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Aug 12, 2011

From Real Madrid to Macedonia

For the majority, news of John Toshack's appointment as FYR Macedonia coach was background noise. 'Minnows throw cash at washed-up manager' is hardly a story to compete with transfer dealings at the likes of Liverpool or Real Madrid.

But for a generation of fans at both of those clubs, Toshack will always be relevant. As a player, he was a vital member of the side as Liverpool won three league titles, a European Cup and two UEFA Cups in the 1970s. As a manager, Toshack led Real Madrid through one of the club's greatest domestic seasons.

The Toshack story has been a remarkable one from the moment he turned out for Cardiff City at the age of just 16 years and 263 days - a club record that stood for 41 years before being broken by Aaron Ramsey in 2007.

A tall, powerful striker, Toshack scored at a rate of almost one every other game for the Welsh side, forming a prolific partnership with the late Brian Clark that would foreshadow the one he'd be remembered for. "I probably wouldn't have been able to have the start I did in club football if I wasn't playing with someone as generous as Clarky," he reflected later.

His partner's unselfishness clearly rubbed off. In 1970, the great Bill Shankly came knocking, and Toshack arrived at Liverpool for £110,000 to form to one of the most iconic footballing double-acts of them all. Toshack and Kevin Keegan at their best were unplayable; their understanding so strong that Granada Television conceived a light-hearted test to see if they really were telepathic.

"They sat facing each other in the TV studio, each holding a card up so the other could not see the symbol it carried," former team-mate Phil Thompson recalled. "Everyone was completely astonished when they each guessed exactly right, calling out "square" or "triangle" or whatever it was. The truth was, they could see each other's cards in reflected glass, but it was a great laugh and enhanced their telepathic reputation."

The pair famously posed as Batman and Robin for a local newspaper, but it was their heroic feats on the pitch that earned them cult status on The Kop. Toshack and Keegan were the archetypal 'big man, small man' combination, and Toshack's towering headers time and again provided the invitation for Keegan to demonstrate his lightning pace and lethal finishing.

"Tosh was a wonderful player to play alongside," Keegan said. "His aerial ability was fantastic and I always knew that he was going to win the high balls. From then on it was just a question of me reading which way the ball was going to go and from those situations we created many chances."

Toshack scored 96 goals in 247 appearances for Liverpool, and played his part in a good number of the 100 goals Keegan put away for the club too. But eventually persistent injuries began to limit his involvement. He decided to take up the offer of being player-manager at lowly Swansea City in the spring of 1978, and with Keegan off to Hamburg soon after, Liverpool's deadliest duo were no more.

At 28, Toshack was the youngest manager in the football league and he took to it as quickly as he had to senior football. Swansea were catapulted up the leagues, rising from Division Four to the top flight in just four years - a feat that has only been matched once since, by Wimbledon's 'Crazy Gang' in the 1980s.

There was more to follow. After beating FA Cup holders Leeds United 5-1 on opening day, Swansea confounded lowly expectations to finish sixth in their first season in Division One. "We're capable of frightening the life out of some teams," Toshack warned at the start of the campaign. And so it proved, with famous victories against Manchester United, Arsenal and his beloved Liverpool.

But the Swansea fairytale was fleeting. Toshack's team were relegated the following season, and in the season after that, on their way down to Division Three, they sacked him.

Toshack's career next took him to Portugal, where he managed Sporting Lisbon for a season, and then to Spain, where he led Real Sociedad to a runners-up spot in La Liga in the 1987-88 campaign. He'd done enough to spark the interest of Real Madrid, who appointed him as coach in the summer of 1989.

What happened next astounded even the most demanding of Madrid fans. Toshack's team scored a record 107 goals in 38 La Liga matches, treating the Bernabeu to an average of over four goals per home game and romping to the title by nine points (quite a margin in the era of two points for a win). Their goalscoring feat remains unmatched in Spain's top flight (Barcelona came close with 105 in 2008-09), but the glow of Toshack's achievement lasted just six months.

Having lost three games in the row, he was sacked in November the following season, only to return nine years later after spells in charge of Real Sociedad (again), Deportivo La Coruna, Besiktas of Turkey and a brief stint coaching the Wales national team. His second tenure at Madrid was even shorter than the first, and ended with the sack after just nine months.

That was November 1999, and by the time he fully committed to the job as Wales national coach in 2004, Toshack had added France (Saint-Etienne) and Italy (Catania) to his footballing vocabulary, returned to Real Sociedad (for the third time) and briefly managed Real Murcia.

"After 26 years in six different countries, I have won honours as a player and manager, but taking a national team to a European finals or World Cup finals is something I haven't been able to do," he said.

Ultimately, he fell some way short of achieving his ambition. Wales lost 16 of the 29 qualifiers they played under Toshack between 2005 and 2010, and a 1-0 defeat to Montenegro at the start of their Euro 2012 qualifying campaign proved the final straw. He left by "mutual consent", and with his managerial stock at an all-time low.

Eleven months on and FYR Macedonia offered him a road to redemption. A nation ranked 96th in the world, who have never qualified for a major tournament, now find themselves with a coach who led Real Madrid to the most prolific season in Spanish football history.

For Toshack, it was probably as good a job as he could have hoped for. From the Fourth Division to the La Liga title and all the way back down again, his career is a living testament to the fickle nature of football management. At 62, he still has time to repair his reputation however, and what better way to start than with two victories against Wales in qualifying for the 2014 World Cup - a nation now ranked level 112th with the Faroe Islands.

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