Graham Taylor

Watford fan and blogger Tom Bodell looks at what Graham Taylor did for his Club.

Every football club has a Graham Taylor, the kind of figure who has gone far and beyond the call of duty for a club with which they have a genuine, undying affinity. When Watford lose you get the feeling that Taylor genuinely hurts inside and when the club is struggling or in danger, Taylor feels that pain within him too.

Recently Hornets’ owner Laurence Bassini took on Taylor in a very public dispute. Having failed to show at exceedingly short notice for the club’s annual ‘Fans’ Forum’, chairman Taylor stood in for the owner. Taylor made it plain that he did not entirely trust Bassini – to paraphrase: ‘reliability is not his strong point’. This comment, amongst others, led to a bizarre falling out which saw Bassini threaten to withdraw all funding to the club and resign as chairman unless Taylor apologized for his comments at the Forum.

Taylor wasn’t in the right, launching public dissent towards his superior, but it showed the strength of his position at Watford that there was unwavering support for the 67 year-old whose position at the club was at the time, and still is, nothing more than symbolic. Eventually it was Bassini who backed down and we’ve heard no more since. Mike Parkin of the ‘From the Rookery End’ podcast sums up Taylor’s relative position perfectly: “…he should have some understanding of the way Watford works and what it means to the fans. Having said that, would anyone who understood the ‘Watford way’ choose to pick such a public fight with Graham Taylor?”

Despite returning to Vicarage Road during the club’s most recent time of need, the Watford-Taylor love affair began in 1977 when popstar owner Elton John approached Taylor, then at Lincoln City, to take over the vacant managerial position. At the time Taylor had already been approached by First Division West Brom, but whatever Elton had said obviously struck a chord with Taylor who joined the Hornets aged just 32.

The decision by Taylor to leave his Lincolnshire based and head South quickly proved as inspired as the one which saw him offered the job and in his first season, Taylor guided the Hornets into the Third Division. Taylor’s side wrapped up the league with an 11-point margin, losing just five league games that season.

So far so good, but no-one could have predicted what this surprise success was the beginning of. Taylor repeated the trick in his second full campaign in charge at Vicarage Road, guiding the Hornets into the Second Division by virtue of finishing in second-place, just a point of the eventual winners Shrewsbury Town.

Bucking the trend, Taylor’s third season in charge at the Vic’ did not yield promotion for the Hornets who finished 19th in the Second Division. It would be two more seasons before Taylor’s side hauled themselves into the First Division, but what an arrival it would be.

Watford took the top-flight by storm, and not in the way that Norwich City, Blackpool, Hull City or Reading have in recent years, tailing off spectacularly inside two seasons: this was a the real deal.

Aided by the supreme talents of the greatest generation of players to pull on the yellow jersey, including the likes of John Barnes, Luther Blissett, Ross Jenkins, Wilf Rostron, Les Taylor, Kenny Jackett and Steve Terry, Watford finished runners-up to Liverpool in the First Division in 1982. That season saw the Hornets do the double over Arsenal with home and away victories, a win at Tottenham Hotspur and wins against Merseyside giants, Liverpool and Everton.  A thumping 8-0 victory over Sunderland became the club’s biggest win ever with Blissett bagging four in the process.

That was to be the crest of the wave during Taylor’s first spell in charge despite qualifying for the Uefa Cup the following season. Watford continued to confound expectations on the continent and reached the third round of the competition where they eventually succumbed to Czech outfit, Sparta Prague. However, memorable victories against Levski Sofia of Bulgaria and in particular, German side Kaiserslautern left Hornet’s supporters proud of their side’s effort nonetheless.

The 1983/84 season also brought an F.A Cup final, the first and only in the club’s history. A 2-0 defeat by Everton in the ‘Friendly Final’ was scant reward for Taylor’s side who were undone by Andy Gray’s illegal ‘headed’ effort which secured victory following a Graeme Sharp strike.

By 1987, Taylor had moved onto pastures new with Watford unable to repeat the heroics of their first two seasons in the big time. That particularly glorious chapter had come to an end for Taylor and Watford who slipped back into the mediocrity of the Football League thanks to a disastrously-brief spell under the stewardship of Dave Bassett.

