Football: Taylor keeping a firm grip on real life

Elevation to the elite will not change the Watford way - the emphasis will still be on investment in youth development rather than multi-million pound transfers. By Phil Shaw
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The Independent Online
IT WAS A unique reversal of what managers invariably say on gaining promotion to the Premiership - but then, as Watford's supporters sang at Wembley, there's only one Graham Taylor.

Amid the euphoria following Watford's play-off triumph over Bolton Wanderers on Monday, Taylor declared that he would he not be pressing for a substantial summer transfer kitty. Moreover, he wanted the emphasis to remain on funding the youth development scheme. And if the board did not like it, he added, they could find another manager.

Taylor's pronouncement, far from annoying the chairman, must have been music to the ears of Sir Elton John. His warning that he did not have "bottomless pockets", and that Watford, with an average gate of 11,800, had to spend sensibly, was instantly rendered redundant.

The club's success during their first, six-year, sojourn in the top division in the 1980s was founded on home-grown talent and financial prudence - their record outlay is still the pounds 550,000 they paid Milan to bring Luther Blissett home 15 years ago - and Taylor is adamant that to change tack now would be self-destructive folly.

"If I was to come out now and say: `Just to stay up, give me pounds 15m', well, for one thing that's a pin-prick and, for another, I could destroy our youth policy," he said. "Boys want to come to Watford. They know they'll be looked after and have the opportunity to go into the first team. Over the past 20 years this club has signed 125 trainees, and a fifth have gone on to play international football at some level. I'd expect Manchester United to beat that record, but very few the size of Watford could.

"We've just guaranteed pounds 12m [from television and sponsorship] whether we get relegated or not, which isn't bad business for what we did. But if you spend that on players, and things go wrong - if they have no feeling for what Watford are all about - you'll waste it. I don't like wasting even pounds 20,000. I treat it as if it's my own money.

"Clubs who try to purchase themselves beyond their level will pay for it. I think I'm reasonably good at developing players and getting them to believe they can achieve something."

The failure to take England to the 1994 World Cup finals remains a far greater blow to Taylor's professional pride than the tabloid abuse he took. Yet, at club level, his CV shows seven promotions, not to mention the runners-up spot behind Liverpool to which he guided Watford and Aston Villa, or an FA Cup final appearance.

It could be argued that he works best with relatively ordinary players, magnifying strengths and masking weaknesses. Whatever the truth, his record is the best reason to believe that Watford might consolidate, as Leicester and Derby have, rather than drop straight back, like Charlton and Barnsley. The only blemish was his inability to satisfy great expectations at Wolverhampton Wanderers.

"The difference between Watford and Wolves," explained Taylor, "was that I never could get the real team ethos there. I inherited a situation where too many players were on too much more money than the others. The only thing they could talk about in the dressing-room was how much they were on. The gap between the top earners and those lower down was so big that it was hard to keep the spirit that's so vital. Alex Ferguson will tell you: the team must come first."

Taylor acknowledged that Watford, whom he led out of the Second Division only 12 months ago in his first campaign back in charge, would now have to pay higher salaries. But there would be no place for "prima donnas". He also accepted that the "better players" would eventually leave, as John Barnes once did, although that would not sway him from the course he has charted. "We've got to keep producing. If that means spending more on facilities, on youth development as opposed to paying pounds 4.5m for one player, that's what we'll do.

"If the directors don't like that, they can find another manager, because I'm not throwing that kind of money away. It wouldn't be fair on the lads who've given everything."

That is not to say Taylor's loyalty will be infinite, or that he will not buy. During the season he demonstrated his flexibility by using players of 10 nationalities (a club record), though the core of the side is from the home countries. Monday's scorers, Nick Wright, 23, and Allan Smart, 24, were his only signings last summer, costing pounds 250,000 from Carlisle at a time when Bradford, who went on to finish second, were splashing pounds 3.5m.

Taylor's captain, 24-year-old Robert Page, may figure in Wales' defence against Italy on Saturday. Others who could make the transition to the Premiership include Peter Kennedy, 25, a pounds 130,000 snip with 20 goals in two years from left wing-back; Micah Hyde, 24, a midfielder of great tenacity for whom Taylor paid pounds 100,000; and Gifton Noel-Williams, 19, who has partnered Michael Owen in the England Youth attack.

If the manager is true to his word, some of the new graduates from Watford's academy - like the centre-backs Matt Langston and James Panayi, or the front-runner Grant Cornock - will be thrown in sooner rather than later. In the immediate term, Taylor's priority is likely to be to increase the experience in his squad. Of the 14 on duty at Wembley, only Alec Chamberlain and Steve Palmer have ever played in the top flight.

Their one brush with Premiership class last season brought a 5-2 trouncing at Tottenham in the FA Cup. Against that, they beat the rest of the top six in the First Division, Sunderland included, and needed just a year to go through the second grade compared with the three Barnes and co spent there.

Long before "Do I not like that" entered common parlance, the man who coined it made a catchphrase of "Never say never". Sound advice in such a volatile sport, but Watford's arrival in the Premiership is a reminder that we should never write off Graham Taylor.