farewell to graham taylor

Remembering The Unlikely and Endearing Friendship Between Graham Taylor and Elton John

When Elton John took over at his beloved Watford, he needed a manager who could fulfil his ambitions. That manager was Graham Taylor, and they became firm friends as a result.

by Will Magee
13 January 2017, 12:31pm

PA Images

When it was announced that Graham Taylor had died, one of the most touching tributes came from a British pop icon. Writing on his personal Instagram, Elton John said: "I am deeply saddened and shocked to hear about Graham's passing. He was like a brother to me. We shared an unbreakable bond since we first met." Having taken over as chairman and director at his beloved Watford in 1976, Elton appointed Taylor as manager after witnessing him win the Fourth Division with Lincoln City. Together, they would carry Watford, then a Fourth Division side, to heights the club had never previously seen.

By the time he took the reigns at Vicarage Road, Elton John was one of the most famous musicians on the planet. He had already made millions from his first few albums, and in the same year he became Watford chairman he released Pinball Wizard, Don't Go Breaking My Heart and Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word, to massive commercial success and critical acclaim. He was at an iconic stage in his career, all mad fashion statements, resplendent sideburns and increasingly unhealthy cocaine usage, with a smattering of tabloid speculation about his sexuality to boot. In among all the supposed glamour, his decision to get involved with a neglected Watford team stood out in stark contrast to his other endeavours. Watford were an unfashionable side, and Vicarage Road was in a seriously shabby state. Nonetheless, Elton had high hopes for the club, and needed a manager who could fulfil his ambitions on and off the pitch.

While there were many who questioned Elton's motives in football, with some suggesting his involvement was an attempt to further his popular appeal, his actions over the course of the next decade would prove his love of Watford to be entirely sincere. Having been born in Pinner and grown up locally, Watford were the natural team for Elton to support, even if they had never competed at a higher level than the second tier. Once he gained the financial means to do so, he was determined to change that, and would spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on the club until his decision to sell up in 1987. Likewise, upon taking charge of Watford, he would make an inspired decision in employing Taylor to develop, shape and manage the team.

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If it now takes considerable imagination to picture Elton John talking tactics with Taylor, it is practically fantastical to picture him striking up a rapport with Don Revie. Nevertheless, it was the gruff former Leeds United manager who recommended Taylor for the Watford job, convincing the 'Rocket Man' to give the promising Lincoln boss a go. Taylor received an offer to manage West Brom in the First Division at around the same time he was approached by Elton, but was so impressed by his prospective new chairman that he opted for Watford regardless. Though it surprised the punditocracy at the time, it would turn out to be a decision of similar merit to Elton's own.

From the start of their time together, Elton and Taylor struck up a fruitful partnership. Over the course of the next few seasons, their professional relationship would evolve and see them become firm friends. Though Taylor was from the rough and ready world of seventies football, Elton from the rather more liberal sphere of the performing arts, their personalities somehow chimed harmoniously, with Taylor's renowned affability and honesty no doubt a huge factor in getting them off on the right foot. While Elton was a notoriously mercurial character, he clearly had a professional respect for Taylor that served as the foundation for genuine camaraderie. While it might not have been apparent to outside observers, the venn diagram of their two personalities overlapped considerably, and it was on that underlying common ground that a productive friendship bloomed.

Of course, it helped that Taylor got off to a flier in his first season at Watford. He didn't stop there, in fact, and the club would soon be on an upwards trajectory that seemed practically unstoppable. Backed robustly by his musical benefactor, Taylor won the Fourth Division at the first time of asking, losing only five games as a previously rickety Watford side romped to the title with practical ease. He had led the team to consecutive promotions by the end of the 1978/79 season, when they finished runners-up in the Third Division and missed out on top spot by a single point.

When Taylor first joined Watford, Elton had told him that he wanted to take the club into Europe. In the end, it took him five years to get them to the First Division, and they were playing UEFA Cup football the following campaign. Having taken three years to get them out of the Second Division, Taylor's first season in the top flight saw Watford finish a magnificent second. While they ended up 11 points behind an imperious Liverpool side, they had beaten Bob Paisley's men at home, while also recording famous victories over Everton, Tottenham and Arsenal (twice).

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Remarkably, this wasn't even the pinnacle of Taylor's time at Watford. That came in 1984, when he took the club to the final of the FA Cup. Spurred on by the likes of John Barnes, Kenny Jackett, Les Taylor and Mo Johnstone, Watford navigated tough competition on their way to the final, which was watched by a crowd of 100,000 at the old Wembley Stadium. Overcome with emotion and pride in the build-up, Elton famously welled up on camera when the Watford end joined in the traditional chorus of Abide With Me.

Heartbreakingly for both chairman and manager, Watford would lose to Everton that day, downed by a side who would go on to win the title the following season under the guidance of club legend Howard Kendall. Nonetheless, despite the setback, Elton would later cite the final as one of the proudest days of his life. Taylor would preserve Watford's First Division status over the next few seasons, and even take them to the semi-final of the Cup in 1987, only to lose to Tottenham Hotspur in the midst of a chronic injury crisis. Still, it would never get better than that FA Cup final, when Watford came so close to claiming the first piece of major silverware in the club's history.

Ahead of the 1987/88 season, Taylor was approached by Aston Villa, and decided to take on a new challenge. It is perhaps no coincidence that this was the year that Elton sold Watford to businessman Jack Petchey, and so brought to an end a golden era for the Hertfordshire club. Despite their parting of ways, however, Elton and Taylor preserved their friendship. While Taylor had some tough years ahead as England manager, Elton would continue to face sometimes libellous rumours in the tabloid press. As such, they still had much in common, and could bond in particular over being singled out for vicious personal attacks in The Sun.

Speaking of his relationship with Elton in an interview with The Guardian in 2006, Taylor mirrored the fraternal words that his former chairman used to pay tribute to him after his death. "We were close, almost like brothers," he said. "I helped Elton because, whereas there were people around him who never spoke the truth, I told him what I thought. We had an agreement that if he didn't tell me which team to pick, I wouldn't tell him which songs to sing. It worked well."

Meanwhile, in 2009, Elton was invited by the National Portrait Gallery to contribute to a photography display entitled 'Gay Icons'. The premise was that 10 gay artists would select six individuals each, representing their heroes, heroines, and the people who had been their greatest influences. Among Elton's picks, displayed rather incongruously alongside Gianni Versace, John Lennon and Bernie Taupin, was none other than Graham Taylor. Asked why he had included the former England boss, Elton said: "I had been a lifelong Watford fan, and Graham truly made whatever dreams I had for my team come true."