Graham Taylor: If people spit at you, the turnip joke's not funny

Hitting a brick wall as England manager, life with Elton John at Watford and the hounding of your family when the media scent blood

Steve Tongue
Sunday 29 March 2009 02:00 BST

The referee in a Grimsby Town reserve match once called over a protesting young Graham Taylor and reprimanded him with: "If you could play as well as you talk, you'd be an effing international." The waitress serving at Watford's Hilton Hotel last week would understand that, hovering three hours after she first brought the coffee and wondering what on earth anyone could find to talk about for so long.

There is an awful lot of ground to cover, however, in the story of the grammar school boy from Scunthorpe whose playing career was cut short by injury but led to more than 1,000 matches as a manager; taking a little club from the Fourth Division to the FA Cup final and Europe in unlikely harmony with a hard-drinking, drug-taking rock star; and reaching the peak of his profession in charge of the national team. Which was where the trouble started.

On his own admission, Taylor was ill-prepared for what awaited him after he succeeded Bobby Robson following the 1990 World Cup; the one, he points out, "where Bobby's team went in the same newspaper from 'bring these plonkers home' after the first game to 'team of the year'." He did his best, by personally visiting every player in that squad, and trying not to be disheartened from the start by what one of them told him. "He was very, very open. He said he was retiring and told me that even by Euro 92 there would be players not up to it. Perhaps I made a mistake, but apart from those that retired I kept the same group."

Then there were the problems faced by every England manager, magnified for one with so little international experience. "In club football you have your players and staff with you all the time, preparing for two games a week, you know them inside out, you have a discipline over them.

"In international football you have 10 games a season, with players from different clubs. There's no time for proper coaching, they're just recovering from playing on the Saturday. Some report with a knock and can't train for two or three days. Some don't want to be there because they think they won't be in the side and they're not used to that. Then there's the ones that don't even come."

All England managers suffer from injuries, he says, "because we play too much football in our country", a view which once led to a falling-out with his Football Association employers. "The formation of the Premier League was supposed to help the England team and the FA should have insisted on 18 clubs. I don't know the ins and outs this week of the situation with Ledley King, but in general you know there are players under intense pressure not to come at all. I didn't know about managing other players' managers."

It came as a shock, too, that there were people who did not appear to share his patriotism. "I went into that job with some naïveté. Because I come from Scunthorpe and followed them as a lad, the big club to me was always England, they were the most important team in the country. I can't understand why any English people don't see it like that. When Watford players like John Barnes and Luther Blissett got recognised it was almost like winning an England cap myself, I felt so proud."

His conclusion was, and is, that it takes a minimum of two years and a first tournament to grow into the manager's job. Unfortunately, despite going into that first competition, in Sweden, with only one defeat in 21 games (and that was 1-0 by the world champions, Germany) England did not distinguish themselves and Taylor committed the sin of substituting the blessed Gary Lineker in the final group match.

The resulting headline in the Sun, "Swedes 2 Turnips 1", became the stuff of journalistic legend. Taylor, the son of a sports reporter, did not mind that, but became a victim when the paper then portrayed him as the vegetable in question. He suffers the repercussions to this day.

"If somebody puts a turnip on your head it gives an impression to people of a certain intellect that they can treat you like anything. And there were a couple of incidents where that's happened, by people who've had too much to drink, want to eff and blind, spit at you or throw beer over you, because the Sun newspaper's given the impression they can do that to this fella. Don't tell me that's just a joke. Then when the sub- editor who had the idea of Turnip Taylor retired, I was invited to present him with a mock-up newspaper at his farewell party. What? I declined."

It is an irony that someone who would work in the Scunthorpe press box with his father, then accompany him to his newspaper office on a Sunday morning, should forever be associated with cruel press caricature and a clutch of catchphrases from a television film. The idea of a documentary was first broached as soon as Taylor took the England job; he turned it down, but two years later it was raised again. "The idea was to show the public what the England manager's job was really like, what you did in between playing only 10 matches a season. The international committee were going to get on, and every time part of a match was shown the FA would get paid." Lancaster Gate suddenly liked the sound of it.

