Parking The Coach: Graham Taylor

by | Nov 27, 2017

The date is Friday, 17th June 1994. Two major events are unfolding in the United States of America and neither of them involved the England football team. The first, given English soccer players’ propensity for shenanigans once the summer break rolls around, was a blessing: A white Ford Bronco driven by A.C. Cowlings and with the fugitive O.J. Simpson in the passenger seat, drove around the Los Angeles freeways, transfixing a divided nation. The second, meanwhile, was of a rather more pressing concern for the Three Lions: In Chicago, the fifteenth FIFA World Cup Finals kicked off following a predictably glitzy opening ceremony at Soldier Field. O.J. Simpson was not in attendance.

The England football team’s lack of involvement in the latter was the cause of considerable national chagrin. England had unexpectedly reached the semi final of Italia ’90 and, in the intervening four years, the new Premier League had been established at considerable expense and with considerable fanfare. Being an English football supporter was desirable, aspirational and fashionable again, yet their national team would be absent from the most colourful and exciting international celebration of the game, taking place in the very back yard of football’s biggest new potential growth market. Luckily, thanks to the not inconsiderable efforts and encouragement of a furious, vitriolic tabloid press, England fans had someone to blame. Unfortunately for Graham Taylor, it was not O.J. Simpson.

Taylor’s culpability for this most unspeakable and inexplicable national failure has been dissected and discussed at considerable length elsewhere, not least in the monumental Channel 4 documentary An Impossible Job. There, the inside story of English football’s most traumatic episode in a generation was distilled down to a series of memorable tableaux and captioned by Graham Taylor’s own unique lexicon. One phrase in particular entered the national consciousness and will be forever associated with England’s sixth full-time manager: “Do I not like that”. It was a phrase uttered countless times on social media earlier this year, on the occasion of Taylor’s sudden, premature death. That it was now being used with fondness and regret – in spite of a most unreasoned and vituperative press witch hunt still being fresh in many memories – spoke volumes about Graham Taylor, the coach and the man. In the end, it transpired that Graham Taylor’s legacy was to be remembered with fondness and warmth. It was no less than this honourable, honest, capable man deserved. This is his story.

Graham Taylor was born in Worksop on 15th September 1944. His father, Thomas, was the sports reporter for the Scunthorpe Evening Telegraph and he grew up marinading in a love for Association Football. A bright child, Taylor would pass his Eleven Plus exam to earn a place at Scunthorpe Grammar School, but this love for the game had already established his future path. Taylor would leave Scunthorpe Grammar one year into his A Level courses to sign apprentice terms at Scunthorpe United, over the protests of his school’s headmaster. “Grammar school boys don’t become footballers”, his exasperated parting shot.

From Scunthorpe United, Taylor would go on to sign professional terms at Grimsby Town in 1962. A full back, Taylor would make his debut in 1963 and went on to make one hundred and eighty-nine appearances for The Mariners before signing for Lincoln City in 1968. There he would make a further one hundred and fifty senior appearances and become club captain. It was at Lincoln, too, where his playing career would come to a premature end due to a hip injury. Just twenty-eight years of age,Taylor had nevertheless already added another string to his bow: the previous summer he had, at twenty-seven, become the youngest man to become a qualified FA coach. By December 1972, Taylor had assumed the manager’s chair at Sincil Bank.

Taylor would often hark back to his early days in his first managerial appointment. He later argued that managing England was no pressure compared with being an untested 29-year old coach – a wife, mortgage and two young children – with the Lincoln City faithful calling for your head. The Lincoln team he inherited were in a mess but Taylor steered them to a 10th place finish in the Fourth Division. The following season Lincoln would finish a consolidatory twelfth, before a fifth place finish in 1974/75 saw City narrowly miss out on automatic promotion. The following season they would win the title, establishing records for games won (32), games lost (4), points won (74) and goals scored (111, at a goal average of 2.846 per match), to top the table by six points from the chasing pack. The following season, 1976/77, Taylor’s Lincoln City finished 9th in the Third Division.

