Sports comment: Big shoulders bear the biggest burden

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We pride ourselves in the severity of the tasks we set our football managers but we still lag woefully in the wake of certain countries. There is the odd English club at which the induction of a new manager ought to include a head-scarf and a glass of sake but only when we aspire to a situation to compare with that faced by John Toshack when he arrived at Real Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu stadium on Thursday can we be said to know what a proper suicide mission looks like.

His former striking partner at Liverpool, Kevin Keegan, might think that he has placed himself in a perilous position by burdening himself with the combined priorities of England and Fulham, but Toshack has acquired an assignment which is as formidable as they get and into which he has been hurled with the minimum of preparation.

Additional intrigue was stirred into the plot by yesterday's reports that Terry Venables may take over Atletico Madrid but, even if that comes to pass, by the time Venables reaches there Toshack's task could have moved from the extremely difficult to the downright impossible during a fiercely demanding seven- day schedule that began on Thursday when his flight from Turkey, where his management of Besiktas was ended abruptly by Madrid's summons, was three hours late.

That didn't spare him the task of submitting himself to the media, whose accusations that he was "mad" to return were still being discussed with him on a radio show at 2am on Friday. A dawn interview on the BBC's Radio 5 Live ruined any chance of a lay-in and he finally introduced himself to the players at the Friday morning training session prior to their departure for Seville where they played Real Betis last night in a Spanish league match vital to Madrid's hopes of climbing from their unaccustomed position of sixth and a long way behind the leaders, Barcelona. Tomorrow, he takes the team to Russia where they meet Dynamo Kiev in the first leg of their European Champions' League quarter-final on Wednesday.

The defects that led to the dismissal of his Dutch predecessor Guus Hiddink earlier in the week included the worst defensive record in the league and a sulky and under-motivated squad. Under these circumstance, defeat in either or both games would be excusable, but they would not be excused in Madrid.

If Real fail to retain the European Cup they won under the German coach Jupp Heynckes last May, neglect to zoom up the league table almost immediately and don't win the cup, Toshack is well aware that he will shoulder the entire blame. He must win one of the three prizes still available and although he refuses to regard pressure as a problem, few managers can have walked into such urgent expectations.

Indeed, the fact that he has been awarded this forlorn hope may be compliment enough not only for Real's faith in him but for his faith in himself, which has been hard earned during a remarkable career incomparable for the depth and variety of its success.

When he took Swansea City from the Fourth to the First Division in four seasons in the early 1980s, Bill Shankly nominated him the manager of the century, but mentor's pride might have played a part in that assessment.

Toshack still employs the management techniques he learned from his former manager, under whom he won one European Cup, two Uefa Cup, one FA Cup and three League championship medals by the time he was 28 and injury forced his semi-retirement as player-manager at Swansea.

He took over the day after Swansea had been beaten by bottom team Rochdale. His Liverpool colleague Emlyn Hughes laughingly pointed out: "Tosh, your team have just been beaten by the 92nd in the League so you can only go up from there." Toshack replied: "I'll bring them to play in the First Division at Anfield one day." So he did, and by the cruellest irony it was a few days after Shankly died.

When Swansea failed to sustain their place in the top flight, Toshack left to begin his 16 years of management in exile that have seen him win honours for Sporting Lisbon, Real Sociedad (twice), Real Madrid, Deportivo and Besiktas.

There has long been the feeling of unfinished business between him and Madrid. I witnessed this at first hand four years ago when he took his Sociedad team to the Bernabeu for a league match. They won for only the second time in 80 years. He had returned to the Basque club, where he is a lifelong hero, after being fired by Madrid in 1991 and the victory reminded Real of his previous stint when his team won the Spanish league with a record total of 107 goals and in a manner not recaptured by the 11 managers who have had the job since.

Toshack's inspirational, and still recognisably British, style is backed by an authoritarian reputation he is not sure he deserves, and which dates from his his first spell at Sociedad. They had lost an away Cup tie at Oviedo and when he saw two players smiling during the after-match meal he ordered a 4.30am departure the following morning so that they go home for extra training.

One day it would be interesting to see what impact he would have back home in the United Kingdom but, meanwhile, there will fascination enough to follow his second coming, to which the Spanish refer to only half-jokingly as the Casa de Locos.

For reasons too difficult to understand let alone explain, William Hill's flotation on the Stock Exchange was abandoned last week, along with 90,000 would-be investors who had forwarded their money. It's the City's equivalent of a non-runner so the thwarted shareholders haven't lost anything except being-farted-about time and Hill's offered them each the compensation of a pounds 20 free bet.

However, things were not as they seemed. They can't bet willy-nilly, or any horse they fancy. The pounds 20 voucher is available only for the Spring Double ie. picking the winners of both the Lincoln and the Grand National; without doubt, the two hardest races in the world to judge.

Never mind; a tenner each-way could produce a tasty dividend even for getting two outsiders in the frame. Sorry, the wager is win only and you can't bet ante-post either; only at the starting prices.

If the pounds 20 was placed on the two likely favourities, Right Wing in the Lincoln and Double Thriller in the National, the combined odds would be 152-1 and if successful would net over pounds 3,000. But that is calculated on the prices as they stand now. If all 90,000 took that advice, a total of pounds 1.8m would flood on to Right Wing in the first leg of the double and the price would tumble. And if it won, millions would then pile on to Double Thriller which could end up as the National's first odds-on favourite.

No one is suggesting that Hill's gesture won't cost them money, but they are in a powerful position to minimise the risk. They might even gain in the long run. The free publicity should do wonders in attracting new customers for the Spring Double, which has been long condemned as too reckless a bet. A new appetite for a gamble could also be created among the 90,000 whose experience might be an education - and an indication of the devious old game in which they almost got a share.