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'I felt f**king ghastly': The story of Graham Taylor and one of the finest sports films ever made

Ken McGill directed and produced The Impossible Job and remains in awe of the documentary’s late subject.

Image: Ross Kinnaird

“ARE WE ALL in here now? Okay, just 30 seconds now. In life there’s so many opportunities and they’re always round about us. But there’s too many people that never see them. There are those people who see the opportunities but they don’t want to grasp it. And then there are the other people, who are generally life’s winners, who see the opportunities and go looking for them and they grasp them. And that’s what you’re facing now on the football field, in’t it? Go fucking take the opportunity. It’s there for you and wring every little bit out of it, okay?”

It’s coming up on 23 years since The Impossible Job was first broadcast by Channel 4. The film, which chronicles England’s ill-fated qualifying campaign for the 1994 World Cup, focuses on Graham Taylor’s role as manager and the intensity that accompanies the position.

In many ways, and rather unfairly, it came to define Taylor for all the wrong reasons. Since his death last Thursday, the film has been heavily referenced. The infamous quotes, the mortifying nature of some of the scenes and that pained sense of inevitability that runs throughout.

But, dig a little deeper and it reveals an intelligent, loyal, brave, honest and principled man – someone completely at odds with the football industry itself.

“It’s a fucking testament to the man”, says Ken McGill, who directed and produced The Impossible Job.

“There’s never going to be another film like it. That’s not me bragging. Some cosmic convergence happened and that film popped out. And people said to me at the time, ‘You’re going to go on from here’. And I remember thinking, ‘I don’t really want to go on from here’. Because at the time, he was getting a hard time about it and I just felt fucking ghastly.

He saw the deal through – like a man. He didn’t turn around and say, ‘I’m not playing anymore’. Instead, it was ‘I made an agreement with that guy’. And in the long run, I think he was totally justified for doing it. Just watch it now”.

It’s a captivating and astonishing film, all the more fascinating for the simple fact that it could never be made today.

But the only reason it was made then was because of Taylor. He wanted warts and all. He wanted the discomfort. He wanted the awkwardness. Because, after all, that’s precisely what the job encompassed.

Source: Lurgs/YouTube

“I don’t think it was about him”, McGill says.

“I think it was about the job. I don’t think he was that egotistical”.

Taylor had taken over a side in transition. Only eight members of Bobby Robson’s 1990 World Cup squad were included in Taylor’s group of 20 for the European Championship just two years later.

England failed to win a game at the tournament and were eliminated at the first stage. Taylor was already under pressure and there were calls for him to be sacked. He could see the job was unique – vastly different to club management – and so, when approached by a fledgling production company called Chrysalis Sports about the possibility of being followed for the purposes of a documentary, Taylor agreed. For him, it would give the wider public a better idea of what the England job was like while also following the side through a successful qualification for a World Cup.

Soccer - England Training - Washington Source: Phil O'Brien

Despite Taylor’s involvement, Chrysalis still didn’t have a TV broadcaster on board. That meant no funding. So, they just began filming anyway. But McGill was quickly frustrated with the footage.

“I was bunched up with all the other crews”, he says.

“And I thought, ‘This is going to be terrible. Do I really want to spend two years doing this?’ It would’ve been boring and staid and not very distinctive. But I met Graham a couple of times and got this instant feeling that I could do business with the guy. We had a connection almost immediately.

The first thing you think about as a director is what mode of expression the film is going to be in and what does the access really mean? For me, the access had to mean a radio mic. As soon as we knew we were doing the film, that’s what I felt. But we were clever and decided that we couldn’t do it immediately”.

McGill waited six months before he brought up the possibility of wearing a microphone to Taylor. It was a game-changer. By that stage, the crew had built up a relationship with management and the players. There was a trust there. And, the mood was positive. England had played two games – a 1-1 draw at home to Norway and a 4-0 win over Turkey.

Soccer - World Cup Qualifier - San Marino v England - Stadio Renato dell'Ara, Bologna Source: Ross Kinnaird

“At that stage, we still didn’t have a commission”, McGill remembers.

“I don’t know how many days of filming we had done and everything was beginning to rack up. I remember thinking, ‘What do we do? Nobody is interested’. I was honest with Graham. He’d ask me, ‘How’s the footage, Ken? Is it great?’ and I’d say, ‘To be honest boss, it’s fucking boring’. And he went, ‘Bloody hell, son’.