Graham Taylor was now just thirty-three years old, and one of the most promising young coaches in the country. Quite how far he could have taken his project at Lincoln City, however, will forever be a topic for speculation. Because in the summer of 1977, something particularly unusual happened. Any day where you take a phone call from Elton John is likely to be a memorable one. In Taylor’s case, his conference with the flamboyant music superstar came about when John decided that the Lincoln boss would be the ideal candidate to take over the managerial vacancy at Watford, the club John had bought the previous year. It was going to be a hard sell: Watford were mired in the Fourth Division, one of the teams that Taylor’s Lincoln were brushing aside en route to the championship just as Elton was moving his throne into the Vicarage Road boardroom. It was a bold gambit on behalf of both Elton John and Watford Football Club, but bolder yet was the way John was to sell the project: If I want Watford to be playing in Europe, how long would it take and much money would it cost?

Taylor’s flabbergasted answer was seven years and one million pounds. Hooked in by both Elton John’s ambition and his resources, Taylor accepted the offer, although it meant stepping down once again into the basement of the Football League. This was not the case for very long: by the end of Taylor’s first season in charge – 1977/78 – Watford were champions, eleven points clear of Southend United to secure Taylor his second Fourth Division winner’s trophy in three seasons. By the end of the following season, Watford would be in the second tier, having finished runners-up in the Third Division, a point shy of champions Shrewsbury Town. Lincoln City were to finish 24th and last.

The precipitousness of Watford’s rise under Taylor was to be briefly checked upon their arrival in the Second Division. The Hornets finished eighteenth in 1979/80 and the next season saw them improve to ninth. By 1981/82, Watford were ready to push on once again, finishing as runners-up in the second tier and winning promotion to the First Division for the first time in the club’s history. These were uncharted waters: prior to Taylor’s arrival, the team’s highest league position had been a solitary season in the second flight. But the best was yet to come. In 1982/83, their first ever season in England’s top division, Watford stunned the football establishment to finish 2nd in the First Division, with Luther Blissett scoring twenty-seven goals to secure himself an unlikely transfer to AC Milan. Elton John’s dream had been brilliantly realised by Taylor and his team. More impressive and improbable still, they had achieved it two years short (and £200,000 under budget) of Taylor’s initial, optimistic, estimates.

But if Watford’s rise represented a fairytale story for the club’s hitherto success-starved supporters, Taylor’s project remained significantly less popular with football fans outside of Hertfordshire. Normally, English football reserves the kind of opprobrium with which they greeted Watford’s rise to incidences of wealthy chairman pumping endless funds into their club in order to artificially inflate their fortunes. Watford, of course, could easily have fallen into this trap, but for Graham Taylor’s exceptional man management and firm hand on the tiller. So instead, the naysayers and critics would focus on their playing style.

The continued criticism of his favoured tactical approach would baffle and infuriate Taylor in equal measure. Dismissed and decried as a “long ball” merchant, Taylor would plaintively enquire, “when does a long pass become a long ball?” Certainly, Taylor favoured a direct approach. However, to damn a man of his credentials and achievements on a purely aesthetic basis seems arbitrary in the extreme. Instead, I would content that Graham Taylor was one of the foremost tactical pioneers in the English game, where notions of intellectual profundity are nearly always dismissed with derision and suspicion in equal measure.

Taylor’s strategy, too, was based solely on attack. Watford climbed the league by raining goals. “I knew we couldn’t defend our way into Europe”, was Taylor’s assessment. Taylor’s game was based on an energetic, high tempo, direct style requiring exceptional fitness and stamina. What made it pioneering for the English game was that it also demanded high pressing. This style, designed to dictate and restrict the space in which the opposition have to operate, had been widely admired in the hands of Rinus Michels at Ajax, Barcelona and the Netherlands (and would go on to be once again, with Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan). But Graham Taylor’s introduction of the concept into the English game was greeted in an all-too-familiar English style: petty, small-minded and mistrustful. Watford would look to get the ball forward as soon as possible and then press hard to win possession in the final third. Playing the ball forward speculatively was – is – not an unusual sight in the English leagues. Taylor had merely refined it and used it to build a winning strategy.

