An unmitigated shambles, or is the general perception of Graham Taylor’s reign as England manager unfair?
There are a few defining images from Graham Taylor’s troubled reign as England manager – none of them particularly pleasant to revisit. Looking on forlornly as his team succumbed to a shock defeat in Norway. Telling a linesman that the referee’s failure to send off Ronald Koeman would cost him his job. Being depicted as a turnip on the front page of the nation’s most popular newspaper.
“That’s Yer Allotment” announced The Sun as Taylor resigned from his role following England’s failure to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. He’d been in charge of the national team for a little over three years by the time he walked away from his dream job, his hard-earned reputation in tatters. Taylor wanted desperately to succeed but it simply wasn’t enough. He became an unwitting caricature instead.
From that moment on, to many observers he would always be the naïve, workaday club manager revealed to be hopelessly out of his depth on the international stage. Playing the percentages might have reaped sizeable rewards at Lincoln City, Watford and Aston Villa, as Taylor steered each team to success, but his England side fell well short of expectations. Four years on from reaching the World Cup semi-finals under Bobby Robson, they were sat at home as the tournament kicked off in America.
“They had a really decent run, and everyone got behind the team. It was a very difficult time to take over for Graham because there was only seemingly one way to go from that,” said Lee Dixon, who made his England debut in the lead up to Italia 90 but wasn’t selected as part of the final squad. “He’d lost a few players, he was trying to introduce his own methods, and, coming after the legend that is Bobby Robson, they were big boots to fill.
“It was a really big job to take on but he didn’t shirk his responsibilities. He didn’t turn the job down. He took it with a huge amount of pride and rightly so. He did the best he could but in the grand scheme of international football he would say it wasn’t successful. But it wasn’t for want of trying, and it was coming after a tournament that was very good for England.”
Missing out on a place at the World Cup completed a stunning fall from grace and many felt that the blame lay squarely with Taylor. There had been mystifying selection decisions, curious tactical changes for big games and some humbling defeats against countries then regarded as being virtual walkovers, far beneath England’s level. Taylor was never seen as quite the same manager again. Still relatively young at 49 when he left the post, he was already being consigned to the scrapheap.
In the years that have followed, that whole chapter in the history of the national team has taken on a pained and regretful quality. A lingering disappointment best forgotten. Some inadvertent humour was found in the form of An Impossible Job, the fly-on-the-wall documentary that charted England’s dismal World Cup qualifying campaign, but it was mostly at Taylor’s expense. His desire for the public to see the demands of the job up close ended up backfiring spectacularly.
Perceptions of Taylor were permanently affected by his chastening England experience. A proud man brought low by the pressures attached to a ludicrously over-scrutinised position, he was forced to rebuild at Wolverhampton Wanderers and then Watford, the club with which he enjoyed a deep, almost symbiotic attachment. The situation improved somewhat with another two promotions at Vicarage Road, but to the outside world he remained damaged goods until the end.
And yet, of his 38 games as England manager, Taylor lost just seven. His team went almost a year unbeaten after his appointment, and a 1-0 friendly loss to Germany was the only time they tasted defeat in his first 23 matches. Many pundits voiced doubts over his appointment, but they were relatively constrained until a poor Euro 92 in Sweden. From then on it was all downhill and the criticism of Taylor became increasingly personal and pointed.
“I loved my time playing under him but towards the end of his tenure it became very difficult to meet up and enjoy it that much because of the pressure that was on us,” said Dixon. “There’s a lot of media attention when you’re away with England anyway but it became quite a hostile environment to be in with the press. I thought the treatment of him towards the end was disgraceful. He was a thoroughly decent man, doing the best he could, and he had the best interests of the country at heart. He was ridiculed and characterised in the press as a fool who didn’t know what he was doing. No human being deserves to be treated like that.”
Considering what happened, and how he went on to be regarded, it’s easy to forget that Taylor was awarded the England job on merit. Once it became clear that Bobby Robson’s contract wasn’t going to be renewed, he was deservedly towards the front of the queue when it came to selecting a replacement. Taylor had led Watford from the fourth division to the first in the space of five glorious years. They finished second to Liverpool in their first ever top-flight season and lost out to Everton in the FA Cup final a year later.
