Lincoln, Watford, Villa, England, Wolves – after 29 years of management, Graham Taylor has retired. Now he sets the record straight on teams, choices and turnips
[I’m not sure how it happened, but we received an invite to a football do at Lancaster Gate one afternoon in 2003 and me and Damien toddled over to be faced with a who’s-who of famous football managers. I recall Terry Venables chatting to Dave Bassett at the bar and Graham Taylor in mid-flow with… I can’t remember. I thought: “I could sort some decent interviews here.” Taylor immediately said yes – for the following week at a hotel in Watford.
Although I thought Taylor was the wrong man for the England job, I hugely respected him for his League record and for his punditry on BBC Five Live. I thought the whole “turnip” thing with The Sun was borderline evil. A true pro, he’s open and opinionated here – and I thoroughly enjoyed this Q&A. I think Taylor is the only England manager I ever interviewed, although I spoke to Kevin Keegan once, attempting to get his autograph at Newcastle United in 1983; a disaster! I’ll tell you about it some day.]
Graham Taylor was that rare beast, an England manager who made the Scots, Welsh and Irish happy. Losing 2-0 to the United States in 1993 was the worst late-night horror show ever screened on telly. Almost as bad was losing to Sweden in Euro 92 and having to read The Sun’s account of it the following morning: Swedes 2 Turnips 1. But Taylor’s tenure in England’s top job was only a couple of years out of an otherwise brilliant managerial career that spanned 29 years. There are only three managers who have taken charge of over 1,000 league games: Jim Smith, Brian Clough and Graham Taylor. You don’t take charge of 1,000 league games unless you’re good at your job.
Who do you support?
Scunthorpe United – I shall sue everybody who laughs. I do that because it’s my hometown. Although I wasn’t born there [Taylor was born in Worksop], I was brought up in Scunthorpe, and I stood on the terraces at Scunthorpe United. I believe in doing that. I’m not joining the band of people who hate Manchester United but I think it’s very easy to support a big club from a distance. If you support Manchester United and Liverpool because they’re winning things, it’s easy.
Do you still watch Scunny now?
Only rarely. I don’t get up to Scunthorpe too much. What happens to football people is as soon as you sign for a football club, you stop being a supporter. All I know about being a football supporter was between the ages of six and 14. Once you’re in football you stop being a supporter and you lose recollection of what it’s like to be a supporter. Every club that I’ve played for or managed, I look for their results. Although people will turn round and say it didn’t go very well for me at Wolves, I still look for their results. Wolves was better than what people thought. I had one full year there where we got to the playoffs and then afterwards I had 16 games where we were just struggling to get the season going. The chairman wanted me to resign. But the full year was OK.
At Aston Villa, the chairman Doug Ellis is not liked by most of the fans. Did you ever have any run-ins with him?
When I first went to Villa, it’s well recorded, I had the first AGM before I’d started and I said to all the shareholders, “I haven’t come to have my wings clipped.” And that went down very well. I had a big argument with Doug at the first board meeting. You’ve got to be successful as a manager whether you’ve got a chairman that’s for or against you, but it’s better if the chairman’s for you. You’ve got to win more games than you lose, whoever your chairman is. In my job, it’s always gonna be me who loses their job, therefore I’ve got to get everything going the way I want. At the end of the day, if your results aren’t right, you’ll get the sack. If you don’t believe what is happening is right and you don’t say anything about it and your results are bad, you’ll get the sack. To be fair to Doug Ellis, the three years that I had, I got on very well with him.
Where were you when England beat Germany 5-1?
I was there. I did the commentary for Radio Five. I’ll tell you what, I was very, very pleased, obviously. Very happy.
Was it a good atmosphere that night?
Yeah. It was an incredible game. The reality there, if the game could be played again, it might end up 2-2. The difference was the finishing. Fantastic. It was almost as if the football god looked down at these fellas in white shirts and said, “Now listen fellas, I know over the past 25 years you have had some shit times against this lot. Don’t say anything to anybody, it won’t be very clever for the first ten minutes, but I’m just telling you that in 90 minutes, we’re gonna make everything up for the past 25 years. Get it forward to Owen and Heskey, don’t fart about with it at the back. Don’t think that you’re international players now, just play like you do in the Premiership. Get it forward and I will look after you. Thank you God.