Taylor would argue that the dismissiveness that greeted Watford was based purely on snobbery, on fear of the new and unfamiliar. He had a point. The Football League’s next great success story would be that of Wimbledon, who played a true long ball style of pure hard-headed muscularity: Their goalkeeper, Dave Beasant, lashed booming goal kicks as deep into the opposition’s half as he could muster, upon which the outfield players would swarm after the ball and attempt to win possession back by whatever means and as near to the goal as possible. Wimbledon, too, were dismissed as being against the Corinthian spirit which English football was supposed to embody. But to dismiss Wimbledon’s story as being ‘another Watford’ was a gross exaggeration, a dismissal of the organisation and refinement that Taylor’s team embodied. A negation, too, of the abilities of players such as Luther Blissett, Nigel Callaghan, Kenny Jackett and John Barnes. When Taylor was tempted away from Watford in 1987, it would be the architect of Wimbledon’s rise – Dave Bassett – that The Hornets chose to replace him. Watford would be relegated that season, not to return to the top flight until Graham Taylor returned to the dugout at Vicarage Road.

Under Graham Taylor, Watford would go on to play in Europe, reaching the third round of the UEFA cup with victories over both Kaiserslauten and Levski Sofia before coming unstuck against Slavia Prague. Prague would win the first leg at Vicarage Road, an 89th minute goal from Zdenek Scasny securing a 3-2 victory. Two weeks later, Watford were brushed aside 4-0 at the Letna Stadium. Taylor was characteristically open about the reason for the defeat: “When you give the ball away in Europe,” he explained, “they don’t give it back.” However, they were still effective on home soil and at the end of the season Taylor led his side out at Wembley to compete in their first FA Cup final. Watford would lose that match 2-0 to a resurgent Everton – who would be English champions the following year – and in many ways their appearance in the FA Cup Final represented the apogee of Taylor’s time in Herts.

With the distractions of their cup exploits – and the sale of Luther Blissett to Milan – Watford would finish eleventh in the First Division in 1983/84. Blissett would return to the fold (at an overall profit of £450,000), in 1984/85 but the side weren’t able to improve and finished eleventh again. A twelfth and a ninth-place finish would follow but by then Taylor’s time at Vicarage Road was at an end: the entreaties of newly-relegated Aston Villa would see him drop down a division for the second time in his managerial career in the summer of 1987. He had given Watford the footballing times of their lives and firmly established their credentials as a top flight team. No-one involved with the club would ever forget it.

Aston Villa would bounce straight back into the First Division in Taylor’s first season in charge, finishing as runners-up to Millwall with an exciting new team that blended the experience of Nigel Spink and Gordon Cowans with the dynamism of David Platt and Tony Daley. Taylor then shepherded his new side to safety in 1988/89, securing a seventeenth place finish by a single point. In 1989/90, Taylor would again see one of his sides finish runners-up in the First Division, nine points shy of Liverpool (who secured their eighteenth, and most recent, English title) but seven clear of third-placed Tottenham. Taylor had added Derek Mountfield and Paul McGrath to the Villa defence, while the attack was bolstered by the arrivals of Ian Olney, Ian Ormondroyd and Tony Cascarino. With Gordon Cowans pulling the strings in midfield and David Platt and Tony Daley sprinting on to join the front men, here was a formidable, exciting team.

Viewed through the prism of an established, historically successful football club like Aston Villa, Taylor’s style received none of the scrutiny or derision that it had drawn at upstarts Watford. On Bonfire Night in 1989, the ITV cameras arrived at Villa Park to televise the First Division clash against Everton live for their Big Match strand. Aston Villa would emerge 6-2 winners, a pulsating performance that remains fresh in the memories of anyone who saw it. At the end of the season, Taylor beat Terry Venables, Joe Royle and Howard Kendall to the England job, which had been vacated by Bobby Robson after the unlikely heroics of the 1990 World Cup.