There might have been grumbles from the purists about Watford’s direct and bracing style of play but it was a remarkable run all the same. After leaving the Hornets, Taylor set about reviving Aston Villa’s fading fortunes, returning the club to Division One and engineering another unexpected title challenge with a squad that he made into more than the sum of its parts. The scale of these achievements shouldn’t be overlooked.
“At the time he was doing extremely well with Villa. They were absolutely flying. The style of football was the one thing you’d wonder about, in terms of how that would translate, but he was certainly one of the leading contenders,” said Tony Dorigo, the Australian-born left back who won 11 of his 15 England caps during Taylor’s reign.
“For me it was quite interesting because Graham initially came to Aston Villa on the day I left. He actually had us all in a meeting and said that anyone who didn’t want to be there could leave. He searched for me. He knew Chelsea had put an offer in for me and he said, ‘Right, if you want to go, off you go.’ So I did. I was thinking, ‘Oh God, now he’s England manager I wonder if he remembers that.’ I think that was the first thing he mentioned when he picked me and I joined up with the squad. We had a laugh about it and that was that.”
As the FA deliberated over Robson’s replacement in the summer of 1990, Taylor’s stock was especially high, having just taken Villa to second in the league behind Liverpool. Nottingham Forest’s Brian Clough remained a popular choice for the England manager’s job but his outspoken ways were never likely to find favour with an organisation that preferred reliable company men and quiet compliance. Joe Royle and Howard Kendall were also considered.
Once Taylor was offered the job, he set about building his backroom team. Lawrie McMenemy arrived as his assistant, and manager of the B team, while Steve Harrison, who’d worked with Taylor before at both Watford and Aston Villa, was given a coaching role. He aimed to lighten the mood with his jokes and antics. Peter Bonetti was also named as part of the new set-up, while Phil Neal and Alan Ball would join later.
“I was over in Italy doing some television work for the World Cup and I happened to be in the same hotel as Graham,” said McMenemy, explaining how he became involved. “We bumped into each other and ended up having dinner together. I’m not sure it was common knowledge that Graham was going to get the job, but he knew obviously. We got talking and he asked if I’d join him.
“At that time I was in-between clubs. I’d left Sunderland and I was just doing media work really at that point. It fitted in perfectly and I was delighted to be asked. I knew Graham well as a club manager because over the years we’d come up against each other when he was at Watford and I was at Southampton. He was much-maligned in general but people forget that he had an excellent record as a club manager. He took Watford up three divisions and got them to Wembley. He’d done his apprenticeship in that respect.”
Taylor’s reign got underway at Wembley in September 1990. The first match since a revitalising World Cup campaign was a friendly against Hungary. The international retirements of Peter Shilton and Terry Butcher were felt, with Chris Woods and Lee Dixon drafted in from the start. A 1-0 win, with the goal coming from the new captain Gary Lineker, set a decent, if uninspiring, tone for the Taylor era.
And so it continued. Questions were raised over Taylor’s decision to drop Paul Gascoigne for a 1-1 draw with Ireland, on the basis of the midfielder’s unpredictable nature and the need for calm heads in such a clash, but England’s progress to Euro 92 was relatively unflustered. Wins over Turkey and Poland, together with another stalemate against Jack Charlton’s side, left them well set to qualify with two games left.
There followed a summer tour of Oceania which featured a few complications. “That was something that he inherited,” recalled McMenemy. “We played one game in Australia, two in New Zealand and one in Kuala Lumpur on the way back. That was already in place when we arrived and it was something to do with the New Zealand FA celebrating a centenary. It had been arranged with the English FA years before that England would visit because of that.
“But what we didn’t know at the time was that in those days, one in every four years, the clubs had first choice in the summer. It happened to be that summer, so some of the best players were away with their clubs. So Graham picked an England squad which wasn’t a full-strength one. But they never lost any of the games. That was an experience for some players who would never normally have been in the squad but obviously it was a long, long trip.”
