REVIEW / Much more serious than life and death

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The Independent Culture
THERE was a rather touching moment in Cutting Edge's much previewed documentary about Graham Taylor (C4), in which the England manager travels to Spain to tell David Platt he's no longer captain. You don't actually see how he does it (the degree of access the film crew were given has been slightly exaggerated) but he's decent and consoling in the immediate aftermath. Pointing across a dusty square at three fat little boys with a beach-ball, Taylor suggests that they 'could go and have a game with those kids now'. He badly needs a win at this stage of the film and, despite being one man down, it looks doable. Platt considers it for a moment, but obviously decides it's too risky under the current management.

What I know about football could be written on the back page of the Sun, but even to an ignorant outsider it was clear there were some problems with Taylor's approach to the game. 'People's judgement will all be based on how many goals were scored,' he complained ruefully at one point, while watching what appeared to be destruction testing of the England netting. 'They'll not look at how we play.' This seemed to imply that he would prefer it if football were scored like ballroom-dancing, with points for presentation and excited press speculation on whether Gascoigne would go with peach taffeta or cerise organdie for that vital third-round fixture in Copenhagen.

By the time of the Norway match, Taylor was beginning to grasp elementary principles, but was still lacking a little fire: 'What we mustn't do against Norway is lose to them,' he declared to the team, some of whom looked a little rattled by this last-minute change of tactics. There's been a lot of publicity about how much Taylor swears in the film but you couldn't help but feel, after watching such underpowered pep talks, that it wasn't nearly enough. It seemed likely that he would rather disapprove of Bill Shankly's famous remark about the game - 'Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don't like that attitude. I can assure them it's much more serious than that' - which was used as an epigraph for the film.

It wasn't that he was without passion entirely. He shares the delusion of every fan that a football team is a mechanism that can be controlled through the vocal cords, leaping from the bench to bellow encouragement and scorn, but even then there was a sense of a man uncertain about how to lead. He turned constantly to his companions for reassurance after disaster, asking them to confirm his angry diagnoses ('We went to sleep, didn't we? Eh? Eh?') as if he wanted to prove that he was in control of what was going wrong, even though he couldn't do anything to stop it.

This sort of pressure can turn coal into diamonds, but it didn't work any such magic on Taylor, a decent man with a fatally sensible perspective on the game. By the end he was even sweating when he was asleep ('I'm waking up with the usual, pajamas wet through') and the anxiety finally boiled over in his touch-line confrontation with a line-judge in the match against Holland. 'I was just saying to your colleague, 'The referee's got me sacked.' Thanks for that.' He probably thought he had nothing left to lose by that stage, before San Marino proved him wrong. 'My advice to the next England manager is just make sure your team doesn't lose,' he said at the end. 'By George, he's got it]' you thought, but by then it was too late.

Horizon's thought-provoking film (BBC2) about the theories of Gerald Edelman included some fascinating footage of robots 'learning' behaviour on the basis of a simple value judgement. Programmed to 'like' light, a robot relatively quickly evolves random movements into a controlled behaviour that allows it to follow a torch beam around. Babies do something similar when they reach out for a rattle - weakening the synaptic links when they get no result, strengthening them when they work. I hope the next England manager is told of this evidence that goal-oriented behaviour really can work.