The Hunter Davies Interview: He's so nice, but crikey, they're rude: The nation loves to stick the boot into Graham Taylor. How come he doesn't have sleepless nights?

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Indy Lifestyle Online
IT MUST be hard for nice people who have put in a lifetime being nice to wake up one morning and find they are reviled and ridiculed. Yet they are still going about their job, in the same old way. Funny old world, sports pages.

Tomorrow, if England get stuffed by the Netherlands at Wembley, the England football manager, Graham Taylor, will awaken to shouts of 'Adios Taylor, You Plonker', 'Gerroff' and 'Public Enemy No 1'. This is the picture that the whole nation wants to see - Taylor waving goodbye.

Perhaps not those exact words. A bit fruitier, ruder even. After all, the tabloids have used those headlines already.

He's had his charges together for the past five days, a long time as England get-togethers go. As usual, out of the original 22 called, several vital ones have not turned up, thanks to injuries. On Saturday evening they went karting. Graham likes these jolly outings, the lads as one big happy family. Go-karting was a big success. 'Very competitive - and very safe.' Tonight, they'll be in their bedrooms by about 11pm. No one will patrol the hotel corridors, looking for alien women, as often happens with league clubs before a big match. He doesn't believe in that. Anyway, if anything untoward did happen, he would soon get to know. How? 'Thirty-one years in professional football counts for a lot . . .'

Tomorrow, some light training in the morning, then in the afternoon they'll sleep, or at least stay in their bedrooms. His final chat will come at midday, and will last 20 minutes.

He'll end with a homily around three gerunds. Talking - that's what he's mostly been doing these last five days. Seeing - by which he means practising things on the training pitch. Doing - that's them tomorrow night, at Wembley, by which time his main job is over. He can then sit back and enjoy the spectacle. Or otherwise.

'Oh I do enjoy watching. I know I've worked hard, got them ready. Now I can sit back and immerse myself in the match. I love football. It's all I've done in my life.'

Through choice. He was head boy at his junior school in Scunthorpe, passed the 11- plus for the grammar school, obtained some good O-levels, went into the lower sixth and became a prefect at a very young age. One of nature's leaders, destined for some position of responsibility, however humble. His parents hoped he might become a teacher, or perhaps a sports journalist, like his father, Tommy, still alive, formerly 'The Poacher' on the Scunthorpe Evening Telegraph.

Graham was always mature beyond his years, 5ft 6in at 14, going out with a girl three years older. Three years. Think of your own school days. Imagine a 16-year-old girl agreeing to be seen with a 13-year-old boy, never mind walk out with her. They met when he was Lord Drizzle in the school play, The Tragedy of Tom Thumb, and she was doing the make-up. Graham and Rita have now been married 28 years. They have two daughters, both married: Joanne, a teacher, and Karen, a training officer for the NatWest Bank. Graham is now 48.

His love of football started at six, bossing the kids in the school playground - one of whom was Tony Jacklin. Graham was captain of every school and local team and at 16 he represented England. After that, it was downhill. No that's unfair. Like his size, which then stopped at 5ft 8 1/2 in - 'Don't forget the half inch' - he didn't mature as a footballer. He started with Grimsby Town, playing 189 games for them, then Lincoln City, turning out 152 times, never rising above the Second Division. Little boys did not collect G Taylor's photograph.

At 28, he damaged his hip and never played again. He got out his briefcase, polished his notes, dusted down his gerunds, and the directors of Lincoln City decided he was a suitable case for management. They failed to win any of their first nine matches, and there were roars of 'Taylor out' from the terraces. Well, a few shouts. Not much of a roar, with only 2,000 spectators.

'I had a wife, two girls under six, a mortgage and no work experience of any other kind, except football. But the funny thing is, I don't remember any sleepless nights. When you're young, you have such confidence. I knew I had to make a go of Lincoln, so I knuckled down and did it.'

What other sleepless nights have you had in life - pre-England, of course? 'You won't believe this, but England has not given me a sleepless night. I've got enough problems during the day . . .' Before we come to those, let's hear about the bad nights.

'Only two I can think of. February half term, 1979. I'd taken Rita and the girls for a break, but all I could think about was Steve Sims. I'd bought him for Watford for pounds 175,000, breaking the club's previous record, which had been pounds 40,000. He came from the First Division and didn't know what the Third was all about. After three months, he still wasn't doing very well. The Watford crowd were on at him, wanting one of their favourites back in the team. I wondered if I'd made an awful mistake.'

All turned out well, as every football fan knows. Graham led Watford from the Fourth to the First Division. Thanks also to the support and financial acumen of the club chairman, Elton John.

'My other sleepless night was in May 1987 when I spent the night at the home of the Aston Villa chairman. I'd just agreed to join them, and I lay awake thinking, I can't believe this, what have I done, why am I leaving Watford where I've been so happy? I kept telling myself that if I was ever to be England manager, I had to have worked for one of the big clubs. Yet Villa was said to be unmanageable, a club which had just gone down, with a supposedly difficult chairman. If I failed, my chance of England would go for ever.' It didn't, of course, though it was touch and go in his second season. Third season, they were runners up and into Europe. And then in 1990 The Call came.

He looks remarkably youthful in middle age. Dark hair hanging forward, untouched by any designer barber - unlike his charges - toothy grin, unaffected, eager to talk and explain himself - unlike Sir Alf, who didn't hold with talking, then he turned into a toff.

