Friday 28 July 2017

Vincent Hogan: 'There are bigger things than football son' - the words Graham Taylor used to rescue a legend

Paul McGrath might easily have been lost to football but for the compassion shown to him by Graham Taylor at Aston Villa. Photo: Getty
Paul McGrath might easily have been lost to football but for the compassion shown to him by Graham Taylor at Aston Villa. Photo: Getty
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

It's a Wednesday morning in late winter of 2006, the darkness yet to filter from an English midland sky.

Graham Taylor and Jim Walker sit in The Belfry dining room, talking with uniform affection about Paul McGrath. I have asked for an hour in their company but neither will look at a watch during the next five. Regularly, the conversation catches a random breeze, getting swept off into unplanned territory.

Taylor is a natural storyteller. The media scalding he took as England manager did not diminish his natural enthusiasm for football or the game's disparate, routinely dysfunctional community. So he is disarmingly open about the mistakes he has made and characters he misread.

Some of the tales he tells are startling in the rottenness they communicate. And, though a tape is running, there's a trust here that that rottenness won't ever be recycled for public consumption.

He has come to talk about McGrath but to know a person fully it helps, first, to understand the industry that moulds them.

Hence an unflattering light is shone on some of football's most iconic figures, revered people who just happen to be flawed humans. Yet, endlessly, Taylor's instinct draws him towards conciliation.

Graham Taylor. Photo: PA
Graham Taylor. Photo: PA

A story is never completed without some kind of mitigating addendum, if not quite excusing bad behaviour at least seeking to bequeath it a kinder context.

Anyway, he himself is the target of some of his best yarns. One he tells is about David Platt, a favourite player.

Platt always had an eye for the horses and, during Aston Villa's unlikely push for the title in the 1989/'90 season, he bought into a syndicate.

Villa had a game against Wimbledon that week - one that could, as Taylor describes it , have "put space" between them and a pursuing Liverpool. But they lost 3-0, Platt having a penalty saved and, in the dressing-room after, Taylor "hammering" him for it.

He was laughing as he recounted the story. "I knew myself I had been so out of order. But I was upset with the defeat and, when I got to hear he'd bought this stake in a horse, I bollocked him in front of everybody.

"I mean, he's our leading scorer, he's been magnificent and I've gone and done that! It was wrong of me and the next day he comes to see me. He had every right to be upset.

"I've calmed down now and I remember looking at him, smiling. 'Platty,' I said, 'I have to be seen to bollock my best player every now and then!' And I give him a wink. I've just got away with murder!"

Listening, Walker - Villa's senior physio for more than two decades - tossed out a gentle aside, recalling a day when Taylor stepped through the dressing-room door at half-time just as Platt was spitting on the floor.

"You said to him, 'David wipe that up!'"recounted Walker. "And he got a towel and did."

On Newstalk last Thursday, they revisited that moment in Taylor's management of England when he wheels back towards a supporter who is bellowing racist abuse at John Barnes to remind them "that's another human being".

Taylor was miked up at the time for the subsequently lampooned TV documentary, 'An Impossible Job'. The boys in Newstalk knew Taylor well enough from working with him in recent years to reach a consensus that he would have done the same, with or without that mike. And I doubt anyone who had the good fortune to meet Graham Taylor would disagree.

Civility

His innate civility left him largely ill-equipped for the zoo-like dynamic of being England manager. Even journalists consistently lacerating him were treated with a courtesy and openness that, if anything, just fed them more ammunition to parody.

There is one exchange in 'An Impossible Job' that has always gone largely unmentioned, yet captures just how trusting and unguarded a man he could be.

It comes prior to a Poland game at Wembley in September of '93, his position in serious jeopardy as England's bid to reach US '94 unravels.

During training, Taylor is chatting to a member of his backroom staff about the stresses beginning to build.

"I'm waking up with the pyjamas wet through," he confided, as if forgetting that their conversation is not private.

Sitting in The Belfry 13 years later, Taylor was sanguine about the errors he made, delivering a compelling appraisal of that time in his life and the viciousness encountered.

And, intriguingly, he identified a 1-1 draw with Ireland at Wembley in March of '91 as the night he believes that the English media decided to go after him.

"That was when my first real thing with the media started," he reflected. "And this is probably silly of me but Jack (Charlton) wouldn't announce his team in advance, so I didn't. And I got hammered for that. I understand it now..."

His recall of Ireland's goal that night, scored by Niall Quinn, probably runs to the heart of why he struggled with England.

"What I found when I went into the England set-up was that these players would just play. They didn't mark up at all. That was beneath them. Now at Villa, it wasn't beneath us. When a throw-in was taken, you didn't lose concentration. And all it (the Irish goal) was, was a nothing throw-in back to an unmarked McGrath who swung the cross in. Don't get me wrong, I thought you boys (Ireland) could play."

McGrath was a colossus for Taylor during the season that, effectively, got him the England job. Yet it started poorly, Villa winning just one of their first seven games and, with Derby next up at home, he took a call from the club's commercial manager telling him that a snap board meeting was to be held afterwards in the away dressing-room.

Incensed, Taylor threatened to resign on the spot, being talked out of it only by club secretary, Steve Stride.

"We win 1-0, should have lost 5-1," he recalled, laughing. "We've got away with it. So I go in to the meeting. Doug (Ellis) is there. He congratulates us on 'a good win' and says he's brought us together to give us an update on improving the facilities at Bodymoor Heath. And I'm looking at Steve and he's giving me a little sneaky smile..."

Some months later, after a 2-0 win at Spurs puts them top of the First Division, Ellis was climbing onto the team bus to congratulate Taylor and his players on making him "so proud".

But Villa's form tapered towards the end of the season, winning just four of their last ten games, a period that coincided with Tony Cascarino's arrival from Millwall. "I tried to sign Teddy Sheringham," reflected Taylor. "No chance. So Doug tells me I've £1.4m to spend and I have to spend it.

"Cascarino? I reckon £750,000. Doug buys him for £1.4m. And the supporters... Now it's not Cascarino's fault, it's not my fault and I can understand why Doug has done it... But Cascarino is saddled with this fee and, eventually, the supporters saying he's cost us the title.

Glorious

"But he didn't. I know the people who've let me down and it's not Tony Cascarino. Perhaps I was even partly responsible myself because it was all over the papers that I was getting the England job."

Taylor's and Walker's roles in McGrath's glorious redemption at Villa have, by now, been well documented.

Once, it was put to Taylor that McGrath, at £400,000, probably represented his shrewdest signing.

"Well," he smiled, "he's got to be in my top three, that's for sure. "But I mean, for a set of shirts, was John Barnes my best buy? Not even shorts and socks, just shirts. Got Dwight Yorke for £10,000, sold him for £12.6m."

He was laughing heartily as he recounted that, a man palpably still in love with the game.

What he didn't say was that, without his humanity, Paul might just as easily have been lost entirely to football. He had, after all, a deeply troubled spell shortly after signing for Villa, his career rescued largely by Taylor's human compassion.

"I said to him once, 'There are bigger things than football son!'" Taylor recounted to me that morning in The Belfry.

Could there be a more ennobling epitaph?

Read more: Taylor emotion affected us, says Mazzarri

Read more: Obituary: Graham Taylor 

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