I’ve never been one for heroes. I could probably count mine on one hand: Paul Weller, Luther Blissett and Graham Taylor.
Graham Taylor may not mean much to most of you, but as I explained to my other half on Thursday to a Watford fan this is our Bowie moment. He was that important. He was our Shankly/ Revie/Busby and his death feels like losing a family member.
You might scoff at this but Graham Taylor not only taught me (and countless other Watford fans) how to dream but, crucially, how to realise dreams. When I first was becoming aware of football in the mid 70s my local football team were a joke, a lower divisions side who had never achieved anything and never would amount to anything. They were rubbish.
Graham Taylor changed all that.
Around the time he first became manager in 1977 I remember reading that his goal was to get us into the First Division. ‘Really?’ was the silent response of a disbelieving 8 year old. Not yet cynical, I still doubted whether this would be possible. A team like Watford would always be in the lower divisions, wouldn’t they?
What happened next was extraordinary. The years between 1977 and 1984 were like the unfolding of a wonderful gripping thriller. First Promotion to the Third in 1978. The following season another promotion. Next consolidation, before in 1981 in Taylor announced “it’s time we were moving on”. And we did. Promotion to the First and along the way Cup shocks virtually every season. Man United, Wolves, West Ham were all beaten by the Horns. From being a joke Watford became a club and a town to be proud of. Next we stormed the First Division and finished second to Liverpool. Following that a respectable run in the UEFA Cup and then an FA Cup Final in 1984.
How was this done? By meticulous attention to detail, by superb man-management, by the selection of the right players and backroom staff that also shared his dream and a lot of hard work. If you have the inclination I’d implore you to seek out Lionel Birnie’s Enjoy The Game, the best book I’ve read about Taylor and those extraordinary times.
From being a joke Watford became a club and a town to be proud of. And that transformation has been permanent. Everywhere I have been in the world whenever I have mentioned the words ‘Watford’ in response to the usual question ‘who do you support? or ‘where do you come from?’ the words ‘Elton John’ or ‘Graham Taylor’ are usually heard next.
The other stuff – the family stand, the fast attacking football, the long balls, the bond between the club and the community, and the much-commented upon ‘decency’ of the man has been well documented. I can only add that in my experience the latter was certainly true. My own personal GT story was the correspondence he entered into with my uncle between 1984-86. We had both gone to a home game in September 1984 against Aston Villa. Villa played the offside trap and my uncle bemoaned this then-familiar sight and dashed off a letter to GT asking why the FA couldn’t change the rules. Taylor wrote a two sided letter back and over the next 18 months a correspondence developed between these two deep thinkers of the game. The fact that this very busy man had taken the time to engage with and take seriously the ideas of ordinary fan impressed me at the time and still seems extraordinary. Would Jose Mourinho do this today?
Of course, the golden years didn’t last. (They never do.) In the week I left school in May 1987 it was announced that Taylor was leaving to take over at Aston Villa. Things wouldn’t be the same again. And for ten years Watford returned to being ‘just’ another club. Then in 1996, after the England/’turnip’ years that rendered him unemployable by just about any other club, Taylor returned to Vicarage Road and performed a similar miracle by taking the club up from Second Division to Premiership in successive seasons.
The incredible happened, not once but twice. This is what Graham Taylor taught me – dream, work hard, prepare well, take yourself seriously and astonishing things can happen. In my home town they did, on a regular basis, between 1977 and 87. I’ll never forget him and what he accomplished.