The first time I ‘met’ Graham Taylor was one Summer in the early 80s. I had heard that the Hornets trained at Shendish, which was a short walk across the fields from our house. We headed over there a couple of times, while walking the dog, before the golden day when we saw the Watford players streaming on to the training pitch. We were awestruck. As they played a training game, every time the ball rolled off the pitch towards her, my young sister would pick it up and hold it for one of the players to collect. After she had done this a few times, GT gently said, “You can throw it, you know.” She started doing that and the practice flowed more smoothly. Then my attention switched to Nigel Callaghan who was practising his ball skills when our Border Collie decided to challenge him. When I look back on that day, I am horrified. We were a group of children disrupting their training session, and GT would have been totally justified in sending us packing, but he didn’t once make us feel as though we shouldn’t be there. That was just one of a number of encounters that I have had over the years with Graham Taylor that have always left me walking on air and adoring the man. When I heard about his death this week, I felt as though I had lost a favourite uncle and discussions with fellow fans and those throughout the football world who had been lucky enough to come into contact with him showed that my feelings were shared by many.
Suddenly Saturday’s game with Middlesbrough had taken on a great significance and the tickets that were unsold as of Thursday morning were soon snapped up.
As always on an important football day, I took some time choosing my outfit for the game. I could not find my “Golden Boy Forever” t-shirt, but did find “Elton John’s Taylor-made Champions” from 97-98. I also took my Cup Final replica shirt to wear in the ground so that both eras were covered.
I left home earlier than usual so that I could get to the Hornet Shop to sign the book of condolence before the crowds descended. On the train journey, I listened (again) to the 5Live tribute show. The outpouring of love was just remarkable and it was wonderful to know that it wasn’t just Watford fans that loved the man so much.
As I walked along Market Street, I saw a friend coming in the opposite direction. No words were exchanged as we met, just a heartfelt hug. That would become a feature of the day. I arrived at the ground at about 11:30 and took a while to admire the tributes that had already been left before joining the queue to sign the book. It was lovely to see that the display in the windows of the club shop had been changed to feature shirts and tracksuits from GT’s time at the club.
We took up residence at our usual table in the West Herts which soon filled up with the regulars and with some more occasional visitors, each arrived looking bereft and was greeted with warm hugs. The build up to the Spurs v WBA game was being shown on the televisions and I was not taking much notice when suddenly I became aware of the sound of clapping. I looked up to see Graham Taylor’s picture displayed on the screen at the ground and the players and crowd taking part in a minute’s applause. All conversation in the bar ceased and you could have heard a pin drop until the referee’s whistle went on the television when we applauded the gesture and went back to our previous discussions.
I am usually guilty of getting to my seat just in time for Z-cars, but on this occasion, I wanted to be there early to pay my respects, particularly as Graham’s family would be in attendance, which I thought was incredibly brave given how recently they had lost him. But, as Pete pointed out, “It’s what Graham would have done.” As we got to the ground, the size of the crowds and the floral tributes had grown considerably since my earlier visit. So many flowers and shirts with lovely messages and each of the bollards had Watford scarves tied around them. Arriving inside the Rookery I saw yet another queue to sign the condolence book which brought tears to my eyes.
On the way through the concourse, I bumped into more and more friends, all in or on the verge of tears. As we reached our seats, GT’s picture was on the big screen and “There’s only one Graham Taylor” was rolling across the electronic hoardings and being sung by the crowd. Then I noticed other little details such as the black corner flags and that Harry Hornet was wearing the CTX shirt from the 97-98 season. As we waited for kick-off, they were playing GT’s favourite songs and the big screen was showing highlights from past triumphs. They then cut to show Rita, Joanne and Karen in the GT stand and I lost it completely. Just before the teams came out, they played GT’s favourite song which is Buddy Holly’s “Raining in my Heart.” If there was anybody in the ground who had kept it together until that point, I expect that finished them off.
As Z-cars was played and the teams came on to the pitch, the big screen was showing GT leading the team out at Wembley on cup final day. The 1881 had arranged a foil display and as we held them up, I managed to catch a glimpse of the big screen. The design GT on a yellow background was just perfect and those holding them were loudly singing “There’s only one Graham Taylor”. The pre-match tribute continued as the foils were lowered and the legends flag was displayed in the centre of the Rookery.
There had been some discussion before the game about whether a minute’s silence or applause was the most appropriate. Tim Coombs closed the discussion with the statement that, at the family’s request, a minute’s applause would be held. This had the benefit of allowing all in the ground to belt out “One Graham Taylor”, at least those who were capable of chanting through the tears. It was wonderful to see that the Middlesbrough fans joined in with both the applause and the singing.
After all that, it was easy to forget that a game was taking place. Team news was that Mazzarri had made five changes from the Burton game with Gomes, Prödl, Behrami, Holebas and Okaka coming in for Pantilimon, Cathcart, Mason, Sinclair and Ighalo. So, the starting line-up was Gomes; Kaboul, Prödl, Britos; Kabasele, Doucouré, Behrami, Capoue, Holebas; Deeney and Okaka. Returning loan signing, Tom Cleverley was on the bench.
