A wave of optimism swept through the country this summer. The World Cup went surprisingly well for England, who reached the semi-finals for the first time since 1990. Heading into the tournament, there was a refreshing lack of expectation around a squad with few star players and an unassuming manager who had ended up in the role almost by accident.
Gareth Southgate became an unlikely national hero for his affable nature, sense of perspective and considered responses to questions from the press. His waistcoat even briefly turned him into a fashion icon.
Unlike in previous years, this felt like an England setup at ease with itself, and one which wasn’t overburdened by the weight of history and past failings. Nobody was turned into an unwitting scapegoat.
But the media’s relationship with the national team and its manager hasn’t always been so positive – far from it. Although others have received similar treatment, Graham Taylor was on the receiving end of arguably the worst tabloid hounding after being knocked out in the group stage of Euro 92 and then missing out on a place in the World Cup two years later.
The bungled attempt at qualifying for USA ‘94 was chronicled in Ken McGill’s infamous documentary, An Impossible Job. Intended to show the pressures associated with managing the England team, it turned into something far more poignant and affecting as a disastrous campaign unfolded.
“As usual the idea came from a completely left-field notion,” says McGill, the director and editor of the documentary. “No one said ‘Let’s make an important film about the England football manager’. We were trying to put together a series on Britain’s worst jobs and that just happened to be one of them.
“No one was interested in that series but we found out that Graham Taylor was interested in making a film about his job so we started to concentrate on that. The idea was just about what it was like to be him.”
Arrangements were made and McGill and his crew started filming the England squad whenever they met up for international duty, looking at how they prepared for games and dealt with the pressure to perform. They had access to Taylor, his coaching staff and the players, but the initial experience wasn’t as revelatory as they’d hoped. It still felt too distant and comfortable.
All that changed ahead of a meeting with group minnows San Marino at Wembley in February 1993. McGill was able to get permission to film inside the dressing room before and after matches, and in the dugout during, with Taylor and his staff wearing microphones to pick up everything they said. It captured the raw interactions that McGill was after.
“That was a crucial game,” he recalls. “Up to that point we weren’t really getting anything jaw-dropping, no real insights. To persuade them to wear the radio mics was key to making the film work, certainly from a filmmaker’s point of view.
“It was all about getting to know Graham and making him understand that I wasn’t a journalist who was there to do him over, although a lot of people would look at it now and think ‘That was a joke’. That wasn’t my motivation. After a while he realised that the film would be better for it, although later on he probably thought it wasn’t such a great idea.”
Unfortunately for Taylor, the documentary took on a different complexion as England’s campaign went downhill. Comfortable wins over San Marino and Turkey were followed by a 2-2 draw at home to the Netherlands, with the lead surrendered late on. Then came a defining double-header away to Poland and Norway where the mood shifted.
An 84th-minute equaliser from Ian Wright was needed to rescue a point against Poland, before England were completely outplayed in a 2-0 loss to Norway. Having changed formation specifically for that game, Taylor opened himself up to criticism and the press seized their opportunity. The wheels were in danger of coming off.
Although there were other poor results to come, Norway was the turning point. Faith in Taylor had been irretrievably lost, with the manager believed to be out of his depth at international level. He’d enjoyed almost uninterrupted success with Lincoln City, Watford and Aston Villa as a club boss, but there was concern that his methods were outdated and overly simplistic, and that he didn’t have enough experience of dealing with top players. This was the beginning of the end.
“I think the problem that a lot of England managers get is, if they haven’t played at an international level, it can be difficult for them to make a connection with the players,” says McGill. “In other words, ‘I’ve lived it as well son, I know’. Most of the England managers are in that situation. The ones that haven’t been are the ones that have tended to do better. Look at Alf Ramsey, he was an England international. The same with Bobby Robson and Gareth Southgate.”
“I think that makes a difference. Eventually, if things aren’t going well then naturally people start looking for someone to blame. The England manager’s always been the first one to be blamed, whether that’s right or not.”
Taylor couldn’t speak from experience, having enjoyed a modest playing career in the lower divisions that was eventually cut short through injury. McGill feels he didn’t quite get the same level of respect as a result. Things unravelled further after a disastrous summer tour where England lost to the United States and Germany. Calls for Taylor’s resignation intensified.
“It’s a thankless task. You’re trying to do a job and make a difference when there’s this legacy hanging over your head, and also the media pressure that comes with it. It seems crazily out of proportion to me.
“I thought the media treatment of Graham was ridiculously over the top, and it always has been – at least since Alf Ramsey left. That’s when it started to get personal. I made a biopic on Alf Ramsey as well, and once again he’s one of these incredibly honourable guys. Very old school. But he just got treated really shoddily, not only by the media, but by the FA too. They have funny ways of treating their heroes.”
