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Ex-England boss Graham Taylor on World Cup failure

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Former England boss Graham Taylor opened up on World Cup failure, Gazza and THAT documentary in the weeks before his death: ‘God, what have I done wrong? I am not a bad man’

There’s no point me trying to put a positive spin on things because everybody knows how it turned out for me as England manager.

I can talk about the things that went right and the good results we got, but people will always remember that we failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. 

Twenty or more years may have passed but it still hurts and, although I may have learned to live with it, I have not learned how to forget it.

Graham Taylor at the peak of his England days in 1990, before all went awry with the World Cup

Graham Taylor at the peak of his England days in 1990, before all went awry with the World Cup

You might call me naive but when I took the job I was not thinking about anything other than being successful, and that meant winning either the European Championship in 1992 or the World Cup in 1994. 

I had been a Football League manager for almost 18 years, at Lincoln City, Watford and Aston Villa, and I had been successful more or less the whole time. I’d finished runner-up in the league with two different clubs.

But relationships with players were different. Every player I selected for an England squad was a first-team player for their club and not used to being on the bench, let alone left out of the squad, and so I soon realised that if I left a player out he might not think too highly of me.

One of the biggest difficulties was getting a squad of fully-fit, in-form players together. Some clubs didn’t want to help me.

I wrote to the managers of all the clubs in the First Division to ask if I could visit so I could introduce myself to all the players who were eligible to play and to meet those who were in my short-term plans.

At Liverpool, we played an eight-a-side game and they put me in one of the teams. I didn’t realise this at first but all the players on my team had been told to pass the ball to me every time they got it, so I’d get the ball and pass it to John Barnes or Peter Beardsley or whoever it was, and they’d give it straight back, so I barely got a rest. It wasn’t long before I was absolutely knackered and in the end I said, ‘Hang on, fellas, what’s going on here?’ and they fell about laughing.

A friendly against Brazil in 1992 brought some tension between Gary Lineker and me to the surface. Taking a penalty, Gary attempted a delicate little chip over the goalkeeper but he got his connection all wrong. Afterwards, I suggested we wouldn’t have been any worse playing with 10 men because his contribution to the rest of the play was almost non-existent. Gary was not happy.

At Euro 92, we travelled to Stockholm to face the host nation in our last game, knowing we would probably need to win to go through to the semi-finals. We were never in control, though over the years people have asked me about my decision to substitute Lineker and I have been ridiculed for it. I will always maintain that the decision was one I made in an attempt to win the game.

Taylor faced obstacles during his time at the Three Lions helm, and clashed with Gary Lineker

Taylor faced obstacles during his time at the Three Lions helm, and clashed with Gary Lineker

It was very clear that the ball was not sticking up front. That was not necessarily Gary’s fault. As a team we were not giving him the sort of service that he could turn into goals. Gary was a goalscorer — one of the best this country has ever had — but when we were unable to create chances, there was not a lot else he could offer the team. In that particular game we needed something else.

We lost 2-1, so it may have been the wrong decision, but we all make mistakes. Where I had perhaps been naive was in not realising that the spotlight would fall on my decision to take off the captain.

The Sun‘s headline the next morning was the now-infamous ‘Swedes 2 Turnips 1’, with the picture of my face merged together with a turnip. There was nothing offensive about that. It was a good tabloid headline, if you like that sort of thing. What I wasn’t prepared for was the profound effect on me and my family over such a long period of time.

After one of those defeats, a television crew visited my parents’ home in Scunthorpe. Instead of knocking at the front door, they went round the back and tried the door there. They walked in, filming. My parents were in their 70s and were absolutely stunned by the intrusion.

The thought of not qualifying for the 1994 World Cup in the United States did not cross my mind. I made Stuart Pearce my captain because he had shown leadership qualities and I was impressed by how he talked whenever we sat down to discuss the game. I felt there were good players coming through and I had high hopes about Alan Shearer stepping up.

