Football: Taylor ready to celebrate renaissance

If Watford win today's First Division play-off final, their manager will be repeating history. tamped his authority as Brazil By Phil Shaw
Click to follow
IMMEDIATELY AFTER Manchester United's heroics in Barcelona, ITV ran a hotch-potch of clips masquerading as a programme about sports people out of control. There was Graham Taylor, performing his tragi-comic touchline routine in Rotterdam six years ago. If ever a man looked to have lost the plot, the sub-plot and even the barest outline of the story, it was him.

The infamous, expletive-ridden Channel Four documentary about Taylor's last months in charge of England compounded the damage to his image caused by his tabloid potrayal as a turnip. When his return to management with Wolves also ended unhappily, he seemed destined to leave the profession he entered in 1972 with a stigma attached to his name.

Instead, if Taylor were to guide Watford into the Premiership by virtue of victory over Bolton Wanderers in today's First Division play-off final at Wembley, there would be a case for adding letters to his name in next month's honours list. To have raised a small, homely club from the League's lower reaches to a place among the elite once was remarkable. To repeat the feat in only his second season back at the helm would be, to use last week's buzz-word, unbelievable.

Football's representation on Her Majesty's team-sheet is likely to be limited to another individual who is no stranger to dug-out dementia. But to meet Taylor now is to meet a man at peace with himself and the world once more - Saturday morning before training found the 54-year-old Vera Lynn and Buddy Holly afficionado perusing the racks of Strawberry Fields record shop in Rickmansworth - and intent on updating Watford's own honours list.

"The past is all water under the bridge," he asserts. "A manager friend of mine said that I if I win at Wembley I ought to go into the press conference, put two fingers up and retire. I'm sure he was joking but people who know me know I don't live that way, or operate that way."

Yet this is the man, once regarded as a compulsive communicator, who was so wounded by the abusive, personal nature of the criticism aimed at him that he announced he no longer felt any obligation to the national hack pack. The reason for his personal and professional rehabilitation is refreshingly simple. In a nutshell, Taylor needed Watford - especially that "bit of love" as he puts it - as much as they needed him after a decade of decline.

The evening before he fell on his sword at Molineux, supporters demanding his sacking struck up a chant which combined black humour and gold-and- black nostalgia: "Bring back the Fifties!" This afternoon, Watford's fans could be excused for wondering whether they have been magically transported back to the Eighties.

The heyday of the blue-rinse Iron Maiden and of Red Ken, New Romantics and Spitting Image was also the period when Taylor, in tandem with Elton John, led Watford on a six-year surge from the former Fourth Division to the runners-up spot behind Liverpool in 1983. Twelve months later they were in the FA Cup final, losing 2-0 to Everton.

"The difference between '84 and now was that whoever won that final, both teams knew they would still be in the top division," he reasons. "Whoever loses between us and Bolton stays where they are and has to start again. That makes this one a bigger game. Last time it took us five wins to reach Wembley. This time it took 48 games."

When Taylor attended the FA Cup final 10 days ago it was his first visit to Wembley since his last England game there, a 3-0 rout of Poland in a World Cup qualifier a month before the fateful defeat by the Dutch. "The same result would suit me," he says, smiling wistfully. "But the crucial thing for me is to focus on why we're going there.

"I've told the players there are two ways of going to Wembley. You either go to Wembley, which Watford did against Everton, or you go to Wembley to win. When you're England manager, that first option isn't there. I've been there 16 times to win, and that experience will help me to help them."

While Sir Elton will watch the drama live in Seattle at 7am, Taylor will be surrounded by faces from Vicarage Road's vintage era. There will be his coaches, Kenny Jackett, Luther Blissett and Tom Walley, plus Jimmy Gilligan, now working at Watford's youth academy. But what of the current side, who escaped the Second Division only last spring: are they capable of emulating the Hornets of yesteryear?

"You can contrast the team now with the one 15 years ago, rather than compare it," says Taylor. "I remember looking at our Cup final side and thinking how young they were. After Steve Sherwood in goal, who was 30, we had a defence of David Bardsley, Lee Sinnott, Steve Terry and Neil Price; if one was 20 he was definitely the oldest. In midfield there was Nigel Callaghan, 21, Les Taylor, 27, Kenny Jackett, 22, and John Barnes, 20. Up front, Maurice Johnston, 21, and George Reilly, 26.

"This group, surprisingly, are that bit older and more experienced, although they've not played at the top level. When I think about [Peter] Kennedy, [Richard] Johnson and [Micah] Hyde, who've been a very good midfield trio for us, I don't wonder whether they're better than Kenny Jackett was. I just think about the present. This is a different era: last time we were in the top division, we signed John McClelland, captain of Rangers. Can you imagine Watford doing that now?"

The current squad was assembled for less than pounds 1m. If Watford do go up and struggle, Taylor insists they will not pay inflated transfer fees. That way, he argues, he could end up with players who had "no feeling for the club". He would rather sink or swim with the products of their youth policy, several of whom face Bolton.

"This has never been a big club and never will be; our base support is probably about 6,500. But as a town of 70,000-odd inhabitants, it's the right size to have a strong bonding between the public and the team. There's a sense that the whole place is off to Wembley, not just the club, which you don't always get that with big-city teams. And the players have started picking up on that feeling."

What became apparent during Watford's closing sequence of seven wins and a draw, followed by the shoot-out defeat of Birmingham in the play- off semi-final, was that they are also drawing on Taylor's renewed self- confidence. Reminded that winning today would mean submitting himself to the pressures of the Premiership, his response is untypically terse: "That'll be good. Because that's where I should be."

Taylor used to believe that getting out of the old Second Division was "the hardest thing in football", with staying up the second hardest. "That's now been reversed, but on balance I'd sooner face the problems of the Premiership than the unrealistic expectations next season if we stay down."

If Bolton are beaten, he anticipates a few players banging on his door, wanting to talk big bucks. "But," says Taylor with a twinkle in his eye and a certainty that brooks no argument, "I shall be on holiday."