Brief respite came in the form of a 3-0 win over Poland, but then England travelled to the Netherlands for a match that would decide their fate, and ultimately that of Taylor. He watched on helplessly as Ronald Koeman was only booked for a professional foul on David Platt and then scored the game’s opening goal from a free-kick. Dennis Bergkamp added another and Taylor knew his time was up.
His devastation was caught on camera. Stalking the touchline, complaining to the linesman and fourth official about the referee’s performance, Taylor looked a broken man. His dream job had turned into a nightmare and yet more vicious headlines awaited. Shortly before the end he tapped the linesman on the back and memorably said, “I was just saying to your colleague, the referee’s got me the sack. Thank him ever so much for that, won’t you?”
It’s rare to get the chance to see someone’s professional life fall apart like that. Yet such moments of tragedy and pathos are all too common in An Impossible Job, as a fundamentally decent man and manager succumbs to public humiliation at what should have been the pinnacle of his career. It wasn’t what Taylor or McGill had hoped for when they first embarked on the project, although it arguably made for a more significant film.
“I felt pretty bad about it,” says McGill. “I didn’t want things to go wrong. I wanted them to go well. I wanted them to qualify and I was hoping to go with them to the World Cup to make a film about that experience. People might imagine I thought it was great when things went wrong, but that’s not how I felt about it.”
“I thought Graham was brilliant. I loved the guy. He was an honourable man, an honest man, and that’s quite a rarity in football. I liked him immensely. So did his players. They all liked the man – he was a lovely bloke – but it didn’t work out for him. Although you can be nice and do well, as Southgate’s shown.”
With qualification still just about mathematically possible, Taylor stayed on for England’s final game against San Marino, who scored after eight seconds following a mistake by the experienced Stuart Pearce. It felt like everything was conspiring against Taylor, and even though England recovered to win 7-1, the damage had already been done. His resignation was announced within days.
“They had a lot of bad luck. A lot of dodgy decisions, which, if they’d gone the other way, they’d have been in America and we wouldn’t be having this conversation. There were a few things that went wrong that were completely out of Graham’s control, and the players’, to some extent. They were very close to qualifying, that was the thing. There were a couple of incidents that just stopped it. Otherwise it would have been a different story.”
Even after everything he’d endured, Taylor still pressed ahead with the documentary. Once the rough cut was ready, he sat down with McGill to watch it through in case anything needed altering. The only changes he suggested related to other people who he didn’t want to embarrass unnecessarily. “Even then he was being completely honourable,” says McGill.
An Impossible Job was broadcast by Channel 4 on 24 January 1994, less than five months before the start of the World Cup which England had been unable to qualify for. The failure was still fresh in everyone’s memory and the chance to see behind the scenes of the national team was much anticipated.
“It was quite a big deal. It’s still a big deal. It was ridiculous, but at the time it was huge, obviously. For compliance reasons we had to count up all the swear words a few days before transmission, which we’d never done before. And then when you see it in bald facts it looks crazy. So our producer leaked that to the press to get a bit of publicity going. It’s probably still the biggest audience for a Channel 4 documentary. I think it got six million viewers.”
The way the documentary is perceived has undoubtedly changed over time. At first it was the inadvertent comedy that seemed to capture attention. Taylor’s deliberate manner of speaking saddled him with several unfortunate catchphrases – ‘Can we not knock it?’ and ‘Do I not like that?’ chief amongst them – while his coach Phil Neal was mocked as an empty yes man and struggled to find work.
The sense of rubbernecking on a slow-motion car crash is unavoidable as England skid off course and Taylor is painfully unable to regain control. No matter how tempting it might be to look away, it simply can’t be done. After Taylor died last year, the documentary received another flush of interest and many of its more human elements came to the fore, including his touching defence of John Barnes from racist supporters. He cared about his players as people too.
Even after all this time, the legacy of An Impossible Job continues to live on. It showed Taylor at his lowest points and English football journalism at some of its very worst. Although McGill has some regrets about the film’s unintended consequences, particularly the way it affected perceptions of Taylor and Neal, he stands by the story it tells. He also hopes that this summer’s World Cup, and the thawing of relations between the press and the national team, can mark the start of more even-handed coverage.
“It took a bit of time for people to realise that it was a positive film I felt. I think it showed exactly what it was like to be Graham in that period of time, which was the whole point. I was really happy in terms of how it was represented in the end product but the result might have been better for Graham,” says McGill.
“A lot of filmmakers would have been delighted that things went wrong but I wasn’t. I’d spent two years with this guy, going through all the stuff he was going through, and I’d have preferred that he didn’t have to go through that. But there you go. That’s life.
“It’s certainly a document of that time. It’s uncompromising, honest and powerful still. It’s endured really well and it’s shown that it’s still got legs. It’s 24 years ago now and people still want to talk about it. It’s great but I don’t think about it that much. I did a lot of other films but that’s the one that everyone remembers and I’m happy because it’s a good film. I don’t have a problem with that.”