Swansea City's 1981 promotion glory: Toshack, Shankly, Deepdale drama and a giant headline

By Gareth VincentBBC Sport Wales
John Toshack went on to manage the likes of Real Madrid, Real Sociedad and Deportivo La Coruna in a managerial career that began at Swansea in 1978
John Toshack went on to manage the likes of Real Madrid, Real Sociedad and Deportivo La Coruna in a managerial career that began at Swansea in 1978

It was big news in Swansea. So big, in fact, that when reporting Swansea City's first promotion to the top flight, the local paper used a larger headline font on its front page than ever before.

"It was bigger than the headline announcing the end of the Second World War," says John Burgum, the South Wales Evening Post's football correspondent at the time.

"There were only a couple of millimetres in it, but it was measured and it was bigger."

The headline in question came on 2 May, 1981, when Swansea won 3-1 at Preston North End to reach the First Division.

It was a glorious day for a club who had been in Division Four only three years earlier and had never played top-level football in their 69-year history.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," says Swansea legend Alan Curtis, one of the starting XI who delivered victory at Deepdale. "They were wonderful times."

How the South Wales Evening Post reported Swansea's promotion in 1981
How the South Wales Evening Post reported Swansea's promotion in 1981

An extraordinary rise

Swansea were in Division Four - where they had been since 1973 - when the club pulled off a coup by appointing then Liverpool striker John Toshack as their player-manager in March 1978.

At the age of just 29, Toshack was the youngest boss in the Football League but declared he had "come to the right place at the right time".

"Tosh said to us on his first day, 'I'll have you lot in the First Division in three or four years'," says former Swansea full-back Wyndham Evans.

"We were surprised to hear that, but he did it."

Swansea was abuzz following Toshack's arrival.

There had been 6,000 fans at the home game before his appointment. More than 15,000 packed into Vetch Field to see Toshack's first game, a 3-3 draw with Watford in which he scored.

Around seven weeks later, a final-day win over Halifax sealed Swansea's place in Division Three.

With Liverpool old boys such as Tommy Smith and Ian Callaghan joining a talented group of Welsh players including Curtis, Evans, Jeremy Charles and Robbie James, Swansea were promoted again 12 months later thanks to boss Toshack's winner against Chesterfield in the last game of the season.

Swansea finished in mid-table in 1979-80 - their first second-tier season for 14 years - but there was more final-day drama ahead in the following campaign.

'A team-talk from a god'

After a mid-season wobble, a run of one defeat in 13 league games meant Swansea went to Preston knowing victory would seal a third promotion in four seasons.

"We had to get the front page ready in advance, so on the Friday I wrote two pieces of very similar length," explains Burgum.

"The headline on one was 'First Division', the other was 'Oops, blown it'. Thankfully, it was 'First Division', with the record-breaking font, which saw the light of day."

Swansea's players did not need to be told what was at stake before Preston, but they were helped on their way by a memorable team-talk.

Toshack had invited his old boss at Liverpool, the legendary Bill Shankly, to the team hotel.

"Tosh led the pre-match meeting as usual, then he stood to one side and invited Bill to speak," Curtis said.

"You could hear a pin drop. He was almost a god-like figure.

"He was quite a small man but he had incredible presence and spoke with such passion. Put it this way, if he'd been a politician he would have got my vote."

Anfield great Bill Shankly (R) had signed John Toshack for Liverpool in 1970 from Cardiff City
Anfield great Bill Shankly (R) had signed John Toshack for Liverpool in 1970 from Cardiff City

Evans remembers Shankly speaking to each player individually.

"He shook everybody's hand and looked us in the eye," Evans says.

"He told us we couldn't lose with so many Swansea fans in Preston to support us. He went round saying, 'Are you ready son?'. Then he turned to Tosh and said, 'You will be okay, these boys are ready'."

Shankly was proved right.

A brilliant Leighton James goal and Tommy Craig's half-volley put Swansea in control at the break, but Preston - who needed a win to avoid relegation - made it 2-1 with 12 minutes to play to leave Swansea hanging on.

Welsh nerves were settled when Charles - son of Mel and nephew of John - rattled home their third goal three minutes from time.

"I remember Paul Chambert, my news colleague, and Bob Symonds from HTV took off like a couple of missiles in the press box next to me," Burgum says.

"They buried me and my phone. So much for press-box neutrality."

In the directors' box, meantime, Shankly was helping look after then Swansea chairman Malcolm Struel's children.

"Bill Shankly all the way through the game, because I was sitting with him with my sister, was saying, 'Calm down girls, calm down' because we were getting in a bit of a state," says Karen Struel-White, daughter of the late Malcolm.

"My dad was quite a contained man. He never really showed his emotions because that was the type of guy he was.

"But at the final whistle he absolutely was just overawed by it all, he ran on the pitch and hugged all the players, hugged John."

Celebrating in style

There were Swansea supporters on three sides of Deepdale, with around 10,000 travelling fans present to see history being made.

"They said 10,000, but I have spoken to at least 20,000 people since who have told me they were there," Curtis says with a smile.

The away dressing room was busy too, with Shankly, Wales manager Mike England, Nobby Stiles - the then Preston boss - and Welsh rugby union star Gareth Edwards - a Swans fan - among those mixed in with politicians and film crews.

Rather than coming straight back to south Wales, Toshack took his squad to a hotel in Liverpool for some post-match drinks.

"We got there and the Liverpool team were there after their game - (Kenny) Dalglish, (Graeme) Souness and all the others," Curtis says.

"It was a bit strange to think we would be playing them next season."

Swansea's Alan Curtis battles Liverpool's Phil Thompson as Graeme Souness looks on in a First Division clash in 1981-82
Swansea's Alan Curtis (left) battles Liverpool's Phil Thompson as Graeme Souness looks on in a First Division clash in 1981-82

The team bus eventually rolled up outside the Vetch in the early hours of 3 May, but celebrations were far from over.

A few hundred Swansea fans were on hand to greet their promotion-winning team, whose next stop was the Bay View, a pub on Swansea's seafront.

"We always seemed to go there," says Evans.

"A couple of months before Preston, we were all in there after closing time.

"The police came in and said, 'Nobody move, this is a raid'. They came round asking for names and addresses.

"One of the policemen said, 'Hey serge, these are the Swans'. He said, 'Well get their autographs then'."

Swansea's players were left in peace after Preston, with the party eventually fizzling out at around 7am.

Next came an open-top bus parade around Swansea, when Toshack famously declared that his team's success was "only the start".

Swansea's players and staff celebrated their promotion to Division One with an open-top bus parade
Swansea's players and staff celebrated their promotion to Division One with an open-top bus parade

To an extent he was right.

Swansea demolished Leeds in their first top-flight game, a win which set the tone for another sparkling campaign.

Remarkably, they topped the table - for a third time in the season - in March before a disappointing run-in saw Toshack's side end up sixth, which remains the club's best league finish.

Sadly for Swansea, the golden period ended as swiftly as it had started.

Relegation in 1982-83 was the first of three in four seasons, with the club back in the basement division by 1986.

Still, the glory years were fun while they lasted.

Swansea would not return to the top flight until 2011 after another epic rise through the divisions, winning the play-off final against Reading and this time staying for seven seasons before relegation to the Championship.

This season they again have the chance to reach the Premier League via the play-offs.

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