Football: Taylor content in Watford cocoon

Watford 2 Wigan Athletic 1
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One former England manager was smiling on Saturday even if, like Terry Venables, he will not be going to the World Cup draw in Marseilles on Thursday.

Graham Taylor will instead be in Birmingham attending the Sports Argus Centenary Dinner. He will do so as the proud manager of a Watford team who this morning leads the Nationwide League Second Division an impressive 16 points ahead of the play-off zone.

It is 19 years since Taylor last led Watford out of this division and much has happened since. Taylor took Watford into the top flight, where they finished runners-up to Liverpool, the FA Cup final, and Europe. He then led England down a cul-de-sac and four years ago this month, as the rest of the world prepared for the 1994 finals, was tendering his resignation.

There was further failure at Wolves - plus that video - and he seemed a beaten man when, early last year, he retreated to the cocoon of Vicarage Road to take up the post of general manager. He was away from the firing line and the pipe and carpet slippers beckoned.

Yet on Saturday he was back in his tracksuit, cracking jokes and as nervously voluble as ever. "I hated watching it and not being able to do anything about it," he said of his spell in a suit. "That is why I did PR jobs and got out and about, away from the club. I thought `what am I doing here?' My life has been about getting out there on the training pitch, in that fantasy world, just kicking a ball about. It would have been easier if they had been winning."

They are now. The victory over Wigan, which was more comfortable than 2-1 suggested, was their seventh in eight unbeaten games. Only the perfect November form of Bristol City, managed by Taylor protege John Ward, will prevent him receiving his second manager of the month award this season - and a staggering 27th in all. The national lampoon is a local hero once more.

Not that the town ever denied him, even in the darkest moments. Taylor, in tandem with Elton John, put Watford on the football map and there is every indication that they can do so again. Vicarage Road has retained its character, but has been so impressively developed that the stand which stood proudest when they reached the top division 15 years ago now looks a relic from a bygone age.

The present 22,000 all-seat stadium is far too good for the Second Division and so are the team. While Watford have no individual as good as Fulham's Paul Peschisolido they have a team. The sense of unity is no surprise, Taylor's Watford always had that, but the style of football is. Taylor is notorious for the long-ball but, like the game itself, he has moved on. Watford now play three at the back, wing-backs and passing midfielders. They still use the flanks but it is no longer a case of two wingers and a Ross Jenkins totem pole in the middle - though there might be an element of that when Jason Lee is fit.

"We played some good stuff at times," Taylor said. "Part of the problem we have is me. I have a reputation and people come and will not see what they're looking at. They never have done for a long time. As long as we keep winning I'm not really concerned."

But he is, a bit, and he added: "Without defending my cause too much, I would have thought some of the players I've had under my control over many years now would have complained if they were supposed to play in a certain way. We get early crosses in - I've no qualms with that - and I want passing to have an end product, but some people have made their minds up about us before we kick a ball."

The media coverage of Taylor's England reign was probably the most virulent any football figure has ever received. Many will feel the criticism of the way he managed the team was justified. He may have been unlucky with Alan Shearer's injury and Herr Assenmacher's refereeing, but he lost the team's confidence in Norway and the United States and his treatment of Gary Lineker seemed vindictive.

What cannot be condoned is the way the coverage descended to personal abuse and intrusive harassment which affected his family and made him into a national hate figure. He no longer opens the front door himself after too many doorsteppings and always turns down his complimentary ticket to Wembley internationals because of the abuse.

He is, understandably, defensive with the national media. This shows when a relatively bland question about the level of play in the division is misinterpreted as an attempt to get him to say the general standard, and, by association, that of his players, is poor. His reply begins with "If I say things..." then rambles before ending with "I've not really answered your question. I've avoided answering it because sometimes it depends how you use it and what headline is on it."

Throughout this conversation I have been uncomfortably aware that the local press corps, for whom Taylor is a minor deity, regard me an unwelcome interloper, a representative of that section of the media which brought down their hero. It is a situation Taylor could use to his advantage but his essential decency means, though cagey, he cannot help but be amiable. As Ronnie Rosenthal said: "He's a very nice man. He's been great for this side and for me."

Rosenthal added: "He is a very shrewd manager," which he is at club level, especially with players who don't ask `how many caps did you win?' Taylor has turned a team who finished mid-table last year into likely champions. This after making a profit on summer transfers, despite bringing in six players and losing David Connolly to Feyenoord on a free transfer.

Wigan, stung after being thrashed by Preston last week, were worthy opponents despite going seven matches without a win. Ahead through Graeme Jones' sharp finish they may have caused problems had David Thomas not rapidly levelled. The Australian Richard Johnson, shrugging off the morning's World Cup disappointment, went on to run the game with Micah Hyde. The pressure forced Kevin Sharp to score an own goal - claimed by Tommy Mooney.

Taylor will be in France this summer, working for Radio Five Live. "I'm looking forward to it," he said, adding with a grin: "It's one way of getting to the World Cup." The scars appear to be healing in this sympathetic environment.

Goals: Jones (9) 1-0; Johnson (11) 1-1; Sharp og (45) 2-1.

Watford (3-5-2): Chamberlain; Palmer, Page, Mooney; Gibbs, Hyde, Johnson, Kennedy, Noel-Williams; Thomas, Rosenthal. Substitutes not used: Easton, Smith, Robinson.

Wigan Athletic (1-3-4-2): Carroll; Greenall; McGibbon, Bradshaw (Rogers, 60; Smeets 74), Green; Kilford, Martinez, O'Connell, Sharp; Lowe, Jones. Substitute not used: Lee.

Referee: A Bates (Stoke-on-Trent).

Bookings: Watford: Johnson. Wigan: Lowe, Jones, McGibbon, O'Connell.

Man of the match: Johnson.

Attendance: 9,455.