Graham Taylor: A Life Well-Lived
They say that you can judge a man by the company that he keeps. In a similar spirit, when somebody dies, you can judge their character as a human being by the warmth and generosity of the tributes that they receive. If we accept this as a given, we have learnt a lot about Graham Taylor today, following the news of his death at the age of seventy-two. These tributes have been widespread, heartfelt, and sincere, and have come from all four corners of English football’s vast and diverse community, from former players and pundits, from the supporters of clubs that he managed and those that he never went anywhere near, from members of the fourth estate, many of whom who vilified him during his spell in charge of the England national team. This in itself paints a telling picture of the nature of the man himself.
These stories run through an expansive range of humour, generosity, and warmth, from the unlikely friendship formed between Taylor and Elton John in the late 1970s whilst the former was the manager and the latter the chairman of Watford, as the club embarked on a meteoric rise from the Fourth Division to the First in four crazy years between 1978 and 1982, to that of the Watford supporter who, hoping for a video message of some sort, wrote to Taylor asking him to be the best man at his wedding only to find Taylor taking him up on it with the comment, “If you’re mad enough to ask, I’m mad enough to say yes”. They hint, during an era when such character traits are starting to feel a little unfashionable, at a very fundamental humanity.
Many will consider their fundamental jumping off point for Graham Taylor to be those three and a bit years in charge of England, but he wasn’t parachuted into this position from out of nowhere. At Lincoln City in 1976, and having been appointed as the club’s manager four years earlier at just twenty-eight years of age, he took the club to the Fourth Division title with a record points tally for all divisions of seventy-four under two points for a win. He turned down an approach from First Division West Bromwich Albion to go to Watford, taking the club to the runners-up spot in the First Division in 1983 and a first ever FA Cup final appearance a year later. He eventually left for Aston Villa in 1987, taking the club back into the First Division following relegation in his first season there and then taking them to the runners-up spot there at the end of the 1989/90 season.
It s occasionally forgotten that Taylor lost just one of his first twenty-three matches in charge of England, but England managers are not, of course, judged on such records. Those three years were characterised by bad luck and errors of judgement. On the one hand, the team that had chanced its way to a 1990 World Cup semi-final was breaking up, and it might be argued that those coming through to replace them, having been brought through the game during England’s years in exile from European competition following the Heysel Stadium disaster of 1985, were not quite up to the task demanded of them by both the press and public alike. At the 1992 European Championships, the decision to replace Gary Lineker with Alan Smith and England’s subsequent elimination at the hands of Sweden resulted in savage treatment from the press which would last beyond the end of his tenure in this particular job.
And then, of course, there’s The Impossible Job. One can question the wisdom of the decision to allow – and, over a period of month, to continue to allow – a film crew to follow such a faltering campaign around, but it says a lot for Taylor’s character that he did. Elimination from the 1994 World Cup was an agonisingly drawn out affair, stretched over tepid performances against Poland, Norway and the Netherlands, although even the final defeat in Rotterdam, which proved the final straw for him in this position, was as much a result of bad luck as the team’s (not inconsiderable, when taken as a whole) shortcomings. The Impossible Job remains a difficult but essential watch for those amongst us who cared for the national football team at that time, but it may be worth considering that the manager who failed was always held in considerably higher regard than any of the verminous hacks who gleefully and systematically sought to assassinate his character while he held that position.
His post-England managerial career was a mixed bag. At Wolverhampton Wanderers in the mid-1990s, he was the wrong man in the wrong job at the wrong time. A return to Watford in 1996, however, proved to be a different matter. After a brief spell as general manager, he placed himself in the manager’s position, a decision of not inconsiderable bravery following the England and Wolves disasters and at a club that fallen on fallow times following his previous departure from Vicarage Road a decade earlier, but the results were again instant. Two successive promotions bounced the club from the third tier to the Premier League, although the club’s spell there this time around was brief. A short and unhappy spell at Aston Villa followed, before ending up an engaging and astute analyst on both radio and the television.
Mistakes and errors of judgement were undoubtedly made through some of his career, but seldom has there been a more unfair caricature made of a manager in English football than that of Graham Taylor as a dunderheaded oaf during his time in what time has told us incontrovertibly is an impossible job, and it is perhaps worthy of our consideration that there may have been no greater a sense of genuine sadness at the passing of a former manager in this country since that of Bobby Robson, another who felt the waspish and entitled wrath of the same people who have repeatedly done so much to make the England manager’s job so impossible over the last few decades. Perhaps if you can judge somebody’s character as a human being by the warmth and generosity of the tributes that they receive when they pass, you can also do so from the calibre of enemies they acquire on the way. A life well-lived, indeed.
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