“I don’t think he had properly thought about it. And then I put this proposition to him. And, of course, he went ‘Oh, wait a minute. I don’t know’. But I told him that I wouldn’t ask it without him getting a veto of some sort. It wasn’t reasonable to expect it otherwise. Because we hadn’t been commissioned and we were doing it ourselves, I could effectively do what I wanted. So I thought ‘Bollocks to it, let’s go for it’ and he went along with it, knowing that at some point, he could step in. But as the games went on and things went wrong, he still stood by it”.

To many, Taylor turns out to be the punchline of a particularly unfunny joke but lost in the haze of idiosyncratic phrases and scenes of dugout desperation and exasperation are some genuinely riveting moments that show him as a forward-thinking figure and far removed from the Partridge-esque character portrayed in the press.

Tweet by @Mundial Magazine Source: Mundial Magazine/Twitter

Against San Marino at home, John Barnes is subjected to constant boos from England fans. One, sitting close to the England bench, hurls abuse and refers to the winger as a ‘black bastard’. Taylor immediately turns around in his seat.

“Hey, you’re talking about another human being so just watch your language, alright?”

Later in the campaign, with his position as manager under intense scrutiny, he still keeps an appointment to speak with in-mates at Ashwell Prison. He’s asked what one thing he’d change in the structure of English football and the answer shows how sharp and ahead of the curve his football mind was. He responds by saying youngsters were playing too much football and discussed how many were already burnt out due to the frequency of games. That was 1993.

Before the do-or-die clash with Poland, Taylor chats to his assistant, Lawrie McMenemy, about having told Des Walker he was being dropped.

Sometimes I think they’re relieved, y’know? They moan and groan because they’ve got to be seen to moan and groan. They’ve got to say they’re disappointed. But I get the impression sometimes that you’ve done them a favour”.

And there’s the magnificent, spine-tingling speech to his players just before they go out to face the Netherlands.

It’s illuminating stuff but, even now, is rarely mentioned.

Soccer - Euro 92 - England Training in Sweden Source: Phil O'Brien

McGill recalls the film’s grand finale – England’s clash with the Netherlands in Rotterdam – and how the Dutch FA wouldn’t sanction accreditation for him and the crew. In the midst of a personal crisis, Taylor didn’t turn his back.

“It was, undoubtedly, the biggest night of his life and here was this lad banging on his door saying ‘I can’t get into the stadium. Please help me!’” McGill says.

And he just says, ‘Don’t you fucking worry, son’. And he sorts it out. And then he goes and sticks the radio mic on for the game. That’s just…Ahhhhh! The guy was just unbelievable”.

Taylor had physio Fred Street put the camera equipment into gear bags while McGill and the crew were on the official team bus as it entered the stadium, effectively posing as members of the squad.

“It just comes back to ‘Do you trust me?’”, he says.

“And you must deliver on that trust. And there can’t be any doubt. As soon as the other person thinks, ‘You’re going to fuck me over, aren’t you?’ that access goes. You could get the same access but they just wouldn’t do anything. The whole atmosphere just freezes up because they’re not going to perform. The stuff would’ve happened on the sideline anyway but I wouldn’t have got the mic on Graham if there was any doubt in his mind regarding me. He just wouldn’t have done it. And why would he have?”

The end was nigh for Taylor even before the game with the Dutch. Due to silly errors, England had dropped two points against them at Wembley. There was a dismal performance in Poland with Taylor’s disbelief on the sideline an incredibly enthralling and eye-opening sequence of the film. And, perhaps most damningly, there was the 2-0 defeat in Norway.

Source: sp1873/YouTube

It was after that result that McGill realised he was making a film about an England manager losing his job.

“That’s when there was a lot of cheeks being puffed out by everyone around the camp – players, press”, he says.

It was just a catalogue of little things. That’s usually how these things work. It was the fag end of a great generation. Walker dipped badly in that qualifying campaign. And there’s that line from Graham, ‘Once they cross that touchline, they really are on their own’. And that’s why the frustration on the touchline is so compelling. There’s fuck all you can do. Alan Shearer was out for the entire campaign, basically. Gazza was off and on. Against Norway at Wembley, England are 1-0 up and look like they’re going to win and then there’s that freakish goal from Rekdal. Absolutely unbelievable. If that hits the crossbar or balloons over the bar, then it’s England through to the World Cup and it’s a different story. I go to the World Cup with them and that’s probably where I would’ve made my disaster film!

