When Graham Taylor sadly passed away a year ago English football paid him a heartfelt tribute. It was well deserved for a man who by all accounts was honest, decent and gave so much of himself to the game.
As a club manager Taylor achieved minor miracles taking Watford to the FA Cup final and Aston Villa to second in the league. He was one of the early champions of black English players nurturing the careers of John Barnes and Luther Blissett. But it’s hard not to think part of the reason the media praised him so much in death was their vilification of him life.
As England manager he suffered a torrent of abuse from the tabloids that went far beyond constructive criticism of his teams. But criticism of his selections and tactics were justified. He arrived as England manager in the summer of 1990 on the back of England’s most successful World Cup since 1966, initially Taylor stuck closely to Bobby Robson’s blueprint that had worked well at Italia ’90. Robson had switched to a 5-3-2 formation at the World Cup, Taylor’s first few friendlies followed the same formation and he only made minor personnel tweaks- replacing the retired Peter Shilton with Chris Woods and handing debuts to Arsenal fullbacks Lee Dixon & Nigel Winterburn.
But Taylor was a devout 4-4-2 man who’s sides usually played long ball tactics. By the time England played Ireland at Wembley in the autumn of 1990 England had riverted to type and things started to slip. Creative players most notably Chris Waddle and Peter Beardsley were overlooked and in came Arsenal target man Alan Smith, one dimensional wingers Andy Sinton & Tony Daley and most bizarrely jobbing midfielders Dennis Wise, Gordon Cowans & Geoff Thomas.
In the 1991 FA Cup final Taylor suffered a hammer blow when man of the moment Paul Gascoigne suffered a cruciate ligament injury to the knee. Without Gascoigne Taylor’s side lacked any creative spark and England laboured through qualifying relying heavily on the predatory instincts of Gary Lineker. Eventually a Lineker goal in a 1-1 draw with Poland saw England reach the finals in Sweden.
England arrived in Sweden having lost only once under Taylor’s management but his squad selection for the finals caused dismay. Unsurprisingly he left out Beardsley and Waddle but leaving out golden boot winner Ian Wright shocked fans and critics alike. He also suffered poor luck with Gazza still injured John Barnes was also crocked together with his first three options at right back; Dixon, Paul Parker and Gary Stevens. His solution to the right back crisis was to play centre half Keith Curle in that position with no other option selected in his squad.
Curle lasted an hour of the tournament at right back, narrowly avoiding a sending off against unfenced Denmark, England drew 0-0. In the second game against France England were again solid but unspectacular- not a surprise for a team who deployed Carlton Palmer as the midfield general. A late Stuart Pearce free kick smashed the French crossbar but England again drew 0-0.
It was now all or nothing against hosts Sweden, a win and England were through anything less and Taylor was a dead man walking. It started well with England finally scoring a goal courtesy of David Platt. But a half time tactical switch from the Swedes saw England overwhelmed, in need of a response Taylor made the most infamous substitution in England’s history. He took off Gary Lineker (who was retiring at the end of the tournament) and replaced him with Alan ‘Smudger’ Smith, needless to say it didn’t work and England were beaten 2-1. The knives were out and the turnips adorned The Sun’s from page
Taylor’s response was to go more direct for the World Cup qualifying campaign, a tournament Taylor claimed he was aiming to win (not the smartest statement to make when you’ve called up Brian Deane.) If the tactics and relationship with the press were bad unbeknown to everyone Taylor had agreed to let a film crew follow his every move through qualifying.
Qualifying got off to shaky start as England were pegged back by Norway at Wembley, a similar followed in the spring of 1993 as England let slip a 2 goal lead against Holland. By this stage Stuart Pearce & Alan Shearer were out injured and England faced a tricky away double header to Poland & Norway in the summer qualifiers.
A late equaliser from Ian Wright salvaged a draw in Poland but England then lost 2-0 in Norway. What everyone remembers from these games was the darkly comic documentary footage of Taylor and his staff on the England bench “It’s made for Wrighty to come on score I say it’s…” ,”Nigel just play it as you see it” and “Gazza’s f@$ked” were the moments that entered documentary legend whilst Taylor’s England headed off for a summer tour of the US where things got even worse.
