Public property

In his new book The Manager, Barney Ronay looks back to the early 1990s and hears from Graham Taylor what life was like for him and his family –  hounded by the media and victims of an angrey new mood of public "disappointment"

Graham Taylor was England manager from 1990 to 1993. He took England to one tournament and narrowly missed out on another. Still, the defining images of his reign are all variations on the theme of excruciating failure. Taylor was not a showman, a big personality or a silk hat impresario, yet he remains one of the most famous of all England managers. Perhaps this is because his appearance coincided with the England manager, whoever the England manager might have been, becoming wider public property for the first time, in the same way the actor playing James Bond is, or the host of the Radio One breakfast show or the Minister for Pensions. And make no mistake Taylor was huge in his time.

There were practical reasons for this, not least the still-hormonal and adolescent 24-hour tabloid mass media. As Taylor himself told me, musing on the peculiar travails of his public life as England manager, “My father was a journalist and I was always interested in the media empires, the Robert Maxwells and the Rupert Murdochs. Looking back I’m convinced there was a change going on in the media, with these two empires fighting a circulation war. For people in the pubic eye, like politicians and the England manager, so much depended on if they were on your side.”

For three years Taylor was daily fodder for the red-tops. He was also the first England football manger to feature regularly on Spitting Image, a weekly fixture of the slate-grey John Major years. Even this provided a flavour of Taylor’s status as national whipping boy. His voice on the show was provided by Alistair McGowan, who would occasionally take the puppets out into the street to gauge public reaction. “We’d taken Jean-Paul Gaultier out, and people had been really friendly,” McGowan recalled. “But then we took Graham Taylor into the Coach and Horses in Soho and this bloke said, ‘Oi, Taylor, come here: you are a disgrace. I don’t know how you got the job. You should go now’. It was amazing, the vitriol I got on Graham’s behalf. If that’s what the puppet gets, what does Taylor get in person?”

Taylor in person was something we would become uncomfortably familiar with. You often hear people say there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Graham Taylor got bad publicity. The documentary An Impossible Job, first screened on Channel 4 in 1994, was a career-defining moment. It started out as a fly-on-the-wall view of England’s passage to the World Cup in America. Unfortunately for Taylor, his team performed poorly and were also unfortunate at key moments. Even more unfortunately, he turned out to be a brilliantly absorbing subject for a tragicomic documentary film. The image of his face in extreme close-ups, eyes wide, adrenaline-churned, scrambled and incoherent, is unbearably watchable and strangely poignant in ways that seem to go beyond football. England never made it to the World Cup. Taylor was half right: he wasn’t sacked, but he was forced to resign. And after his documentary no manager since Brian Clough had been so widely impersonated.

The remarkable thing about Taylor’s time with England was the level of scorn and personal abuse. For a while he seemed to be single-handedly carving an exciting new managerial niche: the manager as dork, loser and punch bag. “We have to learn to laugh at ourselves a little bit,” he said on being given the job. But nobody in the press pack that followed Taylor about like an execution squad seemed to be laughing much.

“I’d been in management long enough to know you don’t read every paper,” Taylor says now, 15 years after his resignation as England manager. “But I was definitely aware of them. A small number of press people, I wouldn’t want to describe them as evil, but they have agendas, and it suits their agendas sometimes if England lose.”

This may or may not be true. But it certainly seemed to loosen the creative juices. After defeat to Sweden at Euro 92, improvements in newspaper technology allowed the Sun to morph a cut out of Taylor’s head into a turnip, alongside the headline Swedes 2 Turnips 1. The spectre of Turniphead Taylor had been called forth. Just two years in, this was his tipping point.

Some years later Taylor would get a phone call from the Sun. The sub-editor responsible for Turniphead was retiring and in his honour the page had been framed for a farewell party. The Sun wanted Taylor to present it to him. He refused. “I thought it just a bit incredible that anyone at the Sun would have thought I would have wanted to have revisited that time in my life… What would I have said to the guy ? ‘Thank you for making me the laughing stock of the nation. Thank you for reducing my mother to tears.’”

Because this was what Taylor got as England manager: ridicule, to a degree few, if any, public figures have ever been subjected. Taylor recalled one incident during England’s tour of the US in 1993, the high-water mark of the fury that surrounded him, and something he had, until now, kept his silence about. “We had just lost 2-0 to the USA. That was when I got a phone call from my wife, who had been out shopping with her mother who was in a wheelchair at the time. She came back home and she couldn’t get into the street let alone the house because there was a pack of media people waiting for her.

“She’d never done interviews. She was trying to get her groceries out, and she said ‘Sorry, I don’t do interviews’. And the chap there from one of the tabloids said ‘It’s about time you fucking started then love’. So she phoned me in America. Luckily the FA security people gave me a number that went straight to the heart of the West Midlands police force. They came out and moved all the media people. And my wife kept that phone number with her the whole time we were away. That was the first time I thought, ‘Is this job worth it?’”

In the days before his eventual resignation Taylor crept home via a back entrance [to a house again under media siege]. The police told him not to go home. He spent the last few days of his time as England manager hiding at his daughters’ houses. This is an extraordinary thing to have happened, even for the manager, no stranger to highly personalised vilification. It was also a phenomenon that would be mirrored elsewhere. These were the John Major years, a uniquely twitchy and irate period in the public life of the nation.

It was a time of houndings-out, of grudges and grumbles and of recession-era knuckle-cracking. BBC Radio 5 Live launched in 1990, and the 6.06 phone-in a year later. Within a relatively short period of time the background music of daily life had been augmented by a kind of incessant aggrieved whine, a droning public lament against inadequacies, gaffes, blunders and neglected duties. An exciting new voice had emerged: the voice of a man stuck in road works in the rain on a shaky mobile phone connection talking in wonderfully fluent monotone about the failings of some arm of government, some piece of infrastructure, some doomed sporting enterprise.

This was the new disappointment of the early 1990s: a sense of being thoroughly abandoned by leaders who weren’t butch enough, or big enough. And Taylor was there right at the start. Grinning, intense and deeply wronged, he was kindling to this white-hot brazier of disaffection.

From WSC 271 September 2009