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If you aim for the sky then you may hit the ceiling

If you are a fan of Watford, Aston Villa or Lincoln City or just football in general you will be shocked and saddened by the news of the death of Graham Taylor at the age of 72.

He was a remarkable manager. He took Lincoln City from the Fourth to the Third Division. He took Aston Villa from the Second Division to runners-up in the First. He took England to the 1992 European Championships and successfully kept them out of the 1994 World Cup.

But it was with Watford he had his greatest success. Teaming up with Elton John in 1977 he quickly won promotion to the Third Division. Shortly afterwards he gave a talk at my old school. In the Q&A one of the cheekier boys asked him when we would be in the First Division. How we laughed. It was unthinkable. Not going to happen. Taylor replied that if you aim for the ceiling your feet won’t get off the ground but if you aim for the sky then you may hit the ceiling. Four years later having smashed through the ceiling, roof and lower troposphere we were indeed in the First Division making monkeys out of the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool. [What’s changed? I hear you ask.] In 1983 Watford were the second-best team in the entire country. In 1984 they got to the final of the FA Cup.

For the benefit of North American readers unused to the joys of promotion and relegation the equivalent of all this might be the Montreal Expos winning the World Series or a Canadian team winning the Stanley Cup. Or, if you’re not interested in sport, somebody without political experience, a coherent philosophy, tact, media savvy or plausible hair becoming President of the United States. As I said: not going to happen.

Taylor even returned to Watford in the 1990s once again taking them from the Third to the First Division (or Premier League as it was by then known).

There were a number of secrets to his success. One was fitness: it was essential that his teams could keep going for the full 90 minutes. Another was the employment of the sublimely-talented John Barnes and the sublimely-passionate Luther Blissett at a time when many of the big teams were reluctant to field black players. Another was going back to the stats and working out that the traditional English long-ball game was by far the most effective. This was indeed fortunate as to attempt to pass the ball on the notoriously glutinous Vicarage Road pitch of the 1980s was to engage in cruelty to spherical objects.

On Saturday, Watford are playing at home. The club and fans will attempt to honour Taylor’s memory – many already have via the #thankyougt hashtag. But it will be difficult. Graham Taylor was a remarkable manager – and by all accounts – a true gentleman. Watford owes him a huge debt.

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12 comments to If you aim for the sky then you may hit the ceiling

  • Cal Ford

    ‘Saddened’ sure, but why ‘shocked’? He was 72.

  • Life expectancy in UK is about 80 for a man, so he did pop his clogs a bit early.

  • George

    @Cal Ford

    For a prosperous person in a Western country with no apparent major health issues, 72 is a very young age to die. So shock is appropriate.

  • auralay

    “fitness: it was essential that his teams could keep going for the full 90 minutes. ”
    You’ve rather shocked me here. In my naivety I would have expected this to be the first priority for any manager!

  • George

    Further to Perry’s point, life expectancy for a UK male is 79.4 at birth.

    However, life expectancy for a UK male at 70 is a good deal higher, at 84.9, which makes death at 72 even more premature.

  • Mr Ed

    Any individual death is not ‘premature’ if it is ‘natural’, such as in this sad case. No one knows where they lie on the notional bell curve, as Steve Winwood sang ‘We’re written on wind, that’s a lot to haul‘.

    Mr Taylor always struck me as a gentleman in a sport with more than its share of rogues.

  • Cal Ford

    Dying ten-odd years younger than the average is shocking? Hardly. Dying at 22 is. Hell, even dying at 42 is in a way. But not 72.

    >You’ve rather shocked me here. In my naivety I would have expected this to be the first priority for any manager!

    Team sport was a bit different in the 70’s, especially those sports traditionally seen as primarily skill-based. Especially those with a thriving pub culture. And it’s not like footballers made a lot of money in those days.

  • bobby b

    Life expectancy for a UK male at age 106 is at least 106.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    It was a shock to me that Mr Taylor has died of a heart attack. But of course we are not privy to his medical history and who knows what can happen.

    He was certainly a fine club manager, and suffered as England coach, but I get the impression that many of the players around him liked him. He was given a hard time for subsituting Gary Lineker, a footballer who has, let us say, a lot to say for himself.

    I am saddened to hear of Mr Taylor’s passing. From all accounts he was a gentleman, a decent person who genuinely cared about his players and was a good person who kept his sense of humour. RIP.

  • Paul Marks

    May he rest in peace.

  • Rich Rostrom

    the equivalent of all this might be the Montreal Expos winning the World Series or a Canadian team winning the Stanley Cup.

    A better analogy would be an NCAA Division III football team, like Frostburg State or North Carolina Wesleyan, rising to play in the Rose or Orange Bowls against Texas A&M or Notre Dame.

  • NickM

    He should not have taken Lineker off against Sweden. But everyone has a cock-up or two! My epicosity in the field involved confusing the real and imaginary on the Argand plane and failing to find the poles in a complex function. In an exam in ’93.

    He was an exceptional club manager but less so internationally but then very few have been any good mainly I suspect because the players can’t be arsed and you can’t exactly buy and sell ’em. And haven’t been for quite some time.

    But if I was a Watford fan this would be sad news indeed. And dare I say, “I would not like that!”