Football: Taylor prepared for Houllier test

Watford's manager knows life in the top flight will be hard the second time around.
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The Independent Online
IT WAS 1983 when Graham Taylor's Watford pulled off one of the most unlikely feats in recent football history by finishing their first season in the top division as runners-up to Liverpool. It was 1983 but it might just as well have been 1883 for all the relevance to the task at hand this season, continuing at Anfield this afternoon, which is to cobble together enough points merely to avoid going straight back down.

"It's changed. It's changed a great deal," Taylor said a fortnight ago, even before experiencing at first hand the wonderful world of the FA Carling Premiership. Two weeks, two matches and two defeats later, even one of our most experienced managers accepts that he, just as his players must do, will come up against new experiences.

A disconcerting one was to discover that Tuesday night's match at Sunderland's Stadium of Light was being refereed by Jeff Winter from nearby Teeside, a man Taylor regards as having close associations with the home club. Having noted during the 2-0 defeat that Winter appeared to be on first- name terms with the Sunderland players but didn't know Watford's from Adams, Taylor rang the Premiership's refereeing officer, Philip Don, for clarification of how such appointments were made. He was equally startled to discover that a fortnight into the new season, Mr Don was on holiday.

Characteristically, the Watford manager was able to make his point this week with good humour rather than the full frontal rant favoured by other Premiership managers; which is probably just as well, since by another odd quirk the fourth official watching over his team at Anfield today will be the same Jeff Winter.

If other aspects of life at the top have been more predictable, Taylor has been far from dismayed by the first two games. Only a bizarre own goal brought defeat at home to Wimbledon and at the Stadium of Light, Watford were only eclipsed after matching the home team's 10 attempts on goal, shot for shot.

On both occasions they had been forced to play with an under-strength side and must do so again today. "We've been operating without five players who were pretty regular in the side and not many [teams] in the Premiership could handle that," Taylor said yesterday before rushing his depleted squad off to catch the 14.15 from Watford Junction to Liverpool. It is not a journey that has ever brought rewarding results in the past: on six previous trips for League games, Watford have lost each time.

But not even another beating will convince the manager to rush out and spend what little money he has available. Although Sir Elton John, like Taylor, is back where he belongs as chairman after a spell away from the club, he is no longer prepared to underwrite the club extravagantly and the house style at Vicarage Road will remain Good Housekeeping rather than Loaded.

Taylor, whose summer spending was confined to securing three players on free transfers from lower division clubs insists: "I said I'd look at the division first and you can't one week later turn round and completely alter your track. It's right and proper to give these people an opportunity. I have got money to spend, but not 10 or 15 million pounds."

By an odd coincidence he will today come up against a former international adversary for the second Saturday running and would like it to be known that his international record against Gerard Houllier of France - when he was assistant to Michel Platini - is better than against Egil Olsen's Norway.

But he has now put the scars of international management behind him and, changing times or not, from today will go further back to happier days and summon up the spirit of '83.

"When we first got promoted, we decided to adopt the approach of `lets get in and get on with it, do not panic'. That is important for me, the players and the supporters."