The (Other) Impossible Job: Graham Taylor at Wolves
We are delighted to welcome this morning the considerable writing talents of Rob Doolan, an alumnus of The Seventy Two and purveyor of the wonderful blog The 90s Football Party. Rob trades on twitter under the moniker @ChiefDelilah and his collection of pieces for our sister site – on topics as wide ranging as Chesterfield’s FA Cup run and Chris Waddle’s miserable spell at Burnley – can be enjoyed here. Rob now turns his attention to a man who most certainly ended up not liking his time in charge of Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Unless he has rocked up at somewhere like Oakwell by the time you read this, Fabio Capello currently holds the distinction of being the only former England manager of the past 20 years not to manage in the Championship after leaving his post. Surprisingly few of these forays into the second tier have ended happily, with the miserable East Midlands exploits of Capello’s two immediate predecessors, McClaren and Eriksson, proving somewhat par for the course. It was at another Midlands club where the trend started – and given the experiences of Graham Taylor at Wolves, it’s remarkable that so many of his successors failed to heed his cautionary tale.
Taylor’s status looked to have been damaged irreparably after his calamitous spell in charge of the national team, which was defined by a drab group stage exit from the 1992 European Championships and the ignominy of failure to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. The character assassination he was subjected to by the press, who portrayed him as a hopeless imbecile (and, most infamously, a root vegetable), had been bought into wholesale by many fans across the country, rendering him something of a punchline in English football. It was surprising, therefore, when he took the reigns at Wolverhampton Wanderers in April 1994, just six months after his sacking by the FA, with the remit of guiding the famous old club into what was then known as the Premiership. However, despite enjoying some good times at Molineux, and leading Wolves to their best league finish for 11 years, he would be hounded out of the job within just 18 months – an exit Taylor would describe as his lowest ebb in football – even more so than his experiences at Lancaster Gate.
Taylor himself was more than aware that he would face an uphill struggle to win the hearts and minds of the Wolves support, and in many ways the fact that his England failure was still so fresh in the memory hamstrung him from the outset, with the patience and goodwill customarily granted to new managers thin on the ground. The stench of his England tribulations continued to hang in the air, with reminders constant. Sometimes the ribbing was gentle. Taylor responded jovially to the Molineux faithful’s early chants of “turnip, turnip, give us a wave”, while Oxford fans sang “are we Norway in disguise” as their team destroyed Wolves 4-0 at the Manor Ground in only Taylor’s third game in charge. Sometimes the abuse was considerably nastier – one fan spat in Taylor’s face during a draw with Sheffield Utd – prompting the manager to attempt a citizen’s arrest (“the right thing to do, but not necessarily the sensible thing,” he confessed).
After overseeing an eighth place finish for Wolves during his first month in charge, Taylor would become the first of Sir Jack Hayward’s big-spenders, as the Bahamas–based property magnate provided what football writers are obliged to refer to as a ‘warchest’ in seeking to fashion a promotion-winning team. Taylor brought in a host of players with Premiership pedigree: over a million apiece was lavished on bringing Aston Villa wingers Tony Daley and Steve Froggatt to the club; Don Goodman arrived from Sunderland for a similar fee; Geoff Thomas, capped by England under Taylor, was signed for £800,000; and aptly-named Dutch international defender John de Wolf, who just a year previously had lined up against Taylor’s England, was also brought in from Feyenoord in a real coup. These high-profile, expensive acquisitions had the effect of raising expectations considerably, piling further pressure on a manager that a section of supporters were already ambivalent about.
Where Taylor would be unlucky however, was in the injury crisis that befell so many of his prized new signings. The rapid, exciting Daley was forever on the treatment table, and started just 21 games in four seasons (ironically, he’s now fitness coach at Molineux). Thomas was handed the captaincy, but quickly lost form, lost the armband, and then fell victim to various injuries that would limit him to 54 appearances in four seasons. Froggatt would prove to be a very good signing for Wolves, but on Taylor’s watch he injured himself at Reading in December 1994 and missed most of the rest of the season.
