This month 25 years ago one of the most memorable football fly-on-the-wall documentaries was screened as Channel 4 broadcast Graham Taylor: The Impossible Job, covering England’s failure to qualify for the 1994 World Cup…
When Graham Taylor: An Impossible Job was broadcast in January 1994 on Channel 4 under the Cutting Edge banner, what was the main talking point immediately afterwards? Taylor’s sheer fury on the touchline away to the Netherlands, leading to him telling the linesman and fourth official that the referee had “got me the sack”? His exchange with journalist Rob Shepherd in a press conference? His use of some rather memorable rhetorical questions when sat in the dugout (“Do I not like that?; “Can we not knock it?”; “What sort of thing is happening here?”)? Phil Neal repeatedly echoing what Taylor was saying?
No, for while these all moments did not go unnoticed and still get discussed now, above everything the show was making headlines for the amount of swearing it contained. Lots of it, without being bleeped out. The Guardian reported there had been a record 38 f-words in an hour. Taylor, a man who had embraced the family club atmosphere at Watford, was at pains to point out that this was merely the language of the football environment and not how he would communicate in life generally. And in the ensuing years there would be further evidence to back this up, as the likes of John Sitton and Peter Reid repeatedly dropped the f-bomb when the cameras captured the realities of the football changing room.
The incessant foul language coming from the touchline could really be put down to two things – the need to get the message across to players and the excessive pressure the job brought. The nation demanded success and the tabloid press were certainly not making his life easy. Frustration was evident in Taylor’s face and voice as he saw the dream fade away and the hatred grow from certain quarters towards him. Although countless tributes deservedly poured in for him as both as a man and manager when he sadly died two years ago, at the time that his England reign was falling apart he had to contend with constant criticism that could be venomous and personal.
The frequent swearing in the documentary would soon largely be forgotten and accepted as going with the territory. But the show itself continues to be remembered years down the line. Did we actually quite like that documentary? The love-in wasn’t universal, but millions would say we did.
No hatchet job
One misconception about the show is that it was a hatchet job on Taylor. In reality he gave his blessing to the project and was involved in the editing process. Taylor would also later state he was offered the chance to call off the project midway through the qualifying programme. But he felt doing this would have merely given further ammunition to the press pack, as he feared a withdrawal could be interpreted as him doubting England would qualify.
Given he was back in management at Wolverhampton Wanderers a few weeks after transmission and later returned to both Watford and Aston Villa, the documentary can be seen as having little negative impact upon his subsequent career. Taylor would get to introduce a rare repeat of the documentary on ITV4 in 2008, saying there were parts of it that he could now see the funny side of. Not everything though, for the pain of failure would never leave him.
But not everyone in the England party would be so enamoured with the project, particularly his managerial sidekicks. Phil Neal – a man with 50 England caps and numerous major honours with Liverpool to his name – would be portrayed as the archetypal nodding dog, there to simply repeat Taylor’s thoughts. An excruciating exchange in the dugout during the dispiriting defeat away to Norway would see Taylor react to England falling two behind by saying: “Now this is a test.” Neal responded with: “Yeah, it’s a real test.” Most other conversations between the pair that made it into the documentary followed a similar, awkward, pattern. Neal, understandably, would not consider his portrayal a fair one.
And Lawrie McMenemy made little attempt to hide his contempt for the project, criticising the treatment of Neal and claiming he knew nothing about the planned show until midway through the qualifying programme. “We should have been warned of Graham’s decision on the documentary,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I will not go further than to say it was selfish of him to sanction a documentary that worked against a staff that wished him no harm. The full impact of what he had done took some time to emerge.”
Some of the England squad members would not be keen on the documentary going out either. Tony Coton, a man on the fringes of the England side at the time and a player who had a close bond with Taylor from their Watford days, believed the manager was making an error in going along with the project. In his autobiography, Coton described agreeing to the documentary as “Graham’s biggest mistake” and added: “There was nothing positive to be gained from being filmed and wired for sound during the crucial qualifiers in Norway and Holland, but it did open him up for ridicule when things started to disintegrate.”
But Channel 4 certainly would not be regretting the documentary being made. About five million viewers watched the show when it went out, with the numbers boosted by a family-friendly repeat later in the week. It was reported two days after transmission of the original show that 45 calls had been received complaining about the show – but a further 23 had come in praising it. Andrew Culf wrote in The Guardian: “Channel 4 described it as a 2-1 defeat, an outcome Graham Taylor might have considered one of his better results.”
