Football: FA Cup - No vegetables for the Vicarage man

No longer is Graham Taylor the stuff of derisory headlines but the manager of a newly ascendant Watford
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The Independent Online
IT WILL happen even before he reaches the dressing-room. As Graham Taylor gets off the Watford bus at White Hart Lane this lunchtime, a loutish voice in the crowd will bellow: "You turnip, Taylor."

Like the "Gotcha" headline and the page three pin-up, "Taylor the Turnip" is one of the indelible landmarks in the dumbing down of English journalism. Quintessentially tabloid, it was brilliant but brutal, catching the mood of the masses at the expense of the individual. England's results precipitated the shredding of Graham Taylor's reputation, and that television documentary finished it off, but it is the turnip image by which he is remembered.

Even now, five years after resigning as England manager, Taylor does not go to Wembley internationals. There is always the possibility of meeting, as he puts it, "the tattooed man with a pint in his hand".

There is one place, however, Taylor will always be welcome and it is at Vicarage Road that he has rebuilt his career after the trials of England and Wolves. Elton John, now Sir Elton, coaxed him back to the club as general manager in February 1996 and he took up the first-team reins again in the summer of 1997. His first season reaped the Second Division title, his second sees them fifth in the First Division with an FA Cup third- round tie at Tottenham today. If it were not for his frightening brush with death last month, when a throat abscess required an emergency operation, his rehabilitation would seem to be on course.

"My good fortune after Wolves was to take a break from team management," said Taylor when we met up on a murky day in Watford. "I came back as general manager, it took me off the training pitch and taught me that's where I should be. I didn't want to be chief executive or general manager, I wanted to be what I think I'm not bad at, and that's a football manager. I wanted the ups and downs, the shouting, the good and bad times with the press. I wanted that to be part of my life."

It is a rousing declaration and you begin to believe Taylor when he insists his enthusiasm survived both England and Wolves. In the next room, Sir Elton puts you right. "I think his appetite died for a while," the chairman said. "It was taken away from him after the England job. That would happen to anyone. It was soul destroying, what happened.

"He was very loath to come back into football. I said: `You can't let people dictate to you. Come back here, see what you think, in this environment you are loved and revered'.

"People are human, they have feelings, the turnip thing was diabolical. His track record as England manager was not that bad, it is only because we failed to qualify for the World Cup that it's seen as a disaster."

And because of the documentary. "Yes, he shouldn't have done it, that was the nail in the coffin for him. But we all make mistakes. I have."

Remembering the programme's famous scene in Rotterdam, where Taylor finally disintegrates after Herr Assenmacher fails to send off Ronald Koeman for bringing down David Platt, Sir Elton adds: "We'd all have been like that. His whole career was ruined by that referee. It was a joke."

Today Taylor is far removed from the haunted England manager who confessed he woke up with his pyjamas soaked in sweat. Even his recent illness appears not to have scarred him, apart from a husky voice. He is under doctor's orders not to strain his throat, torture for someone who likes talking as much as Taylor. And, after 26 years in management, from the old Fourth Division to the international stage, he has plenty to say.

"It is ironic that the Premiership is where we wish to be but it is causing problems for the rest of football," he said. "When I go into schools I ask how many kids support Watford. I get three or four hands go up. Then I ask: `Who supports United?' Eight or nine go up. Arsenal prompts 15 to 16. Then I ask how many have been to Highbury or Old Trafford and I don't see a hand. If I ask how many have been to Vicarage Road all the hands go up. There is a generation of kids growing up whose football revolves around the Premiership - they won't have that commitment to their local team and that is sad."

Then there is the changed atmosphere within the game. "It was always competitive but it was friendlier when we all drank and ate out of the same bowl. Now 20 clubs eat out of a trough and the rest get the little bits and pieces. Money is at the root of it. Last year we won the Second Division and lost pounds 750,000. This year we've barely been out of the top six and we will be fortunate if we don't lose pounds 1m."

There was more, equally heartfelt and sensible. Taylor bemoaned the money going to agents, the dependence on television income, the way young players are not working on the basic skills of their game the way they used to.

But, he adds, players still come into the game with enthusiasm and, if he can keep them from outside temptations, that can be harnessed to the same good effect as 20 years ago, when he led Watford from the Fourth Division to Europe and the FA Cup final.

"I still believe you can stay up [in the Premiership] on organisation, coaching ability and having players who are prepared to work at the basics. In the dressing-room before a game the money aspect never enters it."

Taylor is a complex man. Hurt by the spotlight, but ever seeking it. Thin-skinned, it is said, but not one to harbour a grudge. He never conquered that "show us your caps" mentality with England and shows signs of suffering it himself - he works into conversation the letter he received from Alan Shearer when he left the England job, the help he has been giving David Platt in his coaching education, and his discovery at Aston Villa of Platt and Dwight Yorke.

Without doubt a decent and honourable man, he is clearly held in the highest esteem by Sir Elton. Many years ago Taylor invited the rock star to dinner then presented him with a bottle of whisky and the words: "Isn't that what you normally have?" Alluding to that period, Sir Elton said: "Graham is probably one of the greatest friends I have in my life. He did some very plain speaking to me and I took it on board. Having someone you respect so much saying what he thought of you upset me because I knew he was right."

Sir Elton will not be at White Hart Lane today - he is in California working on a film soundtrack - but Taylor, after a break imposed by his doctor, will be present. The match has a special resonance, as his last spell at the club ended with a win over Spurs in the League a month after going down to them in the 1987 FA Cup semi-final. That was the occasion Gary Plumley was summoned from his Newport wine bar to answer a goalkeeping crisis. Thus handicapped, Watford lost 4-1. Today Taylor's promising young side hope to compete on equal terms and further the rehabilitation of a football man.