Profile: Graham Taylor - The turnip strikes back

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The Independent Culture
WHEN YOU think of Graham Taylor, you think of swedes, turnips, and a variety of other inelegant and unfashionable vegetables. You think of how he took off Middle England's favourite son-in-law, Gary Lineker, in the middle of a vital international in Stockholm in 1992, managing to offend the entire country in the process. You think of the "Do I not like that" he muttered as he watched Poland break away in a World Cup qualifier, synthesising his own haplessness into a national catchphrase. But when you think of Graham Taylor, you think above all of Kipling's twin impostors.

First came triumph: the young football manager who turned sows' ears into silk purses at Watford, leading the club, in the space of five amazing seasons, from the old Fourth Division to runners-up to Liverpool for the Championship in 1983. Then he went on to manage Aston Villa, and might have gone one better still had he not been summoned to the helm of the national team. But in the golden aftermath of Italia 90, where England's returning semi-final heroes were greeted at the airport by an ecstatic throng of 100,000 - who could have resisted the call?

But next, inevitably, disaster. After a respectable start (he lost just one of his first 23 games in charge), it all went wrong. The turning point was the abject defeat by Sweden in the European Championship, compounded by the Lineker gaffe, which drew the inspired headline "Swedes 2, Turnips 1" in The Sun. "Spanish 1, Onions 0" was the follow-up after another miserable display in Santander in September 1992, and, barely a year later, his reputation was conclusively destroyed in tandem with the national team's chances of qualifying for the 1994 World Cup finals in America.

It was a ghastly period. At a press conference before the all-important match against the Dutch in Rotterdam, Taylor lost his temper, a flare- up captured in the Channel 4 fly-on-the-wall documentary series Cutting Edge.

Graham Gooch, whose tenure as English cricket captain ended at about the same time in only marginally less ignominy, remembered seeing Taylor on the touchline at the game, "white-faced and desperate... a terrible sight". The England manager achieved a level of national vilification to rival Lord Haw Haw and Myra Hindley. The press he had tried so earnestly to befriend simply crucified him. At one 1993 by-election, a candidate even stood for the Sack Graham Taylor Party. Had he turned his back on the game and left our shores for ever, it would have been entirely understandable.

That he did not was due in large part to the unfailing support of his close knit family and in particular of Rita, his wife of 34 years and childhood sweetheart from his days at Scunthorpe Grammar School. During his tribulations, Rita is said to have been deeply distressed.

Football, however, is the great redeemer. Much is wrong with the national sport: its shortsightedness, the greed and the money washing around it and the bloated hype that has helped confer upon the sport its ludicrous centrality in national life. But for its capacity for resurrection, you forgive it almost everything.

In 1996, after an unhappy spell at Wolverhampton Wanderers, Taylor returned to Hertfordshire, where it had all begun 19 years earlier, back to Vicarage Road and Chairman Elton and a club that had slid almost unnoticed back into the Second (the old Third) Division. And the cycle started anew. Watford were promoted in 1998 to the First Division, and then defeated Bolton in the play-off final last May to reach the Premiership. "Graham Taylor is a national treasure," gushed the same Sun that a few years earlier had branded him a national disgrace. As Rudyard Kipling did not say, football is indeed a funny old game. But Taylor has an honest, fatalistic resilience that could have been lifted straight from the pages of the great bard of Empire.

At 54, his face is still chubby, but it is crumpled now with the lines of harsh experience. His pride, one suspects, must still be smarting from the humiliation in which his England tenure ended, but these days he wants only to talk of Watford. Only in the giddy aftermath of the play-off victory, when 38,000 supporters decked in yellow, red, and black made Wembley their own, did he open up a little; he admitted to hurt and bitterness, "but I don't feel that now. There's no animosity or ill will towards anybody. After my throat trouble [an abcess that blocked his windpipe and almost killed him last year], I know there is so much more to life."

And why dwell on past failures? Nothing can undo what happened with England. Probably, Taylor was promoted beyond his station. That his own playing career was undistinguished - its high point unremarkable service as a full-back with Lincoln City in the old Third and Fourth Divisions - is irrelevant. Arsene Wenger, an equally obscure toiler in the French league, has proved as much at Arsenal. But even as Taylor was appointed, some critics expressed alarm at his comparative lack of top-class coaching credentials, pointing out that his club teams were (and still are) noted for their guts and grit, but not for their cultured style. Brian Glanville, that most cosmopolitan and experienced of football writers, warned of a reliance on a "Route One" long-ball game, which would inevitably be exposed at the highest international level. So it proved.

There are excuses for what happened. Paul Gascoigne, who should have been at the very peak of his career, missed 27 of Taylor's 38 games in charge because of injury. He had the misfortune of taking over amid the euphoria generated by Italia '90, which appeared to have sealed England's return as one of the great forces in world football. The sky seemed the limit; instead the sky crashed in. At moments like those even Saint Sebastian would have refused to be England football manager. "It's a bloody horrible job," Taylor remarked just before he was sacked. "I don't want it to turn me into a horrible person." To his undying credit, it did not. Indeed Taylor, by common consent, is perhaps too nice for his own good.

As the son of a sports journalist, he spent time around reporters from an early age - too much time, it could be argued. From the outset he decided on a policy of openness, to the point of giving his private phone numbers to reporters, "in case of an emergency". He deliberately cultivated no favourites in the press - only to discover that when things went wrong, he had no special friend to deliver a sympathetic column. The support press operation of the Football Association was lamentable. Maybe, however, Taylor simply tried too hard, and talked too much. "You could just never shut him up," one sports editor of the time remembers.

