Dave Woodhall offers a personal tribute on the passing of the former Villa manager.
Someone once said that the word ‘tragedy’ is used in football so often that it’s lost its meaning. I can understand that, and you can say the same about the word ‘legend’. I hope it doesn’t sound disrespectful, but the death of a 72 year old is rarely a tragedy for those outside his family and circle of friends. Graham Taylor, though, as in many ways, was different. Even at an age when he should have been long retired, he had so much to offer. He was still giving his expert opinions for the BBC, and would have been a popular choice in any role he chose at either Villa or Watford.
Quite rightly there have been many tributes paid to Sir Graham, a lot of them by those who knew him better than I did. I’m sure that he would have been humbled, overwhelmed, maybe even surprised, to have seen in what affection he was held throughout football. But it should be no surprise to learn that there will always be a place in the game’s heart for a man who maintained his dignity no matter what, a man who showed class and decency throughout his career.
I don’t have to repeat what he did as a manager. He did well with Lincoln, he transformed Watford on and off the pitch, from a nondescript lower leagues side to a club that could compete with the best and a model for community work that was decades ahead of its time. He performed miracles at Villa, at Wolves he is now generally regarded as having been ousted too soon, then for an encore he took Watford back from the third tier to the Premier League.
There were failures, and high-profile ones at that, but there were justifications for these. The England job came at a time when the ramifications of the European club ban were having their fullest effect, while his return to Villa Park was against a background of poisonous in-fighting throughout the club that would have tested a much younger man. By then the game had moved on and his ways were becoming outdated, which was to football’s detriment, not his.
Like his career, stories about the man are legion. I particuarly liked the one about how within a week of his arrival at Villa in 1987 he’d found out every pub where the players drank and visited them all. That was typical of him; he wasn’t just interested in what the players did on the pitch, they had to be seen to do the right thing everywhere. As the late Paul Birch said, “He seemed to know everything about everyone.”
I found that out in 2003, when I was writing a book about Villa managers. I’d spoken to a few and naturally they didn’t have a clue who I was, which was fair enough as I was just an opinionated fan with a typewriter. Then I spoke to Graham Taylor, and I swear he knew things about me that I didn’t know myself. That was equally typical. He wasn’t just a team manager, he wanted to be involved with everything from the boardroom to the terraces.
We arranged to meet at the Belfry. He spoke, I listened. A couple of times he asked that the tape be switched off as he let me know a few things that cast a very different light on some people, and events. He gave me a tactical lesson in how he managed the team that finished runners-up in 1989-90 and how he would have rebuilt had England not called. And he gave me an anecdote I will treasure forever.
We were walking out of the hotel, through the bar and past a group of what was probably salesmen – they looked the type. One of them looked over and as we walked past shouted out “Oi Graham! Do I not like that!” Naturally it was to Graham’s back, because he would never have said it up close. Graham turned round, a beaming smile on his face, walked up to this example of the Sun-reading classes, who was nearly a foot taller and several stones heavier, held out his hand and said pleasantly, “Nice to meet you. How are you doing?”
They shook hands, the other bloke mumbled a few words, and I could see him thinking how he would recount this story of meeting and besting Graham Taylor. Graham turned to leave, still smiling, but before he did he looked up at the grinning face and muttered, “You’ve had nine years. Couldn’t you think of something original?” I’ve never seen anyone deflate so quickly.
That was Graham Taylor. A gentleman, but nobody’s fool. As we walked away he casually said to me, “Do you think I should have brought Dwight Yorke back?”And a few weeks later, after I’d sent him the relevant chapter of the book for his approval, I had a message on my phone to say he’d read it and suggested a few minor alterations. When it was published I rang to say thanks; we had a lengthy conversation peppered with his asking how “we” were doing and where I thought “we” would finish in the league.
There have been so many stories coming out today about his kindness and his willingness to do anything for anybody, invariably anonymously. That was the side of Graham Taylor that few saw. The rest of us saw a manager who saved our club, steered it away from the rocks and sailed it into calmer waters.
I’d say that the four most important signings Villa have made during my lifetime were Peter Withe, David Platt, Dwight Yorke and Paul McGrath; you know what three of them have in common. Without him, Villa would have spent much of the past thirty years in the position we’re in now. Truly, there was only one Graham Taylor. I hope we see his like again, but I doubt we shall.