After a loss to Germany that ended Taylor’s unbeaten run a day short of a full year on from his first game, qualification for the European Championship was secured thanks to another win over Turkey and a draw with Poland. Results were decent but performances left a lot to be desired. Although England were hard-working and well-organised, they played a predictably direct brand of football that some were struggling to comprehend.
“He had a different philosophy,” said Dorigo. “It was as simple as that. Every manager has their own style but I just thought that, certainly for international football, with the experience of playing a few games at that level, you soon realise that you don’t give the ball away. One of the things we did was give the ball away too easily. I wouldn’t have done it but he was the manager so we’d do what he wanted. I thought one or two of the things we did weren’t suited to international football.
“I remember playing against Brazil under Bobby Robson and if you gave the ball away you weren’t getting it back for five minutes. In a league game possession would change hands a lot more often. In international football it didn’t. You had very good teams and very good players who could keep the ball. Keeping possession and looking after the ball were vital. With Graham’s tactics that wasn’t top of the priority list. That was something that the players noticed. I’d been in the England squad for two or three years but for the very experienced players, a new manager coming in and trying something very different raised a few eyebrows.”
Established England players, particularly those used to being part of sides that sought to control the game by keeping hold of the ball, felt that surrendering it so cheaply was counter-productive. Taylor’s team was direct and well-drilled at set pieces, which in itself was no bad thing, but turnovers of possession were all too common. Plenty of time and effort was then spent hunting the ball down against more patient sides, who didn’t feel the need to hurry.
Alongside these stylistic issues, a debate raged over whether there was sufficient technical ability in the England ranks and it just wasn’t being used to best effect, or if there had been a noticeable dip in quality. Some of Bobby Robson’s squad had stepped away from international football, and others were on the wane, so Taylor set about blooding new talent. He experimented with different options in the lead-up to Euro 92 as players like Tony Daley, Andy Sinton and Carlton Palmer became more prominent.
Each made it into the final squad. Sinton’s fine form for Queen’s Park Rangers earned him a debut against Poland in late 1991 and he was later tried out in a few pre-tournament friendlies. His versatility was appreciated by Taylor but he was put on the stand-by list as John Barnes was given more time to prove his fitness.
“I was devastated,” says Sinton. “As a player, you want to play for your country, and certainly in a major tournament. That had been taken away from me just at that moment. I respected Graham’s reasons because John was a fantastic player. But John broke down against Finland in the last game before the squad were flying over to Sweden. I think he ruptured his Achilles. There were a couple of loopholes I had to get through the next day but everything was sorted and I met up with the squad and we flew out to the tournament. We had high hopes of doing well.”
But it wasn’t to be as England crashed out at the group stage. A spate of injuries certainly didn’t help, with several key squad members missing, but England lacked fluency and creative spark. The failure to select in-form players such as Chris Waddle and Peter Beardsley, who didn’t necessarily fit with Taylor’s philosophy, was noted as a functional side earned successive 0-0 draws with the eventual winners Denmark and France in their opening two games. Ian Wright had also been left out of the squad entirely despite scoring 29 league goals the previous season.
England’s fate hinged on a meeting with the hosts in Stockholm. David Platt gave them the lead early on but Sweden equalised through a Jan Eriksson header at the start of the second half. Just after the hour, as England looked to regain control, Taylor made a controversial substitution, replacing Gary Lineker with the target man Alan Smith in the hope that he could hold the ball up and get midfield runners involved. Many observers, including those in the England camp, were shocked.
“Alan Ball was on the bench with me when Graham made the decision to take off Gary Lineker and we both looked at each other with surprise,” said McMenemy. “Normally you’d sit and have a talk about it but for some reason he didn’t. He just got up and made the change. We didn’t know until the bloke put the number up that it was Gary coming off. I don’t think we’d have done that at the time.”
For Tony Dorigo, also on the bench that night, it was a significant moment. Even if others disagreed with Taylor’s thinking, it showed that he had the courage of his own convictions. “In one way I have sympathy with Gary, but you also have to admire a manager who sticks by his beliefs no matter what. That’s kind of how I think of him. I don’t agree with most of his beliefs but at least he had the guts to do exactly what he thought. He wasn’t swayed by anything. He was going to do it his way.”
