Graham Taylor, who has died at the age of 72, was one of the great club managers of the post-war period achieving success with his first three clubs: Lincoln City, Watford and Aston Villa. He later had a three-year spell as manager of the England national team before returning to club management with Wolves, Watford and Villa. This tribute will focus on the early part of his career and his introduction to management with Lincoln City.
Graham Taylor was brought up in Scunthorpe, the son of Tom Taylor who was a reporter who covered the fortunes of Scunthorpe United for the local evening paper. Taylor was thus immersed in the game from a young age and after passing the eleven plus continued his education at Scunthorpe Grammar School. He achieved representative honours for Lincolnshire Grammar Schools and after attending the FA Schools Week he was selected to play for the FA Schools XI against Scotland U18 Schools in both 1961 and 1962.
He subsequently left school to join Grimsby Town where he broke into the first team in September 1963 and quickly established himself in the side at left-back. He went on to make over 200 appearances for the Mariners but had already begun planning for life once his playing career was over. In May 1966 he achieved his FA Preliminary Coaching Award; at just 21 years old he was believed to be the youngest-ever recipient of the award.
In the summer of 1968 he signed for neighbours Lincoln City and was appointed club captain. Graham proved to be a sound and thoughtful defender at Sincil Bank, scoring on his debut on the opening day of the 1968-69 season. He quickly established an effective partnership with George Peden at full back, flourishing under manager Ron Gray’s leadership and the opportunities presented to the senior players to openly discuss any on the field problems. Significantly several of that team went on to manage or coach at a higher level including Graham, Billy Taylor (who was one of the England coaches at the time of his untimely death in 1981), Jim Smith and Ray Harford.
Graham made over 150 appearances for the Imps, although he was increasingly affected by niggling injuries and was one of a number of players who were highly critical of manager David Herd: he was even referred to as a “militant” by one director. Like several City players of the time he helped out with coaching local teams and from January 1970 he coached the Lincolnshire League club Lincoln City School Old Boys. When Herd resigned in December 1972 he seized the opportunity and he became the Football League’s youngest manager at the age 28; he was appointed on a salary of £50 a week.
His managerial career was slow to take off. His very first game in charge saw the Imps lose a Lincolnshire Cup match at Boston and the next six games saw five draws and one defeat. In fact it was not until the end of February that Terry Branston’s late header against Darlington earned him his first victory, breaking a run of 18 games without a win that stretched back to the previous October. The following season saw the Imps finish in a mid-table but the results of his work over the next three years marked him out as a talented young manager.
The Imps played a high power version of the long ball game battering the opposition into submission. The team was built around a tall, powerful defence, tricky wingers and hard running strikers; the simple tactic of the strikers crossing each other’s paths as the ball was played forward seeming to regularly confuse opposing defenders. The players were physically powerful and super fit, no doubt aided by the fact that they trained in the mornings and afternoons. They were also a thoughtful group, rarely succumbing to loss of concentration and totally focussed on the task of victory. The steel in the side came from skipper Sam Ellis, Terry Cooper and Dennis Booth; Dave Smith, Peter Graham and Dick Krzywicki offered the skill and Percy Freeman and John Ward scored the goals.
Sincil Bank became an impenetrable fortress for most visiting teams with just three defeats out of 69 games between 1974 and 1977. The 1974-75 season ended in huge disappointment. A 3-2 defeat at Southport in the final game saw the Imps drop below Chester and thus miss out on promotion by the narrowest of margins of goal average. In 1975-76 a largely unaltered squad won the Fourth Division title in record breaking style. Their points tally was an all-time Football League record under the two points for a win system (74), they established Fourth Division records for most wins and fewest defeats in a season and in scoring 111 League goals they became the first Football League team in over a decade to score a century of goals in a season.
Taylor spent one more season at Sincil Bank, achieving a creditable 9th place in Division Three in 1976-77 before moving on to Watford and further success. His final legacy for the Imps was to complete the signing of three youngsters from Wearside including Mick Harford who went to become one of the top strikers in the game in the 1980s and gain two full caps for England.
Taylor’s success at Sincil Bank was not just on the field of play. He had inherited a situation where many of the players were unhappy with the previous regime and there were minimal structures in place. Shortly after his appointment as manager he presented a six-page document to the board outlining his proposals to turn things round. This document covers many aspects of the club but also includes his ideas on how he would manage the players: “It is my intention to treat the players as people first of all and players secondarily. I want to have a group of men in which Lincoln City will be not only proud of them as players but as ambassadors of the Club. In order to get this they must be treated as grown-up adults even though on occasions they may slip from these standards.”
He went on to completely reorganise many of the off-the-field structures. A scouting set-up was introduced (there had been none before). The way injuries were treated was improved (the club previously did not even hold details of players’ medical records). A modern youth policy was also implemented, with a team entered into the Northern Intermediate League for the first time and an arrangement was made with a Sheffield junior club, Sheffield Rangers, to become the Imps’ nursery club. The players were taken on visits to local factories where they learnt about the working lives of the fans who paid to come and watch them. This helped create a tremendous community atmosphere around the club and a bond between fans and players.
By the summer of 1977 it was clear that Lincoln would no longer be able to keep Taylor. An approach from West Bromwich Albion was rejected in favour of a move to Watford. The Hornets were in a lower division than Lincoln but with chairman Elton John providing financial support, they rose from the Fourth Division to the First in five seasons, finishing as League runners-up in 1982-83 and FA Cup finalists the following season. Three seasons at Villa Park followed and more success: he took them back to the top flight in his first season and as runners-up in the League two years later.
His successes on the field earned him the England manager’s job in July 1990. His early record was excellent with just one defeat from 23 games but failure to qualify for the 1994 World Cup finals led to his departure in November 1993. He had become something of a hate figure for the tabloid press by this time, perhaps more indicative of a growing trend towards controversy by this section of the press as they sought to increase readership levels.
He subsequently returned to club management with Wolves, Watford and finally Villa once more, before becoming a pundit on radio and television.
Graham Taylor passed away suddenly on Thursday 12 January. He should be remembered above all as a thoughtful, honest and decent man, both as a player and manager, and a football man through and through. The game will be all the poorer for his passing.
Primary Sources: Interview with Graham Taylor, April 1997; Lincoln City Directors’ Minutes 1968-1977.