A year removed from the World Cup England played a warm up tournament against the USA, Brazil & Germany. The first game was against the unheralded US, England produced another listless performance and and went down 2-0 with even Alexi Lallas managing to score, the low point cam when the live feed was temporarily lost by ITV and back in the studio they could at least confirm for Ron Atkinson the Americans hadn’t scored a third. ‘Yanks 2 Planks Nil’ roared The Sun and so it went on. England did play better against Brazil and Germany but finished last in the tournament. By now Taylor’s Spitting Image puppet was portrayed captaining a team on ‘A Question of Sport’ having selected to play “A watering can and a packet of cereal!”
In the autumn England hinted at a comeback, in Les Ferdinand Taylor had found a striker who had the power and pace to thrive in his direct system. With Gazza back to form England crushed Poland 3-0 at Wembley. It all rested on getting a draw away to Holland, but crucially Ferdinand was injured and Gascoigne suspended. We all know what happened next; Ronald Koeman should have been sent off for hauling down David Platt but stayed on the pitch and scored the decisive free kick. Taylor wandered the touchline like a lost child and berating the fourth official, England went down 2-0 and all that remained was for Pearce to concede the quickest goal in World Cup history to San Marino and Taylor’s reign was over.
Taylor blamed the poor refereeing for the loss in Rotterdam and therefore failure to qualify. It’s true the referee was awful in that game but failure to qualify was down to England not holding onto their leads at home to Norway & Holland- win those games and the Rotterdam game would’t have been relevant.
In keeping with his high character Taylor resigned rather than waiting for the sack and a big cheque. He’d failed, he admitted it, he tried to move on. Soon after the infamous documentary aired and the phrase “Do I not like that!” entered footballing folklore.
Taylor did restore his reputation by eventually returning to Watford and helping them into the Premier League for the first time since the league was formed. He worked as a World Cup pundit for the BBC, providing some insightful analysis and picking up an OBE before retiring, his passing was marked with respect from all quarters
Looking back it’s hard to separate Graham Taylor the manager from the documentary star. Taylor came across as a nice guy out of his depth and cracking when the pressure intensified. Broadcast in the days before Sky Sports News it provided a shocking window on the relationship between managers and journalists.
Watching it again it’s striking how loutish the press appear and how little support Taylor got from his coaching staff or the FA. It’s unfair to judge the contributions of Laurie McMenemy & Phil Neal on the small amount of footage we got to see but neither seemed to offer much in the way of insight or tactical opinion. Neal in particular was lampooned for simply repeating Taylor’s instructions to the players from the dugout whilst sat beside him. The FA meanwhile seemed to consist of a set of old school blazers sat behind a highly polished board table. In the aftermath of England’s failure and the documentary they were rightly savaged by the press.
Looking back I think the worst part of Taylor’s time was Euro ’92 when he picked a starkly dull squad whilst better players were simply ignored for not fitting the system, with the right back shambles showing the often repeated mistake of England managers of placing square pegs in round holes. His selections did get better although at the time I was annoyed at the constant exclusion of Matt Le Tissier, a player who later on neither Terry Venables nor Glenn Hoddle could fit into their teams, so he was probably correct on that one. One ongoing problem I saw with his teams was an over dependance on a talisman (Lineker early on, Gascoigne later). The plan always seemed to be have a disciplined organised team and wait for Gazza to produce a moment of magic, when it didn’t happen or he was injured (as was frequently the case) England lacked a plan b.
Of the 9 permanent England managers I’ve seen come and go (and last longer than 67 days) three were clearly better than Taylor and 3 were definitely worse. What makes the Taylor era look so bad was it was sandwiched by England’s run to the semi finals of Italia ’90 and Euro ’96. Indeed many of Taylor’s players from 1993 would go on to play for England through to the end of the 1990s.
Perhaps the best way of putting it is to say Taylor was simply employed by the FA at the wrong time- his old school tactics came just at the time England were starting to employ a more progressive approach, surely they knew what kind of football Taylor would deliver, didn’t they? I’ll remember Taylor has a decent, likeable figure and a manager who gave his all but came up short, and at the time I did not like that.