Less than ten minutes from the end, Tomas Brolin played a one-two with his strike partner Martin Dahlin and stabbed the ball into the top corner. England were out. An incredibly disappointing tournament for Taylor, his players, and the supporters had come to a premature end. “Swedes 2 Turnips 1” was to be the first of many Sun headlines along a similar theme over the coming years, as the tabloid baiting of Taylor took on a new dimension.
“I was delighted to be involved in the Euros but it was a huge disappointment for everyone,” said Sinton. “For me that’s when the unfair headlines were put out there. I don’t think there was any need for that, and possibly in time people would have regretted it. It must have bothered Graham – I don’t think anyone would like to pick up papers targeting them to that extent – but he never showed it, at least not to us. He was so professional. He just got on with it.”
England’s failure wasn’t accompanied by the traditional changing of the guard, although Lineker retired one goal short of Bobby Charlton’s record. It was an ignominious ending to a stellar international career, taken off when his team desperately needed to score. Alan Shearer was expected to assume the burden of being his country’s great goalscoring hope but was absent through injury for much of the subsequent World Cup qualifying campaign.
At least the mercurial Paul Gascoigne had finally recovered from rupturing his cruciate ligaments in the 1991 FA Cup final and was back in Taylor’s squad having completed his long-awaited move to Lazio. Getting the best out of Gascoigne was a continued challenge, especially during such a difficult period in his personal life. After a frustrating start to the qualification process, drawing 1-1 at home to Norway having led, he scored a brace in a thumping 4-0 win over Turkey and briefly looked back to his dazzling best.
Gascoigne was a conundrum in many ways, for a variety of different clubs and managers, but he enjoyed iconic status with England after his World Cup exploits. The press and the public were fixated on getting the best out of their star man but his wayward behaviour made things difficult for Taylor, who demanded certain standards. Gascoigne wasn’t the only one to fall foul of them, but he was arguably the most consistent offender. Try as he might, Taylor couldn’t always get through to his players.
“That’s part of what management’s about. That’s his job in the sense of moulding 11 different characters into one team and making it more than the sum of its parts,” said Dorigo. “I think with international football it’s interesting because the characters of the players are very important. When you’re going to be together for a long period of time – I think it was almost seven weeks for the 1990 World Cup, which was crazy – then everyone kind of has to get on, at least to a certain point. That’s what I think a manager’s job is. There might be some difficult characters but it’s about how you get the best out of them and ensure they’re a positive influence on the side.”
Although it was on the decline, a drinking culture persisted. Taylor never thought it feasible or desirable to stop the players drinking entirely, but many took advantage of the freedom and camaraderie they enjoyed on international get-togethers. It was a difficult balancing act and the scales tipped too far away from what the manager wanted on occasions, as he admitted in his 2017 autobiography.
Still, Taylor prided himself on his man-management skills and had much better luck with the more disciplined and less experienced players who owed more of their international careers to him. As Sinton explained, he made his introduction into the England squad as seamless as possible. “I couldn’t say a bad word about him. First and foremost, as a human being, as a person, he was brilliant. He was very caring and compassionate. He wanted the best for his players. Those were my initial thoughts when I met him.
“He made me feel really welcome. When you walk into a room full of players you’ve played against, but you don’t really know them, it can be difficult, but he put me at ease. He said I’d earned my place and that over the last 18 months I’d been as good as anyone in the country in my position. He wanted me to just go and do what I’d been doing for my club.
“I can only speak for myself, but as a player I was just delighted to be involved in the squad. I’d really look forward to training, whatever we were going to do. I thought he got the balance right of mixing it up and trying to keep things relaxed. There would be days where you would train and then he’d take you off go-karting or to the theatre. Something to ease the pressure and break the boredom.”
