Profile: A man of the players: Gordon Taylor: Simon O'Hagan traces the career of a railwayman's son who put footballers on the right track

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The Independent Online
GORDON TAYLOR'S father was a fitter for British Rail, a staunch union man who, after 25 years' service, was looking forward to receiving a gold watch from Hugh Scanlon, head of the Amalgamated Engineering Workers Union. 'But at the last minute Scanlon was unable to come,' Taylor remembers. 'I'll never forget my father's disappointment.'

The worker's cause is close to Taylor's heart. But the problem he has as chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association - the players' union - is that some of his workers need him more than others. And in standing up for the majority of footballers, those who do not earn superstar wages or have multi-million-pound sponsorship deals, Taylor is increasingly finding himself at odds with football's elite.

It happened again last week when Taylor voiced his concern over the number of foreign players coming into English football. 'You don't want people coming in who are no better than the people here, simply cheaper,' he said. 'Not so long ago we were teaching the Americans how to play. Now I've got work permits for them piling up on my desk. It could be disastrous.'

If Taylor thought he was sticking one in the back of the net for England, he soon discovered otherwise. The ball bounced straight back in his face as two of the most powerful men in the Premiership moved to defend the trend towards buying overseas.

Sir John Hall, the chairman of Newcastle United, clearly felt this was a slight on his club, among whose foreign buys during the close-season has been an American goalkeeper. 'The man is talking nonsense,' he said. Howard Wilkinson, the Leeds United manager, has just bought two South Africans but refused to accept Taylor's criticism. 'It's wrong of him to point the finger,' he said.

So who is Gordon Taylor? Champion of the downtrodden in an industry where life can still be precarious? Or a jumped-up little Englander interfering in other people's business? Whether he is one or other or both, one thing is certain: he has raised the profile of boss of the players' union to unprecedented heights. Few issues surrounding the game are debated without Taylor making one of his eloquent but forceful contributions.

Taylor is 49 and from Ashton- under-Lyne. He is a football man through and through. A wide midfielder and noted crosser of the ball, he had a 17-year playing career that took him from Bolton to Bury via Birmingham, Blackburn and the United States, ending because of injury in 1979.

By then, he was chairman of the PFA - the players' elected representative - and two years later he made it a full-time career by becoming secretary, then chief executive. His 13 years in charge, among the most turbulent in English football history, have been characterised by a dogged determination to do right by the players and a flair for negotiation which has enabled him to take on the role of trouble-shooter in many of the disputes - over breakaway leagues, television money, restructuring and so on - that might otherwise have riven the domestic game.

Taylor could not have done this without building a bigger, more powerful organisation behind him. The businessman in him was immediately apparent when he arranged for the Manchester- based PFA to buy its own headquarters for the first time, and under him the staff has gone from a handful to more than 100.

Garth Crooks, a former PFA chairman, worked closely with Taylor in the 1980s. 'If he believes in something, he'll pursue it to the end,' he says. 'He's a wonderful man to have behind you.' And while Taylor clearly enjoys appearing on the big stage, most of his day-to-day work is in the much less glamorous world of lower-division minutiae. 'He's not the all-

conquering emperor,' Crooks says. 'He respects more than anybody the office of the PFA.'

Taylor numbers among his achievements better accident insurance for players, increased pensions and a system of grants that enables players to study for a career after football while they are still playing the game. He has undoubtedly helped professionalise the profession, which is why he believes so vehemently that the Football Association should split its responsibility for both the amateur and professional game. An anachronism, Taylor thinks. He has been particularly critical of the 'amateur ethos' surrounding the FA's coaching scheme, which he sees as crude, outdated and irrelevant to the men who play the game for a living.

'While the media has looked to the stars, Gordon has always made sure the Football League players have remained in the picture,' Crooks says. 'Whether he's fighting for a player's contract to be honoured or whatever, he'll spend as much time at Cardiff as he would at Arsenal. It's often the Second and Third Divisions where the problems occur.'

It is Taylor's unwavering support for the grass-roots of the game, where the majority of his 2,000 members ply their trade and, as he is at pains to stress, most of the biggest names started out, that has put him in conflict with the leading clubs. However skilfully Taylor has tried to maintain the link between the Premiership and the Third Division, he keeps coming up against the reality of the situation - that their interests are ultimately incompatible. The row over foreigners is just another illustration of that.

After helping prevent a breakaway of five leading clubs in 1987, who were all ready to do their own television deal, Taylor's next big battle was two years ago when it was another Sir John trying to get the ball past him - Sir John Quinton, part-time chairman of the then newly formed Premier League. Again the argument was over television money, and how much the Mansfields of this world should get when the reason Sky and the BBC were prepared to pay pounds 300m was so they could get their hands on Manchester United.

The foreigners issue is again less about prejudice than economics, though as Crooks says, 'Gordon can sound xenophobic, but that is not the case.' In one sense the two lowest divisions are not affected by it, in that hardly any foreigners play there - only 14 out the 116 altogether. Even a so-called cheap import is beyond their means if he costs pounds 350,000. But as Taylor sees it, the grass-roots of the English game is affected if the leading clubs stop looking to it in the hope of unearthing another Kevin Keegan or Andy Cole - a point he says Sir John Hall 'wouldn't understand'.

The animosity between these two is considerable. Sir John had been contemptuous of Taylor, saying he should 'try running a football club instead of pontificating in his office', and that it was Taylor's sort of attitude 'that has led to English football being in the backwaters'.

England - as in the England team - represents the moral high ground that everybody in this argument is laying claim to. But this is where the argument gets very complicated. There are those who say that a cosmopolitan English League must be good for English players, that they can learn from skills honed in Holland or Bolivia. But Taylor's point is that if moderate overseas players start arriving - he has no objection to the likes of Jurgen Klinsmann - then opportunities for Englishmen will be more limited and, he fears, there will be more World Cups like this year's when England are watching from the stands.

Taylor points to the example of county cricket, where there is a limit of one overseas player per team, and in this he has a staunch supporter in Crooks. 'If you don't give your home-grown talent room to develop you're not going to get it to perform at the highest level,' he says. The trouble is that if you are going to point the finger at every player who, as Taylor sees it, is stopping England reaching the World Cup finals, then you would have to include all the Scotsmen, Welshmen and Irishmen who are an integral part of the English game. No one is suggesting that.

And then there is the distinction you can draw between EU players and those from other parts of the world. One of Taylor's old clubs - Bolton Wanderers - is a good example. Bruce Rioch has just spent pounds 650,000 on a German and a Dutchman few in England have heard of but who would have cost far more had they been English. (This is always assuming Rioch could have found exactly what he was looking for in the domestic ranks.) 'We're in Europe now,' Rioch says. 'There's freedom of movement.' But he has no argument with Taylor. 'I've always had a very good working relationship with him. I think he's done an excellent job.'

What we are witnessing is another round in the long-running saga of club v country. And Taylor is finding, as a lot of referees are these days, that keeping control of the match is not easy.