Les Lievesley the mentor cut off in his prime
One of the great post-war teams was destroyed in a plane crash 65 years ago. Dominic Bliss recalls their English inspiration
Friday 02 May 2014
Every year, on 4 May, hundreds of Torino supporters make the pilgrimage to the top of the Superga hillside, where the gleaming dome of the Royal Basilica of the Savoy overlooks the city. Here, they gather to remember one of the greatest club sides in Italian football history - the Grande Torino.
This formidable team, built around the virtuoso talent of their captain and inside-left Valentino Mazzola, were a symbol of post-war optimism for a broken nation. Their modern, systematic style of play, allied to an incomparable team spirit, enabled Torino to become champions of Italy five times – in 1942, 1946, 1947, 1948 and 1949 - but the team’s legend is a bitter-sweet one.
Before securing the last of those titles, the Grande Torino team perished, at the peak of their powers, when the Fiat G-212 aircraft carrying them home from a friendly game in Lisbon crashed into the embankment wall of the basilica.
Among the thirty-one people who lost their lives that evening was Les Lievesley, an English coach who had been offered a job by Torino because of his reputation as a tough fitness trainer and his smart football mind.
The granata were arguably Europe’s most forward-thinking club side in the immediate post-war years, staying ahead of wealthier title rivals by planning meticulously for the future.
Even as they were enjoying unprecedented dominance during the immediate post-war years, Torino’s Hungarian manager, Ernő Egri Erbstein, planned to integrate a new generation of players into the existing squad, so they could evolve seamlessly. His first step towards achieving that goal was to employ Lievesley as youth-team coach in 1947.
The former Manchester United and Crystal Palace player, who had served as a parachute instructor during the Second World War, was hard-edged and intense on the training field. His family were known for their sporting pedigree at home in Rossington, a colliery town on the outskirts of Doncaster, but Les had an adventurous streak, which had led him abroad when he embarked on a coaching career in post-war Europe.
After a brief spell in Holland, with Heracles Almelo, Lievesley jumped at the opportunity when he was approached by Egri Erbstein, although his son Bill - who was nine when the family moved to Turin - remembers that it took his father some time to acclimatise to his new surroundings.
“When we first went there, he had an interpreter because he couldn’t speak Italian,” he said, “which is not surprising, but it was not helped by the fact that he thought speaking Italian consisted of sticking an ‘o’ on the end of everything!”
Torino’s youth team were the early beneficiaries of Lievesley’s disciplined approach to fitness work and his sergeant-majorly demeanour.
“He was a pleasant, genial, friendly sort of bloke, but he was not somebody you crossed,” Bill explained. “Underneath his jocularity he was hard as nails, actually, and I know he’d had SAS training.”
Lievesley’s career prospects were helped by the fact that Italian national team boss, Vittorio Pozzo, always remained close to goings on at Torino, the club he had played for and coached before taking up his post with the azzurri. In April 1948, Pozzo decided to join Lievesley and the Torino youth team on a trip to England for an international youth tournament at RAF Kenley, where the granata kids were asked to represent Italy.
Competing against the best young talent the British home nations had to offer was an experience none of the travelling party would ever forget, but there was a terrifying end to what had been the trip of a lifetime.
As their return flight came into land in Turin, the brakes failed on the runway and the plane was only halted when one of its wings smashed into the hangar, causing the passengers, including Lievesley, to be thrown about the aircraft, frightened for their lives.
Remarkably, everyone on board escaped serious injury, and once they had recovered from the shock, Pozzo offered Lievesley a coaching role with the Italy national team. The Englishman even led a young azzurri side to the quarter-finals of the 1948 Olympic Games in London.
Lievesley’s rapid rise to prominence in the Italian game appeared unstoppable and it was no surprise that promotion to first-team duty at Torino followed that summer.
“He was ready-made to be a coach,” Bill recalled. “I think he was quite strict with the players, but he was very fair with them. He didn’t train them from the sidelines, he used to get stuck in and demonstrate what he wanted to do and play with them. I think that went down very well.”
Despite being a tough task master - he was involved in dispatching spies behind enemy lines during the war - Lievesley was very highly regarded in football circles.
Bill remembers Torino’s dapper wing-half Eusebio Castigliano coming over for tea, and how his father also struck up an unlikely friendship with the exuberant Gianni Agnelli, then a young man enjoying the high life before returning to run the Fiat empire left to him by his late grandfather.
It was not just Lievesley’s hospitality that brought the great and the good of Turin’s football community to his dinner table and perhaps unsurprisingly, given the Agnelli family’s relationship with Juventus, Lievesley was soon offered an opportunity to strike out as a manager in his own right with the city’s other club.
“I remember leaving a match against Juventus in someone’s car, and Torino had won,” Bill recalled. “I don’t know whose it was because my father didn’t have a car - he said it made people lazy. Anyway, there was this real surge of people towards us. We thought: ‘Christ, we’re going to be lynched here!’
“But it was all the Juventus fans cheering him - they knew he was going to them the year after because he had been offered a fabulous contract.”
Lievesley was preparing to leave the granata at the height of their success, when their celebrity travelled way beyond the city limits. Indeed, Torino’s fame was the very reason why Portugal captain Francisco Ferreira had invited them to provide the opposition for his testimonial match at Benfica on 3 May 1949.
They had flown to Lisbon more-or-less confirmed as champions for the fifth time and were in high spirits when they began the journey home the morning after the game, but as they approached rain-soaked Turin, the pilot’s view was obscured by heavy cloud. Travelling at around 270 kilometres per hour, his left wing clipped the embankment wall of the Superga basilica and the plane was thrown out of control, spinning 180 degrees and crumpling head-first into the hillside.
The monks who emerged from the crypt, wide-eyed in shock, discovered the scattered bodies of victims who were beyond all help, and beside them their suitcases, still miraculously intact. They opened one to discover a bundle of granata jerseys, decorated with the Scudetto - the Italian tricolour worn by the champions. The same shield was stitched into the blazer belonging to Leslie Lievesley, the English gentleman who had helped to take an already great team to new heights.
Dominic Bliss is author of the forthcoming book, ‘Erbstein: The Triumph and Tragedy of Football’s Forgotten Pioneer’, which will be published by Blizzard Books later this year. Follow him on twitter @theinsidelefty
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