The football world mourns the death of Graham Taylor, one of the most accomplished English managers in recent history. People may remember his dismal spell in charge of the England national team but there is far more he deserves to be remembered for.
The year: 1977. 11 years after Bobby Moore lifted the World Cup English football was stagnating. The national team was to fail to qualify for the tournament in Argentina the next year and Kevin Keegan had left Liverpool for the comparatively exotic Hamburg. His place was filled by Glaswegian import Kenny Dalglish, setting the stage for a raft of top Scots to enter the English game and push the Tartan Army ahead of England in the world rankings. Watford were stagnating in Division Four (now League Two) with seemingly no way to prevent them becoming yet another “nearly” team. Then Elton John came along, buying his boyhood club and installing Graham Taylor as manager.
The Worksop-born Taylor had been involved in the lower levels of the game, turning out regularly for Grimsby and Lincoln, but was forced to quit early due to a hip injury. Like Brian Clough before him, he made the most of his retirement by taking helm at Lincoln at only 28 years of age. He made waves at the Imps, lifting the Fourth Division championship in 1976 with a record 74 points (at a time when a win was worth two points) and 111 goals. First Division West Brom were interested, however Elton persuaded him to go to Vicarage Road.
The change was immediate. In 1978, Watford were promoted from the Fourth Division as champions, only three points away from breaking Lincoln’s record. The next season, they were promoted again at the first time of asking and after a few years of mid-table finishes in Division Two were promoted to the top flight in 1982, nine points clear of fellow promotion winners Norwich and ten points clear of the unlucky Sheffield Wednesday. Against all odds, they finished second in their first season- behind Liverpool, then at their peak- and qualified for the UEFA Cup. The next season, they reached the FA Cup final where they were pipped once again by Scousers, this time Everton. For the rest of Taylor’s first reign, the Hornets settled comfortably in mid-table, and when Dave Bassett was appointed after he left in 1987 they were relegated.
Taylor replicated his “oh so close” success with Aston Villa, getting them out of Division Two in 1988, narrowly avoiding the drop in 1989 and finishing second behind, yes, Liverpool in 1990. This netted him the England job after Bobby Robson’s departure, but like Don Revie before him he was an accomplished club manager who couldn’t handle the pressure at international level. He returned to domestic management with Wolverhampton Wanderers in 1994 before returning to Watford in 1996 and guiding them back to what was now the Premiership before retiring. He came out briefly to manage Villa again in 2002 before returning to his new-old job as a pundit. In later years, he also served on the board at Scunthorpe United and as chairman of Watford.
While he always fell short of the ultimate goals, Taylor proved himself to be a talented manager at club level. We live in a time when English managers are falling out of favour, especially in the top flight, and it seems unlikely we will ever have such a meteoric rise to the top like Watford again. Or at least one that isn’t entirely money. As classy as Leicester were last season, their new owner had injected plenty of cash for quality signings and training facilities. The new generation of English managers should learn from Taylor, from Clough, from Revie, from Paisley, even from Chapman. They should realise that money isn’t the only way to get trophies. You need a decent manager.