Few have left such an indelible mark on the fortunes of one club in the same way as Graham Taylor. Even better still he did it as a gentleman, gaining a reputation as one of football’s nice guys. His shock death at the age of 72 has left English football in a state of mourning, particularly at the clubs Taylor is so indelibly associated with – Watford and Aston Villa.
When Sir Elton John heeded the advice of Don Revie and grabbed the services of Taylor who had led Lincoln City out of the old fourth division, few could have predicted the meteoric rise they would oversee at Watford. In the space of five years, between 1977 and 1982, Watford climbed from the bottom tier to the first division, qualifying for Europe a year later by virtue of a 2nd placed finish and then reaching an FA Cup final in 1984.
Taylor would help develop John Barnes into one of the stars of the English game. He did so playing a brand of football that for Watford’s detractors was labelled as bland, boring and uninspiring. But he did much more than transform the fortunes of a club, he laid down a blueprint for other clubs to follow.
One of Taylor’s greatest achievements, serving arguably as the cornerstone of his legacy, is how he pioneered the very definition of a family club at a time when the ugly head of hooliganism was all too often rearing its head. At a time when football was at its lowest ebb and indeed when the grotesque underbelly of violence greeted football grounds up and down the country, Watford were spearheading a new optimistic vision of English football.
Rather than merely reconnecting with a community perhaps put off by the thought of the unsavoury side to the game, Taylor created a bond between the club and the town that exists to this day. It is a model other clubs have strived to replicate, some with real success, but only Taylor and his colleagues at Vicarage Road can be truly credited as having kick started the idea.
After Aston Villa came calling in 1987 he revived the fortunes of a club that had fallen on hard times, earning promotion back to the top flight before achieving another 2nd placed finish that proved to be the catalyst for a job that, harshly, came to define Taylor.
Appointed by England as Sir Bobby Robson’s successor in 1990, following in the footsteps of a man who remains the last person to lead England to a semi-final was always going to be a hard task. For Taylor’s critics, the top job and one that Taylor was rightly proud to hold, was a step too far especially for an unforgiving press. But there is no doubting he had earned his chance.
Failure to qualify to the World Cup in 1994 overshadowed Taylor who was consistently undermined and, more than that, was subject to a vicious hate campaign by the tabloid press who made his position untenable. There simply was no justification for the vilification and vitriol that Taylor had to deflect but it did not break the man. He returned hungrier to prove his doubters wrong but without the sort of bitterness that so often characterised some of his contemporaries and indeed successors as England manager.
He later returned to Vicarage Road spearheading back to back promotions, including play-off final success in 1999 that saw Watford return to the top flight – as if Taylor’s legendary status wasn’t already secure. It was a staggering achievement particularly when viewed alongside his first spell at the club.
It is no secret either that upon his departure for a second time in 2001, Watford suffered dearly without him. Not helped by the collapse of ITV Digital, their future was far from secure. Following another brief stint in the top flight, Taylor would return to the club as chairman at a time when Watford were again plunged into severe financial difficulties. It is not an exaggeration to say that not only did Taylor transform Watford’s fortunes on the pitch, he left his mark in the boardroom stepping aside in 2012 just as the Pozzo family were beginning to finalise their plans to buy the club.
Taylor did more than perhaps anyone to shape the Watford we see today. He was already renowned as somebody who had time for everyone he came into contact with, but at Vicarage Road, where in 2014 the club renamed a stand in his honour, he put an unfashionable club on the map.
He did it in his own distinct style and, while I wasn’t fortunate enough to live through it in person, his influence was so marked that he came to embody everything good about the club.
Unfortunately for many football fans their overriding memory of Taylor is his failure as England manager. He’s hardly the only one to have fallen short before or since.
Yet let’s not remember the man who was victimised by the press. Let’s remember him as the man who rewrote Watford’s story and inspired generations with his positivity and humble attitude.
Let us marvel then at the man who dared to dream, achieved the improbable, and did so with a smile on his face.
Image courtesy of Paul Hudson