The press conference in April 1993 after the 2-2 Wembley draw against Holland - which cast the first shadow over England's qualification hopes - was typical. Taylor breezed into the room singing Buddy Holly's "O Misery... What is to become of me ?" After a while such forced jolliness grated. And beyond question, it masked an underlying sensitivity which, at the end, in Rotterdam, burst through to the surface.

The "turnip" affair did not help, either; he might have survived the headline - but not a subsequent photo showing his face superimposed on the unassuming vegetable. At a stroke Taylor's image was defined, of the ignorant, blundering bumpkin. The football press is merciless towards an England manager who fails to deliver. As his successor-but-one in the country's most impossible job, Glenn Hoddle, would this year discover with the interview in which he raised the issue of reincarnation, every attempt to rehabilitate oneself merely digs the pit a little deeper. So it was with Taylor the Turnip.

But even football writers have a heart. The remaking of Graham Taylor is already one of the sports stories of 1999. The man is back where he best belongs - and with the added potential to strike an overdue blow for Premiership sanity. Greed, money, shortsightedness, hype? Not where he is concerned. The contrast has been especially stark as the tawdry and depressing Nicolas Anelka affair reached its inevitable denouement. During this one last week, Arsenal alone have been involved in transfers worth pounds 35m. Despite the pounds 8m or more of extra revenue assured by the Premiership (to say nothing of the Elton John private fortune) Watford, unbelievably, haven't spent a penny to strengthen the first team for a season in which they face a desperate struggle to survive. Three free transfers under the Bosman ruling, and that's it.

For Taylor, the dazzle of the present does not blind him to enduring realities - that Watford, whose average attendance last season was just 11,800, are not natural members of the Premiership, and that the future lies not in a bevy of highly paid names whose wage demands would break the club were it to be relegated, but in consolidating its youth scheme.

It has budgeted for Sky television revenues at a highly conservative pounds 4.3m, of which pounds 2.5m is owed to Jack Petchey, the club's previous owner. "The first player I've got to buy is called Petchey. He's 72 years old and he's not going to kick a ball for me," Taylor said phlegmatically the other day.

"That's one part of it. The other part is that there's been a deliberate policy not to rush straight in and spend, spend, spend. Watford cannot be a Manchester United, we're not that type of club. There has to be some reality and you have to be absolutely certain what you're doing is right, for the short term and for the long term. Do you really need to spend pounds 40-pounds 50m to finish 10th or 11th in the Premiership? Right in the middle there's a group of clubs putting themselves at risk, somewhere along the line. If somebody gave me pounds 10m now, it's a pinprick. Even if I had pounds 50m I still wouldn't get the best players, because they'll go to other clubs."

And one suspects that, in the case of Graham Taylor, this admirable philosophy will hold, even in the hardest times ahead. Last season, the formula almost worked for Charlton Athletic, a club similar in resources and aspiration. This time, Taylor's legendary ability to persuade average teams to play above themselves may just tip the balance. If not, he makes clear, then it won't be the end of the world.

Maybe that's another way of saying that he is not suited for the very pinnacles of his trade. More likely, it confirms his Kiplingesque view of life. Having seen almost the best, and then the very worst, of what football offers, Taylor now enjoys nothing as much as watching a young prospect come good. He knows he can never keep an exceptional player like John Barnes. Instead, the statistic of which he is proudest is that a fifth of the 125 trainees signed by Watford in the last 20 years have progressed to play international football. "I'd expect Manchester United to beat that record, but very few outfits the size of Watford."

As it is, the club's record transfer fee remains the pounds 550,000 it paid in 1984 to bring home Luther Blissett, one of the heroes of Taylor's first spell at Vicarage Road, from AC Milan. But then Blissett, now on Watford's coaching staff, is "family". As for that pounds 550,000, for most clubs that sum would these days secure a creaking selling-plater from the lower depths of the Nationwide. In Taylor's case, less than half of it - just pounds 250,000 to be precise - bought Nick Wright and Allan Smart, the young players whose thrilling goals against Bolton on 31 May opened the latest chapter of the fairy tale.

This time, surely, the plot cannot repeat itself exactly. In the years between, the iron rule of money has imposed an unprecedented divide upon the senior division. Seventeen years ago, the newly promoted Watford came second; this time it will be a miracle if Graham Taylor can avoid relegation. But at least the country is wishing him well - even those pitiless hounds of Fleet Street.

Life Story

Born: Worksop, Nottinghamshire 15 September 1944

Family: Father, Tommy, a sports journalist; married Rita Cowling in 1965; two daughters, Joanne 32, Karen 30.

Education: Scunthorpe Grammar School.

Playing career: Apprentice with Scunthorpe United; Grimsby Town 1962- 1968; Lincoln City 1968-1972.

Management career: Manager, Lincoln City 1972-1977; Watford 1977-1987; Aston Villa 1987-1990; manager of the England team, 1990-1993; manager Wolverhampton Wanderers 1994-1995; General Manager Watford, since 1996.

What others said about him: "Graham has handled the whole job well, But he hasn't got as many World Cup points as we would like" - Graham Kelly, chief executive of the Football Association, November 1993. "My one and only policy is to hold a referendum on the England managership" - Peter Newman, Sack Graham Taylor candidate, Christchurch by-election, 1993.

What he said: "I`m beginning to wonder what bloody vegetable grows in Norway," September 1992, in the run-up to a Norwegian match, after the Sun, which had presented him as

a root (below), headlined English losses "Swedes 2, Turnips 1," and "Spanish 1, Onions 0". "Some people think that we have the right to go round the world beating teams comfortably"