Stephen Wagg tries to make sense of Peter Taylor's departure from Leicester
I was glad, I have to admit, when Peter Taylor was made manager of Leicester City in the summer of 2000. He seemed a gentler soul than his predecessor, the frequently tetchy Martin O’Neill. He’d been a successful steward of the England Under-21 side and apparently everyone in the English football world attested to his ability as a coach.
As the public face of the club for 15 months he was unfailingly polite to all comers, supporting his players in every circumstance, obliging each quote-hungry reporter and dealing patiently with fans’ disquiet. But, as Taylor’s tenure at Filbert Street progressed, the eyebrows of the Leicester faithful climbed higher. Soon, sadly, I, along with most of the people I spoke to, was hoping he would find alternative employment.
A series of ragged performances and, frankly, undeserved results put Leicester top of the Premiership in October 2000. Taylor, puffed with pride, now divided his time between Leicester and the England side and he issued a mild ticking-off to supporters who wrote to him complaining of the team’s performance. We’re top of the league, aren’t we, he told them.
This echoed a line taken more relentlessly by O’Neill in the late 1990s: that the Leicester football public were a sour and uncomprehending bunch, impossible to please. This always seemed to me to be unfair. Again and again, O’Neill would berate supporters for protesting at a home game against Sheffield United, a few matches into his time at the club. But the truth is that neither he nor Taylor ever got a rough ride at Leicester. Despite the steady disintegration of the team under his stewardship, and an FA Cup defeat at home to Wycombe Wanderers that surprised few of the regulars, most people hoped Taylor would turn it around. A few cries of “Taylor out” at the tail end of last season were immediately met with louder ones of “Shut up”.
Now, though, following more dismal displays, including one on the opening day of the season that was probably the worst by a Leicester side in my (unfortunately quite long) memory, Taylor has cleared his desk. The dismissal of a man who until recently was coach to the national side, and whose reputation as a coach remains high even now, gives pause for thought. Having pondered for a week or two, I still want to be tough on Peter Taylor, but tougher on the causes of Peter Taylor. He made a series of truly dreadful judgements, but his margin for error was always narrow and for men in comparable situations it is growing narrower still.
The following factors brought Taylor down. Most importantly Neil Lennon, the beating heart of O’Neill’s teams, couldn’t settle under the new management. This wasn’t Taylor’s fault, but to suppose that his new signing Dennis Wise could do Lennon’s job was a mistake. Lennon is like the slightly irascible ship’s engineer of innumerable old films. He’ll get you into port so long as it’s accepted that the engine room belongs to him. Wise is peripheral by comparison. He doesn’t want the ball like Lennon did; on recent evidence he prefers a walk-on part, giving him time for the inevitable scuffles.
Taylor’s judgment of players seemed to depart from the crowd’s in almost every case. His treatment of Steve Guppy, for instance, was hard to credit. Guppy, an automatic choice for O’Neill and capped by England the year before, wasn’t even on the bench for Taylor’s first Premiership game against Aston Villa in August 2000. Bizarrely he was told the following week that he had “six matches to prove himself”. Stefan Oakes, arguably the best passer at the club and another first choice under O’Neill, was used only in the last resort. Meanwhile Taylor populated the club with players acknowledged across the football press to be short of the necessary ability – in some cases well short. Some of these, Taylor insisted, were “for the future”. Nevertheless they were members of the first team squad and, thus, soon playing in the present.
Ade Akinbiyi, for whom a club record £5 million was paid to Wolves, became a minor tragedy. He is strong, fast and earnest – qualities which the supporters appreciate – but seems to lack both the intuitive and technical qualities required in the Premiership. He often seems not to know when, or where, to run, his attempts to control the ball can become an embarrassing tangle of arms and legs and in the box he tends to panic, scuffing his shot or launching it high into the stand. The danger now is that he’ll become the Premiership’s Elephant Man – a kind of freak show, with TV viewers on the edge of their sofas to see where he’ll miss from this time.
Often Taylor seemed to resemble an educationalist from the 1960s – someone who, quite laudably, refused to accept a kid was bad at something, only that he could be better. He frequently insisted, for example, that Akinbiyi’s first touch was improving. On other occasions he sounded like a supporter, up there in the seats rubbing his chin and saying: “We were awful second half. We kept giving the ball away. I just don’t understand it.” Here he differed from O’Neill, who openly embraced the idea of managerial responsibility.
Avoiding relegation, he always insisted, was an achievement. Thus, after two Worthington Cups and a trip to Madrid (in 1997), he became a miracle-worker. By contrast, Taylor was gauchely optimistic. “I’ve looked around the other squads in the Premiership,” he told a Radio Leicester listener on the eve of this season, “and I can only think of six that are stronger than ours. I think we’ve got a good chance of getting into Europe.” O’Neill would never have made such a rod for his own back.
And yet. And yet. It has to said that there was a grim inevitability to much of this. The big, corporate clubs now spill more, financially, than Leicester, Southampton or Derby are able to drink. These clubs are the bottom three at the time of writing. Each has sacked its manager. And few observers, if they’re honest, expected it to be otherwise. The men who manage these clubs must always be finding players “for the future” – as a sculptor, to quote a Victorian journalist, “perceives an angel imprisoned in a block of marble”.
Such players are increasingly hard to find, and it was Taylor’s apparent misfortune to settle on several blocks of marble that obstinately refused to turn into angels. Moreover, strikers are especially difficult to bring to a club of modest means. O’Neill tried for years to find a robust partner for Emile Heskey, without success. He was fortunate that Tony Cottee found he had a couple of (wonderful) years left in him but thereafter had to take a chance on Stan Collymore, Arnar Gunnlaugsson and Darren Eadie. These acquisitions bombed just as Taylor’s did. Ultimately, no one who manages a club like Leicester can buck the market. Taylor bought badly, but at a big club the problem of assessing how a player might fare in a higher division rarely arises: it doesn’t take a genius to see that Veron, Rio Ferdinand or Sol Campbell are good players.
Besides, the people who see football in pubs or at the Premier grounds are tiring of the also-rans. What do we want to watch them for? Executives at the elite clubs such as Manchester United’s Peter Kenyon now see one third of the Premiership as “unworthy of [their] attentions” and want a slimmed-down league, augmented by Rangers and Celtic. I’m trying not to blame it all on Peter Taylor. He had the proverbial mountain to climb. Just because he increasingly resembled Frank Spencer in his ascent didn’t make it any less steep.
From WSC 178 December 2001. What was happening this month