Remembering Doncaster football boss who died in Torino air disaster 70 years ago today

70 years ago today, the world of football was rocked by one of the biggest tragedies the sport has ever known.

Friday, 3rd May 2019, 2:59 pm
Leslie Lievesley, who died in the Torino air disaster 70 years ago today.

On May 4, 1949, a plane carrying Italian football champions Torino crashed into the side of a mountain – claiming the lives of the entire team in a terrible disaster which left 31 people dead in total.

And among them was a Doncaster footballing hero who switched from a playing career in England to management in Italy.

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Leslie Lievesley was coach of the Torino team which perished on that fateful day seven decades ago when their plane smashed into the side of a hill on the outskirts of Turin.

No-one on board survived the tragedy which will be remembered again today, as it is in the Italian city every year.

Leslie, or Les, as he was known, had swapped the mines of northern England for the sweeping hills of Italy and looked set for a promising career in the Italian game before his life was cruelly snuffed out at the age of 37.

Mr Lievelsey is buried at St Michael's Church in Rossington.

Born in Staveley in Derbyshire, the full back started his career as an amateur with Rossington Colliery before moving to Doncaster Rovers in 1929.

He quickly established himself at Belle Vue and netted 21 goals in 66 games, earning the attention of giants Manchester United.

Playing with them during one of their less successful eras when they were a Football League Second Division side, he was at Old Trafford between 1930 and 1933 before moving onto Chesterfield. Torquay United and Crystal Palace.

With the outbreak of war in 1939, Lievesley joined the RAF, where he became a parachute trainer and dispatch officer – and where he survived the first of three plane crashes he was involved in during his lifetime.

The memorial to the Superga air disaster in Turin. (Photo: Ian Spackman).

Following the war he became a coach in the Netherlands at Heracles Almelo, then in 1947, after turning down an offer from Marseille in France, transferred to Italian club Torino as youth team coach.

He coached the Italian national team at the 1948 summer Olympics and became first-team coach at Torino that year.

In 1949 he had been offered a contract to coach rival team Juventus – but tragedy struck on May 4, 1949 when he was one of 31 fatalities in the tragedy that became known as the Superga air disaster.

His Torino squad were in the process of winning the Serie A title when disaster struck – although he had had a narrow escape a year earlier when a plane carrying the Italian side’s youth team crashed. The team were on course for their fifth consecutive title and had four matches of the season left.

In an interview with the BBC earlier this year, son Bill told of his own recollections of the disaster.

He had just got home from school when his mum came in and told him: "People are saying there's been a plane crash."

700 metres up behind the giant basilica that overlooks the city, a plane had indeed crashed into the Superga hill as the team returned from Lisbon for a testimonial game.

The plane collided with the back of the basilica wall, amid thick fog. Later it was concluded malfunctioning equipment must have led the pilot to believe he was well clear of the building, realising only when it was too late.

Two days after the crash, half a million people lined the streets as the funerals were held. Torino were awarded the Serie A title, at the request of their rivals. The team passed into legend not as the Invincibles but the Immortals.

The next season each top-flight club was asked to donate a player to Torino, to help them rebuild and the 1949-50 title was won by Juventus, as Torino finished sixth.

This year is the 70th anniversary of the tragedy and Bill Lievesley, now 80, will be among those present.

He first went back for the 60th anniversary, in 2009. He can't really say why he hadn't been before. "I'd been saying it so long, 'now I'm going to do it'. I really owed it to my father to go, and to do it properly," he told BBC Sport.

Following the disaster, 11-year-old Bill and his mother returned to England.

"There were some people who thought she ought not to leave, but she decided she should bring my dad back home, to be buried with his father and brothers," he told the BBC.

"I wish we had stayed out there, quite frankly, but she did what she thought was best at the time.

"Coming back to England was not particularly easy. At first we lived with my grandmother in Rossington, not far from Doncaster. It wasn't like our apartment in Turin with marble floors, it was a colliery house.

"In Italy my mum and dad had something of a celebrity lifestyle. Gianni Agnelli, the future head of Fiat, was a big friend of my father's. He'd always be offering him a car but he wouldn't take one, he said they made people lazy. All the players would always cycle around the city.

"We stayed with my grandmother for about a year. It was a strange time for me, like I was walking around in a dream. I think I was just going through the day to day really. You cut yourself off a bit, don't you?

"There was very little room in the house, no bath, no electricity, the toilet was outside, but I got used to it. Then my mother got some compensation money - either from the airline or the club, I'm not sure - and bought a house in Doncaster.

"I was very dependent on my mother, I really could have done with my father being there. I only knew him for those few years after the war. That's the sad thing of it."

The memorial, at the basilica, is still a shrine from football fans from around the world.

The crash is commemorated annually and remains of the aircraft, including a propeller, a tyre, scattered pieces of the fuselage, and the personal bags of several players are preserved in a museum near Turin.

Mr Lievesley’s body was returned to England – and he is buried at St Michael’s Church in Rossington.