The other day at Mansfield after a training session, some youth trainees followed him off the pitch to the boot room. ' 'We'll do your boots, Mr Taylor,' they all said, but I wouldn't let them. I love cleaning my own boots. I like knocking the mud off, then polishing away. I even love the smell of them.'

Ah, how can anyone be horrible to such a person? But they were, crikey they were - that's one of his phrases. He never swears, except in private with the lads. What brought out the insults was the European Nations Cup in Sweden last year.

England done bad - two boring draws and a defeat - and the tabloids went for his throat. For once, he showed signs of paranoia, talking of persecution.

'They want you to say things, so I try my best, explain my actions, why I didn't play a certain player, but when you do, they use it to abuse you. They take things out of context, twist my words so I appear to be criticising a player. After one press conference, a newspaper reached one player's agent and offered a huge fee for his player to reply to statements I hadn't made. You have little or no status as England manager, and receive little respect. After the Royal Family and the Prime Minister, the England manager has more words written about him than anyone else - most of them abusive. Everyone can pick their England team. I understand that, and everyone is entitled to their opinion. What I object to is that when I answer their questions, they don't believe me; they look for personal animosities.'

But you did upset the nation by taking off England's Nicest Person, the Blessed Lineker. In his last match. How could you?

'In retrospect, I should have taken Gary off in the previous match, against France. I hadn't realised how deflated France were, how much harm we had done them when we defeated them earlier. I should have gone for a win 20 minutes before the end, and replaced Gary with Daley, but I didn't have the courage of my own convictions. Yes, partly because it was Gary, England's captain. In the last match, I didn't think twice. I just did it. I could see that the ball was not sticking to my No 10, so I took him off. It was a purely football decision. It's ridiculous when people suggest or accuse me of any other motive.'

Yes, but there are those who think you must carry a chip. Never a star yourself, you have power over today's stars.

'That does get thrown at me, but I don't see my career as a handicap. If anything, it makes my achievements greater. I've had to work hard, think things out. '

His regrets about Sweden do not concern Lineker, but his handling of the world's press. 'I did 38 interviews in one seven-day period and addressed press conferences of up to 250 - in my first tournament. Football managers are not trained in communication. We need help and guidance. That's why I've now appointed a personal PR, who will be with me 24 hours a day when England are on duty.'

He now feels at home in the job. 'Though I wish there was more football. Tomorrow is my 30th England game. With a club, it would probably be 150. Out of those 30, there's only been one occasion when all my squad of 22 has turned up. Injuries mean I lose five or six every time. The team in my head changes three times before every game.

'I haven't quite got used to the isolation. Rita comes with me to English games, but I generally go abroad alone. There are long gaps between matches and I can often spend a week to 10 days on my own. In every country, I get recognised. The whole world is obsessed by football. It's hard always being polite. The other day when I was in my car with Rita after a match, a supporter gave me some distasteful hand signals. A man in his thirties, not some youngster. It makes me realise the hooligan element is still there.'

He's now working on several other things confirmed in Sweden, such as the fact that the big tournaments are always played in June and July - right in the middle of the English closed season, when our chaps are knackered.

'In a number of countries, it's still the middle of their season, so they're match fit. That's why I now do the fitness assessments. I need to know exactly how each player measures up at various times of the season, so I can work out properly what needs to be done on an individual basis for the World Cup next year.'

Another thought that struck him, watching the other nations, is that we in Britain are not alone in moaning that our present- day game is too fast, using too much brawn and not enough brain.

'If you think about it, athletes are running faster, throwing farther, jumping higher, so it stands to reason that footballers are bound to be physically better. I can see the day soon when a goalie will be able to kick the ball over the opposition's goalposts. Every country is now as fit and strong as England.' And with better players? Perhaps that's why we win nowt.

'I'm not so sure. I admit England has not many world-class players at present, not as many as we had, say, in 1966, but who has? It so happens that the world hasn't got many world-class players. I mean players in their early twenties. It's hard to name half a dozen.

'It means England should always have a chance - but we have to be aware of our history of winning friendlies and qualifying rounds rather than winning tournaments, 1966 excepted. Our record before Sweden was 21 games with only one defeat.' So what goes wrong?

'The answer could be, as I say, that our season is over. And I'm working on that. It could also be that we have to work harder as a team, as a unit. That's why togetherness in the squad is vital, with people who fit in.'

Does that mean you wouldn't pick a player, however brilliant, if you didn't think his personality fitted in? He thinks hard. 'Yes, I might not pick the better of two players, if I thought he couldn't live in the squad, or be able to accept he might not get a game. I'm trying to establish a squad ethos. The fewer problems there are, the better.'

Did Chris Waddle come into this bracket? He groans. For the past two weeks, this question has been asked in thousands of pubs. 'Chris has been playing very well at present, but we have won three and drawn one of our World Cup qualifying games with a goal difference of 13-1. I'm trying to settle a team down. If Chris came in, someone would have to be left out. There would still be another player people would want in. That goes with the job.'

The job is secure till next year. Whatever happens tomorrow. Football fans might not think a lot of the FA, but they're not sackers.

Then what? He'll be just 50, young enough to get a top club job anywhere in the world. He's already turned down two since becoming England's manager, but won't name them. He's not thinking of club football. His England ambitions are intact.

'If we do well enough in the World Cup next year, and I do expect to qualify, in fact I hope we'll make the final eight or I'll be disappointed, then I'd like to carry on. In 1996, we host the European Nations Cup, and if we win that, we won't have to qualify for the year 2000 . . .'

Ah, you can't keep a nice bloke down. Not for long.

(Photograph omitted)

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