John Toshack has never been a man to step away from a challenge. As a player, he was a physical striker, content to mix it up with the most brutal of defenders. And as a manager, he has tested himself in every possible way, taking charge of a range of clubs from Swansea to Real Madrid.
At Swansea, Toshack put himself on the map as a manager, leading the Welsh club out of the fourth tier of English football all the way to the country’s top flight and claiming local hero status in the process. He later embraced the challenge of managing in Spain and, more specifically, the pressure cooker of managing in Madrid. It brought out the best in Toshack, who cemented his reputation as a top class boss by bringing the Spanish title to the Bernabeu in 1990. These achievements cannot be scoffed at, though younger fans may recall Toshack more for his two underwhelming spells in charge of Wales.
The former Liverpool man, now 62, might well have thought his managerial career had run its course after leaving the Wales post in 2010. But his reputation as a proven, disciplined boss lives on and has earned him a new challenge as manager of the Macedonia national team. It just goes to show that a name associated with winning will always be in demand.
Clearly, hopes are high that the well-travelled coach will help Macedonia reach a major international tournament for the first time. Thus far, Toshack is saying all the right things. When the appointment was announced, he commented: “I am so honoured that the FFM chose me as coach of the Macedonia national team. I hope that together we can achieve success at international level.”
Macedonia have enjoyed several notable nights over the past decade – including two gritty draws with England, first at Southampton’s ground St. Mary’s and then at Old Trafford – but challenging for qualification for a major tournament has been well beyond them. After all, the Macedonians sit 96th in the FIFA rankings so targets must be set at a realistic level.
Reaching Euro 2012 is seemingly already out of reach for Macedonia after grabbing just one win – against Andorra – from their first six games in qualification. A tally of four points leaves them well behind the Republic of Ireland, Russia and Slovakia who share top spot with 13 points. And it is the Russians who will provide a tough test in Toshack’s first match in charge on 2nd September.
With qualification looking unlikely, Toshack is walking into a less pressured environment and can cast an eye over his squad without the burden of high expectations. He can draw his own conclusions and focus on the next target – qualifying for the 2014 World Cup.
However, achieving that goal will require a minor miracle. The draw for the qualifying groups was not kind to the Macedonians, placing Toshack’s new charges in the most difficult group alongside Croatia, Serbia, Belgium, Scotland and Wales. While it offers the intriguing subplot of Toshack going up against his home country, it may not offer a lot of points.
And so it begs the question: what sort of record would qualify as a success for Macedonia? Toshack is a shrewd boss and will help the Macedonian players take steps in the right direction. Ultimately, that should be the goal. Aside from Goran Pandev, the classy Inter attacking all-rounder, there are few standouts within the Macedonia squad, but Toshack will find a hard-working, well-drilled group. Dynamo Kyiv’s Goran Popov is a key cog in defence while 30-year-old midfielder Velice Sumulikoski has amassed more than 70 caps. There are pieces to build around yet the gap between Macedonia and the top sides in Europe remains considerable.
But the Macedonians’ limitations will not stop Toshack from aiming high. Throughout his career, both on the pitch and in the dugout, he has enjoyed pitting his wits against the best and overcoming the odds – just ask Swansea fans with good memories. By helping the Macedonia squad develop and improve, Toshack now has a chance to bow out of the game on a high.