Gary Lineker in Euro 92. Did you take the England captain off in his final international for tactics?
They’re never easy decisions. Later on I should have expected it but you don’t think about it. Certain sections of the media made out that it was a decision I made to show Gary Lineker who was the manager and who was the player, and I resent that. One could argue that if I knew it was going to be such a personalised thing between Gary and myself, then I might not have done it, but you don’t think that.
So what was the problem?
I remember David Platt was doing all the goal scoring and as much as people said that Gary’s a leading goalscorer, he didn’t look as if he could do the business. He hadn’t done it for a few games. All I’m trying to do is make decisions for England to go forward. If you make a decision and it doesn’t turn out to be right, you stand by it. That’s what you’re there for.
Do you and Gary ever talk now?
We talk, yes. I think there was a period where he was very upset and I think he milked it. I kept quiet because there was no way I could say anything, cos everyone was anti-me. I just had to keep my mouth shut and listen and watch and I think for a period of time he did milk that situation.
The press coverage when you were England manager, Turnip Head and stuff like that, it must have affected you.
You do feel that. You are representing the nation. There is a difference, having the expectancy of one club and its supporters on your shoulders, and having the expectancy of the nation. It never leaves your mind. There’s no such thing as, “l’m going home now.” The England manager is 24 hours. It never leaves your mind.
Carlton Palmer putting on an England shirt. Were you looking for team players and not star players?
Who else could I have played? I’ll tell you if they were fit or not, it’s as simple as that. And that isn’t anything on Carlton. I remember him in the game against Holland when we drew 2-2. Gascoigne had his cheek broken, but him and Palmer were doing a fantastic job on the Holland midfield. And really, that’s where we lost getting to USA 94. We were 2-0 up. Bergkamp got a great goal just before half-time and there was a penalty right at the end. But my answer to all of those people is, come on clever clogs, show me who was available. Tell me the midfield players who were about.
Erm… er… ooh… no, he was Irish… not that many, were there?
Trevor Steven was injured, it was coming to the end of Steve McMahon, Bryan Robson retired and Gascoigne was injured a lot. Tell me the midfield players. You see, that’s what I’m saying. Once you’ve gone through that, you tell me who your next batch is. Don’t tell me that Carlton Palmer’s not in that next batch. Somebody like Carlton Palmer, it’s easy to have a go at him. Two things about Carlton: one, he’s ungainly, so he doesn’t look like an international footballer; and two, he says his piece. He upsets people. Oh yeah, if he were here now he’d tell you what he bloody thought. There were certain journalists who were anti-him anyhow. I remember in Sweden, at the Euro Championships in ’92, when we drew with Denmark 0-0. Carlton went up to one journalist and said, “You f***ing want us to lose anyhow.” Right up to his face, and of course they don’t like that. When his bad time came, nobody was prepared to support him in the media. I’ll tell you what, I’m strong where the Carlton Palmer argument is. All these clever clogs who say, “Eh, what about him?” Where were all these midfield players? Who should I have been playing instead? You tell me.
Do you regret taking the England job?
Never, no. That was my ambition. I played at certain schoolboy levels for England. My career never went the way I wanted it to. When I became the manager of Lincoln in ’72, I doubt whether I thought then, “I’m going to become the England manager,” but perhaps it was already in me. We got Watford into the First Division in five years. It was obvious to me that I would have a chance to become the England manager. That was my aim. I achieved that. Unfortunately, in the second part, it didn’t go right. I’d had 21 games and had to change the side because of injury.
It was a transitional period, too.
An England manager usually takes over an unsuccessful side. I’d taken over a side that had gone to Italy, had only got through the group stage because Mark Wright had got a back-header against Egypt, and drew 1-1 against Ireland. In the knock-out stage in the next game, Belgium’s the better side, but Platty does the overhead kick in the last minute of extra time. The next game we’re 2-1 down with eight minutes to go against Cameroon and up steps Linker and we go through. And the final game where they played really well, they were unfortunate not to get to the Final. Here am I watching that, from a purely personal point of view – don’t go through the groups, get knocked out early and I can come and make changes and we can get on with it. If you’re gonna go in, go and win the thing so I don’t have to qualify. They do the worst possible thing for you. They play Germany and lose out on penalties and don’t get into the Final. So where The Sun had a headline, Bring The Plonkers Home, when they were struggling, when they did come home, The Sunpresented them on the Tarmac at Luton with a big trophy saying Team Of The Year.
