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Yesterday's man

After Graham Taylor’s resignation as Aston Villa manager, David Wangerin looks back at the ups as well as downs of a man who more than once took a job too far

Graham Taylor’s hasty departure from Aston Villa has in all likelihood ended a coaching career spanning five decades. To many, that career will live in a sort of infamy, largely due to the shortcomings he exhibited as England manager a decade ago which led to the team’s failure to qualify for USA 94. But to others, his greatest blunder came not with the national teams he selected, the tactics he deployed, or even the results he failed to deliver, but in allowing himself to become the subject of that fly-on-the-wall television documentary for, as it turned out, the benefit of a rather bitter and recriminatory audience. Within a worryingly short time, “Do I not like that” became a kind of catchphrase for ineptitude, the TV programme an inadvertent testimonial for the Peter Principle of a man rising to the level of his own incompetence.

This wasn’t the man Aston Villa fans recognised from only a few seasons earlier, the man who inherited a club in free fall and took it to the brink of the league championship in three years with players such as Kent Nielsen and Tony Cascarino. At Villa there had been Only One Graham Taylor; now he was Taylor the Turnip, capping Geoff Thomas, benching Gary Lin­eker and conceding a goal to San Marino before the national anthem had finished.

Lacking the oleaginous glibness of a Venables or the inscrutability of an Eriksson, he, like Hoddle, Keegan and, lest we forget, Bobby Robson, since lifted to icon status, was pilloried, his pedigree swept away by the ever-ravenous British press.

Of course, it’s not how you get knocked down, it’s how you get up again. Resuscitated at struggling Wolves, he took them to within a whisker of the Prem­iership. Four managers would follow; none of them could do better.Number five, Dave Jones, took two-and-a-half years to get it right. Returning to Watford, tail between legs, Taylor seemed unlikely to de­liver anything more than a season or two of mediocrity and a retirement speech. Instead, he took the club into the Premiership. Good grief, who else could have man­aged it?

The electric chair that passes for the manager’s seat at Villa Park seemed comfortable enough for Taylor at first, but big-league football eventually played him offside. Premiership management was less about pumping up players for a game and increasingly about convincing boards to write off expensive contracts and cough up ludicrous amounts of money for squad fillers. Instead of galvanising the young aspirants from Hereford or Barnsley, there was now an international cadre of disillusioned millionaires to contend with, most of them coasting, wanting out, or both.

The diplomatic yet incisive parting shots Taylor fired at the board on his last day rang true to many. Having dismissed ten managers since their European Cup triumph of 1981-82, and with just a meagre two League Cups to show for it, only Doug Ellis’s staun­­chest allies can claim the Villa ship sails on an even keel. Whether David O’Leary, fresh from a £100 mil­lion spending spree at Elland Road, enters this lions’ den with both eyes open is moot; Villa fans would do well to remember how quickly £100m of talent can shape itself into a noose.

Proponents of regime change, seeking the root-and-branch reform they so resolutely believe will catapult Villa into Champions League heaven, argue Taylor was forced to work with one hand tied behind his back. Perhaps he was; if so, he should have been in his element. With the playing stock of an entire nation at his disposal, and no reserve teams or balance sheets to weigh him down, he failed. With limited playing squads, kibitzing boards, restrictive budgets and contract negotiations to contend with, he succeeded. Time and time again. We will probably never see another club rise to runners-up in the top flight from runners-up a division down in just two seasons, as Villa did under Taylor 13 seasons ago. We will also probably never see an England manager picked largely on the strength of two such seasons.

Claret-and-blue fans still rhapsodise over Taylor’s 1990 team, as superb an example as you’ll find of a whole being greater than the sum of its parts. But today’s top flight has little room for men whose talents lie in taking ordinary players to extraordinary heights.

Taylor’s final season at Villa was an embarrassment, his team lethargic, his selections often baffling, his signings worse than ever. Arriving at Villa Park in May 2001 as a non-executive board member, he claim­ed to be “yesterday’s man”. How right he proved him­self to be. And how sad, too.

From WSC 197 July 2003. What was happening this month

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