England's number one
By Apollo Latham
Although most people disagree with received wisdom on a number of points, there are a few who are so at odds with public opinion that it's virtually impossible for them to maintain a place within society. So certain are they in their minority opinions that ridicule from all they meet and exclusion from society are not enough to dissuade them from spreading the truth as they see it. Into this category come alien abductees, religious cult members and Norman Tebbit. It is now a sad fact of modern football that all those who, like me, believe Graham Taylor was England's best ever manager, must count themselves among this sorry bunch. We are the Jehovah's Witnesses of football.
And yet, Graham Taylor's reputation is not borne out by the results. England's record in terms of games won, drawn and lost - or in terms of tournaments qualified for - was almost exactly the same under Taylor's two campaigns as under Robson's first two (82-86). If you take account of home advantage, it was pretty much the same under Venables, and has been surprisingly similar under all managers. The improvement under Hoddle has so far been confined to friendlies : our record during this qualifying campaign parallels Taylor's closer than anyone dare admit - we got one point off the difficult team, beat the dross, but took one more point off Poland this time. Our qualification is largely because other results went in our favour, and the increase from 24 participants to 32, giving us an easier group.
At the risk of overdosing on statistics, it's worth pointing out that Taylor's towering record of unparalleled ineptitude rests on the rotting foundations of just three defeats in competitive games. Three defeats. All away, to good sides. We lost 2-1 to Sweden, after leading for half the game. Sweden went on to finish 3rd in the next World Cup. We lost 2-0 to a Norway side that had just beaten Italy and Holland in qualifiers, and we lost 2-0 to Holland. To recap that Holland game : their first goal followed a re-taken goal kick from a player that should have been sent off, and the second a blatant handball - and we hit the post twice, etc., etc. It's also relevant that only in the Norway game was Gascoigne, who has been a common factor in almost every decent England performance over 1989-1997, present - even then he was not fully fit.
Bobby Robson also lost 3 competitive games in his first two campaigns (including Portugal, and Denmark at home) and 3 in his next two. Ron Greenwood also lost 3 games (including to a very poor Norway team) in his two campaigns. So it's fair to say three defeats in two campaigns is par for the course.
Results really are what a manager should be judged over, since arguments about players and formations can never really be resolved. So isn't it extraordinary that in all the established and alternative football media, there's no serious objection to the idea of Graham Taylor as a terrible manager? A trap that critics of the "meeja" often fall into is ignoring the diversity of opinions, but in Graham Taylor's case there really is no diversity. I can accept that most people think he was awful, but what I object to is the fact that his awfulness has become an established and indisputable fact of life.
I could talk about how a number of Taylor's most controversial selections (Batty, Barnes, Adams, Wise, Ripley even) and omissions (Le Tissier, Clough, Sharpe) do seem to have been vindicated by his successors, who interestingly have never really criticised him. I could discuss Beardsley's unavailability for England matches, or his lack of favour both before and after Taylor's reign. I could sneer at some of Venables's selections (Barry Venison) as people sneer at Taylor's. I could discuss Taylor's consistency (contrary to popular belief) in players and formation. I could compare the chaos evidenced by that video, to the untelevised chaos of say Italia '90, our most successful overseas tour. I could point out that the nature of qualifying means that failure to qualify is an occupational hazard which affects all the big countries (look at France), and that injuries and the number of games played by clubs correlate far better with success than who is manager. There's even the point that 1990-1994 was the only period in the last 30+ years that England haven't had a really top class 'keeper. But life's too short to counter every single Taylor myth, besides which it's better in true Taylor style to go on the offensive.
Graham Taylor was a brilliant England manager for two reasons. The first is his use of talented players. The England team has a long and distinguished history of wasting the talents of our most exciting players. The reason, in almost every case, is that we have not given them the service they need. Too often, they've been isolated on the wing. Opposing sides have crowded the midfield to cut off the supply, and their full-backs have pushed up, forcing the wingers into defensive duties. Taylor changed that. By playing Gascoigne behind the strikers, he continually got the ball in places he could hurt the opposition - his goalscoring rate increased, despite continual injury and club problems. He tried the same with Barnes until his Achilles problems, and Barnes turned out excellent, if unappreciated, performances (e.g. the Argentina friendly). Never once were our best players isolated, invisible, and frustrated. Of course in Waddle's case he wasn't in the team, but better one creative player playing well than two playing badly. The long line of talented players that hadn't made good - Currie, George, Hudson, Hoddle, Waddle, and Barnes - had come to an end. By the end of Taylor's reign Barnes was actually playing better for England, in the deeper defensive position that was to relaunch his career, than he was at club level. So was Gascoigne. This was an unprecedented achievement. The press still don't seem to have learnt the lesson though, and the sudden improvement in the international form of McManaman (in 1996) and Beckham (this summer) when moved to central positions still seems to mystify them.
The other point is the change of formation. In 1990, in England, 4-4-2 was still king. The use of the sweeper system in Italia '90 was seen as an aberration, and even now much of the media see it as a fundamentally dangerous formation that's only really a passing fad. Graham Taylor was the first England manager in the modern era to dare to play three central defenders as anything but a panic measure - just as his Villa team of 1990 was also the first to challenge for the championship with a sweeper. With the loss of Paul Parker and Mark Wright, the only realistic sweepers, the system eventually had to go - but Taylor, like Venables, but unlike any other England manager, grasped one important fact : the formation should depend on the players available, and the opposition, and not on some ideological preference of one system above all others. The diamond formation is no panacea, but was definitely the right formation for the World Cup campaign.
And then there are our performances. You heard. The 2-2 draw with Holland was a magnificent performance in impossible circumstances. Given Shearer, or if Gascoigne hadn't had his jaw broken before half-time, we'd probably have reproduced that 4-1. The 3-0 against Poland, again in difficult circumstances, contrasts heavily with the recent nervy 2-1 home win. The best goal I ever think I saw England score was in the friendly against Germany : Ince, Sharpe, Barnes and others putting together about 20 passes culminating in a simple tap-in for Platt. So much for the long ball stereotype.