When the sad news of Graham Taylor passing away broke on January 12, naturally the tributes came flooding in. Whilst many noted that his time in charge of England was troubled, a lot column inches and html paragraphs were dominated with the successes Taylor enjoyed at club level, and in particular his glorious spells at Watford. When you see what Taylor had previously achieved at Lincoln City, and later at Aston Villa, it wasn't hard to see why England came calling in 1990.
Inevitably this blog will focus upon his heyday at Watford in the 1980s, and in particular Taylor's remarkable first season in the top flight during the 1982/83 campaign. To achieve three promotions in five years was one thing, but to then lead an inexperienced set of players to second place in Watford's debut season with the big boys was something else. Watford may have received a lot of criticism for their approach, yet for Taylor and Chairman Elton John, this was a victory for substance over style.
An ambitious man, Elton John dreamed that one day Watford would make it to Division One, and his appointment of Graham Taylor as manager in June 1977 would prove the start of a beautiful relationship between chairman and manager. Taylor had already impressed, leading Lincoln City to the Fourth Division title in 1975/76, breaking records along the way, and back to back promotions for Watford continued his meteoric rise. After three more years in the Second Division, Elton John's dream was realised.
Openly admitting to following similar principals adopted by Stan Cullis' Wolves teams of the 1950s, Taylor offered no apologies regarding the usage of what many called "kick and rush" tactics. Throughout the 1982/83 season, Taylor was forced to defend the system, but remained adamant that the Match Analysis approach used by Cullis, and now advocated by FA Director of Coaching Charles Hughes, was the right fit for Watford.
In fact, the only season Taylor changed his approach was Watford's first in the Second Division, one that saw them score just 39 goals in 46 matches and flirt with relegation. Taylor would not waiver again. Using talented wingers Nigel Callaghan and John Barnes, assisted by robust centre forwards such as Ross Jenkins and Luther Blissett, Taylor's Watford would run themselves into the ground, throwing bodies forward, which would sometimes prove their undoing. "Getting after the other team is the only way to play," Taylor revealed. "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."
At a time of falling attendances, often dreary football, and crowd violence, the attacking style of football used by Watford, coupled with their family club image, should have been a tale of triumph during their first year up in Division One. Yet still the critics, including many opposition managers and players, would take any given opportunity to lambast Taylor and his style of football. But Taylor and his men would have the last laugh. Come May, only Liverpool sat above Watford in the table, the team qualified for Europe, and their star centre forward would be the subject of a barely believable move to Italian giants AC Milan.
Before the season started, Watford secured a £400,000 deal with Iveco to provide shirt sponsorship over the next three years, but Taylor chose not to add to his squad, keeping faith with the set of players that had earned promotion the previous season behind local rivals Luton. The squad may have been inexperienced at the elite level of English football - only Pat Rice and Gerry Armstrong had previously played over twenty games in Division One - but the rest of the league were about to discover that their own naivety against Watford's tactics would be more of an issue.
Taylor's team came out of the traps running, winning four out of their first five matches, and surging to the top of the table with a number of performances that opened a lot of eyes. Armstrong scored Watford's first goal in Division One, as Everton were easily seen off 2-0; Callaghan starred, scoring twice and setting up Armstrong for another as Peter Shilton was beaten four times on his home debut for Southampton; Swansea and West Brom both adjusted their formations to try and cope with Watford's approach, but to no avail.
Strangely Watford's only defeat in their run to the summit was away at Man City, a match that saw defender Bobby McDonald play 85 minutes in goal for the home team, after Joe Corrigan dislocated his shoulder. Nevertheless, Watford's amazing start had shocked many, including Taylor. "I must admit I'm surprised at being up there because I thought there might be a few problems coming to terms with the First Division," Taylor commented, with Brian Clough comparing the rise of Watford to that of his Nottingham Forest team in their successful 1977/78 campaign.
Clough's Forest may have beaten Watford 2-0, and Luther Blissett missed a vital spot kick with the score at 1-0, but both club and player would enjoy a much more fruitful afternoon a week later. Hammering Sunderland 8-0, Blissett scored four goals on a crazy afternoon for English football, with Callaghan and Ross Jenkins adding two each, and Watford even managing to hit the woodwork four times.
Blissett's dream year showed no signs of slowing. A few months later, he would score a hat-trick on his full international debut against Luxembourg, during a season in which he would end up as the Division One top scorer with 27 goals. Blissett was frank in his own shortcoming - "I'm a long way off being a Jimmy Greaves" - yet like Greaves, Blissett would get to pull on the famous red and black shirt of AC Milan, as the Italian giants came calling at the end of the season. Blissett's time in Italy may not have been the happiest, but what an incredible rise to the top.
