Friday, 13 January 2017

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road - Graham Taylor OBE

Very few of us have any idea whatsoever of what life is like living in a goldfish bowl, 

except, of course, for those of us who are goldfish.”
Graham Taylor

It was 1995 at a London Welsh RFC dinner that a business partner ironically also named, Graham Taylor, arranged a table at the London Hilton on Park Lane for group of us. Our guests that evening were Graham and Rita Taylor, who at the time were living the aftermath of EURO 92 and the failure to qualify for USA’94 that previous summer. The two Graham’s were friends since the football mad had been at Aston Villa where had managed up to receiving the England call. The friendship only broken on January 12th 2017 when the footballing man was taken from us far too soon. Yet the man I first knew during those darker times now looks set to leave a legacy for those who didn’t know him so well in no doubt about his qualities as a human being. As well as the esteem with which he was held by those in the footballing game.

During life, he was armed with a deep understanding of people, the game of football, the issues that involve players and the challenges of club staff. Coupled with an innate pursuit of excellence that few associated him with until they worked up close and personal with him. The testament being awarded the OBE for services to the game which he secreted to me in a Heathrow Hotel when I was trying to get his view on football agents. An area where he had very strong thoughts and was passionately concerned about. In fact, directness was the way he dealt with most things in life, both the good and the bad. Yet concerned for people and singularly dedicated to his family; wife, Rita, daughters, Karen and Joanne and the grandchildren.

But like a man of his generation and from working class roots in Worksop, Taylor never feared a heavy work load or tough looking challenge. Over more recent years as a pundit he revelled in the workloads and radio schedules all offering him that continued involvement with the game that at one time had become fragile. Which in July 1992 he must have believed was all over when England were dumped out of the European Championships in Sweden. Especially as the Premier League had just been invented and his star was diminished since leaving the First Division heights with a strong reputation at Aston Villa. Though there was an improvement in the 1994 World Cup qualifying campaign initially it all unravelled at the end of 1993 against Holland in Rotterdam and then San Marino at Wembley. All of which became indelibly marked on the national psyche when the Channel 4 fly on the wall documentary – The Impossible job – brought him into the vernacular with the phrase – “Do I not Like that”. 

The latter the downside perhaps of Taylor’ amicable nature towards a media which was intending originally to make a positive story about qualification for USA’94 initially and delivered a close-up of what really goes on pitch side when England lost out. Showing the non-footballing public – who would not have been aware of what goes on I the dugout - the gory details. Let’s not forget this was pre-Sky Sports where now there are cameras everywhere and all at angles capturing all sorts of unacceptable phrases. But the consequences for Graham Taylor ensured a lifelong infamy and a certain unemployability in the game for the immediate post England term. Accompanied by a public outcry about lack of National success once again and ensuring his own mood was sombre for some time after he left the Wembley tunnel that last time. For there were few who could match his love for all things England – be it in football, cricket, athletics or any other sport. Resulting in a fall from grace that had only five years prior seen him taking his Villa side to runners-up spot behind Liverpool. 

The added complication of ending Gary Lineker’s career in that final match against Sweden, when he substituted the England striker, also ended the dream of equalling Sir Bobby Charlton’s goal scoring record. Only adding the negative news already in full flow on the Red Tops. Even if in truth Lineker didn’t look likely to score even if he had stayed all night and played through the midsummer solstice. But in what was deemed a courageous move the facts recorded a defeat for Taylor and an end to the EURO 92 campaign. Yet outstanding the measure of Lineker on hearing the sad news was one of genuine sorrow on Twitter for a man he no doubt at one time must have genuinely disliked. But that was the essence of Graham. A totally likeable man even if you didn’t agree always with his footballing view. 