For those who hadn’t taken notice of the Watford fairytale, Taylor became a household name in 1990 when he took over the England reigns from Bobby Robson. Had Robson and England not done so well at Italia ’90 and made themselves darlings of the nation perhaps Taylor would have fared better. However, three hugely-unpopular years as Three Lions boss included a famous 2-1 defeat by Sweden when he brought on Alan Smith to replace Gary Linekar, ending the latter’s career, as England exited Euro’92 at the group stage, and his head portrayed as a Turnip in the press the next day. Failure to qualify for the 1994 World Cup followed, with the phrase, “tell that linesman he’s just cost me my job” one of many memorable lines from a Cutting Edge programme that documented a humiliating period in the National Side’s history.

It’s easy for me to defend Taylor to the hilt as an icon of my football club, but a line has to be drawn when you cap Carlton Palmer.

Taylor returned to Vicarage Road in 1996 with the club languishing in the new Division Two. Despite an absence of nine years, Taylor once again worked the magic and in his first full season back at the helm, 1997/98, Taylor took Watford into the new Division One via a memorable last-day victory at Fulham.

That first season back saw Taylor make the ambitious signing of Tottenham Hotspur forward, Ronnie Rosenthal. The Israeli was 34 at the time but wanted a two-year contract so that he could help the club into the Premiership. Taylor thought he was mad, but the striker played his part in back-to-back promotions.

The 1998/99 season provided arguably the finest day in many Watford supporters lives. There had of course been the original dash to the top-flight back in the club’s helicon days via forays into Europe and an FA Cup final, but this was something else. In a world where it was beginning to become increasing, if not impossible, to repeat that kind of feat, Taylor had made a pretty good stab at replicating his initial success.

With the bulk of the side that got out of the third-tier, Watford favourites of the 20th century such as Alec Chamberlain, Nigel Gibbs, Paul Robinson, Robert Page, Micah Hyde and Richard Johnson all integral, Taylor guided Watford to the Play-Offs.

A nervy second-leg at Birmingham City’s St. Andrews went all the way to penalties where Chamberlain saved the decisive spot-kick after a brilliant save to deny Michael Johnson in normal time. The Hornets were on their way to Wembley once more, but this time it would end in tears of joy.

Nick Wright’s 38th minute opener will live with Watford fans forever. A sublime bicycle kick, the sort of goal that shouldn’t go in at Wembley did, and the delirium started. By the time substitute Allan Smart sealed his place in Watford folklore with a neat finish a minute from time it was in the bag. Bolton had scarcely threatened bar an early Eidur Gudjohnsen effort and Watford were in the big time once more.

Unfortunately, as eluded to before, times had changed and with the financial gap now dangerously wide between the Premiership and Football League, Watford’s stay lasted just a season as they finished bottom with the then-lowest points tally in history. Taylor’s charges had given a few big names a bloody nose along the way though – Chelsea defeat 1-0 at Vicarage Road, that man Smart at it again, Liverpool beaten 1-0 at Anfield and both Manchester United and Liverpool run close at the Vic’, but it was never to be. The cruel loss of midfield maestro Johnson for the season and No.1 Chamberlain for a chunk did nothing to aid the cause.

The 2000-01 season was to be Taylor’s last as Hornet’s manager as he retired following an emotional send-off at Burnley. Watford had failed to capture their early-season form and slumped to a disappointing finish outside of the Play-Offs.

In 2009, Taylor stepped into the breach once more, taking up the role of chairman on a temporary basis when Jimmy Russo and brother Vince withdrew their support from the club at a feisty AGM. With nobody else prepared to take on the role, Taylor continues to this day as ‘non-executive chairman’. Whilst the role doesn’t appear to come with an awful lot of power, knowing that a genuine legend of the club who cares intensely for it’s best interests is on the board is enough for most fans, myself included. If nothing else, Taylor is at least an excellent sounding-board for the new-to-football owner, Bassini.

If you wanted to persuade someone that football was the sport for them, you could clinch the deal with this tale, the tale of a man plucked from obscurity by a fairly football-ignorant celebrity, who together took a small-time club to heights it would never dared to dream of reaching. A meteoric, against-all-odds rise from a deep slumber into the big-time – the chance of which happening again are extremely slim, yet Graham Taylor achieved it twice with a club that loves him as much as he loves it.

Tom Bodell