For a man who was much-maligned in the back pages, it’s been hard to find anyone who had a bad word to say about Graham Taylor.
As England’s manager, he suffered abuse beyond belief from reporters, headline writers and supporters but his genuine humanity could not stand by when John Barnes was abused on account of the colour of his skin. For an England manager to turn on the crowd, to be willing to stand up to intolerance without a care for his own standing in the nation is a mark of Taylor’s character.
He rose the ranks, inspiring Lincoln City to a then-record total of points before performing similar miracles at Watford. The Hornets made Taylor, Villa Park sealed his ascension to the England job.
When he arrived in the summer of the 1987, we weren’t in too much of a dissimilar mess as now. In the pre-Premier League world, e’d finished bottom of the First Division the previous season, ten points adrift of safety. Taylor took over and guided us to automatic promotion, largely off the back of an unbeaten run from mid-November to mid-February. Three consecutive defeats in March looked to have derailed the promotion challenge but a point at Swindon Town on the last day of the season was enough to see us return to the top flight at the first time of asking.
1988-89 proved a difficult season. It’s remembered for Michael Thomas’ dramatic last-minute title winner at Anfield on the last night of the season but largely forgotten that we won 3 – 2 at eventual-champions Arsenal, on the second Saturday of the season. In the end, we drew with Coventry at Villa Park to save our skins as Middlesbrough lost at Sheffiled Wednesday.
The close season saw a transformation with Dwight Yorke and Paul McGrath arriving. The Irishman could barely walk but he was an immense player; Taylor reinvigorated his career and he proved as important to the team as David Platt. The England man underlined his potential with 24 goals that season in a startling about turn in fortunes.
After a 0 – 1 defeat at QPR, we languished in seventeenth. A run of seventeen games, including five and seven match winning streaks, saw us climb to the top of the table after a 2 – 0 win at Tottenham. Taylor had Villa firing on cylinders and the most unlikely of title wins was on the cards. To put it into perspective, it would have put Leicester’s achievements last season in to the shade.
But it wasn’t to be. Five wins in the last thirteen games saw us tail off and finish second, nine points behind the champions, Liverpool.
In the summer of 1990, Bobby Robson faced calls for his dismissal as England coach. The media went nuts when he jumped first, fixing himself up with a job at PSV Eindhoven before Italia ’90 was over. They wanted blood and denied by Robson’s good fortune in getting England to the semi-finals, turned on the FA for appointing Taylor.
All manner of arguments were put forward, calling into doubt Taylor’s experience, tactical nous and playing career. And despite the abuse he received, the never stripped him of his dignity.
The second time at Villa Park was totally different. It lasted a year and a half before working with ‘Deadly Doug’ took it’s toll on Taylor. The lesson remains never go back. We finished sixteenth in his one full season in charge, disappointing after the previous season’s eighth place finish but that doesn’t diminsh his esteem.
Rest in Peace, Graham. It didn’t work out in the England job but thanks for letting us dream.