Superga: The crash that killed Serie A's champions & English coach Leslie Lievesley

Torino squad team

Bill Lievesley had just got home from school when his mum came in and told him: “People are saying there’s been a plane crash.”

Close by on the outskirts of Turin, a wreckage of an aeroplane lay smouldering on the Superga hill, 700 metres up behind the giant basilica that overlooks the city.

Searching through the shattered suitcases and lifeless bodies, eventually they identified the victims and began to realise: Among the 31 dead were Serie A’s all-conquering champions, Il Grande Torino.

It was 4 May 1949 and Torino were set to win a fifth consecutive league title. With four matches of the season remaining, the team had flown out to play a testimonial match for a Benfica player in Lisbon.

On the way back, almost the entire squad was killed, including their Hungarian-Jewish manager who had escaped from the Nazis and their English coach Leslie Lievesley, a former Manchester United full-back who incredibly had survived three previous air crashes. His son Bill was about to turn 11.

On that late afternoon, news quickly spread throughout the north Italian city. By evening it had reached Sauro Toma, a defender who had not travelled with his team-mates because of injury. Scores of emotionally overwhelmed fans mobbed him in the street. Before his death in 2018, aged 92, he said he lived as someone “condemned to survive, while my brothers perished”.

The plane had 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. Only fate could beat them, it was said. 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 rebuild. The 1949-50 title was won by Juventus, as Torino finished sixth. They have won the league only once more since, in 1975-76, the seventh title in the club’s history. This season, city rivals Juve are targeting their eighth in a row, their 35th of all time.

The Superga disaster is central to Torino’s identity, and its legacy is not forgotten. Every year thousands congregate at the site where the plane came down. This year will be the 70th anniversary and Bill Lievesley 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 tells BBC Sport.

On that first trip back, 10 years ago, Bill walked all the way up to Superga and back down to the city again, twice, in two days. It’s about 10km from Turin’s centre, up twisting roads that lead to the summit finish in the Milan-Torino cycling race. He stripped the soles of his shoes.

We meet where he now lives, in England. The day grows dark as we talk in the comfort of his living room, drinking coffee. Bill is 80 years old and radiates warmth on a bitterly cold afternoon in south Yorkshire, looking back on a time when Turin was home.

In the hallway and along the wall that climbs his stairs hangs his “gallery of rogues”. There are photos of his dad, Leslie, as a Doncaster Rovers player and in a Manchester United team photo, alongside frames of his granddad Joe, goalkeeper for Sheffield United and Arsenal.

Leslie Lievesley moved his wife and young son to north Italy in 1947, when he left his first job as a coach with Dutch side Heracles Almelo to join Torino, having turned down an offer from Marseille.

The English coach was joining an already successful side. Torino became the first Italian team to win the league and cup double in 1943, the final season before Serie A was halted for two years during the Second World War. They still hold three remarkable Italian top-flight records.

In 1947-48, Torino scored 125 goals in their 40 matches, finishing with a record goal difference of +92 on their way their fourth title in as many seasons. By the time of the Superga disaster they had not lost at home in more than six years, while their 10-0 victory over Alessandria in May 1948 remains the biggest in Serie A history.

This golden age for the club owed much to its president Ferruccio Novo, who had determinedly signed up some of the country’s best players, including Valentino Mazzola, Torino’s star who became Italy’s captain. It fell to Novo to officially identify the bodies of the team he lovingly assembled. Mazzola had named one of his sons after him.

Novo did not travel on the fateful journey because of a bout of flu. Having failed in the perhaps impossible task of rebuilding the team after the crash, he resigned as Torino president in 1953, three years after leading Italy to the World Cup finals. The Azzurri travelled to Brazil by boat rather than by plane.

The other major influential figure in the club’s success was Erno Egri Erbstein, the team’s Hungarian manager who had been forced to return to his homeland following the 1938 anti-Semitic law that stripped Jews of their Italian citizenship under Benito Mussolini.

Erbstien escaped from a labour camp in Nazi-occupied Budapest, as is detailed in the book Erbstein: The Triumph and Tragedy of Football’s Forgotten Pioneer. He would return to Torino after the war and continue to win football matches according to his attacking ideals, with help from his English coach.

‘Dad probably thought he could beat Hitler single-handed’

Born in 1911, Leslie Lievesley got into coaching after his playing career was cut short by the war. He was at Crystal Palace, and Bill was a baby in Croydon, when in 1939 he signed up to join the Royal Air Force. He became a parachute dispatch officer, often involved in missions to drop soldiers, and sometimes spies, behind enemy lines.

