Last week saw the death of the former Watford, Aston Villa and Wolves manager Graham Taylor at the age of 72. Tributes – some of them downright hypocritical from the very paper who lampooned him when he was England manager – poured in throughout the football world. He will be mourned as a loss to the game.
Graham Taylor was born in Worksop in 1944 and began playing professional football in 1962. His playing career was nothing to write home about, playing at full back for just two clubs – Grimsby and Lincoln City where he scored three goals in just over 300 appearances. It was when a hip injury forced him into retirement that he decided to become a coach.
At the age of 28 he became the youngest manager in the League when he took over from David Herd as manager of Lincoln. Four years later he took the Imps to the old Fourth Division title in what was a record points total at the time.
But it was at Watford where he made his name. Elton John may have been an unlikely chairman at the time and there was always an air of a publicity stunt about his position, but he was canny enough to ask Don Revie, the former Leeds and England manager, who he should appoint to replace the sacked Mike Keen. Revie pointed out Taylor who had already been courted by top flight West Bromwich Albion at the time and Taylor’s elevation from young to legendary manager began in earnest.
The rest, as they say, is history. Taylor took the Vicarage Road side from the Fourth Division to the first in five years as they became most people’s second team. In 1982-83 they finished runners-up to Liverpool in the League and reached the FA Cup final the following year. What’s more impressive about that feat is that Taylor himself was on a learning curve of his own, being a far cry from the modern era of ‘famous footballer becomes instant manager’ culture of today.
Taylor was credited/blamed for the emergence of the long ball game, but to gauge his tactical ability purely on that does him a disservice. True, they were fond of a hoof up the pitch when needed, but they also had John Barnes, who was about to become the best left winger in the league. Add to that the speed and guile of Luther Blissett and his sides were the antithesis of the very accusation that plagued Taylor’s club career.
Blissett was signed by A.C Milan in 1983. A club not renowned for buying lead footed target men.
Taylor left Watford in 1987 and took up a new challenge Aston Villa, who had just been relegated from the First Division. He took them up at the first time of asking and kept them there. Two years later they chased Liverpool down for the title, having led the league for many weeks.
Then came England.
If managing lower league sides took guts and guile, being an international manager required a whole new set of skills. Bobby Robson, his predecessor, had gone from zero in 1988 when England lost all three of their group games at the European Championships, to hero in 1990. Taylor was ready for that level of fickle appreciation from the nation’s press but was still hurt at the ferocity of their ire. Though England qualified for the 1992 European Championships their exits led to him to be called a ‘Turnip’ (as they had lost to the Swedes – hilarious, apparently). Upsetting indeed though he still had the grace to talk to them in his role as he felt the game belonged to the people.
Of course it’s the documentary – An Impossible Job – filmed against the backdrop of the doomed 1994 World Cup Qualifying campaign for which he will be most remembered. Depending on your standpoint, it’s either a fascinating insight into the stresses and strains of an international manager’s career or a humiliating comedy with Taylor as a farcical lead. Think of a footballing version of The Office. The film becomes less of a biopic of England’s failure to an analysis of a man facing the brickbats of unyielding pressure with dignity – and occasional lapses of it. This was a warts and all programme with the England manager swearing, berating officials and using some frankly bizarre constructions of grammar (‘Can we not knock it?’ ‘Do I not like that!’). On one occasion he turns to an England fan and scolds him for his treatment of John Barnes and reminds the whinger that ‘you’re talking about a human being.’
But it’s a testament to the man that he didn’t call a halt to filming when the wheels were falling off. When the Dutch FA refused the camera crew entry into the stadium for the crucial game in Rotterdam, Taylor, knowing he was on a hiding to nothing anyway, had them dress in England tracksuits to sit on the bench and film. He knew the film would not be flattering but he didn’t look for an easy way out. That took guts.
Perhaps the most famous scene is that of the press conference where journalist Rob Shepherd is unhappy at Taylor’s squad for a forthcoming game. Taylor replies accordingly.
“Rob, I can’t continue… listen, Rob… I cannot have faces like yours around about me. No I can’t – I tell you what, if you were one of my players with a face like that, I’d fucking kick you out. You’d never have a chance. Put a smile on your face, we’re here for business, come on.”
All delivered with a smile on his face. No sulking, no fury. Just a call for the press to back him. They didn’t, of course and the lowest of all rags again took delight in his resignation, proclaiming ‘That’s Yer Allotment’ on its front page along with the mock-up of Taylor as a turnip.
That same paper kissed his arse this week.
A spell at Wolves followed next before returning spells at Watford and Aston Villa. He retired from management in 2002 and found work on Radio 5 as a pundit. He was a natural. His knowledge of the lower leagues was second to none and his insight was always carefully considered and interesting. I can recall him telling his host about the Leicester City youth team the year they came up to the Premiership. This wasn’t a result of poring over books or files. He was just interested in the game and knew who played for whom, where they came from, what age they were and where they were going. He was an ideal sidekick. A knowledgeable and decent man.
He may be remembered for his disastrous international campaign and a host of catchphrases but Graham Taylor was a throwback to a kinder age in the game. Never a fan of mind games or sophisticated ideas, he saw his team as human beings rather than lumps of meat to be endlessly drilled and sold on as cattle whenever appropriate. This week his former player Gifton Noel-Williams revealed how Taylor had guessed that he had money worries as he was a young player with a baby on the way. The club coffers were tight so Taylor wrote him a cheque for £1,000 from his own account so he could concentrate on being a player for Watford and a father at home. His loyalty to his players was heart-warming in a cynical age.
I’m not a Watford supporter, nor am I an England, Villa or Wolves fan, but I’d like to think I recognise a kind and decent man when I see one. Rest in peace, Graham. The game is poorer without you.