Watford had a great chance to open the scoring in the 9th minute as Capoue went on a run, a defender attempted a tackle but the ball rebounded in the direction of the goal, Etienne continued his run while the ball took an age to drop, sadly the Frenchman’s first touch was poor and Boro keeper, Valdés, had time to save at his feet. At the other end, a ball into the box was headed down to Stuani who poked it home but, much to the relief of the Watford fans, the flag was up for offside, so it didn’t count. The next action of note was on the 26th minute as Okaka nodded the ball down for Doucouré, whose lovely strike was blocked by Valdés. Soon after, the same players combined again as Okaka broke forward and fed Doucouré whose shot was blocked, a cross back into the box was just missed by the head of Okaka. The Italian launched another attack, beating two players before putting in a cross that Chambers cleared just before Deeney could connect. The visitors threatened again as a ball was flicked into the Watford box and Stuani chipped over Gomes but, thankfully, also over the bar. A guy near the front of the Rookery stood up to remonstrate with the Watford keeper who, to everyone’s surprise, gave the fan a piece of his mind. Just before half time, some more good work from Okaka allowed Doucouré to try another shot but, again, it was just over the bar.
There were boos at the half time whistle. It had been a poor half, although Watford had the better of the chances.
I felt very sorry for the children taking part in the half-time penalty shoot-out in front of the Rookery as all attention was on the former players gathered on the side of the pitch being interviewed by Tim and Emma. Ian Bolton, Les Taylor, Nick Wright, Allan Smart, Tommy Mooney and Luther Blissett all spoke about the great man and, as he has done a number of times this week, it fell to Luther to pay the most perfect tribute, “He is the greatest man I’ve known.”
The second half started with a great chance for the Hornets, but Kabasele headed Capoue’s cross just wide of the near post. The home side had another half chance as a free kick from Capoue was headed goalwards by Okaka, but Valdés dropped to make the save. At the other end a Prödl clearance found Fabio who forced Gomes into a flying save.
Capoue should have opened the scoring with a lovely curling shot that was just wide of the far post. On 65 minutes, Gomes had to be replaced after picking up an injury when he fell awkwardly making a save. Pantilimon took the field to chants of “Mackem reject” from the Boro faithful. At the same time, the visitors brought Gestede on to make his debut in place of De Roon. The substitute keeper’s first test came from a free kick that he gathered safely. At the other end, Deeney played the ball out to Kabasele whose cross was headed just wide by Doucouré. At this point (the 72nd minute) another minute’s applause started with the accompanying chants for Graham Taylor, again the Boro fans joined in. Watford’s next substitution saw Tom Cleverley making his second debut for Watford in place of Behrami. The Watford fans were screaming for a penalty as Okaka battled with a defender in the box before being pulled to the ground. Instead, the referee awarded a free kick to the visitors and showed Okaka a yellow card. Boro substitute, Gestede, tried his luck from 25 yards, but his shot flew over the bar. Watford’s substitute had a much better chance and we were already on our feet celebrating when Cleverley’s shot rebounded off the post, Capoue’s follow-up cleared the bar. Nothing was going our way.
Deeney had a great chance in the last few minutes as he ran on to a lovely ball over the top from Cleverley, with only Valdés to beat, the keeper stuck his leg out and the shot deflected wide of the far post. From the corner, Prödl headed goalwards, but Valdés was able to make the save. Watford’s final substitution saw Zúñiga take the place of Holebas, who took an age to leave the field, much to the displeasure of the Watford fans. Watford had one final chance from a corner in time added on, but Kabasele’s header was saved. There was just time for some handbags as Fabio and Deeney clashed after Britos had been booked for a foul on the Middlesbrough man. So a disappointing game ended goalless.
There were a number of complaints after the game, but we had a considerably improved second half and had made enough chances to have won the game easily. There were a number of positives for me. There had been some good signs from Okaka. Doucouré had an excellent game playing as the box-to-box midfielder that we had been promised. Capoue was much improved with some good deliveries from set pieces and a couple of decent chances himself. Finally, it was nice to see Tom Cleverley back, he made some lovely touches and almost grabbed the winner. Off the pitch, the fans had been magnificent, both the 1881 for the pre-match displays, which were remarkable given the short time that they had to organize them, and the fans as a whole for singing Graham Taylor’s name for most of the ninety minutes. I hope that Rita and the rest of the family took a little comfort from the outpouring of love from the fans.
We left the ground through the stand named after the great man, taking the time to remember all his achievements that are commemorated there. We then stopped outside the shop to admire all the tributes that had been left. It was a beautiful display.
Back in the West Herts, the post-match analysis was soon replaced with talk of Graham Taylor. Unusually, perhaps, there were no reminiscences about great games, but all the talk was about encounters with him and the legacy that he has left for the club and the town. We went back to the 80s when football grounds were generally nasty places to be and yet families were flocking to Vicarage Road to watch football in safety on the family terrace that had been built after GT raised money for it by running the London marathon. At away games, we watched football from inside cages, but there were never any fences separating the fans from the players at the Vic. He had also refused to have a covered dugout built until the fans in the Vicarage Road end had a roof. At a time when football fans were treated like criminals, Graham Taylor refused to take this stance. He treated the fans as he would want to be treated and the fans responded in kind. The football club was built in his image and was a wonderful warm place to be.
Many Watford fans have talked this week about how much influence Graham Taylor had on their lives. He was a man of great kindness and integrity who was a great role model to us all. As a fan meeting GT, he had an incredible knack of making you feel that it was his pleasure to be speaking you. He built a football club that still retains the family ethos that he instilled. Last week that club lost its father. We will miss him terribly.