The stock of many others rose significantly, as Watford continued to make waves. Barnes and Callaghan both earned call ups to England U21 squads, with the former working his way into the senior team by the end of the season. Taylor was installed as temporary England Youth team manager, although many questioned this appointment, questioning if Taylor's way was the right way. Taylor endured a torrid time at the hand of the press when in charge of the national team, but answering the constant criticism during the 1982/83 season must have been draining.
It must have made the victories that much sweeter. After a 1-0 win at White Hart Lane in November, Tottenham manager Keith Burkinshaw remarked that Watford's style was not for him: "But all they do is help the ball forwards and I am saying that 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." A Barnes hat-trick brought a delicious 4-2 win at Arsenal, but Taylor was once again forced to stick up for his tactics.
"I felt this time we would sit back and let the result do the talking," Taylor stated after the Arsenal win, as the Watford manager refused to allow Pat Rice to conduct a television interview. "It wasn't my intention to offend anyone, but this constant questioning of the way we play is beginning to get a bit much." The comments and barbs kept on coming, though. Kevin Moseley, writing in the Daily Mirror, neatly summed up what was perceived as the general attitude towards Watford, calling them the "Wholesalers", as "they don't need a middleman."
December proved a tricky month. Losing to Manchester United and Liverpool was acceptable, but a 1-0 loss at Kenilworth Road against Luton was hard to take, even more so after Paul Walsh had joined the bandwagon prior to the derby. "If I was just a a supporter, I wouldn't want to watch Watford's style of play," Walsh tactfully said, although one look at the league table was enough to settle any arguments. After a 2-1 win over West Ham, Watford would end 1982 in third place, proving that the ends definitely justified the means.
Sometimes Watford's attacking system would prove costly, as demonstrated in their cup exits during the 1982/83 season. A mad 7-3 defeat at Nottingham Forest in the League Cup was entertaining and enthralling, and a 5-3 extra-time loss against Reading in the short lived Football League Trophy highlighted the cut and thrust nature of Watford's football. Luther Blissett hit the woodwork twice, and missed a penalty, as Watford lost 4-1 at Aston Villa in the FA Cup fifth round, but Taylor was not for changing: "This is the type of football the public want, with two teams going at each other."
As with any manager, Taylor had to contend with a few obstacles along the way. Blissett suffered a drop in form due to a foot injury picked up in training on the day after his England hat-trick, with Armstrong and midfielder Jan Lohman both suffering lengthy periods on the sidelines.
Yet the mainstays of the team already mentioned, along with many other key men - goalkeeper Steve Sherwood, defenders Rice, Wilf Rostron, Ian Bolton, and Steve Sims, plus Les Taylor and Welsh international Kenny Jackett in midfield - backed up by the likes of Richard Jobson and Jimmy Gilligan, gave Taylor enough resources to survive the gruelling 42-match league season.
Blissett may have gone through a sticky patch post-Luxembourg, yet his fantastic 1983 propelled him to the golden boot, put him in the shop window as a potential replacement for Joe Jordan at Milan, and pushed Watford to the dizzy heights of second as the season ended. Netting a brace in matches against Swansea, Birmingham, Luton, and Sunderland, plus a hat-trick against Notts County, Blissett was on fire.
The 5-2 win over Luton was particularly sweet, providing Watford with their first win over their rivals in eight matches, and seemingly pushing Luton towards relegation; to his credit, Taylor would take to the public address system to ask Watford fans not to taunt their Luton counterparts about the drop during Ross Jenkins' testimonial, played four days before Raddy Antic's goal kept Luton up at the expense of Manchester City. What a gentleman he was.
The victory over Luton put Watford into second, and despite close attention from Manchester United, circumstances aided Watford in their quest for the spot behind Liverpool, who were unsurprisingly head and shoulders above the rest. Perhaps with an eye on the forthcoming FA Cup final, United lost to Tottenham and Notts County, and a Watford win over a Liverpool team that would take just two points out of their last 21 available, secured Taylor's team the runners-up spot, and a place in the UEFA Cup.
Hopefully the passing of the years puts the achievements of Graham Taylor at Watford into perspective. For there seemed quite a bit of reluctance at the time to admire the job he had done at the unfashionable Hertfordshire club. In a little under six years, Taylor took Watford on a joyous ride from Edgeley Park to Europe, and the road would continue on to Wembley in 1984.
It's little wonder why Graham Taylor is held in such high regard at Vicarage Road. A manager who provided Watford fans with memories that will never fade, and wrote so many chapters in the history of the club, deserves all the accolades he has recently received. He may have taken on the impossible job with England in the early 1990s, but the incredible job he did at Watford in the 1980s should be rightly acknowledged as a remarkable accomplishment.