“That’s what this was leading to. My life’s ambition was to go to the World Cup with a football team and do it like I did with the Taylor film – just complete access. Raw. And can you imagine if they actually did something? Fuck me! What a film that would’ve been! I’d much rather have made that film than make the one I did make. Me right at the heart of it and him on the sideline with the mic on. Man, it would’ve been fucking amazing. People say it’s a much better film the way it is but they don’t know the masterplan. It’s what I wanted for Graham and what I wanted for me”.

Source: KNVB_KW/YouTube

The game in Rotterdam is almost a wider metaphor for what had come before. England hit the woodwork twice while David Platt was memorably through on goal and set to open the scoring before he was unceremoniously taken out by Ronald Koeman. The defender, incredibly, picked up only a yellow card. Five minutes later, he deftly clipped a free-kick to the top corner of David Seaman’s goal. Seven minutes later, Dennis Bergkamp made it 2-0. Both England, who required a win to have a chance of qualifying, and Taylor, were out.

There was to be no World Cup for either manager or director. But McGill did have a film to finish. And, as per the original agreement, he took the rough cut to Taylor for his approval.

Soccer - World Cup Qualifier - Holland v England Source: Ross Kinnaird

“I was fucking dreading it”, he admits.

“I knew I had to do it. So I went to the house and Rita (Taylor’s wife) is there. It’s so hospitable. It’s like your Mum and Dad. ‘Come into the kitchen, son. Get that kettle on. Are you hungry, son?’ All of that. But I’ve got these tapes burning a hole in my bag. So we go into the living room and pull the curtains. It was about an hour and 45 minutes of footage and with all of the same sequences that are in the film but just expanded. We sit and watch it. And, of course, I’m watching him. I sit at an angle so he doesn’t notice me but I can’t help but look at him.

“It was like watching someone getting pins stuck in them but being told they couldn’t scream. There was wincing slightly, here and there. Totally understandable. And we get to the end and start talking. And the first thing he says is, ‘All the stuff with me is fine. But most of the stuff with me has two other people in it’. And we start talking about Phil Neal and Lawrie McMenemy. So we tried to minimise their moments as much as we could. And he wanted to big-up Phil a bit more. But his concerns were mostly about the players. Jokes about players. ‘He’s got a wife, son. She’d be upset with that. I think you should take that out’. That’s why it’s heaped on Taylor a wee bit because it’s mostly him”.

Taylor, even after being sacked, still wished to keep the spotlight firmly fixed on him and no-one else. He didn’t want the players dragged into it. He didn’t want anyone to be painted unfairly, despite the fact that he, in lots of ways, was.

“That’s exactly what it was”, says McGill, who was tortured by the reception and reaction the film received.

“Protecting everybody else because it’s not their fault. So he took it all on the chin. The reason I felt the guilt was because everyone was celebrating about the film. And I didn’t want to celebrate the film. I was proud of it, deeply proud of it and glad that I kept my nerve. Now I think it’s a much better film. I watched it back the other day and thought, ‘Fuck me, this is good!’ I hadn’t watched it in about 15 years”.

McGill grew close to Taylor throughout the filming of The Impossible Job. So much so that in the summer of 1994, less than six months after the film was aired, Taylor was a guest at his wedding.

There was no acrimony, no grudges. Just respect and friendship.

“We were solid and I thought I’d invite him”, McGill says.

“He accepted and bought me an iron, which I’ve still got. And I won’t ever throw it out. He came to the wedding with Rita – a beautiful person – and we had a brilliant day. He was there for all of it. But it was the same night as Ireland versus Italy in the World Cup – the World Cup he should’ve been at.

I made sure there was a TV room and once the game starts, most of the guys are in the room, watching the telly. But Graham’s not. He’s sitting with Rita and chatting to some people. I said, ‘Do you not want to check out the game?’ And he just said, ‘I don’t think so, son’. I thought he was saying to himself, ‘To hell with the football. I’m here with my wife and I don’t want to look at something that I should’ve been at’. So, I went and did the usual chit-chat like you do at your wedding and wandered back around and he’s gone. ‘Where’s he gone, Rita?’ And she just said, ‘Where do you think he is, Ken?’ I go into the TV room and there he is. Heading every ball, kicking every ball and just getting into it. And it was great. It’s football. It’s a game. He should’ve been there. But there he was, enjoying it like the rest of us.

“It was a beautiful moment, actually. It’s not in the documentary. But it’s my memory of him. Enjoying a football match with a load of other lads. That was Graham. He just loved football and footballers”.

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Eoin O'Callaghan

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