When Graham Taylor sadly passed away in 2017 the tributes rightly poured in for one of British football’s nice guys.
Never much more than an average player at best, Graham Taylor never rose above third division level in a rather nondescript career at Scunthorpe at youth level and then Grimsby Town and Lincoln before injury sadly curtailed even these meagre achievements.
No matter, Taylor saw his strengths in understanding the game rather than actually playing it himself, and so concentrated on becoming a coach at an early age. Just twenty-seven when he became the youngest man to ever qualify as an FA coach, he was handed the reigns of Lincoln City just a year later after a spell as coach, thus making him the youngest manager in the league by some distance.
This was in December 1972 and by the spring of 1976, he had overseen Lincoln City’s capture of the old Fourth Division title with a record 76 points from 46 games. This was, naturally, a record for any team in football league history on the two-points for a win basis.
A steady 1976-77 season in the third tier with Lincoln saw a ninth-spot finish and it was then that Taylor made what seemed to be a surprising move at the time. Reportedly turning down an approach from First Division West Bromwich Albion, Taylor instead elected to drop back down to the basement division and join Watford and the Vicarage Road club’s flamboyant chairman, Elton John.
Quite how Taylor ended up at Watford was a tale in itself. It seems that Elton John was thinking of appointing Bobby Moore manager and in his eagerness to approach someone for a character and professional reference, he picked up the phone and called the current England manager, as you do, Don Revie.
Elton John had got to know ‘The Don’ through travelling abroad with the England team in the mid-seventies as a sort of celebrity fan, and so listened intently when Revie suggested the name of Graha Taylor in preference to Moore. After meeting, the two men found they clicked and shared each other’s ambitions and thus a match made in heaven was formed.
The next ten years passed by in a whirlwind with Watford, Taylor and Elton all together on a roller coaster journey to the top flight and into Europe.
Successive promotions were achieved in Taylor’s first two seasons as well as a League Cup semi-final appearance, and then after pausing for a breather for two seasons a further promotion in 1981-82 clinched a dramatic rise to the First Division.
Apparently, at their first meeting, Elton had told Taylor that he wanted to take the club to make it into the top flight and then into Europe, to which Taylor had replied that it would cost in the region of a million pounds to do so. By the end of Watford’s inaugural season in the First Division, this too had been achieved with Watford finishing second to Liverpool, albeit some nine points behind. Later Elton would work out that it had been achieved for £790,000.
Amongst the Watford playing ranks at the time, there were no superstars. Several players, such as Ross Jenkins and Luther Blissett, had been with the club for the entire journey up the divisions while others had been brought in at little cost along the way. Also coming through the ranks were players such as Nigel Callaghan and a young John Barnes.
The 1984 FA Cup Final was reached and although Everton triumphed by a 2-0 scoreline, the name of Graham Taylor was well and truly on the map and he was being touted for many a job at so-called ‘bigger’ clubs. In 1987, Watford came within one game of a further FA Cup Final when they met and fell to Tottenham Hotspur in the semi-final at Villa Park.
When he finally did leave Watford it once again raised eyebrows in certain quarters as just as it had ten years earlier it involved stepping down a division.
In the spring of 1987, just five years after winning the European Cup and six after taking the league title, Aston Villa somehow managed to get relegated. It was a remarkable turnaround for the Villains and unsurprisingly chairman, ‘Deadly’ Doug Ellis, was not impressed.
Taylor was hired with the immediate brief to win back Villa’s top-flight status and to push on from there.
This was duly achieved as Aston Villa finished second in the table and gained automatic promotion at the first time of asking. A difficult first season back in the First Division ensued with an immediate relegation only being avoided by a solitary point, but everything turned around once again the following campaign, 1989-90.
Playing a vibrant attacking brand of football, Villa challenged for the title and perhaps in ly in all reality should have even taken it. Several times throughout the course of the season Villa led the table and with eight games to go led eventual champions, Liverpool, by three points. A poor run-in, however, saw Villa slip nine points behind Liverpool.
That summer, England under manager Bobby Robson performed admirably in the Italia ‘90 World Cup before being defeated on penalties in the semi-final by West Germany. Robson went into the tournament knowing it would be his last as England manager and it was also an open secret that his successor would be Graham Taylor.