Dorigo agrees. “Whenever he’d name his squad I’d really look forward to going. That’s not to say I didn’t normally, but it was a good environment. He obviously had his coach Steve Harrison there as well and he’d try to make it as relaxed and fun as possible. He was one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met.
“Graham loved going to the theatre and watching Buddy. I saw it three times because I was in the squad for a few years. As a person and a man-manager, and in terms of training and what have you, he was great. I loved his company. I loved going away with the team. But taking all that into account, what’s most important is actually winning out there on the pitch. That’s what it’s all about and that’s where we didn’t quite do it.”
Even when things were going well, a setback was never far away. The home crowd became restless during a stuttering spell midway through a 6-0 win over San Marino, but allied to two routine victories over Turkey, it was enough to ensure that England had taken 10 points from their first four World Cup qualifiers. Next up was the Netherlands at Wembley, and one of the best performances of Taylor’s time in charge, but without the reward to show for it.
England were out of the blocks quickly, as Barnes curled in a free kick. Gascoigne ran over the ball, a two-man wall placed in front of the Dutch defence broke, and Barnes found the top corner with a minute gone. David Platt got the second midway through the first half to put a proactive England in complete control. The ball broke to Les Ferdinand after a driving run from Gascoigne, and the striker’s shot cannoned back off the post and into Platt’s path for a tap-in.
But Dennis Bergkamp halved the deficit with a deft volley before the break. England looked to be heading for victory, however, until a defensive error gifted the Netherlands a draw. Marc Overmars raced away from Des Walker down the right and was pulled back as he entered the box. The referee pointed to the spot and Peter van Vossen made no mistake. Another two points dropped from a winning position.
A month later came a crucial double-header away to Poland and Norway that would define England’s campaign. Ahead of the first match, even something as simple as the kick-off proved divisive amongst the squad as doubts crept in. “I remember Graham wanting us to kick the ball into the corner from kick off because he felt that it was very important that we try to quieten the crowd from the start. That didn’t mean rolling the ball all the way back to Chris Woods and him kicking it out of his own penalty area. He wanted it down the other end,” said Dixon.
“He had very pragmatic ways of starting games like that. Some of the players certainly frowned upon that but I didn’t. It made a lot of sense to me. Why wouldn’t you start the game at the other end of the pitch? It was a specific instruction for a specific game, based on what he thought the best way of starting that game was. He wanted to quieten the crowd and not give Poland a chance to press. There were definitely some players who thought ‘We’re just going to kick it into the corner – what’s the point of that?’ But it didn’t faze me at all. I thought it was a really good idea.”
England couldn’t afford to lose either game and were lucky to escape from Chorzów with their unbeaten record intact as the substitute Ian Wright pounced late on to score an equaliser, his first international goal. But against Norway it went wrong from the start as Taylor made several changes designed to counter the aerial threat of Egil Olsen’s side.
“That’s when things came unstuck,” said Dorigo. “I got left out for that game. He pulled me aside and explained why. That’s why I liked him – he was a good man-manager like that. I had a conversation with him, going back and forth, about why I was left out. Basically they had a really tall guy who played right-wing [Jostein Flo] and could head the ball in from the touchline.
“He ended up worrying about this gigantic guy who was going to head it 60 yards from goal and in international football that doesn’t matter to be quite frank. Then, when the game started, he went and played on the left and so all our tactics went out the window. Where Graham saw danger is very different to every other England manager I suppose. But I did like the fact that at least he talked me through the reasons why I wasn’t playing. I disagreed with them but at least he was man enough to do that, which I think was a good thing.”
The press were far less forgiving as England slumped to a 2-0 defeat that left them with little room for manoeuvre ahead of the final three games. Taylor’s unexpected switch to a 3-5-2 formation patently didn’t work. Defenders were dragged out of position with alarming frequency by a buoyant Norway and mistakes by individuals proved costly.
The previously impeccable Walker was once more at fault. After giving away a free-kick on the left, he was still protesting as it was taken quickly and Jan Åge Fjørtoft squared for Øyvind Leonhardsen to score the opener. A devastating counter attack at the start of the second half finished off the game. England’s fate was no longer in their own hands.
