Graham Taylor was a special man and I was privileged to be one of those people who could call him a friend, or at least more than a passing acquaintance.
I would not count myself as a close friend because Graham’s personality ensured he had many, many friends, and it would need a small stadium to accommodate us all.
But we would speak from time to time, and whenever we met up he would greet you with that wide smile, warm handshake and easy manner that let you know you were in good company. If you rang him and got an answerphone message, it was courteous and you knew he would ring back at the first opportunity.
He would always have something to say, whether a comment or insight on the world of football, which he lived for, or about cricket, which he loved just as much.
More than anything, I respected Graham Taylor for what he knew and achieved, and always felt he respected me for my small part in covering the game for nearly 30 years.
And yet it had not always been such a good relationship.
I first got to know of him through his Watford team of the mid-80s that were the antithesis of the sort of football I loved as a teenage fan.
Not for him the fancy-dan ways of Tottenham or Manchester United, the most stylish teams of the era.
Under Graham Taylor, Watford fought their way from the bottom of the league to the upper echelons of the old First Division by being tough, direct and uncompromising. His style of football was not pretty to watch, based as it was on the ‘route-one’ philosophy of Charles Hughes, who was then the FA’s head of coaching, but it was incredibly effective and took Watford to unprecedented heights and an FA Cup final at Wembley.
After moving on to Aston Villa, he rejuvenated the sleeping giant of the Midlands to such an extent that they mounted an unlikely title challenge, albeit playing a similar brand of direct football.
So it was with some trepidation that England fans ‘welcomed’ the news that he would succeed Bobby Robson as manager after Italia 90.
Dear old Bobby had taken a talented England side to the semi-finals of the World Cup, but it was an ageing squad.
Peter Shilton, Bryan Robson, and John Barnes were coming to the end of their international careers, Chris Waddle was lost in France and Gazza was injured for most of the next three years.
Even when fit, Gazza was overlooked in favour of lesser players, which did not augur well, and by the time the European Championship came around in 1992, Gary Lineker was the last man standing from that world-class group.
Taylor famously told the nation to “put their feet up and enjoy the telly” when the tournament came around, but I was out there in Sweden and there was precious little to enjoy.
England’s football was dire and they did not win a game.
And as a journalist covering my first big tournament, excitement was tempered by the negativity from the manager’s press briefings, which seemed to ramble on without making any memorable points. What did the players make of him, we wondered? It got worse. Needing a goal in the latter stages of the game against Sweden to stay in the tournament, Taylor replaced Lineker with Alan Smith to the bemusement of all of us watching. Lineker announced his international retirement the next day.
Meanwhile, the manager was being depicted as a turnip on the back of The Sun. It was cruel and led to more ridicule, but Graham Taylor fought on.
We went to America with him in 1993 for what was supposed to be dry run for USA ’94, but England did not qualify for that World Cup. They lost out in qualifying, most notably when they were beaten by the Netherlands in Rotterdam, with Taylor rebuking the officials who refused to punish Ronald Koeman for cynically fouling David Platt. It should have been a penalty and red card for Koeman, who escaped to go on and score the opening goal.
“Linesman, tell your friend the referee he has just cost me my job,” said the manager in a rare show of anger.
It was all captured in An Impossible Job, the fly-on-the-wall documentary that defined him as a buffoon in many people’s eyes.
England’s failure certainly cost him his job, as he predicted, but he was back in management at Wolves and then Watford, whom he returned to the top flight.
Another short stint at Villa was followed by retirement from management and a new career in the media, and that is when I, and many other journalists, began to see the real Graham Taylor, as a friend and colleague.
He always had time for a cup of tea and a chat, held no bitterness over the brutal treatment he received from the media, and always made you feel welcome. We, in turn, honoured him. The Football Writers Association’s Tribute award has gone to the greatest names in the British game, usually for lifetime achievement. When Graham was the recipient in 2002 at The Savoy Hotel, his speech was typical of him; honest, charming and disarming.
He explained why he understood the media; as a small boy, he would sit in the pressbox at Scunthorpe United with his father Tom, who was the local paper reporter and also the correspondent for Hayters, the news agency I now run.
Tom would flash though goal times and scorers to us for the BBC’s Grandstand and newspapers, and he would entrust young Graham with the stopwatch. “My Dad said to me: ‘You’ve got to get this right, it’s a matter of record’ and I realised then how important was the job of a football reporter,” he said.
It’s a matter of record that he was a fine football man, a player whose career was curtailed by injury, a manager remembered as much for failure with England as for success with Watford and Villa.
But more than that he will be remembered by everyone who knew him as a man of warmth, generosity, good humour and an immaculate sense of doing things correctly. As he once said in a team talk to his players: “Make sure your footsteps are left behind for others to follow. If people come along and beat it, that is great, but leave your mark behind by what you achieve and how you achieve it.”
Graham Taylor certainly left his mark on our lives. He will be sadly missed.