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Club At The End Of The Street: Graham Taylor’s Watford Wonder Years

Graham Taylor will probably always, and rather unfairly, be remembered for his managerial failings with the English national side; but when you look at what he achieved at Watford during the late 1970s and early 1980s it’s easy to see why he was considered to be the best man for the job and why his country came calling when they did.

Born in Worksop, Nottinghamshire, in 1944, Taylor made a name for himself as a tough-tackling full-back for Grimsby Town and Lincoln City; but it was his organisational skills and natural leadership qualities that would mean his future lay in coaching.

After injury curtailed his playing career he turned his attention to management and became the youngest FA recognised coach at the age of just 27 at Lincoln City, securing the Fourth Division title for the Imps in 1976.

Meanwhile, at Vicarage Road, Watford were undergoing something of a transformation under their ambitious new owner, Elton John, who had a vision of taking his boyhood club into the top flight of English football for the first time in their history; and when it came to realising this dream there was only one man he had in mind.

So when Taylor took charge of the Fourth Division side in 1977 the duo became the footballing equivalent of the Odd Couple; the glitz and glamour provided by the larger-than-life John, complemented by the more down-to-earth and workmanlike approach of Taylor; combining perfectly at this small club on the outskirts of London.

In his first season as Manager Taylor secured the Division Four title; achieving promotion to the Third Division in the process while losing only five games all season and winning the title by 11 points. The following season Watford made it successive promotions when they finished second in Division Three, narrowly missing out on another title.

A period of consolidation followed, but just two years later Taylor achieved what many thought was impossible and took this unfashionable club from Hertfordshire to the promised land of England’s First Division as Watford finished as runners-up in Division Two.

Favourites to go straight back down The Hornets didn’t just prove their doubters wrong, they achieved the unthinkable thanks to one of the most incredible performances ever seen by a newly promoted side.

In an era of falling attendances and rife hooliganism, Watford’s cavalier style and family values didn’t just gain them plenty of admirers, it almost won them the biggest prize in the game as they found themselves in the thick of the title race for much of the 1982/83 season.

Taylor’s men shot out of the traps, winning four of their first five matches, and surging to the top of the table as they utilised talented wingers Nigel Callaghan and John Barnes and made the most of the attacking prowess of Ross Jenkins and Luther Blissett up front.

They did have their critics though, who accused them of playing “Kick and rush” football. “All they do is help the ball forwards,” said Spurs manager Keith Burkinshaw, after his side were beaten by Watford in November. “For us to play that way we may as well get rid of Glenn Hoddle, Ricky Villa and Mike Hazard, because you don’t need any sophistication at all in midfield.”

Taylor wasn’t for turning, however, and his team reaped the rewards, sitting pretty behind Bob Paisley’s Liverpool by Christmas even though the Reds were beginning to look ominous as they stretched their lead at the top of the table; but that didn’t deter Watford and their gung-ho approach as they lay third at the turn of the year.

Ultimately their attacking style of play would prove costly as a number of heavy losses, interspersed with some rather impressive results, hurt their title challenge and three defeats in four games that spring all but put an end to the title charge of a team who had been favourites for the drop in August; but would eventually finish runners-up to Liverpool.

Despite the disappointment the fact that no newly promoted side has finished as high since is testament to the managerial approach of Taylor and his ability to get the very best out of players who weren’t necessarily the most gifted or talented.

If that wasn’t enough an FA Cup final against Everton a year later, a semi-final appearance in 1987, and a top ten finish proved that Watford had more than earned their place with the big boys and that their exploits were no fluke; thanks mostly to their manager’s refreshingly optimistic approach.  

“I’m not worried about them putting the ball in our net, as long as we get more at the other end, I’d rather win 5-4 than 1-0,” is what Taylor said of his side before he finally departed Vicarage Road in 1987 to become the new Aston Villa manager.

And it proved to be a philosophy that didn’t just take this unfashionable and unfancied side to within a whisker of unprecedented glory, but an outlook that won him many fans, not just at Watford, but throughout the game and around the world too.

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