In Liverpoolfc.tv's latest Big Interview, John Toshack has revealed for the first time how he twice came close to becoming manager of his beloved Liverpool.
In a rare one-to-one interview, the Kop legend and current Wales boss says the Reds are still his number one club and that it was once his ambition to follow in the managerial footsteps of his mentors Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley. Toshack explains how he came tantalisingly close to fulfilling this dream and why he's delighted to see his former Real Madrid colleague Rafa Benitez making such a good job of it now. The ex-Reds centre forward also looks back with fondness on a Liverpool career that yielded a glittering array of honours and earned him the everlasting affection of Liverpudlians. During his eight years at Anfield Tosh cemented close bonds with some of the most famous names in LFC history, notably Shanks, Paisley and his strike partner Kevin Keegan. All three are remembered as he casts a nostalgic eye back to the seventies but he's equally passionate about modern day matters at the club and maintains an avid interest through his links with Rafa, Xabi Alonso and Craig Bellamy.
John, it's now almost 36 years since you joined Liverpool as a player so first of all can you just tell us how that move came about...
It was November 1970, I was with Cardiff at the time and there were a lot of rumours going around that Liverpool were interested in me. I knew Geoff Twentyman had been to watch me play a few times and I think Liverpool were suffering a bit of an injury crisis at the time, with strikers Alun Evans and Bobby Graham both out injured. I played for Cardiff at QPR on the Saturday and the following morning Jimmy Scoular, my manager at Ninian Park, came to my house to explain that Cardiff had accepted a big offer from Liverpool for me. It was £110,000, which was a lot of money in those days. I remember getting off the train to meet Shanks at Lime Street and I signed almost straight away. Once I knew Liverpool were interested in me I didn't need too much persuading. About a year before, I'd turned down an offer to sign for Fulham but this time I had no doubts. It was all done and dusted very quickly. I don't think there are many players who regret joining Liverpool and I certainly didn't.
Tosh on signing for the Reds
Once I knew Liverpool were interested in me I didn't need too much persuading. About a year before I'd turned down an offer to sign for Fulham but this time I had no doubts. It was all done and dusted very quickly. I don't think there are many players who regret joining Liverpool and I certainly didn't.
Of all the memorable moments you enjoyed during your time with Liverpool, what would you pick out as the most outstanding?
Over the eight years I was at Liverpool there were so many and it's very difficult to pick out just one. My first goal for the club, against Everton at Anfield just after I'd signed, will always be savoured. We were 2-0 down with about twenty minutes to go but managed to score three before the end. There were a few young lads who'd only recently come into the side so that was a highlight. The there's the Cup Final in '74. Every youngster dreams of playing in that and to see those twin towers at Wembley was always special. We'd lost three years earlier to Arsenal so to make up for that disappointment with a convincing 3-0 win against Newcastle was particularly satisfying. There are also the many big European nights we experienced around that time. The night in Barcelona, when I scored the winning goal, springs instantly to mind. As does the UEFA Cup Final first leg in 1973 against Moenchengladbach. That was interesting because I didn’t start in the first game that was rained off but I was recalled the following night and we won. There are so many great memories; goals, hat-tricks, Championship triumphs and cup wins. I could go on forever.
Any bad memories?
The biggest disappointment, without a doubt was missing out on the European Cup Final in 1977. It was the first time club had won the trophy and I played in all the matches leading up to the final but had an Achilles tendon injury and didn't make the game in Rome. That was devastating for me at the time. You were very close to Bill Shankly, how special a man was he in your eyes? Shanks was a person we were all in awe of as players. We knew what he meant to the Liverpool people and Liverpool Football Club. Everyone had the utmost respect for him but that didn’t stop us having our ups and downs with him. My relationship with him though was always a good one and I think it got even stronger when I later went into management with Swansea. He obviously missed his days at Liverpool and whenever we were playing up in the north Shanks would pay us a visit. He helped me out a lot in those early days and his presence at games gave my team a boost. I was looking at an old video the other day of the celebrations after we’d clinched promotion from the Second Division and he was there in the dressing room with us at Preston with a cup of tea in his hand. It's amazing to think that it’s almost 25 years since he died.
Tosh on Shanks
Shanks was a person we were all in awe of as players. We knew what he meant to the Liverpool people and Liverpool Football Club. Everyone had the utmost respect for him but that didn’t stop us having our ups and downs with him. My relationship with him though was always a good one and I think it got even stronger when I later went into management with Swansea
What or who influenced you to become a manager?
