Can We Not Knock Him?: The Taylor Report, Summary and Documentary Review

Probably one of the most inauspicious periods of management the national job has ever seen.  Things just seemed to happen to Taylor, who ultimately was an honourable man desperate to do the best for his country. He was a deep thinker but not necessarily about the game and the way it was played. Maybe through all this he never really understood what it was like. He would often complain about the expectations thrust upon his shoulders, but he took over a team which had finished fourth in Italia ’90. He would often refer to matters with negative undertones and yet expected the press to be right behind him for the Dutch game when few gave us much hope. To not get out of the group in Euro ’92 and not even qualify for USA ’94 was difficult to forgive. Especially given what his predecessor and successor did with the tournaments either side of Taylor’s efforts.

Ultimately, his selections are what did it for him. He may have been unlucky in that his reign coincided with perhaps the worst period for English playing talent. The end of Bobby Robson’s period also saw the end of careers for players such as Terry Butcher and Peter Shilton, with Bryan Robson also on the wane. He could argue he wasn’t afforded the same patience Bobby Robson was. Robson failed to qualify for his first major tournament (Euro ’84) yet was given the chance to redeem himself with the next World Cup. He failed again during the next Euros but managed to gain a reprieve for the following World Cup in Italy. Perhaps things would have been different had Taylor failed to qualify for Euro ’92 but qualified for World Cup ’94, we will never know. But what saved Robson was the players at his disposal and the football they played. It was purely Taylor’s choice to not call-up Chris Waddle, during a time when he was arguably playing some of the best football of his career in France with Marseille. Waddle only made the bench for Taylor’s first two internationals and then had to wait until the twelfth to get picked again when he started in the European Championships Qualifier against Turkey at Wembley. He would never wear an England shirt again. When you consider he was still competing for Goal of the Month on Match of the Day in 1997, you get a sense he still had so much more to offer. With all the changes being made after Italia ’90 the team could’ve been built around him. For those who played the last couple of matches, under Taylor, Des Walker, Andy Sinton, Carlton Palmer, Tony Dorigo, Lee Sharpe were never again seen in an England shirt.

He was a touch unlucky with his strikers perhaps? During his time Lineker retired, made his mind up to move to Japan and leave English football completely. Whilst this cannot be seen as Taylor’s fault, there is evidence Taylor gave up on his star man too early, at a time when he needed personalities like him galvanising the team. His challengers were also short on experience and were still unproven. Ian Wright, though prolific at club level, struggled to find the net, scoring once in fourteen appearances before he got four in Taylor’s last stand. Peter Beardsley had been considered surplus to requirements at Liverpool and Taylor only selected him four times. Ironically his successor, Terry Venables, chose Beardsley for his first match in March 1994.

The Bobby Robson comparison is quite a good one as you could argue had Taylor been allowed another two years he would have had players such as Darren Anderton, Teddy Sheringham ,Steve McManaman and Gary Neville to choose from. Shearer came into his own after 1994 as did Sheringham. Taylor was hugely unfortunate with injuries to Gascoigne, Shearer and Barnes, three players he would have chosen every game if he could. Although perhaps we saw signs he wasn’t altogether convinced of Gascoigne when he left him out of an early match, fearing he might not be able to handle thphysicality ofof it.

Venables was lucky in that he had the services of Shearer just as he was blossoming into one of the finest strikers in Europe. He also had Gascoigne during a far happier period in his career than Taylor did. Injuries, suspensions and difficulties with settling in at Lazio meant Gazza was rarely at his peak under Taylor although he certainly made an impact in patches, but this was far too rare and of course he was injured for Euro ’92 and missed the crucial Dutch game at the end of the USA ’94 qualifying campaign. He played in three of Taylor’s first four matches and then came the FA Cup Final brain-fade. Taylor was unable to pick him from February 1991 to October 1992. He was then inspired in scoring twice against Turkey at Wembley, before he was assaulted by Wouters. By the time of the Norway debacle he was spent. One last hurrah against the Poles and it was all over.

He was also unlucky with injuries to John Barnes, one of the finest players of his generation. He was injured in the final warm-up game for Euro ’92 and although he scored a wonderful free-kick against the Dutch at Wembley, maybe he’ll be remembered under Taylor’s reign as the man booed at Wembley. Another player Taylor was unlucky with was Des Walker. One of the best defenders in English football at the time, but clearly on his way out as he made crucial mistakes at Wembley against the Dutch and in Oslo against Norway.

If you were trying to build a case for Taylor not trusting players with skill and creativity, then you would present Gascoigne, Waddle and Beardsley as your key evidence. Sometimes his teams were packed with workers, grafters, players who would give something for the shirt but at international level you often need more than that to break teams down. So did his employers let him down? I wonder if Taylor never really felt he had his feet under the table, and therefore could rarely afford to pick a player who he wasn’t certain would give his best performance every game. After all the gap between internationals was usually a month in those days and you cannot just go out again the following week and put it right. In the end he probably suffered from too few personalities. Too many quiet players, but was that by design? As I said earlier he was a great thinker, a real theoriser but perhaps this confused players. Perhaps he just wanted someone who would follow simple instructions and wouldn’t make his own mind up. Nigel Clough, Carlton Palmer, Andy Sinton and Tony Dorigo are prime examples of this.

