Football Nerd Retro Ramblings Part 4- Elton John, Graham Taylor and the astounding rise of Watford.

Part 1: Clough and Taylor conquer Europe (Football Nerd Retro Ramblings- The late 70’s and the 80’s when Football was really Football: Clough and Taylor conquer Europe.)

 Part 2: Bob Paisley and the legendary Anfield Boot Room dominate England and Europe (Football Nerd Retro Ramblings Part 2- Bob Paisley and the legendary Anfield Boot Room dominate England and Europe.)

 Part 3: How Aston Villa won the League, then the European Cup, and were then relegated (Football Nerd Retro Ramblings Part 3- How Aston Villa won the League, then the European Cup, and were then relegated. )

“Do I not like that?”“The referee’s got me the sack. Thank him ever so much for that won’t you?”

Just two of the quotes from the infamous fly-on-the-wall documentary ‘The Impossible Job’ taken from a traumatic night in Rotterdam in October 1993 when Ronald Koeman had all but sealed England’s exclusion from the USA 94 World Cup. A night that no one who followed the Three Lions at that time will ever forget. There was still the 7-1 win, albeit after embarrassingly going a goal down within seconds, over the minnows of San Marino but by that time Graham Taylor’s reign as England boss was well and truly at an end.

Within the context of that failed World Cup qualification campaign and the preceding turgidly dull performances at Euro 92 in Sweden where “Turnip Taylor”, as he was dubbed by the most vitriolic and sensationalist elements of the Red Top press, oversaw a bottom-placed finish in the group having managed two goalless draws and a solitary goal; it is all too easy to forget that Taylor had at one time been the rising managerial star of English football.

It all started for Taylor at Lincoln City where, after a far from stellar playing career which encompassed just over 300 appearances as a full-back for Grimsby Town and Lincoln, he was forced to retire with a serious hip injury. After a spell as player-coach he was appointed manager, the youngest in the Football League at just 28, in December 1972.

After finishing tenth and then twelfth in his first two seasons at the helm, Taylor and Lincoln missed out on promotion in 1974/75 but the following year the Imps stormed to the Fourth Division title, the team’s 32 wins just 4 defeats and a staggering points total of 74 in the days of 2-points for a win, were all records.

Taylor’s early achievements hadn’t gone unnoticed and at the end of the following season a flamboyant popstar who had just the previous season taken over as chairman and director of his beloved local club, identified Taylor as the man to bring to fruition his ambitious plans for lowly Watford, none other than Elton John. Taylor however was not immediately convinced, especially as taking up the role on offer would mean dropping back down a level to the Fourth Division, and so took his wife along to their first meeting so that at least one of the couple would get something out of it!

It has been well documented that at the start of their meeting Taylor asked John about his aspirations for the club expecting some realism: “I thought he would say promotion, perhaps Second Division football” but in keeping with his much larger than life persona, the singer replied “that he wanted the club to get into Europe!” That was enough to convince Taylor on the spot.

In fairness to John he was prepared to put his money where his mouth was and backed Taylor with the significant investment that the club was going to need if they were going to go anywhere near achieving what their Chairman believed possible. Prior to Taylor’s appointment Watford had spent a total of three of their 57-season history in the top two divisions, none of them in the First.

Watford’s rise under Taylor was simply astounding, three promotions in just five years took them from the depths of the fourth tier to very nearly the top of English football when in 1982-83 they finished as runners-up to Liverpool (who else?) in their first ever campaign in the top-flight.

The following year Watford realised their Chairman’s dream by competing in Europe for the first, and to date only time in one of the major competitions, in their history. Ultimately they were eliminated in the Third Round of the UEFA Cup by Sparta Prague however they also reached the FA Cup Final that season, losing 2-0 to Howard Kendall’s emerging Everton side (more on that team next time), but John, Taylor and the players had established themselves at a much higher level.

As unquestionably popular as Taylor was amongst the Vicarage Road faithful because of the way he ignited a previously unsuccessful club, his tactical approach was often criticised and derided for being long-ball based, a criticism that irked Taylor throughout his career. He rather tetchily and defensively responded to his critics by asking: “when does a long pass become a long ball?”, suggesting there was rather more subtlety to his team’s approach than simply demanding that the keeper or a defender lump the ball forward and hope for the best.

The foundations of Taylor’s approach were drawn from the analysis and tactical assertions of former RAF Wing Commander Charles Reep, probably football’s first tactical analyst (at least of a fashion!), who championed the view that, based on his idiosyncratic analysis of hundreds of matches, the majority of goals were scored from fewer than three passes, therefore he proposed it was important to get the ball forward as soon as possible.

In Reep’s thinking the quicker the ball was played to goal with the least number of passes the more goals would be scored, essentially expounding the view “that possession football was therefore undesirable.” A conclusion that in the modern game is difficult to accept given the interpretation of how the game is now played, and has since been proven to be flawed given that the vast majority of all moves in football consist of short possessions. At the time however it was an approach that brought success for a number of sides.

