Football: Martyred by the media?: Tony Francis explains why, where the press were concerned, Graham Taylor couldn't win

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The Independent Online
THOSE who can, do. Those who can't, write about it; which means, more often than not, pull it to pieces. Football generates more daily venom in the pubs and the papers than any subject outside of politics.

You might think that there is nothing wrong with that, and you might be right. What is this sacred pastime if not another branch of the light entertainment industry with a grossly overpaid cast list? Doesn't football deserve everything it gets, good and bad? And aren't we free to criticise to our heart's content those who we consider incapable of fulfilling the job to which they were appointed? Like Graham Taylor?

The short answer is yes - as long as we don't then object when Taylor spits the venom back in our faces and accuses us of being dreadful journalists who deserve the sack. But the longer answer is no. When you wield the sort of power that today's press has at its fingertips, you should acknowledge that one crisp sentence, one vindictive headline, even a cunningly placed semi-colon can slaughter the stoutest soul, shatter his career.

Who benefits from that? As elected representatives, politicians are quite rightly subject to the closest scrutiny. Taylor is simply paid to do a job that no one else was fit to do. Shouldn't he be allowed a degree of latitude?

Being part of the England rat pack, as I was until this season, is a curious business. Call Taylor a turnip one day, expect him to feed you tasty titbits the next. No hard feelings, old boy. What makes it all the more curious is that even in his darkest hours, Taylor has continued to make himself available to newspaper, TV and radio reporters at every turn.

Confronted by a phalanx of reporters, each trained to home in on the slightest sign of weakness, Taylor has carried himself, on the whole, well. He long ago mastered the art of talking for an hour while saying nothing. He parries questions with his favourite remark about 'looking at situations'. To him it means keeping an open mind; to us it means indecision.

Post-match press conferences at London's Metropole Hotel on Thursday mornings have been little different from those in the cramped lounge at Vicarage Road, Watford except that there was room to sit down and the coffee was fresh. I could never quite understand why Lawrie McMenemy sat at the back instead of the front. Wasn't this supposed to be some sort of partnership? Yet McMenemy frequently seemed glad to be out of the firing line.

After an hour's post mortem with the nation's correspondents, Taylor always stayed on for another half an hour so that the Sunday men could prise something extra out of the recesses of his mind. Frankly it amazed me how Taylor managed to hold something in reserve for our little coterie. Not once did he let us down. His father was a journalist and maybe he's a chip off the old block.

Neither has he eluded or attempted to elude television crews, which ambush him at half-time, although he probably wishes now that he had. I have not seen him turn on an individual pressman whatever unpleasant reviews may have emanated from that quarter.

For the record, he has organised more news conferences than any England manager in history. He has also been hooked up to a Channel 4 radio microphone, which has recorded every cough and splutter in the dug-out over the past couple of years. Why on earth did he bother?

Since the beginning of his tenure he has tried to share the job with the whole country. 'Club England' was the phrase he coined, recalling no doubt those cosy days at Watford where kids sat in the enclosure with their mums and dads and thrilled to John Barnes's breathtaking skills. Unifying the nation in support of its team was a fine notion, and we warmed to it for a while. Let's be honest, there had been too many years of sniping and griping. In the end Bobby Robson couldn't get out fast enough.

Taylor was, and still is, popular with the press - although he has every reason to be uncooperative. He can reasonably claim to have been pilloried by faceless sports editors with nothing better to do than pillory. They know, as we all know, that nothing sells newspapers like a crisis. For that reason defeat against the US was better news than victory, which would barely have registered on the national consciousness. Trauma in Rotterdam last month was preferable in headline terms to the alternative. Only tiny pockets of what used to be called Fleet Street really wanted Taylor to make a fist of it, and ejection from the World Cup next week will trigger an avalanche of career obituaries, most of them written pretty well as soon as he got the job.

Personally, I hope that Taylor survives, whatever the outcome next week. Not because he is the greatest thing since sliced bread; if you imagine that Carlton Palmer's influence will unhinge the Dutch, you forfeit your right to be classed as a genius. However, since the decline and the departure of Brian Clough we do not possess a genius. If there was any doubt about that when the US inflicted what might turn out to be terminal embarrassment in Boston last summer, there can be no doubt now.

Even then, I could not see the sense in the media's clamour for Taylor's instant dismissal. It was an ill-conceived knee- jerk reaction from journalists who had been only too happy to laugh and joke with the England manager during the (relatively) good times but suddenly thought they knew better. (Either that, or they were acting under orders, which is equally reprehensible.) Bring on Keegan, Hoddle, Atkinson, Danny Baker - anybody]

Yet, in the absence of a replacement who could in any way be deemed suitable, what was the mileage in disturbing the status quo? Since the three best league managers in England - Alex Ferguson, Kenny Dalglish and George Graham - were Scottish and therefore unlikely to leap at the chance, we were kidding ourselves. In any case, none of them had been put through the ultimate test of how to deal with Gazza. One day the true story will be told; in the meantime it is safe to assume that Taylor was having to act as father, teacher, manager and policeman to this man-child.

Now who is smiling? I can only guess that Taylor must be. Keegan has showed himself to be diplomatically naive with his handling of the Andy Cole/Lee Clark affair; Hoddle can't win a match at Chelsea; Atkinson is out of Europe at the first hurdle; and Ferguson couldn't match Taylor's achievement in Turkey despite the multi-national squad he had at his disposal. Under Taylor's guidance England overpowered a national team consisting mostly of Galatasaray in much more hostile conditions than those endured by Manchester United. And he didn't have the luxury of Giggs, Keane, Cantona or Hughes either.

We can surely forgive Taylor if he is now muttering under his breath: 'So you thought you could do it better, eh?' The frailties of others - the players and the dinosaurs at the FA - have contributed to England's downfall as much as any inadequacies that can be laid at the manager's door. But that is another matter.

What I am denying here is the justification of such a furious onslaught against Taylor. I would be the first to concede that he virtually elected himself following Robson's exit, and that his ambition has so far surpassed his ability. But let us not run away with the idea that England has a right to expect triumph. Twice in the Seventies we didn't even qualify; we won in 1966 because the World Cup was held in England; and we only reached the semi-finals in 1990 because of Lineker.

Unless, like Jack Charlton, you have the hide of a hippopotamus, refuse to brook debate and have Eamon Dunphy ejected from the room because you don't like the tone of his essays, the England manager's job will soon be the most undesirable in the land. And that includes John Major's.

(Photograph omitted)

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