When you look back at what Graham Taylor achieved at Lincoln City and Aston Villa, it’s not hard to see why England came calling in 1990. But his most glorious spell in management came with Watford, where he achieved three promotions in five years and then led an inexperienced group of players to second place in their debut season in the top flight. Watford received a lot of criticism for their approach but this was a victory for substance over style for Taylor and chairman Elton John.
An ambitious man, John took over Watford in 1976 and dreamed that the club he had supported as a boy would one day make it to the First Division. He appointed Taylor as manager in June 1977 and as their relationship blossomed into something beautiful his dream came true. Taylor had already impressed as a manager, leading Lincoln City to the Fourth Division title in 1975-76 and breaking records along the way. Back-to-back promotions with Watford only continued his meteoric rise. After three more years in the Second Division, John’s team were playing with the big boys.
Openly admitting to following similar principles adopted by Stan Cullis at Wolves in the 1950s, Taylor offered no apologies about using what many called “kick and rush” tactics. Taylor was forced to defend his system throughout the 1982-83 season but he remained adamant that the Match Analysis approach used by Cullis and advocated by FA Director of Coaching Charles Hughes was the right fit for Watford. In fact, the only time Taylor changed his approach was during Watford’s first season in the Second Division, when they scored just 39 goals in 46 matches and flirted with relegation. He would not waiver again.
Using talented wingers Nigel Callaghan and John Barnes, assisted by robust center-forwards such as Ross Jenkins and Luther Blissett, Taylor’s team ran themselves into the ground and threw bodies forward, which would sometimes prove their undoing. “Getting after the other team is the only way to play,” said Taylor. “I’m not worried about them putting the ball in our net – as long as we get more at the other end. I’d rather win 5-4 than 1-0.”
At a time of falling attendances, often dreary football and crowd violence, Watford’s attacking style and family club ethos should have added up to a tale of triumph but critics, including many opposition managers and players, took any given opportunity to lambast Watford’s style of football. But Taylor and his men had the last laugh. Come May, they finished second in the league behind Liverpool, qualified for the Uefa Cup and accepted a £1m offer from AC Milan for their star centre-forward.
Before the season started, Watford secured a £400,000 deal with Iveco to provide shirt sponsorship over the next three years, but Taylor chose not to add to his squad, keeping faith with the players who had earned promotion the previous season behind local rivals Luton. The squad may have been inexperienced at the elite level – only Pat Rice and Gerry Armstrong had played more than 20 games in the top flight – but the rest of the league were about to discover that their own naivety against Watford’s tactics would be more of an issue.
Taylor’s team started quickly, winning four of their first five matches, as they surged to the top of the table. Armstrong scored Watford’s first goal in the First Division as Everton were easily seen off 2-0; Callaghan starred against Southampton, scoring twice and setting up Armstrong for another as Peter Shilton was beaten four times on his home debut; Swansea and West Brom both adjusted their formations as they tried to cope with Watford’s approach, but to no avail. Strangely, Watford’s only defeat in their run to the summit was at Manchester City, a match in which defender Bobby McDonald played 85 minutes in goal for the home team after Joe Corrigan had dislocated his shoulder.
Watford’s amazing start had shocked many, including Taylor. “I must admit I’m surprised at being up there because I thought there might be a few problems coming to terms with the First Division,” said Taylor, with Brian Clough comparing Watford’s rise to that of his Nottingham Forest team in their successful 1977-78 season. Watford lost 2-0 to Clough’s Forest team – with Luther Blissett missing a vital penalty kick when the score was 1-0 – but things improved a week later when Blissett scored four goals in an 8-0 hammering of Sunderland. Watford also managed to hit the woodwork four times.
Blissett’s dream year showed no signs of slowing. He scored a hat-trick on his international debut against Luxembourg a few months later and finished the season as the First Division’s top scorer with 27 goals. Blissett was frank about his own shortcomings – “I’m a long way off being a Jimmy Greaves,” he said – but like Greaves, Blissett was given the chance to pull on the famous red and black shirt of Milan. Blissett’s time in Italy may not have been the happiest but he enjoyed an incredible rise to the top.
Blissett was not the only player whose reputation grew as Watford climbed the table. Barnes and Callaghan both earned call ups to England U21 squads, with the former working his way into the senior team by the end of the season. Taylor was installed as temporary manager of the England Youth team, although many questioned whether his tactics were the right fit. Taylor endured a torrid time at the hands of the press when in charge of the national team, but responding to constant criticism during the 1982-83 season must have been draining.
It would also have made the victories that much sweeter. After a 1-0 win at White Hart Lane in November, Tottenham manager Keith Burkinshaw criticised Watford’s style. “All they do is help the ball forwards,” said Burkinshaw. “For us to play that way we may as well get rid of Glenn Hoddle, Ricky Villa and Mike Hazard, because you don’t need any sophistication at all in midfield.”
A Barnes hat-trick brought a delicious 4-2 win at Arsenal but Taylor was once again forced to stick up for his tactics. “I felt this time we would sit back and let the result do the talking,” said Taylor as he prevented Pat Rice from conducting a television interview. “It wasn’t my intention to offend anyone but this constant questioning of the way we play is beginning to get a bit much.”
The comments and barbs kept on coming, though. Kevin Moseley, writing in the Mirror, neatly summed up what was perceived as the general attitude towards Watford, calling them the “Wholesalers” as “they don’t need a middleman”.
December proved a tricky month. Losing to Manchester United and Liverpool was acceptable, but a 1-0 loss at Kenilworth Road against Luton was hard to take, even more so after Luton player Paul Walsh offered his own take on Watford before the derby. “If I was just a supporter, I wouldn’t want to watch Watford’s style of play,” he said, although one look at the league table was enough to settle that argument. Watford finished the year in third place after a 2-1 win over West Ham, proving that the ends definitely justified the means.
Watford’s attacking system proved costly at times, as demonstrated in their cup exits during the 1982-83 season. A mad 7-3 defeat at Nottingham Forest in the League Cup was entertaining and enthralling, and a 5-3 extra-time loss against Reading in the short-lived Football League Trophy highlighted the hazardous nature of Watford’s football. Luther Blissett hit the woodwork twice and missed a penalty as Watford lost 4-1 at Aston Villa in the FA Cup fifth round, but Taylor was not for changing: “This is the type of football the public want, with two teams going at each other.”
As with any manager, Taylor had to contend with a few obstacles along the way. Blissett suffered a dip in form due to a foot injury picked up in training on the day after his England hat-trick, with Armstrong and midfielder Jan Lohman both suffering lengthy periods on the sidelines. But his key players – Blissett, Barnes, Callaghan, Jenkins, Steve Sherwood, Rice, Wilf Rostron, Ian Bolton, Steve Sims, Les Taylor and Kenny Jackett – gave Taylor enough resources to survive and excel in the gruelling 42-match league season. No newly-promoted team has finished as high in the top flight since – and Taylor did it without spending all that money from Iveco.