So much that has been written about Taylor’s tenure at Lancaster Gate has become interwoven with hearsay, exaggeration or straightforward bile, that it would probably be counter-productive to rake through it all again here. Mistakes were, undeniably, made. There were unrepresentative team selections, unbalanced line ups and unusual tactics. But Taylor was also the victim of some unfortunate circumstance: Paul Gascoigne was England’s outstanding player but missed large chunks of Taylor’s stewardship of the national team – including all of the European Championship Finals in 1992 – with a series of injuries. Taylor was also unlucky that his time in charge coincided with the end of Gary Lineker’s international career. Worse still, the players that Taylor could bring in to replace them – Paul Merson, Andy Sinton, Les Ferdinand, Ian Wright or Alan Shearer – were drawn largely from an era of English players that had missed out on the experience of European football, due to the Heysel Stadium disaster and the subsequent five year ban. By the time Euro 96 came around, the new talent that Terry Venables’ England team were able to call upon, such as Gary Neville and Steve McManaman, had been exposed to this crucial avenue of their footballing development.

The basic facts were these. Taylor would be in charge of England for thirty-eight games, of which he would win eighteen, draw thirteen and lose seven. Of those seven, only three came in competitive fixtures. The last of these, a 2-0 defeat to the Netherlands in Rotterdam, was particularly unfortunate, the result of some poor, inconsistent refereeing decisions and compounded by the undeniable class of the opposition. This leaves two more defeats of consequence. The first was Gary Lineker’s final game for England, the 2-1 defeat to Sweden in the last group game of Euro 92, where an inspired Tomas Brolin and Martin Dahlin undid a promising start that saw David Platt open the scoring after just two minutes. The other was a World Cup Qualification game, versus Norway in Oslo, in June 1993.

That two of these three telling defeats were to come against Scandinavian opponents was as ironic as it was inevitable. Taylor’s tactical approach to the game was very similar to that espoused by two of the more extraordinary characters from the annals of the English game. Indeed, both Charles Reep and Charles Hughes would, at various times, claim to have directly influenced Taylor, although Taylor himself would always deny it. There were, however, many links. Charles Hughes served as the FA’s technical director throughout Taylor’s reign at Lancaster Gate, and during 1982 Taylor would appoint Simon Hartley, a trainee of Reep’s, to the scouting team at Watford, an arrangement that would net Hartley and Reep a £6000 bonus at the end of a successful season.

Reep was English football’s arch pragmatist. He used decades of mathematical analysis of football matches to inform a suggested style of play. Reep’s observations had shown him that the majority of goals came from moves that involved fewer than five passes and that each goal tended to come about from every nine attempted shots. Reep’s prescribed method was to get the ball as far forward and as quickly as possible, and to shoot more or less on sight. Reep’s probability matrix was adopted by Hughes, who wrote two highly successful training manuals: Football Tactics and Teamwork (1973) and Soccer Tactics and Skills (1980). Hughes argued that the declining numbers of goals scored in the English game was a consequence of teams playing possession football. The more time that the attacking side took to construct their attack, the more time the defending team had to regroup and reorganise, increasingly resulting in stalemate.

In a further publication, The Winning Formula, Hughes argued that to succeed at football, fast, direct play was the way forward. If one team gets the ball into their opponent’s final third more often than their opposition and achieves a minimum of 10 shots on target per game, Hughes calculated that their chances of winning would be over 85 percent. Hughes posited that, as the majority of shots were unsuccessful anyway, shooting as often as possible was in fact an advantage for the attacking team, with mishit or rebounding shots often proving the best way to create goalscoring opportunities.

Many people disagreed with this stark, probabilistic, analysis. Hughes’ predecessor as the FA’s Technical Director, Allen Wade, thought that the methods espoused by Hughes and Reep would be “the death of football”. “Football in which players are controlled by off-pitch svengalis backed up by batteries of statisticians and analysts,” Wade argued, “will never hold the appeal of what Pelé called ‘The Beautiful Game'”. Brian Clough was equally critical and typically forthright: “I want to establish without any shadow of a doubt that Charles Hughes is totally wrong in his approach to football”.