The World Cup qualifying campaign was recovering after a disappointing draw at home to Norway. "Then when we lost a 2-0 lead at home to Holland, suddenly I'm wondering about qualification. A decision had to be made about the documentary. Perhaps I should have said at that stage we wouldn't do it, but the written media knew it was being made and I wasn't prepared to have headlines saying I'd lost faith and was frightened we wouldn't qualify. Perhaps I made a mistake. But after that I couldn't tell them they're not to show this or that." So graphic touchline pictures from the games in Poland (1-1) and Norway (0-2) made famous such Taylorisms as "Do I not like that?" and "Can we not knock it?".

"People think I was stitched up," he now says. "I wasn't. But Channel 4 bought it and promoted it on the F-word, which I only use in football company." Meanwhile, Wapping's finest were attempting to outdo each other in recording successive England defeats: "Norse manure" and "Yanks 2 Planks 0".

"The first time I began to wonder whether the job was worth it was after the defeat by the United States. I got a phone call from my wife, Rita, who'd been out shopping with her mother, who was then in a wheelchair, and when they got home they couldn't get on to our driveway because of the number of media people there. She was asked if she'd do an interview and said she didn't do interviews, and a fella from one of the tabloids said, 'About fucking time you started then'.

"A day later, a television company have knocked on the door of my 70-year-old parents' house, walked straight in filming and asking if they've anything to say about losing to America. So now I'm on my phone to my solicitor trying to sort that out."

The new season brought no respite, only memorable footage for the documentary of a distraught Taylor on the touchline in Rotterdam berating the officials: "Tell your friend [the referee] he's just got me the sack." His prediction was correct, and he took it hard: "There's only one person will take non-qualification for a World Cup to the grave with them, that's me. It's to do with professional pride. To do with the fact that I reached the top of my profession and hit my first brick wall. I'd had 18 years in management and didn't know about not being successful. That's part of the reason you get the job."

Indeed, his only previous period of failure had come right at the start, as a 28-year-old player-manager of impoverished Lincoln City. Not one of his first 11 games was won, but the board persevered, and within four seasons his team had won the Fourth Division, scoring 111 goals and achieving a points total that – translated into three points for a win – has never been beaten in any division before or since.

In 1977, he went back to that lowest division with Watford after Elton John offered a five-year contract and said he wanted his local club (two previous seasons in their history outside the lower divisions) to play in Europe. Rather than enquire what substances the chairman was on, Taylor accepted the outrageous challenge and met it in the space of six seasons, finishing second to Liverpool and defending his direct style against all-comers, as he continues to today: "If people think all we did was whack the ball and chase it, it must have been a very poor First Division! I was brought up watching the kind of football where teams went forward trying to score. I enjoyed my team doing that."

In five seasons among the big boys, Watford never finished lower than 12th place, but attendances in a town of 80,000 dropped off, Elton John suffered personal and drug problems and the local council refused to back a new stadium, all of which persuaded Taylor to try a new experience with Aston Villa and the rather more hands-on approach of their infamous chairman Doug Ellis. Winning promotion, then repeating his runners-up achievement (to Liverpool, again) confirmed Taylor as the obvious candidate to replace Robson.

After further spells at Wolverhampton Wanderers, Watford and Villa, Taylor is back these days at Vicarage Road as a non-executive director, trying to help solve the club's serious financial problems, and back in international football too, as a media critic; as well as talking for England, he is happy to talk about them.

Yesterday he was at Wembley for Radio 5 Live, his normal high sartorial standards compromised by a pair of trainers following a major Achilles tendon operation. Some scars will heal. Others remain.

Taylor on...

Media intrusion

A TV company knocked on the door of my 70-year-old parents and walked straight in filming Failure with England

There's only one person will take non-qualification for a World Cup to the grave with them – me Foreign bosses

I've great admiration for Capello and Sven but I don't believe in major football nations appointing foreign managers His future

Do I think I could be a manager in my mid-60s? Yes. Do I want to be a manager? No Deadly Doug Ellis at Villa

We had a massive row at our first board meeting – so I stopped going

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