In Good Conscience

Graham and Watford, a match Taylor-made in heaven

When Graham Taylor met Elton John, neither of them could envisage what the next 40 years would bring.

Taylor was a journeyman player, a defender once traded between clubs in the English football backwaters of Lincolnshire for the sum of £4,000 (S$7,060).

Elton John, known to the world as the Rocket Man, had just bought ownership of his impoverished, downtrodden boyhood club Watford.

Taylor remembered the way the global pop star told him he was thinking of asking Bobby Moore to take over as manager, until Don Revie, the then-England manager, told him to consider Graham Taylor instead.

Graham who? many asked.

In their first conversation, Taylor asked John what his ambition for the club was.

Graham Taylor was the living proof that an ordinary man could convince others to extraordinary achievements. His determination, his sincerity, convinced others to run the extra mile.

"I thought he would say promotion, perhaps Second Division football," Taylor said. "He replied that he wanted the club to get into Europe.

"I thought, 'You will do for me, pal.' "

That was 1977. Watford were in the quicksands of the Fourth Division, the lowest league in full-time English professional football.

Within five seasons, after three promotions from the fourth to the first division, Watford's "Hornets" delivered their sting.

They finished runners-up to Liverpool in the 1982-83 season, Watford's first in the top flight. They played in the FA Cup final, making their chairman John cry during the anthem Abide with Me. And, indeed, they played in Europe, reaching the third round of the Uefa Cup.

Rocket Man and the straight-talking, honest Taylor were by then (in the words of Sir Elton) like brothers.

"I think many people in the game thought of me as a young upstart taking the money of an indulgent pop star," Taylor said at the time.

No, sir. Not by any stretch of the imagination did people in the game underestimate what they were seeing. Whatever they thought of the pop singer and the unsung football man at the time, undiluted affection came down with the rain in Watford, north-west of London, on Wednesday.

The people in their thousands came out to pay their respects to Taylor, the best manager they ever had, or will have.

He built not just a team, but a club. He ran a marathon to raise funds for his idea of building a family terrace where young supporters, accompanied by adults, could be initiated into a life-long affiliation with Watford.

To grow with, and belong to, their club, even in those times when hooliganism strained football, Taylor ensured that Watford was homely.

He imbued that into young stars like Luther Blissett and John Barnes, whose father Ken was an army colonel who came to London as defence adviser in Jamaica's High Commission.

Colonel Barnes was won over by Taylor to commit his gifted son to the red, gold and black colours of Watford FC.

The educated Jamaican saw then what countless people in Watford said this week when Taylor's body was driven through the closed-off town centre for his funeral.

"Still gutted," John Barnes wrote on Wednesday. "Absolutely top, top man, on and off the pitch."

You didn't have to play for him to know this.

The great and the good of football were among the 400 mourners packed inside St Mary's church. Alex Ferguson came down from Manchester. Arsene Wenger was there the day after Watford had surprised Arsenal, possibly wounding the Frenchman's dream of winning the Premier League this season with a shock 2-1 win at the Emirates.

The managers, the players, the family and the club paid homage to a man who died suddenly at 72 years of age.

They knew, we all knew, that until his heart attack, Taylor was the living proof that an ordinary man could convince others to extraordinary achievements. His determination, his sincerity, convinced others to run the extra mile.

"No airs and graces," said John, "Just a genius from Lincolnshire.

"As chairman and manager we were an unstoppable force of nature.

"We were Batman and Robin. And when Batman left for Aston Villa, Robin floundered without his mate. I missed him and I made some bad decisions, but I had to let him go. He had done the work of a thousand men at Watford."

John's message, read out for him because, you suspect, the world-renowned pop star and lyricist could not have got the words out without tears, concluded:

"No one can take away the sense of achievement. He is a legend in this community, in football and in life I love you my friend, thank you for everything."

And so it went on, like an echo in the wind. The dour, damp day uplifted by the people who applauded in the streets as the hearse passed by, the players made millionaires by their association initially with Taylor's Watford, even, one imagines the scribes of The Sun newspaper who once upon a time ridiculed Taylor when he took his turn as England manager.

"Swedes 2, Turnips 1," trumpeted the tabloid's front page after the hosts dumped England out of Euro 92 in the group stage, caricaturing Taylor's face as a turnip.

Those barbs hurt him because he was nothing if not a proud, emotional man.

In public, he laughed into the faces of his tormentors. In private, his determination was roused, not defeated by them.

And in the words of his daughter Joanne: "It was family first, except on match days. And Dad first, Graham Taylor second."

Despite that, Taylor belonged to a wider family. Watford are these days a club owned by, and their team managed by, Italians. The Premier League is a moneyed league, beyond John, beyond what Taylor represented.

He remained honorary life president, he was an honorary freeman of the borough of Watford, and right till the end he would be stopped in the street by supporters. No air, no graces, no medals as a player. He managed 1,366 games throughout all divisions, winning 591 without ever having the financial resources that Ferguson and Wenger, enjoyed.

But he was in their league; and in Watford above it.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 04, 2017, with the headline 'Graham and Watford, a match Taylor-made in heaven'. Print Edition | Subscribe