Watford 0 Middlesbrough 0 (14/01/2017) 15/01/2017Posted by Ian Grant in Match reports.
1. On Thursday morning, unaware of the breaking news, idle curiosity led me to dig up some early eighties albums on Spotify, much-loved during my student days a few years after their release. They sounded distant and diminished, almost comically morose and bleak; they belonged to an entirely different time, both musically and personally, and it was clear during the couple of hours we spent together that we had nothing left to say to each other. A lifetime ago, near enough. Another world. We’ve all moved on.
2. But some things endure. Some things are forever, or near enough. For all that we enjoy watching the clips of yesteryear, were this only about our golden memories of a football team and its manager, it’d be a very different occasion. In the expressions of sadness, pride and remembered joy since the news of his death, it’s evident that the seeds planted by Graham Taylor way back in the late seventies and onwards have continued – and will continue – to grow. That the people who bought into the values he instilled in the club and its surrounding community continue to do so. That the significance of those values in an era of insatiable profiteering is no less than it was in an era of brutal hooliganism.
The idea that a football manager could shape a generation – or one town’s contribution to a generation, at any rate – seems completely preposterous when you write it down. I can imagine Graham chuckling as I type. But you were probably there too, you were probably part of it as well. You know what it meant. If I count the people who showed me how I ought to live my life, what I ought to value and what I ought to aspire to, I get to Graham Taylor very quickly indeed. It’s just there, it requires no thought at all. It’s part of me. I know I’m not alone.
3. This isn’t an easy day for anyone. It comes with the inevitable awkwardness of these occasions, the desire to say it all and the utter impossibility of doing so. We do the appropriate thing: we do our best. The club conducts itself with considerable class, with the restraint and good taste that’s typified this new era. The minute’s applause is intensely moving, almost lifting the stadium from its foundations.
I take reassurance in the fact that he knew, that we told him time and again of our endless gratitude and admiration, that he invariably preferred to graciously acknowledge that adoration before moving onto a proper conversation about something of greater interest. He knew. He got it. Incredibly, it didn’t really change him. But I hope that some kind of comfort is given to his family, to whom we owe almost as much as the man himself.
4. Not an easy day, least of all for today’s crop of players, charged with honouring an occasion of which most can only have a limited understanding. In some ways, a game of football is exactly what you need: something to get lost in, something to carry aloft the songs from the good old days. Elton John’s Taylor-made Army rings around Vicarage Road again, through tears and smiles. In other ways, a game of football is the last thing you need: it’s not as if we can throw four up front and relive those good old days, and the deadening mundanity of a hard-fought mid-winter six-pointer feels distinctly out of keeping with what we wanted today to be about. Squibs don’t come much damper.
5. It quickly becomes apparent that the absence of Nordin Amrabat leaves us with not a jot of creativity. Aware of this, we abandon all interest in passing the ball through midfield – Valon Behrami practically turns his back when possession is with our wing-backs behind him, safe in the knowledge that he won’t be involved until Boro have it back – and thud it long in search of a Deeney flick or, you know, something wherever possible. We were often guilty of over-passing last season, of being content to be tidy rather than incisive; we’ve certainly got that one sorted. It might’ve been kinder just to have given Ben Watson the season off.
Inevitably, we look better when we make progress in wide areas: Jose Holebas can hit a decent cross when afforded the opportunity, Younes Kaboul shows a surprising aptitude for attacking play once he gets through the gears on his occasional forays. Abdoulaye Doucoure, the pick of the midfield, has a drive saved from the edge of the area. At the Rookery end, we’re largely untroubled until Stuani has a close-range poach disallowed for what appears to be a tight offside; he later floats a chip onto the roof of the net when well-placed. Not a game in which you want to concede a cheap goal. Or any goal, come to think of it. Nobody does.
6. Half-time brings chocolate, which tastes almost indecently luxurious in the context of such unsweetened gruel. Of the parade of former players, Luther pays the most heartfelt and touching tribute, the force of his emotions evident in every word. “He was like a father to me. I owe everything in my life to Graham Taylor.” It takes you back to a time when Luther Blissett wasn’t a household name, when all of this magical, wonderful story was yet to unfold. It makes you realise how fragile it all is. How precious.
7. We do more than enough to win the game in the second half, while also failing to do so. It’s a crude assault on the Boro goal, like trying to pick a padlock with a rocket launcher, but it pretty much does the job: we’re a gigantic side and absolutely dominant at set pieces, when we can remember to deliver them rather than trying to be clever. Boro gradually retreat in protection of a point that’s considerably better for them than it is for us, leaving only the threat of it being one of those games where Gestede thumps a header into the top corner in the ninety-third minute. If my memory is to be believed, that’s happened at least four times in the last five years.
We force chances at a steady pace. Valdes saves comfortably from Okaka, Capoue swings a curler very narrowly wide, Cleverley hits the post from a long throw, Deeney breaks clear and is foiled only by a minute deflection as the ball travels under Valdes’ dive. None of it is anything other than agricultural, although Cleverley’s fifteen minute cameo in a supporting forward role suggests some promise of better things to come.
And I have to say that, on this evidence, better things are desperately needed. Yes, injuries. Yes, squad lopsidedness. Yes, I get all of that, I sympathise. Still. You can sustain this kind of football while it’s successful, because none of us care as much about style as we care about winning. But heavens above, it looks ugly as sin without that hazy glow. If you’re going to play like this, if you’re going to abandon aesthetics in favour of brute force, you’d better bloody win. Especially if you’re not going to bother to build a relationship with the supporters.
Thin ice, I suggest.
8. But that can all wait. It’s easy to contrast the past with the present, but nothing will ever match up, let’s face it. In truth, the generosity of the Pozzos to those who built the club before they bought it is uncommon and laudable; there are few people successful enough to buy a football club and yet modest enough not to need to prove how thoroughly they own it by trampling over its history. Today isn’t about them, clearly, but it’s framed by their willingness to cede the spotlight. And when you look more closely, you find those seeds still growing, still branching out: the recent opening of the Sensory Room, for example, feels as if it comes from much the same place, and the same set of values, as the family enclosure once did.
There’s only one Graham Taylor. But there are many of us, and there’s no better tribute than to continue to place the values he instilled at the heart of our football club. And beyond, to continue to make them part of our lives.
Family and community, open and welcoming and inclusive, determined and ambitious, modest and yet proud.
Elton John’s Taylor-made Army.