Taylor was widely criticised for gambling on unfamiliar tactics in a match in which defeat would be so damaging. In attempting to combat the danger that Norway posed, he gave them the initiative. To some it betrayed a small-time mentality, worrying about what Norway would do to the extent that England forgot to play their own game. They were now in genuine danger of missing out on a World Cup for the first time since 1978.
Where Taylor and his beleaguered squad could perhaps have benefited from a break and a chance to reassess, they immediately headed out to America to compete in the US Cup. Any hopes that it would provide a welcome distraction and potential confidence boost ahead of the more serious challenges to come were soon shattered. Facing the USA in Boston, England succumbed to a humbling 2-0 defeat in their first game. The pressure mounted on the manager.
“You felt really sorry for him because he cared so passionately,” said Dorigo. “There wasn’t a person on this planet who cared more about winning games for England than Graham Taylor, and you could sense it. You could see it in him. As players we obviously read the papers and knew what was going on. We lost to the USA and I remember The Sun headline was ‘Yanks 2 Planks 0’. It focused on Graham. Some of the lads were thinking ‘Oh God!’, but at the same time it was a little bit funny.
“I think he was actually quite ill over it all. He had a cold but I think it really affected him. For a couple of days he stayed in his room to recover. I’m sure that was because of the loss and everything else too. He felt it so much. We knew that and nobody likes to see it. I think it was unfair. If anyone knew the man, and how hard he was trying, they’d know that none of that really helps.
“He became the focal point for the press and it was just making a mockery of him all the time, which isn’t a nice thing. He really suffered with that. I think some people would be able to brush it off to a point, but you have to remember how severe it was. He would certainly do that publicly, but internally it was hard for him.”
Some pride was salvaged with a draw against Brazil, but a 2-1 loss to Germany followed. England had gone six games without a win. Drained of belief, they had three qualifiers in which to save themselves and no room for any more slip-ups. In a call to arms, the returning Stuart Pearce took over from Platt as captain. The experienced duo of Walker and Woods were dropped.
At Wembley, against Poland, England had to deliver and they did. Les Ferdinand settled the nerves with a smart finish after five minutes and second-half strikes from Gascoigne and Pearce made for a comfortable enough evening in the end, after all the fraught build-up and speculation about Taylor’s future. The one sour note was an avoidable booking for Gascoigne that ruled him out of the Netherlands game a month later.
With San Marino to come in the final qualifying match everything essentially hinged on the outcome in Rotterdam. There was a testy atmosphere in the pre-match press conference as the changes to Taylor’s squad were dissected. There was a sense of fatalism in some quarters, with many fearing the defeat that would all but end England’s chances of reaching the World Cup. Everyone knows what happened next.
Dorigo hit the post during England’s best spell of the first half and they were granted a reprieve when Frank Rijkaard’s effort was incorrectly ruled out for offside. Level at the break, but only just, the recalled Palmer was withdrawn to be replaced by Sinton. Around the hour mark the game swung on a controversial sequence of events.
Platt was sent through on goal by a ball over the top, but Ronald Koeman dragged him down on the edge of the area. Only a yellow card was given, with Taylor and his bench incensed by the decision. Dorigo’s free kick was charged down by a Dutch defender and the danger was cleared. Shortly after, the Netherlands won a free kick of their own following a clumsy Gary Pallister challenge. Koeman’s original effort was blocked but he was given the chance to take it again and lifted the ball gently over the wall and into the net to break the deadlock. England spirits sank.
Paul Merson hit the post from another free kick but any hopes of a fightback were extinguished by Bergkamp’s low drive from distance which beat a sprawling David Seaman. Taylor brought on Wright, whose international record remained poor in comparison to his club one, and tried to rouse the troops. They knew the game was done, and so was Taylor. On such fine margins can games, and indeed careers, turn.
“The pitch was very much like the Dell, you didn’t have to walk anywhere and you could almost touch the linesman,” said McMenemy. “He was a yard away from you. Graham said to tell the referee that he’d just cost him his job. Who gets the blame? The manager. At the end of the day, everybody there agreed that it was a sending off but it didn’t matter because it did cost him his job. What can he do about that? The referee was never in charge of another game at international level, but that didn’t help Graham.”
