Football: They're still outstanding

Sir Elton sings praises of his football wizard as Taylor strives to put Watford back on the old road to glory
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"I'M STILL standing, better than I ever did; looking like a true survivor..." The words of Sir Elton John's lyricist, Bernie Taupin, might have been penned as a tribute to Graham Taylor. Despite a still-rusty throat requiring the occasional shot of oil, the result of an abscess which required an emergency operation, there is a joie de vivre about the Watford manager these days which even the stigma of his ignominious departures from England and Wolverhampton Wanderers cannot defile.

Marriage, they say, can be even better second time around. While this cannot necessarily be said of manager-chairman relationships, the unlikely chemistry between the multi- millionaire pop star and his manager has transcended the years, including a period of separation. There is every reason to suspect that the formula which turned the base-metal yellow of Watford into a golden era between 1977 and 1987, might just be successful again.

Yet, just as villains should never return to the scene of their crime, isn't one of the oldest maxims in football never go back to the scene of your greatest triumph? For all that he proceeded to secure a runners- up place with Aston Villa, it was for Watford's FA Cup final appearance in 1984, which was to become a stage for Elton's tears, and achieving second place with them in the then First Division the previous year, that Taylor will always receive most plaudits.

"The 10 years we enjoyed here together were among the most satisfying of my life," reflected Sir Elton, ahead of the FA Cup tie at Tottenham which will examine the true extent of Watford's renaissance. "Graham coming back here was the most obvious thing. He had been licking his wounds from the England and Wolves situations and he'd had the stuffing kicked out of him. He was disillusioned and he was scared, and he was saying to me, `I'm not sure. I've been hurt so much.' And I said, `Graham, I've faced this myself. You get angry, you sit there and you sulk. You must do what you enjoy and come back to the environment where you're loved.'" It was over five years ago that Taylor, 54, resigned from his England post.

For all some of his most acerbic critics cared, he was no more than a root vegetable left to decompose in a dung-heap his own failings. It is a stewardship that will not be easily expunged from the memory, least of all his own. He maintains that he feels no animosity towards his detractors; yet one legacy is that, for the moment anyway, he will not attend England matches. "If a newspaper wishes to put a turnip on my head, and call me a turnip, I can live with that except it encourages other people to treat me like shit," he said. "Nobody will convince me that, at any one time, I will not come across the tattooed man with the pint of beer in his hand, and I don't want that in my life or have it inflicted on my wife."

For an intrinsically decent man, that failure to qualify for USA 94 will never be exorcised, though when he can be persuaded to discuss his memories, you sense it becomes a cathartic experience. It is as though by reliving Dennis Bergkamp's marvellous goal, with England leading Holland 2-0, and the penalty equaliser five minutes from time the anguish will eventually abate.

"I can still tell you precisely the build-up. People talk about it being lost in Norway and in Holland, but in hindsight it wasn't; it was lost at home to Norway and at home to Holland, when we failed to win. If I could change anything to rectify things it was to change those draws at home into wins.

"I can't live with all of the things said, because some of it was very personal, but I'm not bitter. I would be a very sad man if I allowed that to happen. It has taken some getting over, and I have had to make sure that the major professional disappointment in my life hasn't affected everything else. I think I've dealt with it quite well."

If the Premiership aspirants Wolves appeared a suitable depository for the talents of a man who had exhibited a proven acumen for achieving promotion with Watford - a Fourth Division club when the former Grimsby and Lincoln full-back became manager in 1977 - it was to prove a frustratingly truncated experience. "My biggest regret was not seeing out my contract at Wolves. It was just taken away from me because of the pressure that always exists at Molineux. Yet, I knew what we were building, with players like Robbie Keane coming through."

When Sir Elton persuaded Taylor to return, Watford were expecting something rather more than a prodigal son. "They had trust in me to sort out all the problems at the club. That in itself brings its own kind of expectancy. By then, people would have seen a failed England manager, a failed Wolves manager and thought `that must be comfortable for him'. If people thought I was back just to draw my pension, I've made it very clear that is not the case."

Taylor spent just over a year "upstairs" at Watford, before taking over from Kenny Jackett, who stayed on as coach, in May. "General manager wasn't for me," Taylor insisted. "I looked out of the window on to the pitch and knew that's where I should be." Fourth place in the First Division suggests it was a shrewd transition for all concerned. "You need discipline and you want to get your team playing for the supporters. And that's what Graham has done," enthused Sir Elton. "If it's half-time and we're losing 1-0, you don't think `f...' You know with Graham we've still got a good chance. Yes," he rubbed his hands mock-rapaciously, "we're OK. He motivates people."

But when his club reach the Premiership, how would they sustain that status? "If Graham wants to buy a player for pounds 5m we'll have to look for the money," said Sir Elton. "But clubs like Leicester and Derby have remained in the top flight and spent sensibly rather than frivolously. We certainly won't be paying pounds 8m because it will be completely out of our league."

Perhaps on the same day that Lord Soper died it was appropriate that Sir Elton should pick up the mantle and get up on his own soapbox and put the game to rights. It was not what you'd expect from a typical Vicarage coffee morning, where the pair had got together ostensibly to promote Watford's new dawn. And this from a normally reclusive character who, off-stage, can make John Paul Getty look like Richard Branson. But there was no halting the flow. "A closer look has got to be made at the inflated prices of players, especially those coming from abroad, where if they get a cold they have to fly home to get it treated," said Sir Elton, who will miss the Tottenham tie because he will be in the United States, working on the music for a new Sharon Stone movie.

"It's f...... crazy. And what the hell are Newcastle doing with a manager who lives in Amsterdam most of the week? It's ridiculous, and the money he's being paid for it? I think Ruud Gullit's a great guy, and he's probably a good manager, but he's taking the piss. If I was a Newcastle supporter I'd be f...... livid. What respect are the players going to have for you? You can see Alan Shearer's body language. It's like `I'm out of here, as soon as I f...... can'. You can't run a club like that. You're either going to manage, or not, so make up your mind."

Taylor made up his, undoubtedly for the best, in February 1996 and set out again as the principal traffic engineer of Sir Elton's Yellow Brick Road.

"They idolise Graham here and I hope he stays for the rest of his career," declared Sir Elton of his Football Wizard. "I think if he had stayed here in the first place we would still be a Premiership club and we would have won the title." With that kind of faith, who would argue that they won't achieve it yet?