Shanks and Bob (Paisley) did to an extent. Everything I've done in management, and I've been very fortunate to have been a manager for nearly 30 years now in various countries, has been down to the basic stuff I learned at Liverpool. But I think the defining moment that made me really think about a career in management was shortly after I failed a medial that scuppered my proposed move from Liverpool to Leicester in 1974. I was suffering from a chronic thigh injury. I couldn't get about the pitch like I had done previously. It meant that I had to look at the game in a more tactical way and this helped me when I made my move into management later on.
Whenever a managerial vacancy arose at Liverpool during the eighties and nineties it seemed like your name was always linked but did you ever come close to being appointed?
It's all water under the bridge now but there were two occasions when, yes, I was very close. The first time I was bitterly disappointed not to get it because I thought everything was done and dusted. It was back in the early eighties and there'd been talk that Bob was going to call it a day. One thing lead to another and I ended up having a meeting with the Liverpool board. At the time Liverpool weren't doing too well but they then went on one hell of a run after the Christmas period and ended up winning the Championship. Bob decided to stay and that was that. I was bitterly disappointed to be honest but life went on and I moved into a new management scene abroad. I managed Sporting Lisbon, then Real Sociedad and then Real Madrid, and it was about nine years later that the opportunity to manage Liverpool came again. It was the early nineties when Kenny left but I was settled in my new life and had moved on to other things.
How much would it have meant to you to have managed Liverpool though?
When I first left Liverpool that was the only thing I wanted to do. I learnt my trade there and one day I wanted to come back and manage them. I once thought I'd done enough to achieve that but people with more experience, who had been in the game longer, felt that maybe I was just a little bit too young and it was too early for me. As I say, it was disappointing but it was a long time ago and you just have to accept what happened. Looking back maybe those people were right at that particular time but I felt I had done everything I could have done and honestly felt after the meeting we had that things were going to go ahead. I'd even told the Swansea chairman about it and they started looking for someone else until Bob did an about turn. These things happen in football and I certainly can't complain about the career I've had, 20 years working abroad.
Your first game back at Anfield as an opposing manager was with Swansea in 1981 just days after Bill Shankly died, what do you recall of that occasion?
We drew 2-2, scored two penalties at the Kop end, and it was a very emotional occasion. A lot was made about me wearing a Liverpool shirt that day during the minute silence but it was just my personal tribute to somebody I owed everything to. When I was in Cardiff as a Welsh lad I wanted to play for Cardiff and nobody else. That changed when Shanks came in and paid all that money for me.
During your playing career with Liverpool you were obviously a big favourite with the fans and especially those on the Kop. What did it mean to you to play in front of them?
It was very special for me. I always had a good relationship with the Liverpool fans, never more so than when my move to Leicester had just collapsed. Ray Kennedy had recently been signed to play up front and I'd had a falling out with Bob, so I'd made a decision that it was time to move on. The trouble was I had a problem with my left thigh and as a result failed the medical. Leicester said they weren't prepared to take a chance on me and it was a very worrying time. I was only 24 years of age and was married with three children by then. The Kopites were brilliant towards me though and they certainly helped me through a difficult part of my career
Tosh on his partnership with KK
We just hit it off. We never really worked a great deal at our game. People think we must have spent hours on the training ground but we didn't. We just complemented each other. They were great memories. I think defenders knew what we were going to do but they couldn't stop it. When a ball was in flight I would see out the corner of my eye and knew exactly where Kevin would be and he knew where I would put it.
Your strike partnership with Kevin Keegan has gone down in Liverpool folklore, what was it like to play alongside him?
We just hit it off. We never really worked a great deal at our game. People think we must have spent hours on the training ground but we didn't. We just complemented each other I think. They were great memories. I think defenders knew what we were going to do but they couldn't stop it. When a ball was in flight I would see out the corner of my eye and knew exactly where Kevin would be and he knew where I would put it. I remember Kevin saying once that the reason we did so well was we'd talk a lot about our game, and I remember saying to him the minute you start talking about the game we are knackered!
It was said at the time that there was some sort of telepathic understanding between you, what was all that about?
The media made a big thing about it and in a way I think we did. We had six great years together and a couple of hundred goals between us at the very highest level so there was certainly something there. I remember an opposing manager once saying he told his players about a move of ours that he'd studied and that they knew what was going to happen, but they couldn't stop it! He knew Heighway would cross it and I would knock it down for Kevin to score. I think that is a sign of the quality we had as a pair.
