks told the player not to worry, to go away on holiday and put his feet up. When he returned, Shanks explained, they would do the test again and complete the transfer.
Unfortunately for Worthington, he didn’t listen to the great man’s advice and instead went on a holiday to Majorica where he promptly, ahem, ‘enjoyed the company of the ladies’ a little too much. Unsurprisingly, this did little to lower his blood pressure levels and upon returning to Anfield he promptly failed the medical again.
Incidentally, legend has it that Worthington was suffering from something rather more unpleasant than ‘high blood pressure’ but nothing that a well-earned rest from the ladies and a shot of penicillin couldn’t have cured.
Anyway, Liverpool and Shankly then turned their attentions elsewhere and so it came to pass that a club record fee of £111,000 was tabled and accepted by Cardiff for their 21-year-old forward.
Toshack would then spend the next seven-and-a-half years at Liverpool playing in the second of Shankly’s great sides and the first of his successor’s, Bob Paisley.
It was a golden age for Liverpool and Toshack, and three league titles were secured alongside two UEFA Cups and an FA Cup before the first of Liverpool’s European Cup successes.
Toshack and so many other Liverpool players of the time responded to and were inspired by the methods of Shankly and together reached heights collectively that perhaps their talents and ability might have otherwise restricted them from doing so.
Toshack formed an almost telepathic understanding on the pitch with a young Kevin Keegan and it was this understanding between 1973 and 1976, in particular, that was to bear so much fruit for the club.
In 1976-77, Toshack suffered the first of several injuries and found himself in and out of the team as Bob Paisley went with players such as David Johnson and Steve Heighway in preference to Toshack at times. Into 1977-78 and with Keegan now plying his trade in Germany with SV Hamburg, and injuries continuing to take their toll, Toshack’s days at Anfield were numbered.
After a move back to Cardiff broke down, Toshack instead was permitted to talk to their Welsh rivals about becoming player-manager. Accepting the position made Toshack the youngest manager in the league at the age of just twenty-nine.
Taking over from the incumbent manager, Harry Griffiths, with just two months of the season to go, Toshack was able to guide Swansea over the line and promotion form the Fourth Division was secured.
1978-79 was Toshack’s first full season in charge at the Vetch Field and to prepare for it he brought in some familiar faces. Tommy Smith and Ian Callaghan had been stalwarts at Anfield since the early ‘sixties but now found themselves out of the first team. Rather than accept dwindling opportunities or reserve team football at Liverpool, they opted to join their old team-mate in South Wales.
With Toshack appearing regularly in the side, promotion was once again achieved in 1979 and, just as had been the case ten years earlier when he was at Cardiff, people were beginning to sit up and take notice of John Toshack.
A steady season of consolidation in the Second Division followed before the men from the Vetch were once more challenging for promotion. 1980-81 saw Swansea finish third in the old Second Division, pipping Blackburn Rovers for the final promotion spot, and gain a more than unlikely promotion to the top flight. It was a truly remarkable achievement that led his old mentor Bill Shankly to state he believed Toshack to be ‘manager of the century’. High praise indeed.
Wisdom stated that this surely was where the ride would come to an abrupt end, though. Low on gates, resources and support compared to the rest of the First Division, Swansea were given little to no hope of surviving in the top division and were instantly made favourites for an immediate return to the Second Division.
If an opening day slaughter of Leeds United by a 5-1 scoreline gave the footballing world pause for thought, it was nothing compared to the first three-quarters of the 1981-82 season in general. On 20 March 1982 with 30 games played Swansea City sat top of the First Division two points clear of the chasing pack and with games in hand on most of their rivals.
Swansea had followed up their opening day success with further victories over Tottenham, Arsenal, Manchester United and Manchester City.
Swansea met Liverpool at Anfield on an emotional day in October 1981 just days after the tragic death of Bill Shankly. As the players lined up for a minute’s silence before the game, Toshack unpeeled his Swansea tracksuit top to reveal a Liverpool shirt in honour of his old boss.
By the time the two sides met again in the spring, Liverpool were five points behind and Bob Paisley was feeling his age. He went to the Liverpool board and informed them of his intention to retire at the end of the season and so immediately the search was on for his successor.
Liverpool Chairman John Smith approached Swansea and asked for permission to speak to John Toshack. Toshack had no qualms or hesitation and immediately accepted on the understanding that nothing get out in the media before the season’s end.
All concerned shook on the deal and then parted ways intending to make an official announcement when the season concluded and the destination of the honours was known. Unfortunately for Toshack, Paisley and Liverpool got their mojo back and went on a storming run of ten straight wins to take the title while Swansea went into freefall and only took 13 points from their final 12 games to drift away to sixth place.
Rejuvenated, Paisley decided to stay on for another season and Toshack had no alternative but to stay at Swansea. By his own admission, the disappointment of missing out on the Anfield job at that time was a crushing one and knocked the wind out of him for the rest of his time at the Vetch.
The following season, 1982-83, saw Swansea struggle on and off the field and with the bubble well and truly burst, the club was relegated at the end of the season. By now the financial difficulties that were to lead the club to the very brink of extinction a few short years later were coming to the fore and it was against this backdrop that Swansea struggled.
1983-84 got off to a bad start back in the Second Division and Toshack resigned in October. The team’s fortunes did not improve, however, and just two months later Toshack was persuaded to return. Such was the state of the club’s finances by this time, and so woeful was the depth of the playing squad, that Toshack was forced into lacing up his boots and taking to the field again more than three years after his last appearance.
In March 1984, with the club well on its way to a second successive relegation, Toshack once again left the club.
When the club was finally the subject of a winding-up order in the winter of 1985, Toshack’s spending while in charge was perhaps unfairly blamed for the club’s financial problems.
By this time, however, Toshack was long gone and had started a footballing journey that would take him around the world.