At Watford I often attended in matches where Graham and Elton John had built that football dream that we all learned about through sat and Greavsie. And some days at the pre-match drinks, even during his second coming, it would be a who is who in the director’s area and all joined together by the enthusiasm of their club manager. Who had stirred the Hornets’ nest from the very first day he arrived in 1977 and led them to the FA Cup Final in 1984. Under his management and some very talented players the club moved from Division Four to the First over six seasons. No mean feat for a man so tagged with the label of the long ball. A term always to deride the successful style of play. Totally ignoring the names Luther Blissett and John Barnes within whom lay a serious level of talent and ability. In his second coming to Watford in 1996 he was accompanied by Blissett and at a later stage, Kenny Jacket, both of whom were vital parts that success in the 1980’s. 

A team that also included many others who became household heroes; the likes of Steve Sims, Pat Rice, Ross Jenkins, Dave Johnson and Gerry Armstrong. Many of whom would attended gatherings at his home where you could other legends just as easily. The likes of Peter Bonnetti coming to mind which highlighted the respect the former Lincoln City player had within the game. The reason undoubtedly being his personality and an intense love for the beautiful game to almost an academic level. Always reluctant to talk too much about himself and empathetic to those in his company. In fact, he took interest in other people and their families. So, it is no accident that our second daughter was named after his granddaughter Rhianna and never would a Christmas pass without a card from Graham and Rita - a lasting testimony to their generosity and friendship. 

Intermixed at times with some football chin wagging or quick fact checking about some job he might have been approached about. Or vice versa. Including the Republic of Ireland where whispers had reached him during the interregnum prior to the arrival of Giovanni Trapattonni that there was some interest and he sought my counsel. As always exchanges with Graham were direct, highly informative, courteous, and full of that unique wisdom he had gained from his life experiences. The post England era the most troubled for him as his faced the aftermath of The Sun’s hurtful front page headline. Undoubtedly that alone took its toll although he recovered for the most part. But it was never fully forgotten. Nor should it have been given the nasty content.

Yet it never clouded his dealings with football people, as he used to like to say. But certainly, made him more sceptical of the press. A sad thing for him given his father was a newspaper man at Scunthorpe Evening Telegraph and as he had so willing to help any journalist seeking his thoughts. It was that media familiarity too that enabled his rehabilitation take place almost unnoticed and a transition from exile back to front line punditry. Probably camouflaged by the treatment meted out to his successors at Lancaster Gate and subsequently at FA HQ in Soho Square. All of whom received less personal abuse perhaps but much the same pain and softened by more mega salaries that were not proffered in Grahams’ era. A benefit he was happy to enjoy when he made the return to Aston Villa in 2002 having never managed in the Premier League.

However, it was a return that started at a revamped Molineux when he was convinced to return to the game in late 1995 to work for Sir Jack Hayward at Wolverhampton Wanderers. Coming close to winning promotion in his first season with precious few changes to the club squad and unluckily losing out to Bolton Wanderers in the return leg at Burnden Park. At the beginning of his second season he turned to a former Villa favourite, Tony Daley, whom he capped for England, to make the move but any progress was marred by injury. Daley failing to deliver for Wolves alongside the other names he brought in; Dean Richards, Steve Froggat and Don Goodman. Leaving Graham unable to ignite the renewed playing squad and the added background noise increasing when Taylor tried to sell club legend Steve Bull to Coventry. The combined pressure to his resignation in November 1995.

During those days at Wolves he also bought the little-known Robbie Keane and I always remember Graham describing the young Dubliner’s bright eyes as the one thing that stood out from their first ever meeting. It was one of the many links this man from Worksop continued with Irish players over the years. Most notably fulfilled with Paul McGrath at Aston Villa and a player whose career was prolonged by the vision of Taylor and physio, Jim Walker, about training. Mostly based on protecting McGrath’s deteriorating knees with a balanced of rest and bike training. The programme allowing the Inchicore man to be part of that infamous Giants Stadium victory over Italy in USA 1994. A real surprise given an FAI doctor had told me in Sevilla in 1988 at a World Cup qualifying match that the former Manchester United player would have to retire early his knees were so bad. But that never happened until 1998.