On one such sortie, having been forced to return to base before completing their drop, his plane was shot down over Middle Wallop, just north of Southampton, by American anti-aircraft guns. Friendly fire. Everybody on board was killed, apart from Leslie, who walked out of it. “He was hard as nails,” Bill says of his dad. “He probably thought he could beat Hitler single-handed.”

There was a second crash in the war – although Bill can’t recall the details. The third that Lievesley survived came in 1948 when, travelling with the Torino youth team, the plane’s brakes malfunctioned on landing at Turin airport. Disaster was averted because the wing clipped a hangar and slowed the aircraft enough before it could collide into the terminal building.

That same year, England travelled to Turin to play Italy. Seven of the Torino team lined up against an English side led by goalkeeper and captain Frank Swift, who, as a journalist, would perish in the 1958 Munich air disaster. Stanley Matthews was on the wing and Tom Finney scored twice in a 4-0 win.

Lievesley was by that time also coaching Italy – it was essentially the Torino team after all, at times including all 10 outfield players from the club. Bill remembers the heavy defeat by England did his father’s reputation little damage – if anything, it only increased the desire to learn from the inventors of the game.

Lievesley seemed to always enjoy support from those who mattered most, the players. According to Bill, it was the Torino players who asked for him to be promoted to the first team, having observed his good work with the youth side.

From marble floors to a colliery house and an outside toilet

As a child, Bill would often be taken along to his father’s training sessions – “when my mother had had enough of me,” he says. He might watch his dad work, or kick a ball about himself with the other kids hanging around Torino’s old Filadelfia stadium. It closed in 1963, and for years it lay abandoned. In May 2017 it opened once more and is now back in use as a training ground.

Bill says he was never much of a footballer himself. Cycling was more his thing – twice he competed in the Tour of Britain. But there have been times when he has wondered, what if? What if his dad had chosen to take up the job at Marseille instead, for example. What if his mother had stayed in Italy?

“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 says.

“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?

“They put me in for the 11-plus, which I obviously failed miserably. I knew all about Garibaldi but not very much about pounds, shillings and pence. It was all foreign to me.

“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.”

During the brief hours I visited Superga, having arrived by car and not on foot, the air was crisp and the sun’s light especially bright as it reflected back off the spectacular snow-covered Alps in the distance. It was difficult to imagine the terrible sights and sounds of that disastrous day, when Torino’s small three-engine Fiat passenger plane was immediately destroyed in a direct impact with the holy building that stands guard over the stunning valley below.

There is a memorial monument against the back wall where the plane came down. Football fans from all over the world have been coming here for years to pay their respects and have left scarves of many different colours. There used to be a museum within the basilica itself, before it was forced to move, and it is now housed in a much larger space in Grugliasco, a suburb of Turin.

Strangely, the club itself offers no official support, funding or encouragement to the museum. In fact scores of items, relics of Torino’s golden age, were discarded and left abandoned under a previous ownership. They now sit proudly as exhibits in the museum run by dozens of dedicated volunteers.

They have helped keep the memory of Il Grande Torino alive – not just for one day in May.

Superga hill

The aftermath of the Superga air disaster

The aftermath of the Superga air disaster

Team photo of Il Grande Torino

Monument to Torino's team at the Superga hill

Valeninto Mazzola

BDO World Championships: Anastasia Dobromyslova through to quarter-finals

Anastasia Dobromyslova in action at the Lakeside

Anastasia Dobromyslova moved into the BDO World Championship quarter-finals at the Lakeside without conceding a leg in her 2-0 victory over Laura Turner.

The three-time champion, runner-up last year, denied world number 12 Turner even one chance at a double.

In the men’s event, third seed Jim Williams of Wales came from 2-1 down to beat Belgian Roger Janssen 3-2.

Janssen won the first four legs without missing a double but Williams reached the last 16 by taking the decider 3-0.

He will now face compatriot Dean Reynolds after he beat Englishman Daniel Day 3-1 in Monday’s final match.

Canadian David Cameron went through to the first round for only the second time in six attempts as he beat ex-PDC Premier League player Andy Hamilton in the preliminary round.

Making his BDO debut, Hamilton, 51, won only three legs as Cameron secured a 3-0 victory and a first-round match against seventh seed Gary Robson on Tuesday.

Last year’s semi-finalist Michael Unterbuchner, the fifth seed, won the deciding set 3-1 against Australian Justin Thompson and faces Welshman Wayne Warren in the last 16.

