Book Review: Toshack's Way
Toshack’s Way: My Journey through Football
by John Toshack with Dan Sung
Published by De Coubertin Books
Back in the mid-1980s, John Toshack was often held up as the exemplar of the adventurous, open-minded British football personality. Having been one half of a legendary big man/little man striking partnership at Liverpool with Kevin Keegan, he took Swansea City through the divisions, briefly topping the Football League, before heading to Spain for successful spells with Real Sociedad and Real Madrid and very much forging a reputation as a deep thinker and tactical pioneer.
It’s useful, therefore, to reflect upon the sheer breadth and significance of Toshack’s career in the shape of this highly stimulating biography, co-authored with Dan Sung.
This is very much a football biography – Toshack’s son Cameron does appear but only as a participant in the sporting drama – how the Welshman met his wife and other family details are left to one side – indeed, family must clearly have come second to a man willing to ply his trade across an astonishing variety of jobs – from Catania in Sicily to Khazar Lankaran in Azerbaijan; from Morocco’s Wydad Casablanca to the (former Yugoslav Republic of) Macedonian national team.
Throughout, Toshack for the most part exhibits willingness to immerse himself in the cultures he comes across and one of the most enjoyable aspects of the narrative is the context in which his footballing adventures took place – from a layer of soot from an angry Mount Etna disrupting training sessions in Sicily to the broad sweep of his beloved sea front in San Sebastián, this is clearly no Brexiteer we are talking about – Toshack’s enthusiasm at how his life experience has been enriched by spells in foreign climes shines through.
Not that there aren’t elements of the ‘proper football man’ about him though – Toshack is no André Villas-Boas – and he is openly contemptuous of ‘coaching’, preferring instead to use psychological levers and his experience to get the best out of his teams. At one point, he criticises Real Madrid’s Manolo Sanchis for reading The Financial Times in the dressing room – an opinion that is uncomfortably reminiscent of Pat Nevin being labelled ‘The Professor’ for being caught reading a novel by a team-mate.
Then there is the rub of all autobiographies – how far to trust the narrator. In the main, Toshack is open and honest and that he brought the La Liga title to the Bernabeu is undoubtedly an achievement that deserves greater credit. Likewise, at Real Sociedad, he is rightly considered a legend – ditto at Swansea, even, if on reflection, the club mortgaged its medium-term financial future in order to ascend to English football’s top table. Even in the twilight of his career, his record at Wydad Casablanca was more than respectable and it’s a contention of Toshack that he often laid the groundwork for others to benefit at a later point.
That theory perhaps deserves the most scrutiny when it comes to his second spell in charge of the Welsh national team between 2005 and 2010. Toshack saw it as his job to ease out an older generation of players and to blood youngsters, possibly before they were ready, but eventually to reap benefits after Chris Coleman had taken charge. A whole volume could be written on this and while Toshack did swap Gareth Bale in for Robbie Savage – a decision that perhaps affords him hero status among all football fans for that alone – it would be interesting to hear some alternative viewpoints.
The playing side of things takes up the earlier part of the book and personally, I had forgotten that Toshack had to retire so early due to injury, leaving Liverpool to move to Swansea as player-manager and dropping four divisions in the process before stepping off the field of play altogether. That he was still managing this autumn at Tractor Sazi in Iran is extraordinary and he perhaps occupies a similar space to the likes of Brendan Rodgers, Paul Tisdale and Eddie Howe – men forced to give up playing the game early but benefitting from stepping on to the coaching ladder early.