While acknowledging the importance of that decision, Dixon feels that the players need to take their share of the blame. “The two Holland games were quite poignant,” he said. “Not winning the first game from the position we were in was a blow. We should have beaten them at Wembley.
“I was injured for the second game against Holland so didn’t play. I remember sitting at home, watching it on the TV. That was tough. We all kind of knew that Koeman was going to flick it in the top corner. Graham was desperate to get us to a World Cup and the players failed him. There’s no doubt about that. He can’t kick any balls himself, and whether you like his style as a manager or not, quite frankly the players take responsibility for not qualifying.”
After defeat to the Netherlands, England were on the brink of elimination but still had the faintest of hopes of making it to the World Cup. Despite the clamour for him to leave, Taylor decided to plough on while qualification remained mathematically possible. With Norway already through, only the Dutch could be caught. If they lost to Poland, and England could run up a high enough score against San Marino, they could steal second place.
As England lined up in the Stadio Renato Dall’Ara in Bologna, minds instinctively wandered back to 1990, where much fonder memories were made with David Platt’s extra-time winner against Belgium in the second round of the World Cup. This time the venue was far emptier, and the mood so much more sombre, as the game kicked off. Within nine seconds England had plumbed new depths, falling behind after Stuart Pearce’s underhit backpass was pounced on by Davide Gualtieri. It was only the second goal that San Marino had scored in their entire qualifying campaign.
England recovered to win 7-1 but it was all in vain. That same night the Netherlands beat Poland to complete Taylor’s misery and confirm what had long felt grimly inevitable. England would be staying at home the following summer having finished third in their group. The results against their immediate rivals hadn’t been good enough, with just two points taken from four games against Norway and the Netherlands.
Six days later Taylor was gone. His contract still had six months to run but there was little doubt that he would be leaving his post one way or another. The FA chairman, Sir Bert Millichip, announced Taylor’s resignation to the press outside the association’s headquarters. In a statement, the recently departed England manager declared that, “I feel this is the appropriate course of action in the circumstances. No one can grasp the depths of my personal disappointment at not qualifying.”
With no international fixtures scheduled until February, there was no immediate rush to replace Taylor. As the FA weighed up its options, eventually asking Terry Venables to take over, the arcane and outdated nature of the English game’s governing body came under attack. There was a drive for change and modernisation from the top down, as old certainties about England’s place in the international hierarchy were being challenged.
Many of the games that had previously been taken for granted, against smaller and less well-established opponents, were no longer the cakewalk they had once appeared to be. The rest of the world was not only catching up to England, but in many instances overtaking them, as a resistance to fundamental change held the national team back. Taylor’s tactics were perceived to be part of the problem.
The inquest would rumble on for a while yet and wasn’t helped by Taylor’s decision to allow a film crew to follow him throughout the World Cup qualifying campaign. Intended to highlight the difficulties of being England manager, and the intense scrutiny that accompanies the position, it instead documented his own downfall as results turned. An Impossible Job was broadcast by Channel 4 on 24 January 1994 and cemented the view of Taylor as a sympathetic yet hapless figure.
From the 6-0 win over San Marino onwards, Taylor had allowed filming inside the dressing room before and after games, which many were uncomfortable with. He and his backroom staff also wore microphones throughout to pick up their conversations in the dugout. It made for compelling viewing and demonstrated Taylor’s desire for openness, but encouraged sections of the public to reach some unfavourable conclusions.
“The documentary was odd,” said Dorigo. “Normally the dressing room and what the manager says is sacrosanct. Publicly he’ll say something whereas in the dressing room you could get a bollocking, but you knew that nothing went outside of that. Suddenly to open that up and bring the cameras in for the world to see was a bit of a strange one. But that’s what Graham was like in terms of trying something new.
“Unfortunately it happened to him at the wrong time as our qualifying campaign for the 94 World Cup crumbled in front of a televised audience. In hindsight it probably wasn’t a great thing, but as players, although I found it very strange, we just got on with it and did our jobs.”