However, one place that their ideas did take root were in the burgeoning professional game in Scandinavia, particularly in Sweden and Norway. For Sweden, this new approach saw increased success: both Malmo and IFK Gothenburg would reach European finals in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but its less-than-pleasing football also led to declining attendances. Nevertheless, during Taylor’s time with England, Sweden would reach the semi finals of both the 1992 European Championships and the 1994 World Cup.

Norway’s adoption of the techniques that Hughes and Reep had formalised was to be even more wholehearted, thanks to a visionary coach of their own: Egil Olsen. For Olsen, the idea of defence was to regain possession of the ball and the idea of possession was to attack. Believing that goals were far more likely when the opposition were unbalanced and unprepared, “attack” meant getting the ball into The Bakrom, Olsen’s term for the space behind the opponent’s defence, as quickly as possible. Olsen called this Forward Football (the short-passing possession game was ‘Backward Football’) and it would be devastatingly effective. Norway would qualify for both the 1994 and 1998 World Cups and, briefly in 1995, were ranked the world’s second-best football team by FIFA. When Olsen arrived in England to manage Wimbledon in 1999, Charles Reep, by this time 95 years of age, was sufficiently impressed to write and offer the Norwegian his services.

Norway had drawn 1-1 with England at Wembley in the autumn of 1992, a late goal by Kjetil Rekdal cancelling out David Platt’s strike early in the second half. Come the following summer, England arrived in Oslo for a must-win game. They didn’t. Norway’s tactics were straightforward; indeed, not dissimilar to the ones that Taylor had employed to climb the Football League with Watford. Olsen’s Norway relied on a well-drilled and hard-working team which allowed specialised playmakers like Rekdal or Oyvind Leonardsen to pick out target men such as Jostein Flo, whose job it then was to hold up the ball and play in midfield runners. Stamina, tempo and a strong understanding of everyone’s role in the team were central to Olsen’s model. It was also exactly how Taylor had gone about making good his promise to Elton John.

Perhaps it was the chastening experience of Watford’s UEFA Cup run in 1983, where his workmanlike but uninspired side ran aground against technically superior opponents, but Graham Taylor’s tactical approach as England manager abandoned many of the central principles that had made him successful. At Watford, his team played 4-4-2 with orthodox wingers and a hard-working central spine, but the shape of the team was an afterthought: it was his philosophy that would be the key. However, his England selections were much less regimented or predictable. Against Norway at Wembley in October 1992, he played a 4-4-2 with a compact central midfield lacking any recognised wide players: Davids Batty and Platt, Pauls Gascoigne and Ince.

In Oslo, however, his team were laid out as a 3-1-4-2, Carlton Palmer screening three central defenders, Gary Pallister, Des Walker and Tony Adams, and the Lees Dixon and Sharpe operating as wing backs. The resultant stammering England performance was as muddled and disjointed an England display as had been seen for many years. Norway were afforded the time and space to be able to simply work through their gears: goals from Leonhardsen and Lars Bohinen either side of half-time secured the two points, although realistically England would not have scored had they still been playing today. It was the most crucial, telling loss of Taylor’s England career, one which made qualification for the 1994 World Cup virtually impossible and one which saw his own ideas about the way football should be played employed to outwit him.

Taylor held on in his post for another six months after the trauma of Oslo. This was, in itself, an achievement: their next match, a week later, saw a famous 2-0 friendly defeat away at the hands of the United States during a four-team tournament designed as a curtain raiser for the following summer’s World Cup. England would also lose to Germany in the USA, before the defeat in Rotterdam in mid-October left the country praying for mathematical miracles. The job was starting to fall about Taylor’s ears: four of the seven defeats he would endure as the national boss came in his last seven matches. The final game for Taylor’s England was a 7-1 victory over San Marino in Bologna, where the minnows’ Davide Gualtieri famously opened the scoring after 8.3 seconds. England had failed to qualify for a World Cup for the first time in sixteen years. The clamour was deafening and the writing on the wall: Taylor resigned on 23rd November 1993. His fundamental humanity and earnest best efforts had been subsumed by a tidal wave of tabloid angst, unfulfilled expectations and swingeing personal attacks.

