A tragicomic TV masterpiece: ‘Graham Taylor: An Impossible Job’ still the essential England documentary 30 years on

Back in 1994, the SJA was still known as the Sports Writers Association and our Journalism awards did not include broadcasting. SJA Secretary Philip Barker recalls an outstanding football documentary made that year which has stood the test of time…

By Philip Barker

This week in 1994, “An Impossible Job” – an explosive television documentary about the late England manager Graham Taylor – sent shockwaves through football to such a degree that the exercise has never been repeated.

It is incredible to reflect that the film nearly did not see the light of day and was only transmitted as part of Channel Four’s “Cutting Edge” after ITV turned it down, and even then only after some intense lobbying.

It was only the second time that an incumbent England manager had featured in such a film.

The first was in 1969 when the subject was Sir Alf Ramsey. The peerless Ian Wooldridge was both presenter and interviewer for a London Weekend Television film shot in the days leading up to a friendly international against France at Wembley. England won 5-0 but Ramsey betrayed not a jot of emotion.

“When the whistle goes, the manager can only watch and hope, the strain is the same for novice and knight,” Wooldridge intoned over a shot of Ramsey, impassive in the Wembley dugout.

21 years later, Taylor became the occupant of that same seat. He had previously guided Watford from the Fourth Division to the top flight, and Aston Villa to second behind Liverpool in the title race (no Premier League in those days).

Taylor’s England qualified for the 1992 European Championship finals but went home after defeat by Sweden and that infamous “Turnip” headline in The Sun.

“I made contact with him to suggest an idea to explain to football fans that the job wasn’t the cakewalk everyone thought it should be,” recalled documentary maker Neil Duncanson, then head of Chrysalis Television, now known as North One.

Taylor agreed to a documentary covering England’s World Cup qualifying campaign for USA ’94. They faced the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Turkey and San Marino with the top two to qualify, but from the outset, disappointing results brought further press criticism for Taylor.

Even so, he continued to help the documentary crew.

“By the time the defining game in Rotterdam came around, he helped us smuggle in our equipment and director in the England kit baskets!” Duncanson revealed.

The director was Ken McGill, responsible for some wonderful images. Produced by Duncanson, the film won the Royal Television Society’s Sports Programme of the Year.

The Dutch famously won in Rotterdam after a goal direct from a free-kick by Ronald Koeman, shortly after he escaped a red card for a foul at the other end.

“Will you say to the fella, the referee has got me the sack… Thank him ever so much for that, won’t you?” Taylor told fourth official Markus Merk, in arguably the most memorable sequence.

Taylor was given a private viewing of the finished production which included a particular profanity no fewer than 36 times.

“He sat in silence in an edit suite and at the end, as we put up the lights, he turned to me and said – ‘well, my mum’s not going to like that’,” recalled Duncanson.

Our former SJA President Patrick Collins had been the film’s scriptwriter.

“It was amazing but it will never be seen,” Collins predicted.

“In fairness to Graham, he could have said no to the film making air, but he didn’t,” Duncanson admitted.

“Television bosses and football officials are bracing themselves. Channel Four are expecting a flood of complaints from outraged viewers about the swearing,” Mick Dennis warned readers in the Evening Standard.

A transcript included the famous phrase “Do I Not Like That!”, which was added to the title when the documentary was later released on video with additional unseen footage.

By contrast, the swear word count in the 1969 Ramsey documentary was precisely zero, for even in the swinging 60s, the Lord Chancellor had an iron grip on perceived obscenity. Earlier in the decade, Penguin had been prosecuted for publishing Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence.

Wooldridge later related that Sir Alf was not entirely unfamiliar with the f-word.

“Sir Alfred Ramsey, the England manager, was confronted by an enterprising Brazilian radio reporter who had infiltrated the airport tarmac to thrust a microphone under the great man’s nose.

“‘Hello, Sir Ramsey,’ he cried. ‘I am going to interview you for my millions of listeners.’ Sir Alf’s reply is a legendary gem in football’s unprinted and almost unprintable folklore. ‘Ho no you f— ain’t!'”

Ramsey was shown arriving at Liverpool Street on the 8.38 from Ipswich and hastening to FA Offices in Lancaster Gate on the Tube.

“To unknowing commuters, Sir Alfred Ramsey could be the bank manager who’s forgotten his briefcase, a major in mufti or the man from the Pru. In fact, he’s the first-ever total dictator of England’s national soccer team,” Wooldridge said.

“He suffers fools not at all and frequently gives the impression that journalists are his least favourite race.”

Even after a convincing win, Ramsey insisted the public had been “brainwashed by all and sundry.” It was clear who he had in mind.

In 1969 England were still reigning World Cup holders so Ramsey was probably at his most secure, but like Taylor, he paid the price when England failed to qualify for the 1974 World Cup.

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