An Impossible Job

Immediately before Graham Taylor – An Impossible Job was shown by Channel 4 on 24th January 1994, nobody seemed to care about what it said about the England job, Taylor’s aptitude for it or even his reaction to how it all went wrong, as much as how much he swore during the documentary, which seemed to be the only prism through which anyone was willing to see his conduct.

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“The F-word is enough to get any player sent off if directed at an official, but that hasn’t stopped Taylor laughing all the way to the bank” thundered the Mirror‘s Harry Harris, referring to a reported (and denied) £100,000 payment for the manager’s involvement. Mary Whitehouse wrote to then-chief executive of the channel Michael Grade urging him not to show the programme; Broadcasting Standards Council head Lady Howe told the Times late night television was not intended as a free-for-all; and Norris McWhirter, in his role as chairman of right-wing campaign group the Freedom Assocation, actually went to the High Court in a failed attempt to somehow gain an injunction against its progressing. For the record, Channel 4 reported 45 complaints to its duty office and 23 calls of praise. (As 90 Minutes put it, there were 36 fucks, six shits and one wanker, but then they were the only players available at the time)

But in the months and years immediately following its broadcast – with a censored repeat that Friday teatime! – Taylor, with easy-to-reference root vegetable imagery now added to with those five infamous words uttered as Poland attacked, saw it used as another weapon against his character. A Guardian preview of a repeat six months later casually refers to Taylor’s “lack of judgement, style, substance and leadership ability”. Mike Langley, again in the Mirror, took issue with the title, writing “piloting England to World Cups wasn’t impossible for Ron Greenwood and was fairly straightforward for Bobby Robson… it is impossible only if your name is Graham Taylor”, in doing so suggesting he can’t have watched it all that closely if he missed the many references to the post itself being seen as impossible for… well, for the reason that people are paid to refer to you in that sort of way. (Alistair McGowan would later recall taking the Spitting Image Graham Taylor puppet, which he voiced, into a pub around this time and a punter abusing the moulded latex representation as if it were real)

This, of course, is what happens to England managers, people whom we must never be allowed to forget no matter how far they got in the job. The beatification of Sir Bobby masks that the press only really appreciated what they had when he was back home at Newcastle a decade after he left the job – browsing the archives there’s no shortage of broadsheet football writers willing to criticise his very being even in the days after the semi-final. Glenn Hoddle, more successful than most, has only been allowed back into critical discussion in the last two or three years. The last three managers are still far from exoneration.

With twenty years’ grace but also the rise in interviews, candid clips and the inexorable rise of pitchside cameras and mikes meaning we’re almost more shocked at non-abusive managers – offended, in fact, at their lack of “passion” in most cases – we can see things more sympathetically, to a degree. Taylor comes across better than popular recollection suggests, presenting essentially a decent man driven to distraction by a crop not so much bumper as loss leader failed. The Taylor era came immediately before the start of the Premier League coincided with a new brigade of high quality English players – where, say, Carlton “CAAARLTON!” Palmer could be incrementally replaced by Steve Stone and then Jamie Redknapp.

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Taylor, clearly, is by no means that great at the job, though there weren’t many better candidates around at the time. The edit tries to get round an obvious lack of man-management, and his oratory pre-Holland is stirring in its own way, but his failure to explain to Nigel Clough while bringing him on against Norway what a midfield diamond is in basic terms tells something about both his struggle with tactical nous and betrays his heightened emotions in the moment (though I always liked the precise syntax of his preceding instruction “get stripped, son – come and sit in here with me while you are doing that”) There is at least a stand-up nature to Taylor, a decent man searching for dignity in the depths. The facial close-ups as a man already on an emotional edge sees his plans and ambitions crumble due largely to other people goes beyond easy mockery, the real blow-up at the Holland decider not the initial swell of yelling at the ref but his moment of epiphany when he realises Koeman’s non-sending off has not just cost the game but, as he pointedly reminds the linesman, “I’m just saying to your colleague, the referee has got me the sack”. Graham Taylor would never refer to anyone as Stevie G.

Now that every player involved has long retired and all the coaching staff are far out of the game, there’s a grim fascination knowing now what we didn’t in 1994. Ian Wright, although he affects not to notice the cameras, is clearly already in training for a career as a larger than life screen presence. When Palmer, you suspect only semi-humorously, mocked Paul Gascoigne to his face for having “a fucked up knee, a fucked up brain and a fucked up belly”, you instinctively wonder whether he used similar techniques during his own spectacularly unsuccessful managerial career. When Taylor remarked upon Gascoigne’s fitness in terms of “how you refuel” he was criticised for making too much of things, but nowadays you just wonder.

It also illuminates how things move on. Not just in the bit where Graham and the man in the next TV make-up chair make Diana jokes but the realisation that it’s not so long ago that you could have a documentary film where players teased each other on the coach about their respective whistling abilities, Norwegian fans violently shook massive fences right behind the dugout and Peter Swales, already six Manchester City chairmen ago, had an FA job of some stature. Then again, this is the story of an England manager failing to get the press on his side, failing to put together a coherent, reliable squad and not making the best of the flair players at his disposal. Those ring down the years alright.

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Taylor’s father was a journalist and there are signs he at least tries to get them to understand his thinking without pleading for special case status despite what had just gone after the Euro 92 Sweden defeat. Rob Shepherd – then of Today, last seen writing for Mail Online and somewhere in between jailed for assault – has talked about his filmed tormenting in a press conference before the decisive Holland game as a personal embarrassment and a failed attempt at oneupmanship, but viewed here the laughter of his fourth estate colleagues surrounding him and his shit-eating grin throughout as he tries repeatedly to follow up his facile question before abandoning hope and attempting to take it like a man is telling.

Nobody’s made a documentary like this in years, not specifically on England but within top class football. Premier Passions, the Peter-Reid-at-Sunderland swearathon, was made two years later, and attempts have been made to scratch the gold plated surface of Premier League football since; but where Taylor and his players truly lie in the emotional development of football squads remains really unknown. Perhaps that’s why we got Mike Bassett: England Manager, essentially a fictionalisation of An Impossible Job with ‘needs a Beckham?’ written in red pen in the margin. In any case it’s difficult to imagine Roy Hodgson, just as much a manager of the old school as Taylor (and one who did make it to USA ’94), being quite as open to any such offer; and players, with their savvy media training and exclusive advertising deals, would be kept away from boom mikes as much as possible. It’s also difficult to imagine a production team in these days of ‘structured reality’ to be so amenable towards a subject already approached with such oppobrium. That they went and put out a VHS extended edit under the title Do I Not Like That?: The Final Chapter… well, there’s money in surface mockery.


4 Comments on An Impossible Job

  1. WHAT SORT OF THING IS HAPPENING HERE?

  2. I watched this about five years ago for the first time in a decade and with the kind of fresh eyes that weren’t available when it was first aired as part of recent history. Only with that kind of perspective can you note the underlying pathos of the whole thing as we watch the unfolding of one man’s personal career tragedy. The Impossible Job is not the qualifying, it is the impossible job of being a man who is clearly brilliant at his natural level but who was then promoted above his talents and in the process stymied by fate conspiring against him at every turn (the film only ever hints at the selection problems which meant that not once was he able to play his best side in full during the whole campaign). We are allowed to see the flashes of brilliance, such as the training ground set-piece which turns into a goal when replicated in a match, but also are shown a man utterly out of his depth and without any kind of coaching plan B besides “stick Ian Wright on and pray that he scores” after his side have gone behind.

  3. This is the best analysis of my film I have read. Well done. Ken McGill.

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