A lesser man would probably have bought a cave high on a hill and lived out the rest of his days as a bearded hermit, but remarkably by the following March Taylor had made his return to football. Graham Turner’s tenure at Wolverhampton Wanderers, which had seen him take the club from the Fourth Division to the Second, had stalled. Sir Jack Hayward, the Wolves chairman, had invested heavily in the resurgence of a once great power in the English game and turned to Taylor for his proven ability at getting teams into the top flight. But Taylor would spend just one full season at Molineux. 1994/95 would see Wolves finish fourth and qualify for the play-offs. Wolves won their first leg 2-1 at home against Bolton with goals from Steve Bull and Mark Venus, but three days later at Burden Park, Bolton won through 2-0 with John McGinley scoring the winner in the 19th minute of Extra Time. Bolton went on to beat Reading 4-3 to win promotion to the Premier League, but this was scant consolation for Taylor or his team. Worse was to follow: Wolves endured a slow start to the 1995/96 season with just four wins from their first 12 matches. Patience with Graham Taylor was, it turned out, still very much in limited supply and he was dismissed for the first and only time in his managerial career.

Although by this point Graham Taylor could easily have been forgiven for taking the easy way out, a sedate life of gardening and television punditry, he still had one great managerial story left in him. Elton John reached out once again to Taylor, Watford having now slumped back into the third tier of English football. Initially he was appointed General Manager, a role which he said “bored him to tears”. But for the 1997/98 season, Taylor was back in the dugout, with previous manager Kenny Jackett demoted back to the coaching staff. It was a change that bore immediate fruit: Watford lost just six games to win the title by a single point from Bristol City. It was Taylor’s third league championship trophy, a first in the third tier and his first in twenty years. The following season, 1998/99, Watford would finish fifth in the second flight and again qualify for the play-offs. Taylor would manage to gain some measure of revenge by defeating Bolton Wanderers 2-0 in the final at Wembley. Watford were in the top flight of the English game again for the first time in 19 years and again Graham Taylor had been the man with the plan.

But this was an older, wiser Taylor. Here, he was a father figure to a new group of young players: patrician at times but also caring, mindful and protective. It was a different English league, too. There was to be no repeat of Watford’s brilliance of 1982/83. Taylor’s new Watford had come too far, too soon and his overstretched team would be cruelly exposed by the Premier League. They would finish 20th and bottom of the table, seven points adrift of their nearest rivals, the only time that Taylor would preside over a relegation. On their return to the second tier, a strong start petered out into mid-table obscurity and Graham Taylor officially retired from football. He would be lured back, perhaps by either sentiment or synchronicity, by Aston Villa for a further season in the Premier League in 2002/03, but his most effective years in club management were behind him.

Taylor spent the last years of his life in and around the game. From 2004 until his death he would be a pundit and summariser for Radio Five, where his distinctive voice would often be heard offering intelligent, easily understood and constructive comments on the players, managers and clubs du jour. He would also serve honourary roles at many of the football clubs that he had served and supported throughout his career, as well as doing considerable amounts of charity work. His sudden, surprise death, of a heart attack on 12th January 2017, saw the entire football world stop to acknowledge this remarkable, kind, decent man who had made an immeasurable contribution to the national game. To this day, only Sir Alex Ferguson can boast more Manager of the Month awards than Taylor, whose ambition was “to be the most tracksuited manager that England have ever had”. His funeral, held on a frigid, soaking wet day in February, nevertheless brought his adoptive home town of Watford to a standstill. It was nothing less than he deserved.

Graham Taylor