In recent decades, few Britons have gone abroad and stayed. Phil Ball profiles John Toshack, the only British coach working at the top level in a major European league
“Whether it’s with a bottle of claret, a good rioja, a glass of raki or a decent port, the attraction’s still the same – come away after 90 minutes with the three points,” said the peripatetic Welshman, John Toshack, in an article penned just before Christmas from St Etienne for El Diario Vasco, the Basque newspaper with whom he had signed a contract at the beginning of the year to write a weekly column. His Bacchanalian references were, of course, a nod to all the countries in which he has managed a football team, although he seems to have had some problem recalling his Welsh spell, unless he was alluding in the opening clause to some new strain of Swansea claret.
Toshack’s current interests are clearly identifiable in his cultural shorthand, but one should beware of assuming that the only reason for his now impressive international credentials is that he is constantly in search of the good life. What Toshack seems unable to resist, to quote that old curriculum vitae cliche, is a challenge – and this fact, combined with his now famous tendency to ruffle feathers wherever he goes, has meant that he has moved around quite a bit since cutting his management teeth at the Vetch Field all those years ago.
Cardiff roots, and, Bobby Robson aside, has succeeded in becoming practically the only high-profile British footballer ever to manage such an array of top clubs in different countries. Real Madrid twice, Sporting Lisbon, Besiktas, Deportivo de La Coruña, St Etienne and his beloved Real Sociedad – to whom he has just returned for a third spell – plus Swansea and a brief flirtation with the Welsh national side. You might be forgiven for thinking he was older than his 51 years.
It’s an impressive haul, and one in which he has rarely gone too long without some sort of success– be it the giddy romp through the divisions with Swansea, the league title with Madrid, the Spanish cup with Real Sociedad, the Turkish one with Besiktas, third place in the Spanish league with Deportivo in 1997 and two months with St Etienne in which he at least got them off the bottom of the league. Although Robson’s own record cannot be sniffed at, as a footballer he belongs to a different generation. There remains a sneaking feeling about “the great procrastinator”, as Brian Glanville once called him, that he has somehow stumbled amiably through Europe, inheriting great sides, never quite understanding the cultures he had landed in, ending up back at his roots pretty much the same old guy that he had been at the beginning.
Toshack, although his playing career belonged to the distant era of dodgy sideburns, is a postwar baby, “Euroman” incarnate; a working-class product who has succeeded in burying his roots to such an extent that the only place which now seems closed to him is England. Once upon a time his name would occasionally be linked with the job at Liverpool (even Newcastle after Kevin Keegan quit) and although he could undoubtedly contribute his experience to the Premiership you get the feeling, when you listen to him speak, that it just wouldn’t be his scene any more. He doesn’t spend much time in Britain now, except when he is between jobs and is hauled in for some Euro commentary analysis. He bought a house some years ago in Zarautz, a pretty coastal resort west of San Sebastián, and the Basque Country has always been his refuge, not Wales or Liverpool.
A couple of years ago Keegan, being interviewed on a late-night British chat-show, was linked up live to Toshack, in Madrid, on a large screen in the studio. Keegan came over as lap-doggish, almost naive, speaking to Toshack as if in awe of his sophistication. Toshack himself seemed to have left his old mate light years behind, tolerating his embarrassing reminiscences with a paternal smile and indulging him with a rather tired sort of matiness. The whole episode was vaguely discomforting, and it wasn’t difficult to spot Toshack’s boredom.
He has never suffered fools easily. He has been involved in some astonishingly bitter episodes over the past 15 years, but it has never put other directors off signing him. What you seem to get in the package now is a hard-bitten tactical nous, meticulous attention to detail and a “Don’t mess with me” sort of stare that impresses a certain kind of president and player. In 1986, his first season with Real Sociedad, one of the players dared to laugh during the post-match hotel supper in Oviedo, where they had lost rather lamely 2-1 in a cup match. Standing up in the midst of the throng Toshack ordered the players to be on the bus at 4.30 am for the trip back to San Sebastián. When they arrived home at about 9am he ordered them off the coach and on to the training ground – a legendary incident that they still talk about in the city.
In a sense, he only got away with it because something in his manner suggests he is both sympathetic and open to the cultures he often confronts. The Basques, not an easy people to win over, like him and treat him almost as one of their own, even forgiving his two spells in Madrid. Toshack likes the Basques too, and makes no secret of it. When he went to manage Deportivo over in Galicia in the mid-Nineties, he failed to win their confidence precisely because they suspected him of spending too much time playing golf in Zarautz and not dedicating enough to La Coruña.
During a barren spell there, Toshack stood up and faced the crowd as they celebrated a rare goal, famously mouthing “Sí – auplaudid cabrones!” (Yeah – you’re applauding now, you bastards), a sort of personal challenge to a whole community whose culture, he was implying, was not up to it as far as he was concerned. Toshack has not only managed in many countires but also in three very distinct cultures within Spain – Galicia, the Basque Country and Castile – and he has understood, if not necessarily liked – all of them.
At Besiktas, he became notorious for his lack of sympathy with the young goalkeeper Fevzi, which did not greatly enhance Toshack’s standing when the player at- tempted to commit suicide (though there is no evidence to suggest one caused the other). He also fell foul of the press by suggesting military service was unimportant and should not interfere with a player’s career.
Despite all this, he only left because he could not resist the challenge of sorting out Real Madrid, and the Turks would apparently take him back tomorrow were he available. Back at Madrid, called in by the floundering president Lorenzo Sanz to sort out the ego problems in the changing-rooms, Toshack set about alienating just about everyone as if he no longer cared. In his first spell there in the late Eighties, he had refused to be cowed by the capital’s notoriously bitchy press, and they had got him sacked in the end.
This time it was his endearing tendency to translate phrases from English directly into Spanish that finally moved Sanz to give him the push. Toshack declared to the football tabloid Marca that he would rather “see pigs fly over the Bernabéu” than take back what he had said the previous day about the higher echelons of the club. In Spanish, the phrase made it sound as if Toshack was referring to Sanz himself – a famous misunderstanding, but one that saw Toshack leave through the back door for the last time.
At least he knows how to speak the language, idiosyncratically but fluently. Like Michael Robinson, another import turned native, he seems funnier and smarter in Spanish than in English, as if he has genuinely benefited from the alter ego that another language can provide. And now he’s back at Real Sociedad, with his pals down the golf club and the Michelin forked restaurant next door to his house.
After the 4-1 win at Santander at the end of January, a mate of mine claimed to have seen him dining in a San Sebastián restaurant with Luis Arconada, the goalkeeper who failed to stop Gerry Armstrong’s shot back in 1982. The Real Sociedad presidency is up for grabs in April and Arconada may stand. Toshack, a member of the club, was either weighing up his vote or, who knows, maybe eyeing the throne himself. He’s certainly got the money. Watch this space.
From WSC 169 March 2001. What was happening this month