LESLIE LIEVESLEY: 1911-1949 by Clive Hayward
Some football clubs celebrate their heroes. Blackpool has a statue of Jimmy Armfield. Fans going to Old Trafford can walk down Sir Matt Busby way. Across the M62 Leeds supporters can now sit in the Don Revie Stand (“the kop” when I were a lad).
This isn’t really the case at Torquay. Admittedly we’re a smaller club, but where are the memorials for the likes of Cyril Knowles, Leroy Rosenior or Robin Stubbs?
We’ve all heard of Cyril, Leroy & Robin, right?
How about Leslie Lievesley then?
Well, strap yourselves in because this is a hell of a story…..
Leslie (Les) packed a lot into a life cut horribly short.
At the weekend, I was half-watching the Turin derby: the illustrious Juventus against their perpetual underdog city rivals Torino.
You might know Torino’s story. During and immediately after World War Two they were the dominant force in Italian football. Between 1943 and 1949 they won La Liga five times in a row. Although Juventus were already being bankrolled by FIAT’s owners, the purple-shirted Grande Torino were masters of the city.
As you may know, this came to a sudden, tragic end in May 1949. Returning from a friendly against Benfica, the Torino plane crashed into a hilltop churchyard (the Basilica of Superga) just 10 miles from the airport. Every player on the plane died- 18 of the first team squad.
As I certainly didn’t know, another victim of the crash was our hero, Les Lievesley, then aged 38.
Les was an Englishman. He was the First Team coach. AND HE PLAYED FOR TORQUAY UNITED!
Les was born on June 23rd, 1911, in Staveley, Derbyshire. His Dad Joe was a good enough goalkeeper to play for Woolwich Arsenal and Sheffield United. Joe was wounded in World War One but must have been tough because he recovered sufficiently to go down the pit at Rossington Main coalmine near Doncaster.
Les followed his Dad into the local football club: Rossington Main FC. They’re still going today, although the mine is of course gone.
Les was picked up by the local league club- Doncaster Rovers, where he made a great start to his Football League career. Although he’s normally listed as a full back, he is recorded as having scores 21 goals in 66 games from 1929 to 1932.
He caught the eye of a little club from Salford, signing for Manchester United in February 1932. They weren’t then the force the later became, but it was clearly a step up for Les and he didn’t make much impact there, playing only two games for them. He is pictured here, wearing their red shirt (I assume it’s red! – picture from mufcinfo.com)
Les was transferred to Chesterfield in March 1933 but doesn’t appear to have got in the team there.
Why should he have cared: that summer he got the move he must have dreamed of. He escaped a grim, depressed, industrial northern town for the sun-kissed, cosmopolitan shores of South Devon and he pulled on what was then the black and white shirt of Torquay United.
The 1930’s weren’t a vintage era for Torquay, but we had got ourselves established in Division Three (South), and Les plied his trade with us for 4 years. He was clearly an important part of the team, because he amassed 144 appearances and a rather less prolific 5 goals.
These were amongst his best years and Les played many more times for Torquay than any of his other clubs. He moved to Crystal Palace in 1937 and like so many saw his playing days ended by the outbreak of World War Two: at 28 he could probably have expected to play considerably longer than he did. By the time the tanks rolled across Europe he had made 292 appearances and scored 29 goals.
Les joined the RAF, where he became a parachute trainer. With my sometimes-bleak sense of humour, I’d have to say that although this would have been an important contribution to the war effort, it didn’t ultimately do him much good….
Following the war, he became a coach in the Netherlands at Heracles. They aren’t a massive club nowadays, but I was surprised to discover firstly that football had continued in some fashion under Nazi occupation and that Heracles had been good enough to win a version of the Eredivisie in 1941/42, so he was clearly working at a decent level.
He apparently turned down an offer from Marseilles to move to Italy, where he was initially the Youth Team coach at Torino. In a grim foreshadowing of what was to come, he & his young protegees were involved in a non-fatal plane crash in 1948.
He returned to England that year as coach of the Italian National Team at the London Olympics, and he was clearly (pardon the phrase) upwardly mobile because he was appointed First Team Coach at Torino for 1948/49.
El Grande Torino were well on the way to winning La Liga again at the time of the Disaster at Superga, and their players made up the bulk of the national team. Turin immediately went into deep mourning for the loss of the country’s pride and joy: there is a Pathe News clip of the funerals here, with Les getting a mention in the voiceover from 47 seconds onwards:
A City Mourns (1949) – YouTube
Les may be little remembered at Plainmoor, but in Turin he has had the recognition he deserves. The Superga Disaster is commemorated at the city museum and Torino have inducted Les to their Hall of Fame. Here are links to the museum website and their webpage dedicated to him:
ACCADDE OGGI / Il 23 giugno 1911 nasce Leslie Lievesley
Les’ coaching notebook was donated to the museum by his son in 2016: and here it is:
Finally, here is Les in his pomp- suited, booted and smoking what appears to be a cigar!
Bizarrely enough: if he had lived, he may well not have been a Torino hero. There are persistent rumours that Juventus had made him a written offer to join them for the following season!
RIP Leslie Lievesley,
Torquay United & El Grande Torino!
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One thought on “LESLIE LIEVESLEY 1911-1949 by Clive Hayward”
What a truly fascinating story about a player I had never heard of before today.