In the end, as I said at the start, my belief is that Taylor was very good at making average players feel great and perform above their level, as his record at Watford, Aston Villa and Lincoln demonstrates.  But he wasn’t necessarily very good at dealing with players already great, as his relationship with Gary Lineker also demonstrates. Maybe his lack of playing success made him feel slightly inferior? We will never know, but he clearly wasn’t a bad manager as his record at club level was good. Just look at the relationship he had with his Chairmen and you’ll find a man who was hugely respected in the game. So perhaps he just wasn’t someone the players could relate to? Added to that perhaps he wasn’t a good enough coach or man-manager to make up for this. Robson and Venables certainly had that over him. He also surrounded himself with people who were nice and comfortable and unlikely to challenge him or the players. Was he hampered by his choice of management team?

There is no doubt English football went backwards during his reign, both at club level and internationally. By the time he stepped down we were coming out of this with the emergence of Manchester United, Arsenal and Blackburn Rovers. Liverpool were a force again in the mid-nineties after Souness broke up the successful team of the previous decade. Unable to compete in Europe cost this country greatly in terms of success and quality of play and so it would take a few years after re-admission to see the effects on this level of competition come through, and who knows Taylor may well have benefited from this. We will never know whether Venables would have done a better job had he followed Robson, or indeed had The FA not cast Robson aside so willingly after Italia ’90 whether he too would have struggled to qualify for USA ’94. Taylor may be held up as a failure, but it could just as easily have been someone else.

What should never be forgotten is he held his head high when it would have been far easier to disappear into the shadows. He faced his accusers, his met the media head on and ultimately I believe he emerged with the moral high ground.

Documentary and the Fall Out

The fallout from the documentary was huge. Taylor had been savagely ridiculed by sections of the press and for them this was manna from heaven. Having his face superimposed on a turnip was especially cruel. Now they had his language, his phraseology. Now they could belittle him just because he seemed to ask himself a question whilst expressing his disappointment.

Taylor believed he could control the media, or at least direct the narrative. But like many before him, he discovered the media’s relentless quest to bring someone down.

Taylor, to his credit, never backed down from his belief the documentary was right. He even said that if it hadn’t been shown people would never have known how much he cared. He was very hurt by the failure to qualify for the World Cup in 1994. One can never doubt he was a proud man, an honourable one at that. He said a few years later his ambition had always been to be England manager and he achieved his ambition. But on a professional front he was hurt by the experience. He was treated disgracefully by the press, yet rarely complained about it. He maintained his belief the England manager was an impossible job, he believed his reason for having his experience filmed revealed what is was like.

The documentary went down in legend mainly on being one of the first of its kind. None of us knew what Alf Ramsey was like when the cameras weren’t on him. We have no idea of the stress and strain Don Revie felt or even whether the criticism Bobby Robson received actually got through to him.

Throughout the rest of his life he maintained a dignity and inner belief which seemed to be at odds with what the press or sections of the public wanted him to become. There are many who wanted him to be bitter, they wanted him to complain he was badly treated, they wanted him to be angry and fall out of love with the game. But he didn’t. He stayed on in management at Wolves, Aston Villa and Watford, then onto summariser and pundit for BBC Radio Five Live.

Director Ken McGill spent a year following Taylor around, given exclusive access few have ever been fortunate to enjoy. The players knew there were cameras around but none necessarily knew it was for a documentary of this kind. The press did not even rumble something was going on. This probably gives us the “cutting edge” which propelled the documentary to the “must watch” status. The phrases Taylor uses have become synonymous with failure or frustration in football. When he watched it back Taylor himself was surprised he had used those words. He was also a little embarrassed about some of the language, which is to his credit as he was aware people close to him would have watched it too.

As I said, he had come close to packing the whole idea in. In fact, McGill was fully expecting him to do so before the Norway game. But with The FA not keen on its completion, Taylor had to smuggle the camera crew into both Norway and Netherlands matches. The Dutch FA had refused entry to the production team so Taylor arranged for them to be kitted out in England tracksuits and they took their place on the touchline. It is those two games which are probably the most powerful as we get a front row seat on the pressures and the nerves an England manager has to endure during a game.

McGill has always been full of admiration for Taylor over the whole project. He invited him over to view the finished product when Taylor was no longer England boss, and he said there was no backing down from the man, despite the uncomfortable nature of the footage. Taylor fully believed it proved how unforgiving and indeed, impossible the job was and how much it hurt him not to see it through to a World Cup.

Many would have tried to talk him out of going through with the programme but Taylor stubbornly refused to listen. Before kick-off in Oslo, Lawrie McMenemy looked down at the camera in front on him and warned Taylor he’d hang ‘himself with that’. Years later McGill revealed McMenemy threatened to sue him over the screening of it, which the director found amusing as he’d seemed to go out of his way to be in it as little as possible. Phil Neal came in for almost as much criticism as Taylor did. Branded a “yes man”, for continually repeating Taylor. At the time Neal was the most decorated English footballer and had served his country with distinction, winning fifty caps. In management he struggled to find his feet in posts such as Coventry City, Manchester City and Cardiff City. He says he may never live down the documentary and is certain it affected people’s judgement for management positions he applied for afterwards.

If it’s any consolation for the main players in this drama, it was the inspiration for the hit movie, Mike Bassett – England Manager. If you found many of the jokes funny in that then it would not have been possible had Taylor showed us how the impossible was impossible.

About the Author

Pete Spencer
Just turned 50. Been Supporting Liverpool since 1976 (Paisley's first title). Write a lot about football from days gone by. There's so much available online about football today and over the past twenty years but incidents from the past often get forgotten