The low point of Taylor's international career came with failure to make the 1994 World Cup

The low point of Taylor’s international career came with failure to make the 1994 World Cup

But players’ unavailability was not the only problem. Before a qualifier against Turkey at Wembley, I allowed the players to have a drink or two one evening and it got out of hand. The result was a broken hotel-room door, one of the players had been sick in his room and had moved into another one, and there was a complaint that someone had urinated in the sauna. There was also an argument because the Arsenal lads were being wound up by one of the players from another club and Phil Neal, my assistant, had to step in to calm everyone down.

It all came down to a game against Holland. We played quite well but the result went against us — in particular, a refereeing decision which saw Ronald Koeman pull back David Platt as he was about to shoot but not get sent off.

It has long gone now but I am still upset about it. I can’t help but wonder what might have happened. If you’ve seen the fly-on-the-wall documentary following me as England manager,An Impossible Job, you’ll know that I lost my cool and said things to the fourth official and linesman that I should not have done. At one point, I tapped the linesman on the back and said: ‘I was just saying to your colleague, the referee’s got me the sack. Thank him ever so much for that, won’t you?’

We needed a miracle to qualify for the World Cup. We had to win by seven against San Marino in Bologna and hope Holland lost in Poland. They won their match, which meant it was irrelevant what happened to us.

Straight from the kick-off, one of the San Marino players pounced on a weak back-pass from Pearce and scored. San Marino had only scored one goal in their previous nine qualification matches and here we were, trailing them inside 60 seconds. We recovered to win 7-1 but at that moment, I looked up to the sky and said, ‘God, what have I done wrong? I am not a bad man.’

Taylor resigned from his post as England manager soon after, despite everything being so raw

Taylor resigned from his post as England manager soon after, despite everything being so raw

I resigned and a couple of months later, with everything still so raw,An Impossible Jobwas broadcast on television and, although some people took from it what I had hoped they might, I was ridiculed and criticised once again.

Contrary to what has been written, I did not agree to do it to restore my reputation after the European Championship, or in an attempt to make myself look good. I did it because I knew there was so much about the England manager’s job that the public did not know — and could not possibly know — and I felt that if I opened the doors and let them see what it was all about they might have a greater understanding.

Call me naive if you want, but that was what I hoped. At some point, as we struggled to qualify, the film company offered me the opportunity to pull out. They were obviously wondering which way things were going to go for the team. I decided to go on, because my original intention had been to show what went on, whether it be good or bad.

I also knew that several journalists were aware the film was being made and I felt that if I did pull the plug it might be perceived as me having doubts over whether we would qualify, which would throw up a negative headline.

The film also lumbered me with a few catchphrases — ‘Do I not like that!’ and ‘Can we not knock it?’ — but I didn’t mind that. I sometimes have a particular way of speaking and I’m not going to apologise for that. But if I have one regret about the film, it is my language. A few days after it had been broadcast, my phone rang and it was a lady from Immingham, in Lincolnshire — my neck of the woods. She said I should be ashamed of myself for swearing like that. She said her nine-year-old boy had stayed up to watch the programme and she called me a disgrace.

Taylor admitted he forever felt responsible for the impact failing to qualify had on the country

Taylor admitted he forever felt responsible for the impact failing to qualify had on the country

It is not a period of my life I enjoy remembering. I find it very hard to think back to the summer of 1990 and recall the feelings of pride and excitement because I know in my mind what came next and that colours everything.

We failed to qualify for the World Cup and I understand what that did for the country and I feel very responsible for it.

 

The first time I met Paul Gascoigne after I’d become England manager was at Tottenham Hotspur’s training ground. He arrived for the meeting with a two-litre bottle of Diet Coke and a huge slice of cake.

There is no disputing Paul’s talent. He was arguably the most gifted English player of his generation and it is such a shame that it was not possible to build a side around him.

His greatest genius — that he could play off the cuff — was also his biggest weakness. There was such a lack of discipline to his play and he could indulge himself to the point that he put his team-mates in difficulty.

