About six years ago I had an email from someone called Pete Jones. We’d initially met after he was helping put together a book to celebrate 100 years of Swansea City FC and had known that I written a couple of Swans related books so asked if I’d like to contribute. He was now reconnecting with me because he had another idea…a documentary about John Toshack and his time in charge of the club and their meteoric rise from the very bottom to the absolute pinnacle of the English footballing pyramid.
To say I was interested is possibly the understatement of the century.
John Toshack arrived in Swansea when I was 12, and by the time he left when I was 18, this Liverpool legend had given me the greatest six years of my sporting life, which, as I reflect on it now, remains the case almost 40 years later. I immediately jumped on board with Pete’s vision and told him that I was happy to help him in any way that I possibly could. Over the intervening six years, I’ve witnessed at first hand the incredible, unmatchable commitment that Pete has given to this project. I’ve seen his delight in sharing the great news of attracting the likes of Ian Callaghan and John Bishop to his film and witnessed his massive disappointments of coping with backers pulling out, broadcasters displaying disinterest and the prohibitive costs of securing images to illustrate his vision, almost derailing the project totally.
A lesser man would’ve walked away, but personifying the Shankly and Toshack policy of ‘never being daunted’, he refused to quit and rode every wave with a calm resilience that the Scottish-born Liverpool manager would have been proud of. But in reality, I was never surprised by Pete’s refusal to bow, because for him, telling the story of Tosh was the ultimate labour of love. A love for the man, the club and the project than never diminished for a single second.
Funny word to associate with a football documentary, that, but it’s the overriding emotion that I took from witnessing the premiere of the film, Tosh – The Official Story of John Toshack, last night at the Swansea.com Stadium. On show was the undiminished love that the 300 plus in attendance have for their club, the fond love they still possess for the players of that golden period of the 70’s and 80’s, and a palpable, genuine love for Tosh, the man himself, who delivered the ultimate footballing dreams to the fans of club in what could easily have been described back then, as not so much a sleeping giant, but just sleeping.
A fan’s love for a club is a given, I suppose, but less so is that emotion between the players. Footballers can be the ultimate sporting mercenaries, jumping ship when the water starts seeping in, friendships are thin in the dressing rooms of Football League clubs, rivalries and jealousies more common. But in the film, and on stage last night sharing their memories of Tosh, the genuine love and affection those Swansea City greats – Alan Curtis, Wyndham Evans, Nigel Stevenson, Dudley Lewis, David Giles, Leighton James – have for each other was crystal clear and emphasised even more when they pointedly, publicly recognised their team mates who are sadly no longer with us, Chris Marustik, Dave Stewart, Dai Davies and, of course, Robbie James.
On screen, the former Everton player, Neil Robinson, confirmed his Swansea years were the best he ever had in a 16 year professional, four club career, and one of the stars of the film, Wyndham Evans revealed that when Toshack found out that the whole squad were present when a pub was raided for after hours drinking, the young manager was more angry about the two players that weren’t there rather than the 28 whose collars were felt by the local Swansea Constabulary! The connection these players had with each other is highlighted beautifully and with fantastically self deprecating humour in the film.
And then we come to the man himself, Tosh. As the owner of a stellar, 40 year managerial career that saw success across Europe and Africa, domestically and Internationally – including setting a Spanish goal scoring record with Real Madrid – it’s easy to assume that any emotional attachment to his first managerial post five decades ago might have got lost in the mists of time. But this was the film’s biggest surprise – and strength. When recounting those early days on screen, the big man explored memories so clearly heartfelt, that he regularly appeared misty eyed as spoke with such love – that word again – for so many. His touching tribute to Harry Griffiths, ‘that first promotion was Harry’s, really’, his fondness for his former players, his connection with the fans, his affection for the Vetch, that lovely old ground – he didn’t even forget Dolly the Tea Lady!
As a clearly moved Toshack shared these thoughts, it led to many around me shedding their own tears, visibly touched by his genuine affection for their club. His relationship with his legendary mentor, Bill Shankly, was also told with such sensitivity and respect, that it reminds us all that everyone needs a mentor to guide us on our journey, no matter what particular dreams we are chasing.
The core narrative of the film is the unprecedented story of the sensational rise of Swansea City from bottom to top, expertly told by Swansea’s favourite son, Alan Curtis, who almost acts as an on-screen guide, taking us through the glory years with unrivalled knowledge. Other unmissable highlights are the wit and often hysterical anecdotes provided by Danny Bartley, Wyndham Evans, David Giles, Nigel Stevenson and Jeremy Charles, who capture an innocent time in professional sport, now sadly lost for ever. In fact, Evans’s story about him warning Toshack about how tough Crewe Alexandra would be, with Tosh quickly replying that he’d had the odd tough battle with Inter Milan, ‘so don’t worry’, is comedy gold. I won’t spoil the punchline, but the laughter provided by the audience rivalled anything heard at a Peter Kay concert.
This is simply a must see film, which possesses a wonderful soundtrack composed by the talented, Luc Daley and unseen archive footage provided by the incredible photography of, then, teenage photographer & Swans fan, Martin Johnson. Together, these sounds and images capture perfectly the feel and fabric of a downtrodden Swansea in the late 70’s.
In recent years, I’ve watched and enjoyed documentaries on all John Toshack’s contemporaries – Brian Clough, Terry Venables, Bobby Robson and Bill Shankly himself, to name a few. Tosh – The Official Story of John Toshack, rivals every single one of them, which is no more than his career demands. Pete Jones’s vision is now a reality and the quality of his film deserves to be seen by the wider football community across Britain, in the same way that those listed above have. I truly hope that happens, it’s no more than this wonderful film deserves, because it really has everything that a football fan needs in a film about this great sport.
Yet maybe, on reflection, and as this film repeatedly shows us, success in football is one thing, but in reality, love is all you need.