There was some controversy at the time over Taylor’s appointment in preference to Howard Kendall or Terry Venables. He had indeed worked wonders in taking Watford from the old Fourth Division up to the first and into Europe and the FA Cup final, but the fact that he did so playing so-called uncompromising football made the alarm bells ring outside the FA HQ.
It was argued that the type of football required to gain promotion from the Third Division in the early ‘eighties was somewhat different to that needed at international level a decade or so later, and unfortunately, Graham Taylor was found to be wanting at this level.
It could, however, be said that he was just unlucky as England manager, and if just a couple of decisions or bounces of the ball had gone his way (Koeman’s foul on Platt in the ’94 World Cup qualifying game, Pearce’s shot against France striking the crossbar in Euro ’92), then fortune would have been different as would have his legacy.
However, it could also be argued that Graham Taylor made too much of his own bad luck for that opinion to really ring true. His abject refusal to pick players such as Waddle or Beardsley, and his insistence on playing the most direct and rudimentary of systems meant that sympathy and support for Taylor was never in large demand once things started to go wrong on the pitch.
Another glaring mistake made by Taylor was his choice of backroom staff, most notably Phil Neal as coach and Lawrie McMenemy as his number two. Lawrie Mac had long ago harboured ambitions of being England Manager himself and by all accounts made for a rather unimpressive number two, openly questioning Taylor and his authority on occasion, while Neal was simply dreadful and came across as little more than Taylor’s stooge.
A satisfactory and straightforward qualifying campaign for the 1992 European Championships heralded the beginning of Taylor’s reign, as England qualified for the finals in Sweden with three wins and three draws from a group containing Turkey and their old nemesis Poland and Republic of Ireland. Once at the finals, however, things began to unravel. Drab goalless draws against Denmark and France were followed by a terrible 2-1 defeat against the hosts and elimination at the first hurdle.
The Graham Taylor Experiment could have been put out of its misery at this point but the FA decided to honour his four-year contract and allow him to attempt to steer England to the World Cup finals in 1994 to be held in the United States.
England, of course, failed to finish in the top two of a group containing Holland, Norway, Turkey, San Marino and, of course, Poland, and Taylor, to the relief of most but the surprise of none was summarily sacked.
At the time, few tears were shed for Taylor as after all qualification for the major tournaments has always been the absolute least expected of an England manager, but it was still painful to see Taylor pillared so mercilessly by the media and public.
Graham Taylor wasn’t finished with football yet though and would go onto manage for almost a further decade at club level.
First up was an almost immediate return to the dug-out with Wolverhampton Wanderers, then in the First Division (second flight). A good first full season saw automatic promotion seemingly in the bag before a terrible end-of-season run meant that Wolves had to settle for a place in the play-offs. When Wolves lost in the play-offs to Bolton Wanderers and then started the following season slowly, Taylor resigned and was to later describe his Molyneux exit as his ‘lowest point in football’.
Although he would have been forgiven for settling for a quiet retirement life, Taylor instead went back to Watford and after a spell as General Manager, once again took over the mantle of Team Manager. By now the glory days at Watford were well and truly a thing of the past and the side was back in the third flight.
However, Taylor got to work and soon deployed the old magic once again. In echoes of two decades prior, successive promotions were achieved and in 1999 Watford once more found themselves amongst football’s elite. Unfortunately, a rather abject 1999-00 season saw Watford instantly relegated once more, and after promotion was not achieved the following season, Taylor once again left the club and decided to retire.
His retirement was relatively short-lived as he was tempted back into management at Villa Park. He lasted one full season back working with his old buddy, Doug Ellis.
When he left Villa Park for the second time, he really did retire and he did so having become only the third manager at that time to have taken charge of more than 1,000 league games in England.
His legacy now looking back on thirty years of management is, unfortunately, a bit mixed. To some, he will forever be remembered as the guy who failed as England manager and that is a pity. There was much more to Graham Taylor than his three and a half years in charge of the national team, though, and as well as his many achievements at club level, he should be remembered for being one of the nice guys of football.
Always unfailingly polite and respectful, he was admired and respected throughout the game.