Moving onto more modern day matters at Liverpool, current manager Rafael Benitez is someone you must know well from your time in charge of Real Madrid – how highly do you rate him?
When I first went to Madrid in 1990 Rafa was working with the youth team. He has worked his way up and done tremendously well to come through some difficult times at Valladolid and Osasuna. He then got Tenerife promoted but was still a bit of a surprise choice when he first went to Valencia. At the Mestalla he certainly pushed on and was very successful. He established a very methodical side and once they went 1-0 in front it was very difficult to get anything back from them. He won the UEFA Cup with Valencia as well as La Liga and his record since taking charge of Liverpool speaks for itself. To come back the way they did in two major cup finals shows a lot of resilience and character. In the European Cup, Milan hadn't conceded three goals in something like 18 months and here you had three in 18 minutes. Then in the FA Cup Final, West Ham went 2-0 up but you always knew that Liverpool still had a chance because a team managed by Rafa is never beaten until the final whistle.
When you first met Rafa was he someone you thought of as a future manager?
Yes, there was definitely something about him. I remember when I was at Madrid the second time around and we were in Switzerland pre-season. He was over watching the training and was making notes. He was always a very studious type. I think the Valencia side that played Liverpool a couple of times was very impressive. I saw the game at Anfield and they never gave Liverpool any options at all. That sort of approach, which is common on the continent, maybe prompted Liverpool to go for him and he certainly hasn't let them down since he's been here.
Xabi Alonso is someone else you are familiar with, having handed him his first team debut at Real Sociedad...
Yes, of course. His father managed the club before I did and Xabi had been farmed out to a Second Division club. I brought him straight back and gave him his debut. Initially he was a little off the pace but his speed of thought was faster than anybody else and his range of passing was perfect. You could see the fella was quality and he just needed games at First Division level. He had a couple of months in and out of the side, which you needed to do with the young players at Sociedad, and by the time the season finished he was turning in terrific performances. I remember one particular game we beat Rafa's Valencia 2-0. Xabi played against Baraja and Albelda and was outstanding. It was one of the few matches Valencia lost that season and I think that was when Rafa first made a note of him.
Tosh on Rafa
I think the Valencia side that played Liverpool a couple of times was very impressive. I saw the game at Anfield and they never gave Liverpool any options at all. That sort of approach, which is common on the continent, maybe prompted Liverpool to go for him and he certainly hasn't let them down since he's been here.
How good a player do you believe Xabi is now?
Xabi has certainly done it at Liverpool. He has been one of Rafa's best signing and he is a real Liverpool style midfielder. You talk about midfield legends like Terry McDermott and Xabi comes into that class.
And what about Craig Bellamy, who is playing under for you at international level?
The most important thing as far as I'm concerned is Craig is happy. He has worked his passage to Liverpool in an intelligent way. He fell out at Newcastle and went to Celtic as a stepping stone. There was a clause at Blackburn and Liverpool have taken advantage of that. He is at a club that he's supported since a boy and that's fantastic for him. He's 27, which is a very good age, and he's got it all in front of him to do. We (Wales) are happy because he's happy.
What can he bring to the Liverpool team?
Pace, for certain. He is a difficult customer to control and he's got the pace to get in behind people which is what centre backs don't like dealing with. He is very enthusiastic and he wants to win all the time. The players will have to realise they might get a few verbals off him but they will come to terms with that. He wants to win and wants things to be done right. Hopefully, he can steer clear of injuries and will be able to get the goals Liverpool need this year.
Finally, does Liverpool Football Club still maintain a special place in your heart?
Without a doubt, yes. There are two clubs for me. Real Sociedad, with whom I enjoyed two four year stints as a manager, and Liverpool, where I experienced my best days as a player. I shall always be very grateful to the Liverpool public for all their support during my time there as a player. Liverpool FC gave me my opportunity and any success I've had in management has been down to what I was taught at Anfield. I know there are lots of methods coming into the game now and changes being made but these are being invented by people who weren't as fortunate as me. I remember being told by Shanks and Bob at Liverpool that the most important things in football are the same things that were important 50 years ago and they will be important 50 years from now. The basis of everything I've done, wherever I've been, stems from the education I received as player under Shanks and Bob all those years ago. I'm very grateful for that and owe them everything. They say you can take the man out of Liverpool but you can't take Liverpool out of the man and I'll always be proud to an ex-Liverpool player.
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