Graham Taylor was a polarising figure within English football. He was one of the most abused England managers of all-time, his style of football was often pigeonholed as being the long-ball game, and at the point of a very public nadir, which stretched from an insipid Euro 92 campaign, onward to failure to reach the finals of USA 94, he was widely deemed to be highly representative for all which was wrong within the ethos of the English game.
Whenever English football hits the eye of its ever-changing storm, the reaction of the nation tends to be one which is a swollen version of what it really should be. The blood rises and the footballing community over-reacts.
In late 1993, the nation was at odds with Graham Taylor, and he was cast as public enemy number one. Vilified and mocked. Degraded and brow-beaten.
Eventually the storm moved on to claim new victims. The Taylor who stood in the calm breeze that followed could have become bitter, cynical and reclusive. Angry at his treatment from the game he had served so well with Lincoln, Watford and Aston Villa, before ascending to what was once declared to be the second most important job in the country.
While Taylor forgave his aggressors, he never forgot. Yet he didn’t brood on what had passed. He moved on to new things, some new, but many old. He returned to club management and eventually passed through the parishes of Vicarage Road and Villa Park once again.
Taylor never hid himself away. He was always amenable to those that wanted an interview, and his honesty and openness won him new fans and won over old foes. The public that once scorned him began to see a different Graham Taylor – a man who was perceptive and intelligent, warm and witty. Someone who was extremely likeable. It was at odds with the caricature which was painted by the tabloid media during his England tenure.
Taylor was unarguably out of his depth in the England job, one that probably would have gone to Howard Kendall had he not turned down an invitation to apply for it. In the years following Italia 90, Terry Venables, or an extension of the Bobby Robson era, would likely have ensured the international waters would have remained calmer than they proved to be under the leadership of Taylor.
The reasons for his failure with the national team are caught within a far more complex myriad of clashing circumstances than most will give credit for. For every self-inflicted blow he laid on himself, there was an outrageous stroke of misfortune. It was a role which might have worked out better for him, yet was one he shouldn’t have been really been given, or at least not when he was.
It was within club management where his strengths lay. When he took on the England job, he did so off the back of an unexpected tilt at the First Division title in 1989-90 with Aston Villa. For a long time, the West Midlands side had the edge in the battle with Liverpool, until the run-in. The signing of Tony Cascarino from Millwall, just before the March transfer deadline, destabilised the previous balance which Taylor’s title-chasers had enjoyed. They faded on the final straight and Liverpool instead took the title on the penultimate Saturday of the campaign.
Had Taylor been able to continue in the Villa Park hot-seat, then he might well have gone on to win a major trophy, the major trophy which his career ultimately went without. The sale of David Platt to Bari that summer would have given him funds to strengthen a club he had taken from Division two to a Division Ome title challenge in just three years.
Taylor had achieved all he had at Villa Park by using the same template for progress that he had used at Watford. A rigid framework, and one which demanded high fitness and energy levels. He drilled a disciplined unit, but one which was allied to elements of flair. Tony Daley was the source of that flair at Aston Villa.
Famously, the source of flair that Taylor had at his disposal for Watford was John Barnes; a legend of the game who he nurtured, watched blossom, and then eventually outgrow the confines of Vicarage Road. It seemed fitting that both Taylor and Barnes departed the club simultaneously for new beginnings elsewhere.
In Taylor’s ten-year span at Watford, he took them from Division Four to Division One in just five seasons, finishing a distant runner-up to Liverpool in their debut top-flight campaign in 1982-83, then onto the FA Cup final against Everton the following year.
It was at Lincoln City that he’d honed his skills, being handed the manager’s job at the age of just 28 after injury had prematurely ended his playing days. Many of those who saw them, fans of the club and rivals alike, rated Taylor’s 1975-76 Division Four title-winning side as the finest team to ever play at that level. The statistics spoke for themselves: 111 goals were scored, with 32 wins and just four losses from their 46 games played.
Taylor became a wanted man and it was an initial backwards step he took in a bid to advance forward to greater things, an action he would repeat a decade later when leaving Division One Watford for Division Two Aston Villa.
When Taylor departed Lincoln City for Watford in the summer of 1977, he was leaving a Division Three side for one in Division Four. Other offers were on the table, offers higher up the league ladder, but the feel he got for Watford and Vicarage Road proved to be an overpowering one. Teaming up with Elton John in one of football’s most surreal double-acts, they ascended the Football League with power-play and a sprinkling of skill.
Those first three seasons in Division One were the pinnacle of the first coming of the Taylor-John axis: league runner-up, UEFA Cup football, the FA Cup final and high profile transfer business with the mighty AC Milan.
A plateau was eventually reached and a run to the 1987 FA Cup semi-finals was the last great party, where they were comfortably beaten by David Pleat’s Tottenham, on a day when Taylor was forced to field Gary Plumley in goal. Plumley, the son of the then-Watford chief executive, was called out of retirement to cover for Tony Coton and Steve Sherwood, but found himself thrust into action because of injury to both of Taylor’s established keepers.
There was an unrelenting charm to Taylor in his Watford and Aston Villa days, which faded into the background during the intense heat of the England job. Constantly under scrutiny and most of it negative, he rehabilitated himself in the familiar soundings of Vicarage Road when he returned to the club in 1996, after the lost opportunity of a near miss on promotion to the Premier League with Wolverhampton Wanderers in his first post-England managerial appointment.
Two more promotions during that second spell at Watford took the Hornets back to the top flight in 1999, albeit for a one-season stay. It was at this time that the old charismatic side of Taylor returned to the public eye.
Taylor relinquished the Watford job in the summer of 2000 after a bright start to their bid for an immediate return to the Premier League drifted away. He was then coaxed out of retirement by a chance to return to Aston Villa. It was a reunion which lasted just over a year, before differences of directional opinion with the tempestuous Doug Ellis led to him resigning.
It was beyond his managerial career that Taylor earned himself a new, younger legion of fans. His insightful analysis and dry humour on BBC Radio Five Live proved hugely popular, for a short time transferring his broadcasting to television with ITV, with whom he’d earlier worked as an unofficial England manager-elect during Italia 90. He also starred in the football reality show, The Match, in which he coached a squad of young celebrities for a live televised game against a team of ex-professionals, almost leading them to a spirited draw at a well-attended St James’ Park.
Throughout his work in the media, Taylor maintained a wonderfully friendly approach to those who had dismantled him as England manager – never forgetting those cruel words, but never holding them against the journalists who tainted him so much during the early 1990s. Taylor also maintained a presence within the game, with director’s roles for Scunthorpe United and Watford.
Graham Taylor was a genuine football man. At the time he began his coaching odyssey, he was the youngest FA accredited coach at the age of 27, and despite creating a massively polarising method of football, one which won admirers and detractors in equal measure, he made a lasting impact on the vast majority of those who worked with him or crossed his path in one way or another. He was a man who left an indelible imprint on the game and will be sorely missed.
By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74