Meeting Paul 'Gazza' Gascoigne was an experience, as Taylor noted his vibrant character

Meeting Paul ‘Gazza’ Gascoigne was an experience, as Taylor noted his vibrant character

The first time I met Gazza he arrived for the meeting with a two-litre bottle of Diet Coke and a huge slice of cake

His enthusiasm meant he went chasing the ball all over the pitch. I tried to tell him that I wanted him to play in the opponents’ half and we would get the ball to him, but he would drop back and take it off the full back or go wandering over to the flanks to get involved.

There was an almost childlike innocence to his play in that regard but it meant the players who were in midfield with him had to be prepared to do a lot of work to cover for him.

From the outside it must have looked so simple. He was our most gifted player, so all I had to do was let him get on with it. But as much as I believe Paul would have loved his life to be that simple, it rarely was, and I’m afraid I was not alone in failing to help him come to terms with some of the difficulties he faced, although I did try.

I could phone him four, five or six times without getting through. I’d leave messages with his brother or his friends or whoever it was he was with. At one point he was worried that journalists might ring him, impersonating people he knew, so we had a code-word system. At one stage the code word was ‘Kevin Brock’ — the name of a Newcastle United midfielder. It was quite bizarre at times.

He never gave me any real problems in the sense that he was not badly behaved or rude. He was a soft, sensitive boy who wanted to be loved. I could see the hurt in his eyes when he knew he’d upset me, and sometimes he just made me smile and want to give him a big hug, which I often did.

Taylor recognised the playing genius of Gascoigne but soon identified a host of other issues

Taylor recognised the playing genius of Gascoigne but soon identified a host of other issues

One time he arrived with us from Italy with a sunburnt chest, having spent all afternoon in the blazing sunshine, and I later found him in the hotel’s sauna where he said he was trying to cool his skin.

His other problems were no laughing matter, though. We gradually became aware that he had an eating disorder, and he spoke to our psychologist about that.

A couple of months before what turned out to be my final game in charge, I tried a different approach. The whole squad was going to Wembley for a training session and a press conference and, rather than travel on the coach, I invited Paul to come with me in my car.

We had about an hour together and I just let him talk. He was calmer, less fidgety, perhaps because it was just the two of us in the car and there was nothing to attract his attention.

He said he was losing confidence in himself, that money had not made him happy, and that he missed his wife, Sheryl, terribly when they were apart but that they argued when they were together.

After he had finished talking, I mentioned my friendship with Elton John and how it had taken time but that he had managed to find a relatively calm and ordinary life behind the superstar image. Finally, as the twin towers of Wembley came into sight, we talked briefly about football and he said: ‘I just want to play.’ 

 

Elton John offered me a salary of £20,000 a year and a five-year contract. This was the sort of offer most First Division clubs might think twice about.

As I took my seat on the bench for my first match as Watford’s manager in August 1977, I looked along the touchline and saw an unmistakable figure in platform shoes striding towards me. Turning to whoever was sitting alongside me, I said, ‘Where does the chairman think he’s going?’

Taylor was offered a salary of £20,000 a year and a five-year contract by Elton John at Watford

Taylor was offered a salary of £20,000 a year and a five-year contract by Elton John at Watford

I looked along the touchline and saw an unmistakable figure in platform shoes striding towards me.

When I suggested later that he might want to sit in the directors’ box in future, he was as good as gold about it, though I can’t say he never ventured down to the touchline again.

When I first met Elton, I had no idea he was gay. What hurt him most was when he overheard individuals saying unpleasant things about him. 

We’d lost a match somewhere when he heard one of the opposition directors say to another, ‘We showed that poof today, didn’t we, eh?’ I’d rarely seen Elton so angry as when he told me what had happened.

I said: ‘Here’s what we are going to do. We’re going to go into the bar, have a drink, look them in the eye and congratulate them on their victory, then wish them the best of luck for the rest of the season and get out of here.

‘Now, we may not mean it, but we’re going to say it. Let them have their victory and at the end of the season we’ll see where we all finish.’

 

Graham Taylor — In His Own Words, with Lionel Birnie, from Peloton Publishing is published on Monday (£19.99)

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