May 4th, 2019 marked the 70th anniversary of the Superga Air Disaster that claimed the lives of the Il Grande Torino, Steve Harris takes a look back at the career of Les Lievesley, their English coach who also had a spell as a player with Torquay United.
Steve Harris – @steveharris84
Les Lievesley joined Torquay United in 1933 on a free transfer from Manchester United and stayed at Plainmoor for four years before moving to Crystal Palace where he remained until the outbreak of the Second World War.
After the war, he embarked on a coaching career that would see him coach Torino, who at the time were one of the most successful club sides in Europe. Sadly, his career was cut short by his untimely death in the Superga air disaster that would also claim the lives of the entire Torino side.
The son of former Arsenal and England goalkeeper Joe Lievesley, Les made his debut for the Magpies on the opening day of the 1933-34 Division Three South campaign against Aldershot at Plainmoor.
A strong, committed, fearless player, he formed a solid half-back partnership with future England international Don Welsh, who would later captain Charlton Athletic to FA Cup success in 1947.
On Boxing Day 1933, Les picked up the dubious distinction of becoming the first Torquay United player ever to receive a red card when he was dismissed in the Magpies’ home clash with Swindon Town. In his first full campaign at Plainmoor, Les helped Torquay to reach the final of the Division Three South Cup.
He left Plainmoor in April 1937, after playing 144 games for the club and scoring five goals, to sign for Crystal Palace where he would remain until 1939 when Europe became engulfed in conflict with the outbreak of the Second World War.
During the War, he served in the RAF and rose to the rank of Squadron Leader. At the end of the conflict he embarked on a coaching career in Holland before Torino President Ferrucio Novo approached him in 1947.
Torino had enjoyed great success under Novo’s reign in Italian wartime football, and he was looking for foreign expertise to help sustain their successes in the post-war era. Hungarian Egri Erbstein was appointed as Technical Director and Les became Trainer.
The team became known as ‘Il Grande Torino’ and they won three consecutive Serie A titles and provided ten players for the Italian national side that beat Hungary in a friendly in 1947.
As there was no European club competitions as such at the time, the European Cup (which later became the Champions League) didn’t come into being until 1956, they weren’t able to translate their domestic dominance into continental success in the same way that clubs like Real Madrid, AC Milan, Liverpool and Barcelona would later do.
Sadly, an unfortunate twist of fate, in the most tragic of circumstances, prevented that team from achieving its true potential.
On 4th May 1949, the team was travelling home by plane from Portugal, after playing against Benfica in a testimonial game when disaster struck. The plane carrying the side diverted from a planned landing in Milan and headed straight for Turin.
A thick fog enveloped the city and the mountains around it as the pilots tried in vain to find the airfield. The plane crashed into the Superga church on a nearby hill overlooking Turin; there were no survivors as all passengers on board the plane perished.
Les was buried with his teammates, including Valentino Mazzola – father of future Inter Milan midfielder Sandro Mazzola – in Turin. The team’s funeral was attended by 500,000 mourners from across Italy and Europe.
Torino completed the season with a team assembled of reserve players and every team in Serie A followed suit as a mark of respect. They won the Scuddetto at the end of the 1948-49 campaign. It would be the last title that they would win for over a quarter of a century.
The repercussions of the tragedy were also felt by the Italian national side ahead of the 1950 World Cup. The Azzurri had won the last two World Cup tournaments before the war in 1934 and 1938, and were looking to win a hat-trick of titles. They would not win the World Cup again until 1982.
Nine years later, English Football would experience a similar tragedy when Manchester United – another of Les’ former sides – lost eight players in the Munich Air Crash.
*An abridged version of this article appeared in the Torquay United versus Grimsby Town programme on January 26th, 2007.