Seeing the funny side
Plenty of viewers would gain some amusement from certain scenes in the documentary, however painful the team’s failure to qualify may have been. “Do I not like that?” would quickly become something of a catchphrase – and this was in an era before social media could spread things as quickly as today. The magazine When Saturday Comes would comment: “This year’s BAFTA award for best comedy programme was sewn up on January 24th, with the transmission of Channel 4’s Cutting Edge documentary which followed Graham Taylor through England’s qualifying games for the 1994 World Cup finals.”
But, even while offering some sympathy for Taylor, the article would conclude: “If he hadn’t been so driven by a need to justify himself, he would surely never have consented to make the film in the first place.” The notion within football circles that Taylor had made an error in going along with making the programme was one that he would struggle to shake off during the remainder of his life, even accounting for the programme’s popularity.
Perhaps the biggest surprise, given how successful the documentary was, is that it nearly never came to be broadcast. Not only were there calls for it to be prevented from going out due to its content – it won’t surprise people of a certain age to know Mary Whitehouse was reported to have written a letter of objection to Channel 4 ahead of the programme airing, given the amount of swearing – but the documentary makers had endured a struggle finding anyone to broadcast it. As outlined in this excellent article in FourFourTwo, it took some persuading by Neil Duncanson of Chrysalis Sport before Channel 4 gave it the green light. It was a decision they would certainly not regret.
A balanced portrayal
The initial feeling at the time was the documentary had portrayed Taylor as a failure. But watching it again 25 years later it seems more balanced. He would, for example, be heard correctly forecasting during the away game in Poland that it was made for Ian Wright to come on and equalise. There are reminders of Taylor’s decency too, including going to visit prisoners, telling David Platt in person that Stuart Pearce would be regaining the captaincy after returning from injury and reprimanding an anonymous individual from the Wembley bench for their language while “talking about another human being”.
While even Taylor’s biggest fans would usually concede he made some mistakes during his reign, they would also tend to put forward some extenuating circumstances behind his failings. And they feature here. A reminder of how key players such as Pearce and Alan Shearer would miss much of the qualifying campaign through injury; that suspensions would strike for the most important games, such as Paul Ince being out for the trip to Norway; and that pivotal refereeing decisions would go against England. That was never truer than the infamous night in Rotterdam away to the Netherlands. It was arguably the biggest match England played during Taylor’s reign – even surpassing the Euro ’92 finals – and it was effectively winner takes all. Either the Euro ’88 winners or Italia ’90 semi-finalists would miss out on a place at the World Cup.
If some performances from England along the way had been disappointing – especially the tepid defeat to Norway – then this was not the case here, the side having a go and looking capable of a notable result in a surprisingly open game. It’s impossible to say for sure, but had Ronald Koeman been shown the anticipated red card for hauling down a goalbound Platt then they may well have triumphed. Even many of Taylor’s critics can empathise with his incandescence on the touchline over the infamous decision to only give Koeman a caution, with his rage growing further when the defender gave the Dutch the lead as they went on to win 2-0.
Taylor knew what would follow, both in terms of further attacks from the tabloid press – the ‘Turnip’ jibes from one particular publication became increasingly tedious and personal – and his inevitable departure from the role. What the film perhaps captures most is the frustration a manager goes through when all his plans do not come to fruition. That was certainly true in Rotterdam and Taylor’s words to the officials would convey his deep sense of injustice.
The documentary starts with Taylor conveying his bitter disappointment that things hadn’t worked out. “For the very first time in my professional career I haven’t achieved what I set out to do and that hurts,” he said. He’d left Lincoln City, Watford and Aston Villa in a much higher position than they had occupied when he had taken over, achieving promotion with all of them. For England to fail under his management would be hard for Taylor to take.
The show certainly underlined the pressure the England job brought – most notably on the touchline in Rotterdam. The ‘Impossible Job’ tag would continually crop up in relation to the role in the years following the broadcast, with the BBC showing a similarly titled documentary about England managers shortly before last year’s World Cup. Taylor knew the job wasn’t going to be easy, but the documentary would confirm the extent to which it was difficult. A job in which troubles were never far away.
Blogging about the history of the England national football team, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.