Graham Taylor’s class and sensitivity rescued Paul McGrath
Taylor brought the Dubliner to Aston Villa, presumably unaware of his alcoholism
During a book signing in the summer of 2007 a stranger passed Graham Taylor a handwritten note relating to its author’s wedding, scheduled for the following January. “I got the letter and thought I knew what was coming,” Taylor said. “I thought I’d be asked to do a video message but to my surprise he wanted me to be his best man. I sat down with my wife and agreed to do it. The sheer cheek of it just tickled my senses.” And so it is that Taylor was the star turn at the nuptials of, as he described it, “a man I’d never met and a bride I’d never seen”. It is a story that sums up Taylor perfectly, particularly given it was not even his own book he was signing.
Apparently it was the first time he had fulfilled the role of best man, though it is a phrase that suited him rather well. Managers, like the footballers who work under them, are primarily judged on performances and results, but as the tributes rolled in following Taylor’s death many were not about his achievements in the sport – genuinely brilliant though many of them were – but about his personality.
On viewing it again, his humanity shines through even in the Channel 4 documentary on his doomed attempt to lead England to the 1994 World Cup, a film that falsely defined him as a failure and a fool in the eyes of many. England’s travails under his command were a stain on an otherwise gilded CV, though they were also not without mitigation. By the time he resigned in November 1993 he had come to be associated with root vegetables and quirky, semi-comic phrases – “Do I not like that”, “Can we not knock it?” – and perhaps this period should have come to be remembered with embarrassment not just by Taylor but by certain sections of the British media. When the subeditor who wrote the infamous Swedes 2, Turnips 1 headline retired, the Sun invited Taylor to present him with a special farewell gift, giving him a chance to prove there were some invitations so crass and classless even he would turn them down.
Some England players complained about Taylor’s disciplined approach and he certainly afforded them fewer freedoms both in training and at leisure than had his predecessor, Bobby Robson. Inevitably some players respond to this style better than others: John Barnes, whom he signed for Watford after the 18-year-old had been spotted by a local taxi driver, praised Taylor for “giving me the momentum and discipline I needed”; but shortly after Taylor returned to Hertfordshire for a second spell in 1996 an unnamed player told the Mirror that with his strict dress code and increased demands “Taylor reminds me of one of those religious fanatics”.
Taylor was a demanding but also gentle man. In 1989, as the Aston Villa manager, he signed Paul McGrath from Manchester United, presumably unaware of the defender’s alcoholism. His treatment of McGrath, at a time when few in football considered such problems with anything but disdain, spoke much of him. “He had every reason to be furious,” McGrath wrote. “One of his big signings had turned out to be a walking mess. But he was open and caring. He’d say to me: ‘Look, if you need something, come to me. We’re all here to help you.’ That was his attitude. I felt I could talk to him on a level I had probably never talked on with anyone else in football. I don’t think I’m being melodramatic when I say that he literally rescued me. Under another manager, I suspect my career would have been over. But Graham Taylor’s sensitivity worked wonders. The more we talked, the more determined I became to repay him. I felt this urge inside. I wanted to play for this man.”
Beyond Taylor’s family and many friends it is supporters of Villa and Watford who will take the news of his death particularly hard. His achievements at both clubs, and especially the latter, were remarkable. Having moved into management at Lincoln aged 28, injury having brought an end to an undistinguished career as a lower-league full-back, he swiftly became coveted elsewhere. With First Division West Bromwich Albion also interested he turned down an initial approach from fourth-tier Watford in 1977 but agreed to meet their new celebrity chairman, Elton John. It was the start of a lifelong friendship.
What followed was what Taylor came to look back on as “probably the happiest 10 years of my life”. In that time there were three promotions, an FA Cup final, a second-place finish in the top flight and a Uefa Cup campaign. The transformation of the club was total, and apparently permanent: before his appointment Watford had spent three of 57 seasons in the top two divisions and never reached the first; since he arrived only four seasons in 40 have been spent outside the top two divisions, and 10 in the first. “I don’t see any disgrace in a club this size being a yo-yo club,” he said once. “If you get it right, then one day you’ll yo, if you see what I mean.” Under Taylor, Watford did yo.
Alongside and scarcely less important than his impact on the field was his commitment to building ties between the club and the community. Players were forced to live within 30 miles of Vicarage Road and to spend time not just in local schools and hospitals but in neighbourhood pubs and restaurants, fostering a bond with the supporters that meant that, in Taylor’s words, “when teams came to Vicarage Road, they felt they were playing the whole town”.
He left in 1987, dropping down a division to join Aston Villa, where he again won promotion to the top flight and, this time in their second season there rather than the first, the runners-up spot. It was at this point, perhaps the zenith of his career, that England called.
There was to be an inconsistent 20 months at Wolverhampton Wanderers, in which he might have won promotion at the first attempt but for a brilliant display by a 46-year-old Peter Shilton, playing his only game for Bolton, in the 1995 play-off semi-finals but which was remembered primarily for his agreeing, sacrilegiously, to sell Steve Bull.
At this point perhaps only Watford and Villa would have welcomed him back, and in time both did. He rejoined Watford in 1996, coaxing them to back-to-back promotions that stand as perhaps his finest achievements of all. It was in this period that I got to know him a little; the moment he first greeted me by name remains one of the happiest of my career and is the reason I, like many others, will remember him as a man of great achievements and small kindnesses.
His return to Villa was less successful and in 2003 he left management for good to concentrate on media work, saying yes to people, and tirelessly demonstrating his knowledge of and dedication to the game he loved.
“In this job you get nice things said about you and bad things said about you,” he said. “The trick is not to spend any longer thinking about one than the other. In the end they are both bollocks.”