McMenemy also had his doubts. “That was his choice. He decided to do that. We didn’t know anything about it until the cameras turned up. I’m not sure that it was a wise choice but he decided to do it and everybody had to go along with it. I think that was a mistake he made. I watched the documentary, and as I told people at the time, I watched it from behind the settee and Phil Neal probably did the same.”
An Impossible Job showed the excessive pressures that Taylor faced and the almost unbearable burden of being England manager with so much noise, intrigue and speculation surrounding your every decision. It was accurate to Taylor’s experience and he signed off on the final edit, but it was also a sometimes unflattering portrayal of his limitations, with crude commands to “Hit Les!” falling on deaf ears as an under-prepared side was outplayed by Norway.
Dixon takes a different view. “Far from the documentary being damning and revealing, I thought it showed the heart of the man. His vulnerability and honesty. It showed that he wasn’t hiding from anything. He was a thoroughly nice and honest man who was trying to do his job. I think it might have changed perceptions of him a bit, but coming after Bobby Robson it seemed like he was fair game for the press. I don’t think they fancied his appointment in the first place because of his history with Watford and the way that they played. I think he was on a loser from the start with them.”
Likewise, some players were never entirely convinced by Taylor’s methods and poor results only reinforced that sense of unease. Football was becoming more patient and sophisticated at the top level but England didn’t follow suit. While Taylor was never as crudely reactionary as his harshest critics would suggest, having explored sports psychology and eagerly embraced the importance of fitness and conditioning work, he preferred to keep things simple on the pitch. He had a wealth of knowledge about tactics, systems and opponents, but a fundamentally different, and irreconcilable, view of how best to overcome them.
The relative strength of Taylor’s squad is often cited in mitigation of his underwhelming record, as influential figures like Peter Shilton, Terry Butcher, Bryan Robson and Gary Lineker – the very spine of Bobby Robson’s team – retired from international football during his time in charge. Some of these issues were also self-inflicted, however, with Beardsley and Waddle among those sidelined for a supposed lack of tactical discipline. Replacements like Carlton Palmer, Tony Daley and Geoff Thomas were a clear downgrade in terms of technical ability.
Inconsistency was also an issue as Taylor used 59 players in total, although that figure was boosted by the absence of several regulars on the 1991 summer tour. He gave 29 players their international debuts but very few went on to become established members of the England set-up. Paul Ince, Teddy Sheringham and Alan Shearer were the only ones to breach 50 caps. The majority failed to hit double figures and didn’t add to their tally at all once Taylor departed.
Right-back was something of a problem position throughout his reign, emblematic of this general uncertainty. A litany of players were tried there at different points, including Earl Barrett, Gary Stevens, David Bardsley and Martin Keown. Some were specialists, others were shoehorned into the role and it showed. Due to a couple of withdrawals from the squad through injury, David Batty, Keith Curle and Andy Sinton were all fielded at right-back during England’s disastrous Euro 92 campaign.
In the end, Taylor may have felt like things were conspiring against him when tallying up the near misses, avoidable mistakes and suspect refereeing decisions that cost his team, but the overriding sense of a manager out of step with the way football was evolving is inescapable. He might have survived that, and his sometimes controversial playing style been more readily overlooked, however, if England had got results in the big games. But from Sweden to the Netherlands they never did.
Although there’s no doubt that Taylor failed with England, doing so came at far too high a cost to his dignity and managerial reputation. “As a manager or a coach, you live or die by your results. He was a really decent guy trying to do his job, and whether you fail or not you should be given some respect. He wasn’t. It was a bitter end to his international career, and obviously it wasn’t very nice to be involved in that as a player,” said Dixon.
“Qualification for the big tournaments is everything for England managers. It’s quite right that he would step down after failing to get to the USA. Some of the players did too, including myself, albeit that wasn’t voluntary,” he laughs. “As soon as you fail to do something in football, or achieve your targets, then changes are made. You’re open to criticism, it’s part of the game. I never shirked it and neither did Graham.”