Football’s Impossible Job

“Can we not knock it?”
Graham Taylor


It is seldom that I will write about sport, but when the FA confirmed today that, as expected, Gareth Southgate has been appointed the new England football manager on a permanent basis, I had good reason to do so. You see, a painful memory returned to my consciousness, which I will endeavour to explain and, with any luck, safely exorcise.

Whilst I am quite accustomed to the feeling of complete indifference when new, financially well-compensated, victims are called to the dugout of doom, the news that Southgate has been marked with the number of the beast cast my mind back to that infamous Graham Taylor documentary. I have not seen the film in years, but like a horror flick you surreptitiously watched when you, despite feeling otherwise, really were too young to endure the graphic horror, it sticks with me. I still feel like I could almost paint every scene.

Upon reflection, it quickly became apparent to me that the reason for associating this incredible disaster film with Southgate, aside from the obvious fact that the film covered Taylor during his time in purgatory as England boss, is because, like Taylor over two decades before him, this is the appointment of a seemingly likeable, decent man to the role of official, back-page villain. In fact, not content with bashing him in the sports page, the woebegone Taylor was roasted on the front page as well, with a turnip for a head, no less. A turnip!

For anyone who has not seen the unintentionally epic documentary film to which I refer, I would best compare it to the cringe humour style of The Office. The only difference with the humour is, rather importantly it must be said, the comedy in the Taylor documentary was completely unintentional. It is hilarious, it is beyond uncomfortable to endure, but intentional it was not.

Directed by Ken McGill, the 1994 release of Graham Taylor: An Impossible Job pulled no punches in revealing the depths of despair, with only the occasional moment of hope, that is the stark truth of the desperately uneasy existence of an England football manager. Again, if you have not seen it, imagine a film in which Alan Partridge is holding the top job in English football. The 2001 film, Mike Bassett: England Manager, was a satirical comedy, with Ricky Tomlinson playing the eponymous hapless England coach. Funny as it was, and clearly modelled on the Taylor documentary that preceded it, the film could not compare with the real thing, because the real thing was real. All too real.

Taylor genuinely is a good guy. Despite being a football fanatic in my youth, I do not watch a lot of football now, though I have spent many an hour in the car navigating the gridlocked town of Ipswich whilst listening to Taylor on BBC Radio. Indeed, Taylor summarises the game with a degree of excellence which rather belies his lack of success as England manager. In the documentary, Taylor’s warm, down-to-earth personality made the gruesome spectacle of Ronald Koeman’s unashamed cheating and England’s non-existent man-marking all the more painful to endure. Taylor’s mental state was fractured and unravelled in a disconcertingly pornographic fashion. Indeed, the film is littered with the anguished exclamations of a good man in a cruel world, including “Can we not knock it?”, “That referee’s got me the sack.”, and, most infamously, “Do I not like that?”.  I cannot imagine that Taylor has ever waited in line at Asda without at least one bright spark barking the latter phrase at him.

Now, I am sure if it were Sam Allardyce being skewered in such an unforgiving manner, the feeling of discomfort would have been nicely substituted by one of joyous Schadenfreude. Let it not be said that the mere concept of the self-aggrandizing Allardyce having to make do with a rather brief occupation of the hot seat was anything resembling a shock. Allardyce was completely, utterly predictably, obliterated by a painfully easy to avoid scandal, which we all saw coming. It was just a matter of how long it would be until he was secretly filmed on a shaky camera uttering something silly in his customary boastful manner. Not familiar with Big Sam? Imagine Donald Trump as a football manager. But Taylor deserved better than the back-page roasting and any comparisons whatsoever with root vegetables, even the nice ones.

Back to the present, and the latest person to sip ominously from the poisoned chalice is the former England Under-21 manager, Southgate, who is a very different personality than Allardyce. He is reserved and measured, Big Sam is anything but. Much like Taylor, Southgate is one of the good guys. That will of course mean less than nothing when it comes to the press tearing him apart over the inevitable bad results. Regardless, his apparent admirable sense of self-awareness makes him less likely to fall into the trappings of hubris that many a predecessor, including Allardyce, Sven Goran Eriksson and Glenn Hoddle, walked unknowingly in on.

I would thoroughly recommend that neither Southgate nor the FA agree to any fly-on-the-wall documentary for this latest swing on the England managerial misery-go-round. I am quite happy to see cockiness, scandals and ignorance bring down those who pushed their luck too far, but I would not wish to see another good man torn apart in so vivid a fashion. Please, no more nightmares.

Good luck to the man.


Further information

Graham Taylor: An Impossible Job, dir. by K. McGill, (Chrysalis, 1994)


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