Wednesday 17 January 2018

Obituary: Graham Taylor

Capable but unlucky England football manager whose tactics and defeats made him a target of tabloid ridicule

CLUBMAN: Graham Taylor pictured in 1989. Photo: Adam Butler/PA Wire.
CLUBMAN: Graham Taylor pictured in 1989. Photo: Adam Butler/PA Wire. newsdesk

Graham Taylor, who died last Thursday aged 72, was the manager of the England football team from 1990 to 1993; a decent, able, cheerful man, he was fated always to be associated with root vegetables after ridicule by the tabloid press, bad luck and damaging defeats conspired to justify the title of the documentary that fixed his public image: An Impossible Job.

Taylor was appointed manager in succession to Bobby Robson, whose achievement in reaching the semi-finals of the World Cup in 1990 had raised expectations of the team. Then in his mid-forties, and having enjoyed notable success with unfancied clubs such as Aston Villa and, in particular, Elton John's Watford, he was seen by the FA as the progressive choice.

His appointment was, as ever, broadly welcomed by the media. Yet some commentators queried whether his adherence to the direct "long ball" style of play, also favoured by the FA's head of coaching Charles Hughes, was warranted against leading international sides. Nevertheless, he began well enough, with only one defeat in 23 games - to Germany. But the press turned on him after the side was eliminated from the 1992 European Championships.

Needing goals against hosts Sweden to qualify for the semi-final, Taylor opted to take off striker Gary Lineker in what proved to be his last appearance, denying him the chance to surpass Bobby Charlton's record number of goals for England. "Swedes 2, Turnips 1" blared The Sun, superimposing a brassica on the manager's face.

Robson had endured hectoring at times, but that directed at Taylor appeared to be spiced with unwarranted contempt. Soon he gave up answering his front door as photographers hounded him. He received little effective support from the FA and was handicapped by having chosen to keep his distance from the press, rather than cultivating favourites who could beat the drum.

The next year, with England having to beat Holland to qualify for the World Cup, Taylor was undone by a piece of poor refereeing when Ronald Koeman was allowed to remain on the pitch after holding back a goal-bound David Platt.

Moments later, Koeman scored a decisive free kick.

Unknown to the press, Taylor had allowed Channel 4's Cutting Edge to film him with the aim of improving his image. When the programme was screened, viewers instead saw a swearing Taylor berating officials: "The referee's got me the sack," he sneered. "Thank him ever so much for that, won't you."

His doleful comment in another match - "Do I not like that" - was a gift for impressionists.

Taylor resigned in late 1993, his reputation in shreds.

Graham Taylor was born at Worksop, Nottinghamshire, on September 15, 1944. His father was a sports journalist and the family moved to Scunthorpe when he got a job on the Evening Telegraph.

Graham went to the local grammar school, represented England grammar schools at football, and at 17 joined his home town side as an apprentice before signing for Grimsby. He spent the next decade as a full-back in the lower divisions, playing some 350 times for the side and then for Lincoln before his career was ended by a hip injury. In his late twenties, he became first the youngest FA-qualified coach in the country, and then its youngest manager when he returned to Lincoln.

In 1976 the Imps won the Fourth Division title with a record number of victories. Taylor's feat caught the eye of the flamboyant owner of Watford, Elton John, and the following season he moved to Vicarage Road. Within five years, he had - quite remarkably - taken the club from the bottom flight into the top one, earning a reputation for motivating journeymen as well as nurturing exciting talents such as John Barnes and Luther Blissett.

Along with Terry Venables's Crystal Palace, Watford were predicted to be the "team of the Eighties". This notion seemed less fanciful when Taylor steered them to the runners-up spot, behind Liverpool, in their first season in Division One. The next year, having played in the Uefa Cup, the side reached the FA Cup Final, losing to Everton.

By 1987, Taylor opted to take charge of a much bigger club, Aston Villa. European Cup winners a few years earlier, they were then languishing in the Second Division. Once again, Taylor showed his ability to motivate a group of players, among them Gordon Cowans and Paul McGrath, and demonstrated the merits of the unsophisticated style of football he favoured. Within two years, Villa had finished runners-up (again to Liverpool) in the First Division, and Taylor had made his case for succeeding Robson.

After leaving the England job, Taylor was offered the position at another sleeping giant - Wolves. He took them in 1994 to the First Division play-offs before returning to Watford when Sir Elton suggested it was the place to salve his wounds. In 1998, the team won the Second Division title and a year later gained promotion to the Premiership.

Yet big money had changed football irrevocably and the club was relegated after just a season. Taylor had made up his mind to retire when he was briefly tempted back to Villa for a season in 2002.

Thereafter he appeared as a summariser on Radio Five and tended his garden. Latterly he held several positions on the board at Watford, was its honorary life president and had a stand named for him.

He married, in 1965, Rita Cowling, his childhood sweetheart, whose support was invaluable to him during his lowest ebb with England. She survives him with their two daughters, Joanne and Karen.


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