Taylor back at Watford junction

Norman Fox describes a disillusioned man's return to the only club that still loved him; While one manager finds solace in his home from home, for another, life at the top is nothing but a drama
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The Independent Online
GRAHAM TAYLOR would have hesitated slightly before going out to face the fans who remembered him as the one who once took Watford to parts of the football world that the Metropolitan Line does not reach. He need not have balked. They responded as if he had never been away, let alone become one of the most ridiculed people in Britain. The day was not yesterday when he presided over his first match as Watford's new general manager but a Saturday last October when he was still manager of Wolves, though only just.

Vicarage Road was the only ground in Britain where he could get an ovation. He was again under pressure. He thought the England job hardened him for anything but he was wrong. "The Wolves fans had been prepared for promotion. It was only a matter of time, but it's not always as straightforward as that," he said. They had never been totally convinced that he was the right man for the job and though they gave touching vocal support earlier in the season, by the time it came to visiting Watford they had seen hopes of Premiership football disappear.

So he glowed at the welcome he got from the supporters of "the club nearest to my heart". It was different with Wolves. The club impressed him, but more for its history and its stadium than for the impatient people who employed him. Watford had been much different, homely but with realistic ambition. There he defied his lack of experience and wrote the first part of a CV that was later to become irresistible to the FA when they wanted to replace Bobby Robson.

Criticism comes with the job of England manager, but in Taylor's case it turned a confident, mannerly man into a gabbling wreck. Robson said: "That job would destroy the thickest of skins. I can understand why Graham Taylor turned his back on football after trying again with Wolves. I wouldn't wish the England job on anyone." The crude criticism cut more deeply than Taylor admitted. Until the last months of his England reign he always courted popularity. He thought the pain of nationwide unpopularity would go away when he resigned. Far from it.

The Wolves team he had taken over unexpectedly and perhaps unwisely was struggling when they went to Vicarage Road for a First Division match on that afternoon. Their fans had turned on him. Expectancy had again exceeded his capacity to repeat his successes at Watford and Aston Villa, just as it had with England. But the ovation was a warming fall-back. It was like a day on which England had lost another crucial game. "Ah well," he said, "at least when I get home the dog will still wag its tail."

Elton John, life president and erstwhile financial saviour of Watford, heard about the spontaneous ovation even though he had not been to the club for several months. "I couldn't bear to see how bad things had become," he said, recalling that he and Taylor had temporarily lifted Watford from its seeming eternal fate of being impaled on its own anonymity.

After attending Taylor's press conference last week, John said: "I had kept in touch with Graham so when things went wrong at Wolves I left it for a time but then talked to him about the possibility of coming back." After Taylor's departure to join Villa, John was less involved in the club but he says the sad sight of them being at the bottom of the First Division persuaded him that it was time to restore the old alchemy.

Taylor says that his time at Watford from 1977 to 1987 gave him the greatest satisfaction of his entire career but that it was never his intention to return. "Then I talked with Elton, mostly about the good times." He had taken Watford from the Fourth Division to the top flight and got them a place in Europe, but he says that the more important and lasting thing was that he worked successfully in making the club and the people of Watford feel closer together.

Taylor's short fallow period since leaving Molineux last November was probably something he needed but it was obvious that at only 51 he would eventually defy his own better judgement and make one final attempt to restore his pride. "I sat back and enjoyed my independence," he said. "I didn't intend to get back into management, not even with Watford." The offers came in from abroad. He resisted. He kept the press at arm's length but penned a few bland articles.

Did he think of quitting football altogether? "I would put it another way and say that having been at the top of my profession, and not having things go as well as you hoped, the danger is that football can give up on you." Everyone else has a view about where he went wrong, what about him? An athletics fan, he says that what he admires most about Linford Christie is his ability to win "the big ones". That, he admits, was what the England teams he chose failed to do.

His England experience clearly left him on the edge of a breakdown. A few bad decisions multiplied in his own mind. He spent more time worrying than thinking in the pragmatic way that worked at Watford and Aston Villa. Unwittingly, he made matters worse by never admitting that he got things wrong, saying only that he was sorry and that the players had to take responsibility once on the pitch.

He remains unrepentant about his football philosophy, which he says is based on the logical use of the constructive long ball as and when required. It worked for Watford but at international level it was a different matter. He says that tactical matters at Watford are down to the first-team coach, Luther Blissett, who was the centre-forward in the good old days when John Barnes could find him with radar precision. Watford will see Taylor again, but not the like of them.