Documentaries and reality TV shows about British soccer are having a moment right now, with a slew of productions seeing the light of day in the past couple of years. Netflix’s Sunderland ‘Til I Die covered the trials and tribulations of the north-east England team, particularly their struggle to escape the third tier of English football, while Amazon Prime’s Tom Hardy-narrated All or Nothing: Tottenham Hotspur related Spurs’ Covid-affected season in 2019-20.
In the meantime, soccer clubs in Wales are likewise drawing the attention of filmmakers. Deadpool star Ryan Reynolds and It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia actor Rob McElhenney’s purchase of Wrexham Football Club last year has yielded Welcome To Wrexhamdue to debut on FX later this summer, which will detail the rollercoaster 2021-22 season of the third-oldest football club in the world.
But the latest foray into the field is Toshan independent Netflix documentary about one of Europe’s most decorated players, Liverpool and Wales star John Toshack. Here’s a rundown of what to expect.
Toshack’s Return to South Wales
Toshack was born into an ordinary family in Cardiff, his father a carpenter. Toshack first played for Cardiff City, only joining Liverpool in 1970, just before their record-breaking run of cup and league success, and created a lethal goal-scoring partnership with teammate Kevin Keegan. The pair fired Liverpool to three English league titles, an FA Cup victory, and three European trophies before Toshack departed.
But Tosh isn’t primarily about Toshack’s glory years in England with the Reds. It is about his return to his native South Wales. In 1978, he moved to lowly Swansea City, then in the fourth tier of the Football League, to become, at the tender age of 29, the club’s player-manager.
A Meteoric Rise to Greatness
Swansea’s most prominent club was in the doldrums for most of the 1970s, drawing attendances in four figures to their dilapidated Vetch Field stadium, hardly a good fit for a player who had won the European Cup the previous year. Or so it seemed.
What followed was the perfect example of a sporting fairytale. Where other coaches arriving at a new club might have swept away the old guard, Toshack thought differently, keeping on his well-liked predecessor as assistant manager. Within four months of his arrival, crowds had doubled, Swansea had torn apart their opposition, and secured promotion on the final day of the 1977-78 season, with Toshack scoring the winner.
The following year saw another promotion, with Toshack coming off the substitute’s bench to score the winning goal again. In 1980, Swansea City reached the First Division (the 1980s equivalent of today’s Premier League) for the first time in their history. Record attendances, cup wins, and even a spell in European competition (as winners of the Welsh Cup) followed. Rarely before, and never since, has a British soccer team enjoyed such a meteoric rise to greatness.
Tosh brings together a dizzying array of former sports personalities and celebrities, including Toshack’s close friend and Liverpool teammate Ian Callaghan, Swansea’s goalkeeper during Toshack’s reign, Leighton James, Welsh actors Michael Sheen (Underworld, The Queen, Masters of Sex) and Ioan Gruffudd (Titanic, San andreas, Fantastic Four), and Welsh rugby international Sir Gareth Edwards who, like Toshack, had played multiple sports in his youth, and played briefly for Swansea at the Vetch Field.
The Dream Sours
Swansea’s success did not last. In the 1980s, the club came down just as quickly as it went up, finding itself back in the fourth tier by the decade’s end. By that time, Toshack had long gone and was managing Spain’s most successful club, Real Madrid, with which he won the Spanish league in 1990. Stints managing the Welsh national side followed, laying the groundwork for today’s squad, which reached the semi-finals of the European Championship in 2016, and will make history as the first Welsh side to compete at the World Cup finals since 1958 this December in Qatar.
Director Pete Jones’ unfussy direction is a definite plus. The rostrum camerawork is slick and well-designed. The only liberties taken are with the old soccer album stickers showing Toshack and his contemporaries in their footballing heyday and the recreation of the 1980s schoolboy Swansea fan’s bedroom, complete with posters, Roy of the Rovers annuals, and football-themed bed covers. But really, with a story so unbelievable, the makers of Tosh might be forgiven for introducing a few nostalgic notes. Swansea City might have hit even bigger heights over the last decade, but is there any more satisfying story to tell than the days when a club first made it to the big stage?
Tosh premiered last month and is available now on various streaming services, DVD, and Blu-ray.