It was Taylor who offered Villa as the refuge for McGrath when Alex Ferguson broke the Kevin Moran, Bryan Robson, Norman Whiteside and McGrath drinking club in the mid-nineties. The mutual affection the two men shared was always clear when Paul spoke and reflected the breadth of Taylor’s personality as well as his man management skills – always going beyond just the football. I also remember being at Vicarage Road one day when agent Mel Stein was in to extend a deal for Irish international David Connolly, a player Taylor inherited on his return to Watford. And faced with a stack of videos Graham was canvassing for an opinion on the Irish winger and I saw my life flash before me. But with Graham opinions were all worth something and he was earnestly seeking to learn other people’s views - if they had them – before happily making the decisions himself. 

The net result for Connolly was a move to Excelsior in Holland which proved better in terms of playing minutes and his longer-term career. As it was for the skilful former Finn Harps and Derry City goal scorer Kevin McHugh, who Graham brought on trial to Aston Villa for a few weeks. As always, he cared about these player’s welfare and recognising McHugh’s talent just felt that at the age he was a stint in the second team to get more experience was just coming at the wrong age for him. On that occasion getting Taylor’s feedback for Finn Harps was a lesson in people management and player welfare that many could – and should – emulate. The game is filled with too many damaged hopes and shattered illusions of young players who travelled to England in search of footballing fame.

Steve Staunton was the last of the Irish stalwarts to play at Villa on Taylors return in 2002 and the Drogheda man came back on a free transfer from Liverpool after his loan spell at Crystal Palace. The two-stayed close and Taylor pro-offered Stan advice often and more particularly when he was sacked as the Ireland manager only half way through his deal with the Football Association of Ireland. As both men, had walked the same line at a stage in their lives albeit the Irish man had much less experience on the bench given his extended playing career. Almost twice the years Taylor had played given his early retirement from injury at the age of 27. But that was Graham - always generous with his time and advice - to those who sought it. But it was the scarred people’s perception of him as a person for many years which came with a level of abuse that had little to do with football.

His term at England was not as bad as people believe in terms of results, or indeed in comparison to some of his successors. Yet Graham’s tenure was unforgivable simply for failure to qualify for USA’94 and the result against San Marino. Triggering that testy relationship with the media that has since ended the term of almost every England manager ever since. Starting with his immediate successor Terry Venables after Euro 96, then Glenn Hoddle after the France 98, and then Sven Goran Erickson and Steve McClaren. The latter being tagged as the Brollie Man. And highlighted again last summer with Roy Hodgson’s demise within hours of England’s’ exit in EURO 2006. However, the experience that Taylor and his family lived through post 1993 would suggest that the job is still an impossible one. Perhaps more sensible to offer it to International names who may be less emotionally involved in the fate of England. Which will be the big test for Gareth Southgate who would not be dissimilar to Taylor in some ways to his thoughts on the game or commitment to detail.

In 2002 Taylor chose to join the Premier League at Aston Villa after Doug Ellis made him an offer that ensured his role at the club would extend from just being a board member. Yet the longer-term aspirations Graham called for at the club - after finishing 16th in his first season - were not on his Chairman’s agenda. So, Taylor then stepped down and left a cub where he had also built a reputation. By this time, Graham had become softer on the eye for the most part and there was no more of the vitriol he had lived through after 1994. As a result, Graham became a regular pundit for the BBC and his voice illuminated many a game on the radio. Now as we reflect on his loss it is good to hear his life being recalled in its fullest glory by many friends. As indeed it should be.

For Rita, Karen and Joanne there are no unknowns with their husband, father and grandfather as Graham was a loving and kind man. But for the public there will be some new insights and this recognition is not only right – but natural justice. 

For those who knew him well – and there are many – there is little consolation for his shockingly sad early passing and the loss of a truly good man. But it is refreshing that finally his life’s work can be seen in a more complete form. His humanity applauded, a love of family lauded and his contribution to the beautiful game so highly valued. 

"So goodbye yellow brick road
Where the dogs of society howl
You can't plant me in your penthouse
I'm going back to my plough"
Sir Elton John

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