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Monday, 17 December, 2018

A spell cast by the magic wand of money

Rocket man Elton John's deep pockets paved Watford's road to success

Sir Elton John at the unveiling of the stand named after him at Vicarage Road
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A fairy tale is often the story of a poor maiden and a rich prince. A football fairy tale is like every other. I thought of this when I read about Watford and Elton John in Graham Taylor’s autobiography.

Taylor died a year ago. Shortly before he died he finished a book that has been published as Graham Taylor In His Own Words. It is one of the most beautiful books you could read on football or any other subject. More on that elsewhere.

Pop star Elton bought Watford in the 1970s and asked England manager Don Revie who was the best young manager in the Football League. Revie said Taylor, who had won what was then the Fourth Division with Lincoln.

Elton offered Taylor £20,000 a year to manage Watford, who were still in the Fourth Division. That does not sound like a lot of money today but it was more than double what Taylor had been offered to manage West Brom in the First Division.

Elton invited Graham for an interview at his mansion in Windsor. Graham took his wife. They were greeted by Elton’s mum. It is one of many lovely scenes in the book.

Graham realised that Elton was a real football fan who had supported Watford since he was a boy. Graham asked Elton what he wanted to achieve.

“I’d like to get into Europe.”

“Okay. What do you think it will cost you to do that?”

Elton turned the question round. How much did Graham think it would cost?

“Well, I don’t think you’ll get much change out of a million pounds.”

“Right, we’ll give it a go.” Elton stretched out his hand.

Taylor guided Watford from the Fourth Division to the First Division. They were runners-up in the top division in 1982-83 and played in Europe in the Uefa Cup in 1983-84, when they were also runners-up in the FA Cup.

Taylor said that to get to the First Division Watford spent £750,000 on transfer fees. Early on that journey they broke the Third Division transfer record. Better players are paid more so the wage bill will have gone up.

Income, though, would have risen with attendances as Watford rose through the divisions. To make spectators feel welcome, however, Elton spent a lot of money on ground improvements. Taylor concluded: “Elton had put a lot more than a million into Watford Football Club.”

Taylor was a bright young manager who would have reached the top anyway. He turned down the chance to manage in the First Division to join Watford. But he would not have got there with Watford without Elton’s money.

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There have been other football fairy tales. Steel tycoon Jack Walker enabled Blackburn to win the Premier League. Software billionaire Dietmar Hopp has enabled Hoffenheim to rise from local competition to the Bundesliga. And so on.

Every football fairy tale, though, involves a rich man pouring money into a previously poor little club so they can buy better players and get better results.

The romance is that a small unnoticed club achieve success. They achieve it, though, in the same way as others.

Money can’t buy you love, the Beatles sang when Elton was still a teenager. It can buy success for what you love.

No harm in judging Taylor book by cover

On the front of In His Own Words there is a photo of Graham Taylor. There will be other pictures in the family album in which he is better posed, other pictures in which his shirt goes with his jacket. But none that would have looked better on the cover of the book. Taylor has a glorious grin.

Graham Taylor In His Own Words is, as I have said, a beautiful book. It is spirit-lifting and life-enhancing.

There are some stories in which another person does not come across well. More often than not, Taylor tried to think of a good reason why they might have behaved in that way. He assumed they were a good person then tried to think of an explanation for why a good person might have said or done such a thing.

How many autobiographers do that?

Some of the most interesting bits of the book tell of Taylor’s life as a lower division full-back in the 1960s. He conveys movingly what it was like to be a young man, and then a young husband, earning an average wage but on short contracts.

Taylor left sixth form in Scunthorpe when Grimsby offered him a one-year contract. During that year he was given no feedback on how well he was doing. He feared that his dreamed-of career as a professional footballer would end after 12 months. When the manager offered him another 12 months he went out to the car park and cried.

Because he had short contracts banks were reluctant give him a mortgage – even when Grimsby sold him for £4,000, which was more than he paid eventually for a house near his new club in Lincoln.

Two of a kind despite their differences

Johan Cruyff died in March 2016, ten months before Graham Taylor. They had a lot in common, which might surprise you. More than the fact that both wrote a fascinating autobiography. Cruyff’s is called My Turn. It is very different from Taylor’s but also brilliant.

Both believed that football should be entertainment and that managers and players should try to make supporters happy. Cruyff wrote: “The spectators had been working all week; we had to entertain them on their day off with fine football, and at the same time get a good result.”

Both believed that the best way to entertain and win was for players to attack and try to score goals.

And both believed that the best place to start an attack was as high up the pitch as possible. So they told their players to press near the opposition goal. Taylor wrote: “A lot is made now of the pressing game but it’s not a new thing. We were doing it at Lincoln in the 1970s, and it wasn’t new then but it was as effective then as now.”

They might have disagreed about what to do next, though Cruyff would have seconded Taylor’s objectives of moving the ball as near to the goal as possible and shooting as often as possible.

They both believed that in football small changes can make a big difference. When Taylor was a young manager scouting players he would watch them from behind the goal, from the back of the stand on the halfway line, and from everywhere in between, because from different angles he could spot different things.

He also told his players to start a match as if they were losing. All teams play better when they are losing but have you heard any other manager draw the simple and obvious conclusion, which is to play as if you are losing even when you are not?

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Taylor was a bright young manager who would have reached the top anyway. But he would not have got there with Watford without Elton’s money
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