Today football lost one of its greatest English club managers; Graham Taylor. He passed away the age of 72 and his achievements are unlikely to be matched ever again in the modern game.
But the fact that many football fans’ memories of him are still tainted by a series of shameful tabloid front pages is nothing short of a tragedy.
Unfortunately, Taylor will always be remembered by some as a failure in the game; a name synonymous with a root vegetable thanks to the work of the nation’s press. But anyone who knows anything about football will be aware that he was an exceptional club manager, who was able to achieve the unthinkable while remaining a thoroughly decent man.
Born in Worksop, Nottinghamshire, in 1944, the son of a sports journalist discovered his love for the game watching nearby Scunthorpe United after his family moved there when he was a child.
I am deeply saddened and shocked to hear about Graham's passing. He was like a brother to me. I love you Graham. I will miss you very much. pic.twitter.com/FD8lEt7pQS
— Elton John (@eltonofficial) January 12, 2017
He eventually became a professional, plying his trade as full back for Grimsby Town and Lincoln City; but his organisational skills and natural leadership qualities meant that it was to be as a coach that he would be best remembered.
After a hip injury cut his playing career short he quickly turned his attention to management and became the youngest FA recognised coach at the age of just 27 when he became manager of Lincoln City, securing the Fourth Division title for the Imps before moving to Watford in 1977.
And it was at Vicarage Road, in partnership with his flamboyant chairman, Elton John, that he produced arguably his finest work, taking the struggling club from the depths of the Fourth Division to the First in the space of five exhilarating years
The pair made the perfect combination. The publicity, the glitz and all the glamour that the singer’s involvement brought to this small club on the outskirts of London was tempered by the more down-to-earth and workmanlike nature of Taylor; a manager who could achieve miracles on the field thanks to his ability to get the best out of players who – though not always the most talented in the game – were individuals who were willing to give everything for their manager.
Promotion to the Third Division in his first season and then the Second a year later, was soon followed by promotion to Division One in his fifth season, which put Watford firmly on the map not to mention up there among the game’s elite, a status they more than justified when finishing second to Bob Paisley’s Liverpool side at the first time of asking in 1983.
Watford’s success wasn’t universally appreciated however as Taylor’s side developed a style of play which brought with it not just bags of goals but also criticism from sections of the media.
“We were wrongly accused of playing long ball,” he once told Football Whispers’ own Frank Smith in an interview for the Watford Observer. “We got the ball forward quickly, no doubt about that, but people thought we just bombed it forward and the Watford fans know differently.”
If taking lowly Watford to football’s promised land wasn’t enough, Europe was to follow and Taylor’s Watford were at Wembley in the FA Cup final in 1984 in what was probably the greatest day in the club’s history.
Such was the level of achievement that Taylor’s beaming smile as he led his side out of the tunnel and Elton John’s tears at the final whistle often overshadows the fact that they were eventually beaten 2-0 by Everton that day.
But it wasn’t just his achievements on the field which Taylor will be recognised for, he also brought through a generation of excellent young players from the Watford youth team, overseen by coach Tom Walley.
He put his faith firmly in the likes of Kenny Jackett, Luther Blissett, Nigel Gibbs and Nigel Callaghan, not to mention one of the greatest English players of all time, John Barnes, who was discovered by the club in 1981, aged 18, and was eventually sold to Liverpool six years later and became one of the most exciting talents in world football.
Awesome story of Graham Taylor and a Villa fan with Cystic Fibrosis. pic.twitter.com/WymaCxsYFQ
— Back Page Football (@bpfootball) January 13, 2017
With his stock high Taylor was now a sought after name and in 1987 Aston Villa eventually came calling as he was given the huge task of resurrecting this former giant of the game who now found themselves in the Second Division; just six years after being crowned Champions and five years since lifting the European Cup in Rotterdam.
Taylor’s impact was immediate, winning promotion back to the First Division at his first attempt. Not content with that – and having secured the club’s top-flight safety in his second season – Villa eventually finished runners-up once more in 1990, again behind Liverpool.
After England’s defeat to West Germany in the semi-final of the 1990 World Cup England inevitably looked in Taylor's direction following Bobby Robson’s decision to step down. Having served his apprenticeship in the basement of English football, and proving that he was more than up to the job, the charismatic man with an incredible drive and determination had finally landed the top job in the game.
However, it turned out to be the darkest and most frustrating period of Taylor's career and a move which would ultimately overshadow all his achievements to date.
Unfortunately for Taylor he took the reins of a national side who were very much at a transitional period. The likes of Bryan Robson, Peter Shilton and Terry Butcher were reaching the end of their careers with little talent waiting in the wings to replace them it seemed.
An ignominious exit from Euro ‘92 was followed by failure to even qualify for the 1994 World Cup in America. To make things worse Taylor endured grotesque newspaper headlines and saw his reputation further ridiculed in a warts-and-all TV documentary: “An Impossible Job,” which saw him agree to wear a microphone in a generous gesture which was not even part of the initial documentary's plans.
For many he handed international caps to players who simply weren’t of international standard leading to him being vilified and cruelly lampooned as a “turnip” in the Sun newspaper.
Though it’s worth remembering he was only working with the players that were available to him, endured torrid misfortunate on occasions and he was also the man responsible for giving an international debut to the prolific Alan Shearer.
Following his inevitable resignation from the England job Taylor stayed out of the game until returning to Wolves in March 1994. During his spell in charge he took them into the second-tier play-offs in 1995, where they lost to Bolton Wanderers, but a reunion with his former chairman and good friend at Watford was just around the corner.
Elton John was back at the helm at Vicarage Road so it was no surprise when he turned to Taylor to return as general manager in February 1996. Once again it was the perfect fit and he was soon back as manager a year later before two swift promotions secured Watford’s place in the Premier League after a play-off final victory over Bolton.
To end your working day, watch this, share this and be in no doubt what Graham Taylor meant to Watford fans…
— Jake Humphrey 💙 (@mrjakehumphrey) January 12, 2017
This proved to be Graham Taylor’s ultimate swan song and after a reasonably unsuccessful return to Villa Park in February 2002 he retired for a second and final time a year later, going on to pursue a career as a pundit and analyst for both television and radio where his insightful analysis and dry humour proved hugely popular.
Throughout his work in the media, Taylor maintained a wonderfully friendly approach to those who had ridiculed him as England manager in previous years – never forgetting those cruel words and barbed jibes, but refusing to hold them against the journalists who had tarnished his reputation. A true mark of the man.
Taylor truly was a man of the people, always available for a chat, whether it be with journalists looking for a quote or fans simply wanting to chat about their team. He once even carried out Best Man duties at a wedding of two Watford fans after an optimistic request from the couple and he was only too happy to oblige.
— BBC 5 Live Sport (@5liveSport) January 12, 2017
He was also very much a pioneer of the modern game, turning Watford into the “family club” during darker days by creating a true community club, including installing a family stand at Vicarage Road, where mums and dads could enjoy the game in comfort and safety with their children at a time when hooliganism was rife.
“One of the things I’m most proud of is making Watford the first community club,” Taylor added in the aforementioned interview with the Watford Observer. “Whatever anyone says, I know we were doing things that no other club was. We created a real community. What we did was then followed by a lot of clubs. I take pride in that.”
What he achieved at Watford remains unique. It is the equivalent of a club like Cambridge United going from League Two to finishing second in the Premier League, securing European football and reaching the FA Cup final at Wembley in the space of just six seasons.
For many, however, Graham Taylor’s true legacy will be his good nature, his toothy grin and for being one of the nicest and most genuine men the game has ever produced.