JOHN ANDERSON pays tribute to Graham Taylor, the son of a sports journalist who went on to manage Watford, Villa and England, and to do a bit of broadcasting himself
They say you should never meet your heroes. Sadly I never got the chance to discuss the moon landings with Neil Armstrong (who was a man of few words apparently) and I very much doubt that sharing a vegetable samosa with Morrissey would be a bundle of laughs. I did, however, get to know the man who provided me with my most joyous footballing memories.
To say that Graham Taylor was the exception that proved the rule would be an understatement.
June 1977 was a seismic month for me. I was sitting my O Levels at grammar school in Guildford, the Sex Pistols were thrillingly hijacking the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and, to rather less fanfare, my beloved Watford appointed Lincoln boss Graham Taylor as their manager.
The 32-year-old had just guided the Imps to the Fourth Division title in some style (Watford had finished way behind them in seventh) and Taylor was persuaded by Elton John, the Watford chairman, that together they would take the Hornets into both the top flight and Europe. We just laughed.
But the following seven seasons fulfilled those near impossible dreams and then some, as the club achieved both of those ambitions as well as reaching the FA Cup final. By now a radio journalism student, I was at Wembley in 1984 to witness our young team’s 2-0 defeat by Everton.
It was inconceivable to me, standing on the tunnel end terraces at the time, that a mere six years later I would be covering England matches for Independent Radio News and that Graham would be the national team manager.
My first real encounter with him came when he was Aston Villa boss, and it didn’t go particularly well initially. It was the business end of the 1989-1990 season and Graham had been working more of his magic, as Villa were vying with Liverpool for the First Division title. I covered a game at Coventry in which Villa had played very poorly and suffered a 2-0 defeat which put a huge dent in their title aspirations.
Graham was never one to shirk his media responsibilities and came out to give his reaction to the assembled radio reporters outside the Highfield Road press room. As was the protcol, the local radio guys would get the first crack of the whip, after which time we could ask a few questions of our own. When they had finished I steamed in with both barrels: “Graham, what would you say to people who now believe Villa’s title hopes are over?”
His response was swift, concise and emphatic: “Bollocks.”
His response was swift, concise and emphatic: “Bollocks”
That brought the interview to an abrupt end as he stormed off
This got picked up by the Press Association and it wasn’t long before all the papers were running stories about Graham’s “eight-letter response”, amid suggestions that the pressure of the title race was beginning to get to him. The following day, Taylor appeared on a Granada football programme hosted by Clive Tyldesley who asked him to explain what had happened. Graham claimed I had shoved a microphone under his nose and said something like: “Well that’s it, you’ve lost the title, what do you think of that?” and that his terse reaction had been because of my rude intrusion.
I was a little annoyed as this wasn’t really a fair representation of what had occurred and I wrote to him to clarify the position. Graham, to his eternal credit, sent me a wonderful letter back insisting he was not having a go at me personally and that he perhaps should handle certain interview situations differently.
His final line was a classic. “I could have given you a five letter response meaning the same thing, but as usual I tend to go on a bit.”
During his three years in charge of the national team, I covered every one of his competitive matches including the ill-fated Euro 92 and the 1994 World Cup qualifying campaigns. It was hard for me at times to have to deliver withering verdicts on a man I so admired and respected, but it had to be done, not least after the infamous San Marino game in 1993 when you knew he had to go.
It was Taylor, after all, who first termed the phrase “the impossible job” in connection with the England manager. The vilification he received at the hands of some sections of the press might have embittered or even destroyed a lesser man, but his status at Watford had long been assured and when he returned to Vicarage Road a few years later, it was into open, loving arms.
Once again I was at Wembley for the 1999 Championship Play-off final, having given up a place in the press box for a seat among the fans, as we beat Bolton to claim a place in the Premier League. Take a look at the pictures of the triumphant squad holding the trophy that day and Graham’s smile illuminates them all. I believe it was among the happiest days of his entire career.
Taylor’s association with the club continued on and off in various capacities including chairman, until 2012 when the stress and strain of seemingly endless drives back and forward to Watford from his home in Sutton Coldfield finally took its toll.
By then, I had got to know him well via his role as an outstanding co-commentator and pundit for BBC Radio and we shared many foreign trips together. He was always excellent company and we had some great times, including a surreal fondue with Terry Butcher on a stormy night in Azerbaijan and the time Mike Ingham hosted a wonderful dinner at a Vienna restaurant to celebrate Graham’s 60th birthday when the guest of honour had us in hysterics with his marvellous stories.
When I wrote my book A Great Face For Radio in 2009 about my adventures on the road, I asked Graham whether he would be happy for me to repeat some of the anecdotes he had shared with us on those convivial evenings, particularly the ones involving Elton John. He declined in the most charming fashion:
Hope you are well. I remember both the fondue and the 60th birthday!
John, I am in the very early stages of getting down to writing a book myself (confidential) and therefore I hope you will understand that I would like the Elton John story to remain private. I very much appreciate you asking me about it, because I do know that there are many who would not have done so. Thank you.
Good luck with your book.
I don’t know how far down the line he was with his book when he died but I do hope that one day it will see the light of day so that a greater audience will be able to share some of his marvellous memories.
My own favourite Graham Taylor moment came during his final spell at Watford when things weren’t going too well on and off the field. I went up to do an interview with him in which he was very open and honest. As we chatted afterwards, I admitted that work commitments meant I was rarely able to get to The Vic for games.
“Probably just as well, as we never win when I come” I said.
Graham, quick as flash and with that wicked smile replied: “We never bloody win when I come either.”
The shocking news of his sudden death left many Watford supporters, particularly of my generation, feeling as if we had lost a beloved uncle.
I am not alone among football reporters and sports journalists to be expressing my admirations for Graham Taylor. Joe Lovejoy, for instance, wrote yesterday, “Gave Graham Taylor fearful stick when he was England manager and I was chief football writer at The Independent, but he never held it against me, and we had a good few drinks together later, when I was at the Sunday Times. He had his shortcomings as an international manager, but he was a lovely man – a real gent. RIP Graham.”
Paul Hayward, the SJA’s Sportswriter of the Year, wrote in his piece in today’s Telegraph: “It was a triumph of his life that he refused to have his spirit dampened or his love of the game diminished.”
I am so privileged to have known a man whose genius transformed my football club and whose geniality so enriched my life as a reporter. The tributes from everywhere across the game pay testament to a man whose talent, good humour, dignity and all round bonhomie left its mark on so many lives. I don’t mind admitting I was close to tears when I heard he would no longer walk among us. Even more so when I picked up a tweet posted by a supporters group from Watford’s arch-rivals, Luton, which said:
“Sad news about Graham Taylor. Rivalry aside we wish his family, friends and all at #watfordfc the best. #footballfamily RIP”
It was a classy gesture which demonstrated the high regard with which everyone held Graham Taylor and how sorely he is going to be missed by us all.
He was a hero in every sense.
- John Anderson is a freelance sports broadcaster, commentator and writer who can be followed on Twitter @GreatFaceRadio