A Game In Mourning At Passing Of True Gentleman
By David Instone
So many tributes, so many anecdotes. But, with Graham Taylor, they just keep coming.
Any fears that the well of stories might have run dry following the pre-weekend decision to slightly delay our own official marking of his dreadfully sad passing-away have thankfully not materialised.
‘Utterly moving’ barely begins to sum up the minute’s applause for him at Saturday’s victory over Aston Villa. Don Goodman described it as the best of the many such tributes he has ever heard.
Lord only knows what it felt like being at Watford, where Graham’s widow Rita was flanked by the couple’s two daughters in the main stand while the present-day players stood and applauded the photo of him on the big screen.
En route to Molineux, I listened to 5 Live’s coverage of the scenes at Vicarage Road, where reporter Alistair Bruce-Ball held it together well. The same could not be said of presenter Mark Chapman and commentator Ian Dennis, whose voices failed them when they took over again back at the Swansea v Arsenal game.
It was a touching, human and obviously unavoidable reaction. No criticism here about lack of professionalism. If that deep-felt emotion is there, it’s there.
We shouldn’t forget that Graham Taylor worked for the BBC for many years and had close friends there. Indeed, the last time he and I spoke, he explained off the record that he sensed his service with the corporation was coming to a close. He felt he was being overtaken in the punditry world by younger men and didn’t intend to outstay his time.
One of his most valuable attributes was leaving behind friends everywhere he went.
Even those who do not necessarily subscribe to the view that he was sacked prematurely by Wolves speak only well of him as a true gentleman – that’s players, office staff or supporters. Indeed, he gathered club administrative staff to his office for a farewell drink when he departed in November, 1995.
And no-one of a fair mind could fail to acknowledge that he has been a highly successful operator wherever else he worked in the club game.
Let’s face it…..he wasn’t too shoddy at Molineux, either. In his only full season in charge, he overcame an untypically cruel catalogue of injuries – although not too dissimilar to that suffered by his predecessor Graham Turner 12 months earlier – to have his side coming in fourth in a season in which only one automatic spot (won by Middlesbrough) was available.
It was the highest the club had finished during a stay in the division that had already then stretched to six years. In the process, Wolves made it to the play-offs at this level for the first time and, with Peter Shilton and John McGinlay around, we all know there was a hard-luck story in those two extra matches against Bolton.
Taylor’s Wolves brought us goals; nearly 20 more of them in the 1994-95 League programme than the season before. No fewer than four times, they drew 3-3 and there were several 3-2s. Some days, they hit five. On others, they conceded five. They were the division’s top scorers by a distance.
The Villa camp Taylor had brilliantly overhauled before the England experience would not have been surprised at such exploits. He once said there that he considered every wasted set-piece to be a scoring chance missed and Mark Burke recalls a revealing insight from the Bodymoor Heath canteen on his first day in the West Midlands.
“He asked us what we would do if we were losing 1-0 with five minutes to go,” he said. “We all said that we would get the ball into the opponents’ area with more urgency and cut down on the number of passes. He said: ‘Well, why don’t you do that in the first five minutes, then?’
“I wasn’t the biggest fan of his style but would never argue against how successful he has been. He chose a way of playing and had the conviction to stick with it.”
As a thrilling extra, Taylor gave us a run to the last five of the FA Cup, that epic, unforgettable penalty shoot-out win over Sheffield Wednesday following an exciting victory from two down on a potential giant-killing day at Mansfield. Mark McGhee’s Leicester were nudged out by one of the goals of the season – made by Goodman, scored by David Kelly – before Crystal Palace were brought back to Molineux for a quarter-final replay that the Premier League club won thanks to some spectacularly clinical finishing.
How close Wolves seemed to be the big time, then! No fewer than 22 times that season, the Molineux attendance climbed above the 25,000 mark and John de Wolf’s signing started to add foreign elements to the huge media interest in the games. The club had their own TV station and had received a ground-opening visit from The Queen. Things were happening!
Alas, heartbreak at Burnden Park was followed by the furore over Steve Bull – wasn’t his proposed sale a risk that just wasn’t worth taking? – and a poor start to the new season.
Three months on, Taylor was out. Hounded out, some would say, by impatient fans and waved off by a board who couldn’t or wouldn’t stand the heat.
What we should not forget, though, is that the demand for promotion then was much louder than it is at Molineux now. It was deafening. The Premier League was an unexplored holy grail and we all needed top-flight football in a hurry. Sir Jack’s cheque-book was meant to guarantee it, remember.
The irony was that while the manager had collected promotions at Watford and elsewhere like butterflies (that’s a Rod Stewart line, not an Elton John one!), his best work at Wolves was of the building-block variety.
In the unlikely form of Jamie Smith, he started to give youth its fling and Robbie Keane arrived during his tenure. Training then was often at Lucas Aerospace just off the Stafford Road at Bushbury, where the manager’s attention to detail started to shape his vision for the magnificent headquarters the club now have at Compton.
He knew that a Wolves without a proper training ground and productive youth policy was a Wolves built on sand. Keane, Naylor, Robinson, Lescott, Andrews, Murray, Hennessey, Batth, Ikeme, Price……he and others did a pretty good job, didn’t they? And most of those came before Taylor returned to the city, as he would, for the opening of the Sir Jack Hayward training ground.
The club have so much to thank him for, even if the debt of gratitude doesn’t include the item he was brought to deliver.
And certain individuals will never be able to thank him enough…..most seriously, Brian Law and Jimmy Kelly. On a different level, Don Goodman will forever remember waking up after the operation to repair his fractured skull in 1996 to discover a huge bouquet of flowers. Taylor had sent them – a remarkable act of thoughtfulness considering the man who signed him had left Molineux more than five months earlier.
No Wolves manager from the last four decades remains so talked about – and, in many cases, savoured – so long after his departure.
* We will be writing more about Graham in the next week or two, with the memories of others added to our coverage.