Right Man, Wrong Time
‘Genuine, Outstanding’ Guy Who Fell Short At Molineux
On the day fans of Wolves, Aston Villa and Watford were joined by those across the rest of English football in paying tribute to one of the game’s most successful managers from the last 40 years, John Lalley pens his own thoughts on Graham Taylor.
Graham Taylor’s record as a club manager is remarkable; a testament to indisputable excellence and high competence, with just one notable exception – Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Long after he left Molineux, he frequently expressed regret and frustration that his short reign there ended with ambitions starkly unfulfilled.
His desire to reignite a static side after replacing the admirable Graham Turner was evident from the outset and he never wavered in his belief that, given time, he would satisfy the aspirations of Sir Jack Hayward and a fan base increasingly impatient to see a return to the top flight.
It wasn’t to be, Taylor’s arrival at the club in early 1994 being greeted less than euphorically by many Wolves fans. The wrong time indeed.
This was the low point for the Taylor reputation. He had left the England job with contempt and derision blaring in his ears. After one abject defeat, The Sun cruelly immortalised him with the headline ‘Swedes 2 Turnips 1’. It was a cheap shot and hardly the most intelligent piece of sporting satire but, for Taylor reputation-wise, the indictment was devastating.
Throw in the fact he had not long before allowed Channel 4 to invade his privacy in an ill-advised documentary which left him as the recipient of huge ridicule and dismissive disdain.
Losing self-control, mouthing profanities and topping it all with his immortal ‘Do I not like that’ catchphrase, Taylor checked in at Molineux with a reputation to repair.
Wolves fans hoped this public humiliation, which frankly nobody should have been forced to endure, would galvanise him and strengthen his resolve to succeed. It didn’t quite work out but it surely could have done.
With ten games of 1993-94 remaining, four wins proved insufficient to claim a play-off spot, a final placing of eighth leaving Wolves in limbo.
The following season, the side went agonisingly close to achieving their target. Strengthened by the recruitment of Tony Daley, Steve Froggatt and Neil Emblen, they consistently hovered around the top of Division One.
Crowds were large, optimism was high and initially Taylor appeared to have hit a winning formula. Only one of the opening ten games was lost, ironically against Watford, where Taylor was deservedly already a legend.
A convincing Molineux victory over Albion in August set the tempo before arguably the best performance of the Taylor tenure saw Southend slaughtered 5-0 in early September. Froggatt was irresistible that night, scoring himself before laying on a belated first of the season for Steve Bull prior to a masterful finish from the on-loan Mark Walters that capped a magical evening. I can still recall leaving the Stan Cullis Stand highly delighted with what I had seen and convinced that the chemistry for success had finally been achieved.
Alas, the Division from Hell was to prove a tougher nut than I and probably Graham Taylor had expected. Performances became less fluent. Crippling injuries nullified the influence of Froggatt and the rarely seen Daley.
There was a marvellous Molineux FA Cup night against Sheffield Wednesday, won in a penalty shoot-out from 3-0 down, but momentum was generally dipping.
The talismanic Dutch signing, John de Wolf, became another long-term casualty and, in winning only one of the last nine fixtures, Wolves had to settle for a play-off semi-final that was lost controversially in extra-time at Bolton. That awful night virtually signalled the end for Taylor at Molineux.
Missing out on promotion was unacceptable for many fans despite the crippling list of injuries. Swathes of supporters felt that such a vast input of Sir Jack’s cash should have ensured success without recourse to the play-offs.
Taylor’s days were numbered. The following summer, intent on rebuilding, he agreed to sell Steve Bull to Coventry – then ensconced in the new Premier League.
Bull’s decision to reject the move further alienated Taylor from many fans, who felt that the striker’s loyalty was being taken for granted. The new season began wretchedly and, by November, mutiny was in the air.
It was clear Taylor’s time was drawing to a close. After a dismal goalless stalemate against Charlton, the axe inevitably fell. With hindsight, many express the view that, had Taylor remained in post, his attention to detail and determination to alter faltering structures at Molineux would have ultimately proved successful.
It’s impossible to say but, at the time of his dismissal, few were protesting for his reinstatement. He resumed management elsewhere and prospered once again. In contrast, Wolves continued to struggle. Yes, right man, wrong time.
Listening to the many deserved tributes after news of his passing became public, I was particularly struck by a comment from Gary Thompson, who performed with distinction under Taylor at Aston Villa. He explained that the manager excelled in giving precise, brief and forensically-to-the-point instructions to explain tactical viewpoints. In total contrast in public, he was a garrulous and articulate man not given to fluency in one sentence when he could use ten.
Writing in The Observer after Taylor’s dismissal by England, Hugh McIlvanney commented: “Sympathy is reduced by awareness of how much energy he devoted, at least until lately, to the management of his public relations. Co-operating with journalists sometimes appeared more a priority than loyalty to his players.”
It’s an interesting paradox. Maybe he was a different man in the dressing room than the one who was reserved for public consumption.
By nature, he was a genuine and considerate guy, always ready to engage politely and patiently with supporters. I have never forgotten a friend telling me that he had bumped into Graham outside Molineux all those years ago. As usual, the manager was open and friendly before saying, completely off-the-cuff: “There’s something about this place which I can’t put my finger on.”
It was almost as if some mystical obstacle was preventing his success at the club. It’s a strange anecdote, maybe completely trivial but absolutely true.
Graham Taylor was an outstanding manager with a remarkable record. For various reasons, Wolves didn’t exploit his abilities to the full. But I know his respect for the institution that is Wolverhampton Wanderers never wavered and he deserves every respect for that.
* May we please remind you that David Instone has already provided one lengthy obituary for the club’s official website (www.wolves.co.uk/news/article/2016-17/read-richer-for-knowing-him-3518229.aspx) and will be writing a second one specifically for Wolves Heroes readers in the coming days.