Graham Taylor's second departure from Aston Villa could scarcely be in more stark contrast with his first. In 1990, Taylor left – with Doug Ellis's reluctant blessing – to take charge of the England team. Not only was he going to manage his country but it seemed he was prepared to talk for it, too.
Taylor left a side that had finished runners up to Liverpool in the old First Division. Disappointing as it had been to fall just short of the title a mere two years after bringing Villa back to the top flight, the European Championship lay ahead. Beyond that was the World Cup. Taylor's time had come.
Now it appears it may have passed. His resignation yesterday, four months short of his 59th birthday, came only days after his latest Villa team had trailed in 16th in the Premiership, just three points ahead of relegated West Ham. But more than the results, and the frustrations of running a traditionally low-spending club at a time of shrinking transfer budgets, those who observed Taylor at close quarters last season sensed a man whose love for football was being sorely strained.
True, he could still talk the back legs off the media pack – he remains a compulsive communicator – yet the old ebullience had been drained away. He was not, admittedly, the haunted figure that Midlands observers saw at Wolves during the mid-1990s when the stigma of failure on the international stage still weighed heavily. For the first time, however, he was beginning to question publicly the direction in which football was heading.
Taylor made no secret of his contempt for agents, whom he regarded as non-football people responsible for taking precious financial resources out of the sport. More shockingly, he was also saddened by the attitude of many modern players. Their main passion, he felt, was accumulating wealth and its trappings rather than the game which facilitated their lifestyle.
With hindsight, one could detect the beginnings of the decision he announced yesterday when he spoke after Villa's final home fixture, a scrappy 1-0 win over a doomed Sunderland. Instead of savouring safety, he spoke openly about his disillusionment with the "negative people'' around him. For certain players, he suggested, it mattered little whose colours they wore provided the colour of the money was acceptable. Exempting the club's homegrown youngsters, many of whom were steeped in Villa's values from primary-school days, and also their Scandinavian contingent, he implied that there was a mercenary element at Villa Park.
Taylor did not name names, but it did not take a genius to surmise that he was referring to some of the foreign players signed by his predecessor, John Gregory. The likes of Alpay Ozalan and Juan Pablo Angel tended to feature more in transfer speculation than in his team. More to the point, the £16m that they had cost, together with their wages, meant there was little in the kitty for Taylor.
One of his first decisions 15 months ago was to offload Paul Merson. The former Arsenal and England player had more problems than most, having wrestled with drink, drugs and gambling addictions, but allowing him to join Portsmouth soon began to look like a mistake. Villa were predictable in midfield, a situation which his cut-price signings of Oyvind Leonhardsen and Mark Kinsella did nothing to address.
Another of his deals, also with Pompey, further undermined his attempts to restore Villa to the top-eight status they maintained under Gregory. He paid £4.5m for Peter Crouch, a beanpole striker with neither the strength nor the guile to prosper at the highest level. Taylor had wanted to pair him with Darius Vassell, just back from the World Cup, but the partnership was stillborn. Ironically, Villa's most productive forward became Dion Dublin, who began the campaign as sixth-choice striker after being farmed out to Millwall early in Taylor's reign.
There were successes. Taylor resurrected the career of Gareth Barry, whom Gregory had cast aside when he lost form. With careful nurturing, Barry became an England contender again. Jlloyd Samuel, a dashing full-back, also blossomed under Taylor's patronage, as did Thomas Hitzlsperger, a German with a ferocious shot, although Lee Hendrie's promise stalled.
Embarrassingly, Taylor's second coming will be remembered for Villa finishing below Birmingham and conceding a double to them. Their 2-0 home defeat by Steve Bruce's team was marred by crowd violence and a lunatic butt by Dublin on Robbie Savage, further souring Taylor's perspective.
On the plus side, he at least avoided being sacked by Ellis, and for the second time to boot. He is still young enough to bring the expertise of three decades in management to another job. But while Graham Taylor was fond of saying: "Never say never,'' he will not be tempted back lightly.
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