Wolverhampton Wanderers 2-1 Liverpool: Ruben Neves strike earns fourth-round spot

Ruben Neves’ superb second-half strike sent Wolves through to the FA Cup fourth round at the expense of a Liverpool side that featured three teenagers making their full debuts.

Reds boss Jurgen Klopp made nine changes to his starting XI, which included 17-year-old midfielder Curtis Jones and 18-year-old Rafael Camacho.

They were joined by Dutch defender Ki-Jana Hoever – at 16, the club’s third youngest debutant – in the sixth minute following an injury to Dejan Lovren.

Wolves found it difficult to trouble the inexperienced backline until the 38th minute when Raul Jimenez fired them ahead following an error by midfielder James Milner.

Divock Origi levelled for the visitors six minutes after the break with the side’s first effort on target, when he fired a brilliant strike through the legs of Leander Dendoncker and past goalkeeper John Ruddy.

But that parity lasted four minutes as Neves launched a venomous dipping shot from 31 yards that beat Simon Mignolet at his near post.

Xherdan Shaqiri’s free-kick, magnificently pushed on to the post by John Ruddy, was the Reds’ only other effort of note.

Wolves, who knocked Liverpool out of the FA Cup for the second time in three seasons, will be away to the winners of the tie between Stoke and Shrewsbury in the fourth round.

Second-string Reds fail to sparkle

Divock Origi

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp will have been dismayed with the way his first-team hopefuls performed for much of the match.

His strikeforce of Daniel Sturridge, out of contract in the summer, and Belgian Origi failed to gel, managing only one pass between them in the first half and only one touch in the opposition’s penalty area.

Absent was the running into pockets and slick passing made into a fine art form by their regular attacking trio of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino, and instead the makeshift XI littered the pitch with misplaced balls.

Liverpool did improve slightly after the break. Origi’s goal should have given them that much-needed impetus, but before they could pressure the home side again, they fell behind again.

The Reds came agonisingly close to equalising a second time when Shaqiri’s fantastic free-kick was tipped on to the post by an equally brilliant save from Ruddy.

Klopp brought on big guns Salah and Firmino with 20 minutes to go, but the pair could not inspire a late fightback.

Jimenez and Neves light up Molineux

Wolves, like Liverpool, were sub-standard for much of that opening period. The onus was them to test the Reds’ inexperienced defence, and it seemed as if they would head into the break with only one effort on target – Jimenez’s 34th-minute strike which was easily held by Mignolet.

However, seven minutes before the interval they made the breakthrough which came, ironically, from a mistake by Liverpool’s most experienced player on the pitch.

Milner, inside his own half, failed to control a pass from Alberto Moreno and the loose ball was seized upon by Jimenez. The Mexico international surged into the Liverpool area before he whipped a low shot past the reach of Mignolet.

That was an excellent individual goal, but Neves’ was better. The Portuguese player, who has made a habit of scoring stunners, picked up the ball from more than 30 yards before launching an effort which Mignolet barely had time to react to.

More to follow.

Line-ups

Wolves

  • 21Ruddy
  • 5Bennett
  • 16Coady
  • 15Boly
  • 8Neves
  • 19Castro OttoSubstituted forDohertyat 75′minutes
  • 28João Moutinho
  • 32Dendoncker
  • 29Vinagre
  • 9JiménezSubstituted forHélder Costaat 83′minutes
  • 18JotaSubstituted forCavaleiroat 52′minutes

Substitutes

  • 2Doherty
  • 7Cavaleiro
  • 10Hélder Costa
  • 17Gibbs-White
  • 27Saïss
  • 31Norris
  • 37Traoré

Liverpool

  • 22Mignolet
  • 64Camacho
  • 6LovrenSubstituted forHoeverat 6′minutes
  • 3Fabinho
  • 18Moreno
  • 23Shaqiri
  • 7MilnerBooked at 15mins
  • 8Keita
  • 48JonesSubstituted forRoberto Firminoat 70′minutes
  • 15SturridgeSubstituted forSalahat 70′minutes
  • 27Origi

Substitutes

  • 9Roberto Firmino
  • 10Mané
  • 11Salah
  • 51Hoever
  • 57Christie-Davies
  • 62Kelleher
  • 66Alexander-Arnold
Referee:
Paul Tierney
Attendance:
25,849

Match Stats

Home TeamWolvesAway TeamLiverpool
Possession
Home39%
Away61%
Shots
Home8
Away8
Shots on Target
Home3
Away2
Corners
Home3
Away3
Fouls
Home10
Away2

Live Text

Full Time

Substitution

Substitution

Substitution

Substitution

Goal!

Substitution

Goal!

Second Half

Half Time

goal