Graham Taylor, who has died aged 72, is widely regarded as Watford’s greatest ever manager and, despite a turbulent and ultimately doomed spell in charge of England, became one of football’s most respected figures during a career that spanned almost 50 years.
Taylor was born in Worksop, Nottinghamshire, to Dorothy, a postwoman, and Thomas, a sports reporter for the Scunthorpe Evening Telegraph, from whom he learned his love of the game.
Taylor joined the youth ranks at Scunthorpe but transferred to Grimsby in 1962, the club where he reverted from an inside-forward to full-back and went on to play 189 league matches. In 1968, Taylor was bought by Lincoln for £4,000 and he played 151 games for the Imps, captaining the side before retiring in 1972 due to a serious hip injury.
The premature end to a respectable, if unspectacular, playing career gave Taylor the chance to pursue a long-held interest in coaching, having already qualified as the youngest-ever Football Association staff coach aged 21.
He took the manager’s job at Lincoln and guided the club to the Fourth Division title in 1976. Taylor had gained a reputation as one of the country’s brightest young coaches and in 1977 was approached by Watford chairman Elton John, who had initially wanted Bobby Moore, but turned to Taylor on the glowing recommendation of England manager Don Revie.
Taylor was not immediately convinced.
After all, Watford were languishing in the Fourth Division, from which he had just earned promotion, and when John stated his ambition for the Hornets to be playing in Europe, Taylor rolled his eyes.
Hoping to dampen the pop star’s lofty expectations, Taylor said it would cost the club almost a million pounds. “Right, let’s give it a go,” John replied.
Five seasons and three promotions later, Watford had finished second in the First Division, ahead of Manchester United, and qualified for the UEFA Cup. It was one of the most rapid and remarkable surges English football has ever seen. Inspired by the young winger John Barnes and a lethal striker in Luther Blissett, Watford beat Arsenal twice, as well as Tottenham, Liverpool and Everton.
They finished runners-up, second only to Bob Paisley’s Liverpool, while Blissett ended the campaign top scorer with 27 goals in the league, 33 overall. Taylor forged a team that was not only successful on the pitch but engaging off it, a “community club” in the true sense of the phrase in a way that would be unrecognisable today.
Players regularly visited supporters at work, free of charge or any marketing motive, and when Taylor first arrived he took to the streets of Watford to ask fans for their views. At a time when football was plagued by hooliganism, the club stood as a beacon of cohesion and local harmony.
Taylor steered Watford to the third round of the UEFA Cup the following season as well as the FA Cup final, where they lost to Everton, but despite establishing their status in the First Division they could never match the heady heights of 1983.
Taylor sought a new challenge at Aston Villa, whom he led to second place in 1990, an achievement that prompted the FA to come calling.
Early scepticism about Taylor’s lack of major trophies eased when England lost just once in his first 21 games at the helm, but things quickly turned sour at Euro 92 when a surprise 2-1 defeat to Sweden ensured the team failed to make it out of their group.
Taylor was heavily criticised for his decision to substitute Gary Lineker with the score at 1-1 and the Sun’s reaction was particularly vicious, their headline “Swedes 2 Turnips 1”, accompanied by a picture of Taylor’s head as a turnip. It became the enduring emblem of his tenure.
On the pitch, an ageing and injury-afflicted England then failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup following a miserable campaign that included crucial defeats to Norway and Holland. Key absentees and unfortunate refereeing decisions certainly played their part, but Taylor never extracted the maximum from his most talented players and later admitted the job came too soon in his coaching career. A TV documentary, granted behind-the-scenes access to Taylor’s final months in charge, revealed in graphic detail the strain he had endured.
After a brief period at Wolves, Taylor returned for a second spell at Watford, where he recovered his old touch with back-to-back promotions to the Premier League.
This time, however, the Hornets could not avoid relegation and Taylor announced his decision to retire in 2001 – although not before becoming only the third manager to oversee 1,000 league games in England, following Brian Clough and Jim Smith.
He was tempted out of retirement and back to Aston Villa in 2002 but it was a short stay and a move Taylor later admitted he regretted.
In retirement, Taylor spent his time working as a television and radio pundit for the BBC while also helping Watford through a period of financial difficulty.
He served as the club’s chairman from 2009 until 2012 and a stand at Vicarage Road was renamed the Graham Taylor Stand in his honour in 2014. Taylor remained a cherished contributor to the town’s charity and community events and he was made an Honorary Freeman of the borough in 2001.
He is survived by wife Rita and two daughters, Joanne and Karen.