Wednesday 13 December 2017

Taylor marked by decency in life and in football

Players' kind tributes says it all about man who stayed true to his principles

Graham Taylor takes an England training session in 1990 before his first game in charge Photo: Getty
Graham Taylor takes an England training session in 1990 before his first game in charge Photo: Getty
James Lawton

James Lawton

When Graham Taylor was appointed manager of England in 1990 he did something that invited immediate mockery, much of which was sustained until he left the job four years later.

He put on his new team blazer and admired himself in front of the mirror. Yesterday, when he died at the age of 72, you couldn't hear a peep out of his most pitiless detractor. There was the best of reasons for this. It was that the more you studied the life of this supremely decent football man, the more you realised he wasn't preening in front of that mirror. He was celebrating the proudest, most hopeful moment he would ever know.

Taylor with then Watford chairman Elton John Photo: Jack Kay/Express/Getty Images
Taylor with then Watford chairman Elton John Photo: Jack Kay/Express/Getty Images

The hopes were never fulfilled, of course, and after one defeat, against Sweden, a picture of a turnip was superimposed over his face on the front page of the nation's biggest-selling tabloid. That caused many guffaws at the time but how cheap and hollow they sound now.

Down the years Taylor was obliged to accept that, for all his achievements in club football, notably with Watford and Aston Villa, he was maybe not best cast in the international game.

Read more: Former England football manager Graham Taylor dies aged 72

He favoured the long-ball football which he knew well as a player with Grimsby Town and Lincoln in his youth and which brought him so much success - and the lifelong affection of Elton John - as manager at the pop superstar's Watford.


What he never had to do, though, was question the honesty of his instincts and his care for the footballers who came into his charge.

We were reminded of this yesterday by one of the most striking tributes. It came from Paul McGrath, who had more reason than most professionals to appreciate a manager who saw in him not so much a set of personal problems and chronic knee injury but a talent and a heart that belonged to a world-class footballer.

McGrath recalled: "He made sure I was okay on the pitch. But he just didn't want that. He wanted me to feel good about myself off it. I wanted to pay him back. I played as well as I could that year of 1989."

Taylor, who remarkably won Aston Villa promotion to the top flight and then repeated the runners-up feat he had delivered at Watford, went to Lansdowne Road to take a look at McGrath.

"I remember being struck," he said later, "by his presence in the Irish defence. I also remember thinking, 'You may have problems big man but you sure as hell can play.'"

Repeatedly, reaction to yesterday's news centred on Taylor's combination of qualities which are not so overwhelming in the football of today which offers rewards the young professional couldn't have imagined back in his playing days in the sixties and early seventies.

Read more: 'In my darkest days he was always there' - Paul McGrath in emotional tribute to Graham Taylor

He was marked by honesty and humility. His playing career was over at the age of 28 and before winning the Fourth Division title as manager of his old club Lincoln in 1976 he knew some days of desperate insecurity.

He recalled: "When I first started out at Lincoln as manager I went 11 games without a win. I had a mortgage, a semi-detached house and two kids under four. Lincoln only had crowds of 2,500 but that still sounds like a lot of people when they are all shouting, 'Taylor out, Taylor out.' That is pressure. I was finished as a player and I'd been a manager for five minutes. What was I going to do? That is the kind of experience which forms you.

"By the time I got the England job my daughters were married and my mortgage was paid off. So then 70,000 people shouting, Taylor out, Taylor out, is not the same kind of pressure."

Perhaps not the same but also murderous in its intensity. He suffered much savagery at the hands of his critics and there were times when a man of lesser equilibrium would surely have lashed out. But then when he put on that blazer he knew that his head was placed uncomfortably above the parapet. He had seen the denouement of Alf Ramsey, England's only World Cup-winning manager, how he was sent away to Ipswich with little honour and a paltry pension.

He saw how his predecessor Bobby Robson, who reached the semi-finals of the 1990 World Cup, had been deeply wounded by the price of failure, any failure short of ultimate success.

His own purgatory began soon enough in the 1992 European Championships, when England failed to fight their way out of the group stage and he was impaled on his decision to withdraw England's top scorer Gary Lineker in the second half of the crucial game.

"That was one of the things for which I would never be forgiven," he said later. "But it was an honest decision, one of the kind you feel you have to make whatever the consequences."

Yet that was a mere taste of the inquisition to come. It broke over him in a storm of derision on a blustery, fraught autumn night in Rotterdam, in 1993 when England were beaten 2-0 by Holland and knocked off the road to the World Cup of 1994. Taylor, perhaps naively, had agreed to co-operate with a documentary entitled 'The Impossible Job', saying that he felt it would be a valuable exercise for English football, a definitive study of the demands facing a national team and its manager.

Read more: Walter Mazzarri wants Watford to win for Graham Taylor against Middlesbrough

It was an invitation to film his professional destruction. He railed at the referee who allowed Ronald Koeman to stay on the field after pulling back, as the last defender, David Platt. He said that it had cost him his job and, unforgettably, "Do I not like that," when Koeman celebrated his escape by firing in a free-kick."

Taylor's reaction to the broadcasting of the film, and the criticism he knew would fall upon him, was significant and still another testament to his honesty under the severest pressure. The producer of the film Neil Duncanson would say later, "Graham was one of the kindest, most honest men I ever met in 30 years of producing TV programmes about football.


"When we saw the final version of the film, he said, 'Well, that's how it was. But my mother isn't going to like the swearing.' He could have bailed out at any time, he could even have stopped the film. But he said he had given his word."

Instead of bailing out, Taylor reasserted his love of the game which, at its highest level, brought him to a relentless ordeal. He served further, not notably successful spells at Wolves, Watford and Aston Villa, and then, suspecting his powers of motivation had ebbed in his work with the latest generation of footballers, he took up the microphone of a radio broadcaster.

He was encountered on such duty in Vienna during the 2008 European Championships and over a nightcap he was asked if he had any regrets. "Are you joking," he said. "I sometimes feel the luckiest man in the world."

No, he wasn't preening that day he put on his blazer and stepped in front of the mirror.

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