Taylor would continually defend his approach and reportedly during his formative years as a young coach he used to watch matches from the terraces and soon came to realise that what fans really wanted were: goalmouth action, shots, dashing wing-play and excitement. Elements that his Watford side were able to deliver on a regular basis.

As Watford rose up the divisions the inexperienced side was founded almost exclusively on their attacking play, Taylor famously assessing his strategy as being based on the acceptance that: “I knew we couldn’t defend our way into Europe”, and instead: “getting after the other team is the only way to play… I’m not worried about them putting the ball in our net – as long as we get more at the other end”, echoes of an earlier incarnation of Kevin Keegan’s cavalier philosophy at Newcastle in the mid-90’s perhaps?

Exciting and talented wingers John Barnes and Nigel Callaghan both supplied and supported two powerful and robust centre forwards in Luther Blissett and Ross Jenkins. The former was prolific enough, in particular scoring 27 goals in Watford’s maiden top-flight campaign, that he earned a £1 million move to Italian giants AC Milan, even if the football urban myth has it that Milan had signed the wrong player and actually intended to acquire Barnes!

Beyond that attacking line though Watford’s direct style was also supported by a high tempo, energetic approach that encompassed the high pressing developed and introduced to such reverence by Rinus Michels at Ajax, Barcelona and with the Dutch national team in the preceding decade.

Beyond their achievements on the pitch Taylor built Watford as a club at the very heart of the community. At Taylor’s instigation players were expected to live within 30 miles of Vicarage Road, to spend time in local schools and hospitals but also in neighbourhood pubs and restaurants, the motivation behind these moves was not just about building a bond between the club, its supporters and the wider community but as Taylor put it so that: “when teams came to Vicarage Road, they felt they were playing the whole town”.

 After establishing Watford as a bona fide First Division club, Taylor left Vicarage Road for what he saw as a new challenge with just relegated Aston Villa in 1987. He guided Villa to promotion at the first attempt and in his third season at Villa Park he steered the club to a runners-up finish to Liverpool (inevitably!). That success on top of his time at Watford led England to come calling when seeking a replacement for Bobby Robson after Italia 90. The rest as they say is ill-fated history.

In resurrecting his career after the traumatic three years with England, Taylor was appointed manager of second tier Wolves but resigned in November 1995 after just one full season in charge and a poor start to the following season which saw Wolves win just four of their opening sixteen matches. His departure was as much to do with pressure from the fans as performances on the field, it certainly didn’t help his cause that he tried to sell club folk legend Steve Bull, a player he allegedly never fancied.

In 1996 Elton John, who had very recently bought Watford for a second time, appointed Taylor as General Manager back at his spiritual home of Vicarage Road. It wasn’t long, just over a year in fact, before Taylor appointed himself as manager relegating Kenny Jackett, one of his trusted former players, to a coaching role; by means of an explanation Taylor said that the role of General Manager “had bored me stiff”.

Watford won the Division Two (third tier) title at the first attempt and then the following season won the Play-off Final against Bolton and with it a place in the Premiership (as was). Ill health in the form of a life-threatening abscess that blocked his windpipe and nearly killed him, forced Taylor to miss two months of the season and Watford were eventually relegated after just one season.

Taylor retired after the end 2000/01 but eventually rocked up back at Aston Villa before retiring for a second time in 2003 citing tensions in his relationship with Chairman ‘Deadly’ Doug Ellis.

A spell as vice-president of his hometown club Scunthorpe United preceded a return to Watford as a board member and then interim Chairman before he retired from that role in May 2012, although he remained on the board until his death from a heart attack in January 2017 aged 72.

Whether you liked his style of football or not, and whether you can ever forgive him for his time in charge of England, Taylor was an honest and humble man who clearly loved the game passionately and his genius put a small suburban club on the map in his own distinct way. It is little surprise and also seems completely fitting that Watford unveiled a statue to their greatest ever manager inscribed with one of his abiding quotes: “Football is a simple game. It’s a game for the man on the terraces; it’s a game to excite people.”, in August 2018.

5 thoughts on “Football Nerd Retro Ramblings Part 4- Elton John, Graham Taylor and the astounding rise of Watford.

  1. Very interesting piece on a talented manager destroyed, as so many before and since, by the poisoned chalice of the England job. I remember the author, when living in the Watford catchment area, receiving his junior football club trophy from the Watford goalkeeper, doing his community engagement.


    1. Thanks and cheers for reading. It was actually Luther Blissett who gave out those awards, the joke at the time being that if it had been Steve Sherwood the goalkeeper he would have dropped them just as he did at Wembley, admittedly while being ‘fouled’ by Andy Gray!


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