I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Graham Taylor on a couple of occasions and he is a well spoken and friendly man who deserved much better treatment than he got after managing England. I got to thinking about him having seen Sam Allardyce promoted to England manager as I see certain similarities in their experience. Taylor never managed a ‘big club’ in terms of trophies, same as Allardyce. He gained success at clubs that usually boasted survival or a league cup as real success. Allardyce obviously did very well with Notts County early in his career, much the same as Taylor did with us. Not quite as successful of course (*ahem* record points in 2pts for a win system) but success nonetheless.
Taylor is much derided by mainstream culture as the guy with a turnip on his head, or the guy who consistently played Carlton Palmer but he’s also credited with having a poor selection of players to call from. I’ve heard it spoken of as a transitional period of time where any old Keith Curle, Tony Dorigo or Carlton Palmer could get a game for England. It must have been right?
I’m here to argue two points, that Taylor did not manage a duff generation but he is still under rated for what he achieved. I know, right. I’m basically going to break down the only crumb of comfort he is usually attributed and then build up credit in a different area often ignored by mainstream media. I’m basically redefining an Imps legend for you.
Okay so firstly the argument that he suffered from a generation of exceedingly poor players. I grant you that the players I’ve mentioned were well below the standard expected by international football, and they’re not the only ones he played in that qualifying campaign. David Bardsley got a game. Andy Sinton was always in the squad. This was a time bereft of high quality talent. Wasn’t it?
No, 1994 was a time of a young and vibrant Gazza. He was a little raw still in places, he still is of course but he was in his ‘pomp’ He was out in Italy with Lazio and it was just before his star was fading as he struggled to adjust to his change. We had a free scoring Ian Wright, and a Paul Ince right at the top of his career. David Seaman was the regular keeper and Stuart Pearce even captained the side after Taylor gave him the band for the Poland match at Wembley in September 1993. This was no transitional generation, and from whatever supposedly scant talent pool their was in England, he’d constructed the nucleus of the reasonably successful Euro 96 side. It might not have gone right in qualification, but from those seeds a very good side began to emerge. If Alan Shearer hadn’t suffered a serious injury he too would have been featuring. What difference would he have made?
Mind you scoring wasn’t the problem particularly as Platt, Wright and Gascoigne gobbled up goals all through qualifying. It was a failure to get goals in two games in five days against Norway and Poland that cost us, and in those games only Ian Wright scored. Once. We dropped five points in two away games, and we failed to qualify by just two points. Had we beaten Poland and drawn in Norway then we’d go through. Two games cost us, and for those two games Taylor is derided and often made fun of. Never at Lincoln though, we bloody love him here.
Against Norway Taylor changed to three at the back at short notice knowing he had to try something and it backfired as they scored twice and we were simply shocking. His team selection against. In four days we’d lost the unbeaten status we had. Norway were no mugs, they’d already beaten Holland at home and ended up winning the group. He wasn’t entirely to blame, but his tactics had backfired.
Failing to qualify came on the back of a poor turnout in Euro 92 and pressure had mounted on Taylor since then. Headlines linking him with root vegetables didn’t help, nor did taking off Gary Lineker before he had a chance to get that 50th goal for England, but in the main I think he was hard done by. The documentary ‘an impossible dream’ shows Taylor making superb calls, namely specific training ground advice that led directly to all three goals in the win over Poland I mentioned. That game came after the disastrous results away from home and gave us real hope of qualifying. They showed him working on the exact free kick that Stuart Pearce scored from, and giving advice to both Gazza and Ferdinand that directly led to goals. He did know what he was doing.
The next game was a 2-0 defeat against Holland, a game directly influenced by the terrible refereeing of German man named Karl-Jospeh Assemacher. Holland were arguably one of the biggest teams in the world at the time having won the 1988 European Championships and featuring the talents of the De Boer brothers, Frank Rikjaard and Dennis Bergkamp. They also had Ronald Koeman, a man not quite so hated today as he was in September of 1993. He hauled down David Platt on the edge of the area early in our crucial match in Rotterdam, and he was only given a yellow card for a clear professional foul. Platt would have scored, no doubt. Koeman then scored a retaken free kick moments later to set them up for an eventual 2-0 win that meant we couldn’t go to USA94. Watching Graham slowly unfold on TV as he realises that bad officiating has been the catalyst to him losing his job do make difficult viewing for someone so fond of the man as me (and all Imps fans I hope). However the performance that night was very good, England actually played well and could have scored a couple of their own. We weren’t outmuscled as plucky English underdogs, we were robbed by man wearing a black top.
Even a draw would have given us something to play for in the last game, against San Marino. We came that close to putting out Holland.
When you watch the documentary you see Graham becoming more irritable and frustrated as time goes on. To see an England manager shouting exactly the same things we shouted at the TV back then is heartening. He constantly builds up Gascoigne as a key player, he pushes the great Ian Wright to get on the pitch, and he does what most fans would have done and gives Pearce the captains armband. If Shearer had been fit I firmly believe that Taylors England would have gone to USA 94. Terry Venables came in and trusted in those same players, but with Shearer providing the goals. Remember Graham Taylor already had Teddy Sheringham up top. He was so desperately unlucky not to be the first to pair the SAS partnership.
I know Imps fans hold him in the regard he deserves, but I wish more people could see what he actually did do for England. It wasn’t Taylor that was stuck in the past, it was the whole FA board. The documentary shows him giving an England report to the FA board and it stank of a gentleman’s club of the 1960’s. In 1993 England was still stuck in the past, still believing that 1966 was the norm and we’d just been unlucky since. Across Europe managers like Arsene Wenger were bringing new things to football, new levels of fitness and scientific awareness. We still had a ‘they don’t like it up em’ philosophy that failed to embrace the new era. We realised as the Premier League grew and we failed more and more, but we’ve been playing catch up ever since. Graham Taylor wasn’t to blame for it, he was merely a victim himself of a very British failure to accept people do things better than we do, and just keep doing the things we’ve always done because it worked once.
So have we progressed now? To a degree maybe we have. Fitness levels and awareness of everything else about the game has risen dramatically and of all the English managers Sam Allardyce perhaps embraced it more than most. He was renowned for having a massive back room staff packed with analysts, nutritionist and bookies.
I still think there’s an insular acceptance that our players don’t need to prove themselves abroad though. Rarely does a a high profile English player go abroad, but even back in 1994 they were doing. Des Walker, Paul Ince and Paul Gascoigne all played in Italy, and yet currently we don’t have a single player featuring regularly on the continent. While our players don’t experience different cultures and styles they can’t begin to hope to feel they’ve truly progressed.
I suppose the only thing Allardyce (or any other England manager for that matter) will never achieve is an all time record of 76pts under the 2pts for a win system. They won’t do that will they? No. Graham Taylor did.
Do they not like that?