It’s also fair to say that Taylor, at times, made some very strange decisions that only served to further ostracise him from his detractors among the Wolves support. Having spent a lot of money on Goodman, for example, Taylor marooned the powerful striker on the wing initially, and it would be weeks before he would find the net. Taylor was also prone to frequent tinkering with his line up and formation, seemingly never quite sure of what his best team and system was – perhaps unsurprisingly for an England manager who managed to use 59 players in just over three years.
Most unforgivably of all in the eyes of the fans however was his attempt to sell talismanic goalscoring hero Steve Bull. Taylor had never fancied Bull, dating back to his England days, where he put an abrupt end to the player’s international career after it had rather incongruously burgeoned towards the end of Bobby Robson’s time in charge. When Premiership Coventry came in with an offer of £1.5m for the ‘Tipton terrier’, Taylor made it clear that he was happy to let Bull loose. Supporter protests and even a campaign by local paper The Express and Star followed, but in the end it was only an 11th hour change of heart from the player himself that kept Bull at the club.
For all the injury woes and controversy however, Wolves enjoyed a very decent 1994-95 season. They finished as the division’s top scorers, with David Kelly and Bull firing. Port Vale were put to the sword with a hat trick from centre back de Wolf. Southend were smashed 5-0 and Bristol City demolished 5-1. Sheffield Wednesday, then top half regulars in the top flight, were famously despatched in an epic FA Cup fifth round penalty shoot out, which saw Chris Waddle again miss from 12 yards while Goodman converted the winning spot kick.
Finishing fourth in the league, Wolves came up against Bolton in the play offs, but again their luck turned sour. Battering the Trotters at home and striking the woodwork multiple times, they were only able to win 2-1. Then, in the second leg, Bolton’s star striker John McGinlay managed to get away with assaulting Kelly, staying on the pitch when he should have walked and going on to score the winner in extra time. Bolton clinched promotion at Wembley while Wolves could only look on.
That near miss should have provided a platform to build on, but Taylor’s men started the following season badly, and before long the supporters were turning on him in increasing numbers. His tinkering with the side intensified as he sought to recapture the winning formula. Hayward’s public pronouncements that the team’s form was turning his life into a “living hell” hardly helped matters. However, it seemed that whatever magic Taylor had fostered the season before had been well and truly lost. Finally, in November 1995, following a supporter demonstration and just four wins in 16, Taylor tendered his resignation, admitting in an official statement: “a team cannot gain confidence if the board and a section of fans do not have confidence in their manager”.
With Taylor today quite rightly rehabilitated and respected as one of the game’s gentlemen and elder statesmen, Hayward and Wolves players of the time have been quick to praise him. However both played considerable roles in Taylor’s downfall.
Taylor himself suggested that his team lacked bottle under pressure. De Wolf, he said, was signed because he needed “a leader of men” and hinted that his current crop wilted under the weight of expectation: “we lack players who have the mental toughness and the ability to handle the crowd’s expectations. Players who melt away when the pressure is on are no good to me and won’t get us into the Premiership”.
Hayward and Taylor remain firm friends to this day, but the board arguably lost their bottle in bowing to fan pressure and asking Taylor to resign despite him showing he could get results. Stronger leadership might have led to a happier resolution all round. Certainly, this was Hayward’s view, and he would frequently lament the way Taylor’s departure was handled. Perhaps more patience from fans and board alike was required, and perhaps Taylor’s plight at Wolves is a cautionary tale that listening too much to supporter demands can be as dangerous as ignoring them completely. Then again, that’s said very much with the benefit of hindsight, and at the time, there was little to suggest that Wolves’ poor form would come to an end any time soon.
In a strange quirk of fate, Taylor would reach the Premiership five years before Wolves finally managed to get there, taking a Watford team up that cost a fraction of the one he’d assembled in the Black Country. The Midlanders meanwhile, would not learn from their mistakes, as a succession of managers threw good money after bad at the problem to no avail. They even appointed another former England manager, Glenn Hoddle, in 2004 after their eventual ascension to the big time under Dave Jones lasted all of one season. Hoddle’s stint in charge is remembered for little more than drawing a staggering 45% of his games in charge.
With Stale Solbakken, who was floating around the fringes of the Norway squad when Egil Olsen’s side hammered a nail in Taylor’s England coffin, at the helm, perhaps it’s finally Wolves turn to to play “like Norway in disguise”.