Midweek Muse: Former England manager Graham Taylor’s Impossible Job made even harder by misfortune

Luck was not on ex-Three Lions boss Taylor’s side but the failure to qualify for the 1994 World Cup and the Impossible Job documentary, which followed the fruitless campaign, have come to unfairly define his managerial career, says Tom Simmonds.

The tributes and obituaries following Taylor’s sad and untimely death last week have focused on his outstanding achievements as a club manager but his national tenure remains harshly judged. He built up Watford, taking them from the Fourth Division to the First; a journey which culminated in them finishing runners-up to a great Liverpool team in 1982/83 and reaching the 1984 FA Cup Final.

From there, he moved to an Aston Villa side down on its luck in 1987, having been relegated from the top flight. The decision to appoint Taylor was one of chairman Doug Ellis’s most shrewd moves. Villa secured automatic promotion back to the top flight in 1987/88 and were only denied the title by Millwall’s incredible late run of seven straight wins in their last eight games.

Perhaps Taylor’s greatest achievement that season was to get many of the team who had played in the relegation season, including Nigel Spink, Martin Keown, Tony Daley and the late Paul Birch, to help restore Villa to the top flight. Emerging talents such as a young David Platt and Scottish goal machine Alan McInally completed a spine which was to serve them well at a higher level.

After surviving comfortably in 1988/89, Taylor helmed a team which finished second to Liverpool for the second time in 1990/91 but it went far closer to winning the league than his Hornets did. Villa were top of the league in late February and, but for a horrible late-season collapse, they would have been crowned champions.

On the back of that run, Taylor was the obvious candidate to succeed Bobby Robson as England manager and, what was forgotten amid the vitriol and mockery thrown his way, is just how unlucky a national boss he was. Yes, he presided over a largely ordinary team, over-dependent on Platt’s ability to arrive late in the box for goals. Yes, some of his selections were puzzling at times but had a couple of incidents gone his way, the Sun’s “Swedes 2, Turnips 1” headline might never have been written.

Take England’s Euro 92 campaign. They went out in the group stages of a poor tournament – which was stripped of its best team by Yugoslavia’s expulsion – after two goalless draws. Firstly, they drew a blank with eventual winners Denmark and then with France but it could have turned out differently had Stuart Pearce’s free-kick not crashed off the underside of the crossbar.

Had England been the beneficiaries of that decision, the 2-1 defeat by hosts Sweden would not have the same magnitude. Subbing striker Gary Lineker for Alan Smith when he was one goal from equalling Bobby Charlton’s goal record is a tactical decision some fans never forgave him for. England’s performance was poor and Platt’s fourth-minute goal came too early for the Three Lions to hold out. But how many times since have England wilted under that sort of pressure at a major tournament? That suggests there was a bigger problem than Taylor’s decision-making at play, even in 1992.

It was the qualifying campaign for the 1994 World Cup that would define his England reign. Three things cost him dearly. The first was Kjetil Rekdal’s late 30-yard wonder strike for Norway to nick an undeserved 1-1 draw in England’s opener at Wembley. The second blow came when 2-0 up against the Netherlands at the national stadium in late April. Dennis Bergkamp sparked the Dutch comeback with a typically magic goal before Marc Overmars’s preposterous dive was bought by referee Peter Mikklesen. Peter van Vossen converted the penalty to hand England’s main qualification rivals an improbable, and crucial, point.

This set up the final, and most famous, twist of the knife. Ronald Koeman’s unpunished professional foul on Platt in a winner-takes-all qualifier in Rotterdam was a sickener after the Everton boss had put the Dutch ahead with a free-kick before Bergkamp sealed on a 2-0 win. The incident, which prompted Taylor’s famous “The referee’s got me the sack” rant at a linesman, was forever to be his ‘what if?’ moment.

How England would have fared in 1994 is a moot point. Given their inglorious 2-0 defeat to the US in a friendly in 1993, it could be argued that they would have wilted in the heat. However, even a non-vintage England side could have made some fair progress in a tournament in which the two best teams in it – Romania and Argentina fought each other to the death in a second-round classic which took so much out of that magnificent Romania side that they fell to the prosaic Swedes in the quarter-finals.

Remember that the tournament was won by an extremely average Brazil side who just happened to have a brilliant goal poacher in Romario. They beat an Italy team that had lost to Ireland and almost lost to Nigeria in round two, having been dragged that far by Roberto Baggio’s otherworldy ability.

There was no real outstanding side at the sharp end of the 1994 World Cup – teams largely progressed by virtue of individual attacking brilliance (Bulgaria’s run to the semis was enabled almost entirely by Hristo Stoichkov). While Taylor’s England were certainly not an outstanding team, it would have been interesting to see how they would have fared in that field if given the chance.

Follow Tom on Twitter on @TallulahonEarth

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