So England’s success in the 1990 World Cup was bad for you?
Yours truly is taking over a group of players who have reached the Semi-Final of the World Cup. Quite a few of them know they’re not going to be around in ’94. Shilton and Butcher retire straight away, and within three months, Robson’s retired from the international scene. And I’ve got to qualify now for the European Championships, I’ve got to change my side around. I think my role was almost an interim one between one set of players who’d come to the end, and introducing another set. If you look at Terry Venables’ selections after myself, they were about 75 percent of the people who gained international experience under my reign. It seems to me that what I did, I fitted in a slot to move players on. I wasn’t aware of that at the time, but that’s how I think it worked out.
How much was the long-ball game a part of your tactics?
I’lI tell you what, it absolutely pisses me off and shows the ignorance of people to think that all we did was whack a ball. If it was as simple as that, everybody would do it. To people like Barnes, it’s an insult. Beckham now is seen as one of the best diagonal passers of a ball over 30 to 40 yards. In the era that I came up, with Watford, we had a fella called lan Bolton. For hitting a pass, he was perfect. If you look back, Glenn Hoddle would hit a 40- yard-long pass. But lan Bolton hit a 40-yard-long ball. And that’s the media presentation of it. I made no argument about the fact that I encouraged my players to play forward-football first.
In League football, the tactic worked.
I remember as a young boy reading a book by Ferenc Puskas and there was a quote, it says, “When I play, I look for the furthest ball first and work backwards.” So I can pass it to you and you can pass it back to me and there’s got to be an end product. My job is to get a winning football team. When I went to a Fourth Division side, which Watford were at the time, I looked at the players and asked what are these people capable of doing? We need to win, fellas, and out of that win will come the confidence to become better players. I go back even to Lincoln City. We played 46 games and scored 76 points, which is 106 points if it had been three for a win. Nobody’s beat that. Now ask the Lincoln supporters about what they enjoyed. Ask the Watford supporters. If people think we just whacked it and chased it, go ask the players who worked with us. It’s not just an insult, it’s a complete lack of knowledge. When you get Barnsey going at people, taking the ball past defenders, getting crosses in to forwards that’s what people want!
You’ve got a great record as a League manager – is there a secret to it?
I talk to the players and for me you’ve got to make players confident. They’ve also got to believe in what you’re asking them to do. They’ve got to see that it works. Do we want to see football that’s pleasing to the eye, or do we want to watch some winning football? Now people talk about formations, four-four-two, whatever, great discussions about possession and all kind of things, but goal-scoring football, goals are scored in exactly the same way, whatever formations you play.
What’s it like to lead a team out in the FA Cup Final?
Great. That was the pinnacle. I’d joined Watford in ’77 when they were mid-table Fourth Division, then into Europe, League runners-up, then in ’84 a Cup Final. I had a seven- or eight-year period where everything I touched was turning to gold. It just came a bit early for me.
Were you a tea-cup throwing manager?
I did it once away at Cardiff when we lost 1-0. Actually, I’ve probably done it more than once but that’s the one I remember. I just missed him, I won’t name the player, it just missed his head and I can see the tea coming down at the back of him on the wall. It was at the end of the game and we’d just lost 1-0, due to a mistake. I’ve been known to kick bottles of Lucozade and break my own toes as well.
Are you entitled to free Elton John CDs for the rest of your life?
I don’t want to be. We have got a few of his records. On music, I’m not going to impress
your readers very much.
Don’t say you’re a Robbie Williams fan.
No, I’m definitely not that. I suppose it’s best to describe me as an easy-listening, country-music fan. Having said that, my all-time hero is Buddy Holly. I’ve seen the show five times. Nobody goes with me at all now. I go on my own.
Would you recommend football management as a career?
Yeah. It’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to play professional football for a living. It looked all right to me. I’ve been very fortunate, although my playing career didn’t go the way I wanted it to, my managerial career did, and I’ve had a standard of living I’m sure a lot of people
Haven’t. If you’re passionate about something and care about it and you’ve got an enthusiasm, I’II tell you what, you’ll be happy. And that counts for a lot.
WHAT DID YOU JUST CALL ME?
There are worse things than turnips. In fact, root vegetables are an essential part of an omnivore’s diet, so what was The Sun on about?