London (AP) — Graham Taylor, the England coach derided for failing to qualify for the 1994 World Cup after flourishing as a club manager working for pop star Elton John, has died. He was 72.
Taylor, who won admiration by leading Aston Villa and Watford into the top-flight in the 1980s, died early Thursday of a suspected heart attack, his family said.
“The family are devastated by this sudden and totally unexpected loss,” a family statement said.
Taylor is one of only four managers to have taken the same team from the fourth to the top division in English soccer, and he achieved it within five years at Watford.
Elton John, who owned Watford during Taylor’s two stints in charge, said it was a “sad and dark day” for the club.
“He was like a brother to me,” John wrote on an Instagram post . “We shared an unbreakable bond since we first met. We went on an incredible journey together and it will stay with me forever.
“He took my beloved Watford from the depths of the lower leagues to uncharted territory and into Europe. We have become a leading English club because of his managerial wisdom and genius.”
Taylor reached the pinnacle of English management when he was hired by the national team in 1990, inheriting a side that reached the World Cup semifinals.
“His enthusiasm for life and football was incredible,” former England player Paul Gascoigne said.
Taylor guided England to the 1992 European Championship, but the team was eliminated at the first stage, setting the tone for the rest of his time with the national team.
After England lost 2-1 to Sweden in their final game at Euro 92, The Sun tabloid trashed Taylor with the headline: “Swedes 2 Turnips 1.”
Taylor’s head was superimposed on a turnip, a caricature that led to the manager becoming known harshly as “Turnip Taylor.”
“It hurts and that’s what really, really annoys me,” Taylor recalled in a 2012 BBC documentary. “They have no recognition about how much it hurts you. They think you don’t care.
“And those people that know it hurts you, they put the knife into you so it hurts you even more.”
Taylor’s decision to grant behind-the-scenes access to a television crew for the qualifying campaign for the 1994 World Cup backfired when the extent of the strain of the job was exposed.
In “The Impossible Job,” Taylor was filmed complaining about a refereeing decision during a qualifier against the Netherlands, telling the linesman: “Tell your mate he’s just cost me my job.”
Reflecting later on his shortcomings in the England job, Taylor said: “I am not bitter. I am just disappointed in myself.”
The failure to reach the 1994 World Cup in the United States was a blot on Taylor’s accomplishments in management after a modest playing career ended at age 28 due to a hip injury.
Having already become the youngest person to attain a full Football Association coaching badge, Taylor was able to move straight into management with Lincoln after playing for the team.
After winning the fourth tier, Taylor moved south to Watford.
With the boardroom backing of John, Taylor guided Watford from the fourth division to the first division (then the top tier), an FA Cup final and European competition in five years from 1978.
John then allowed Taylor to move to Aston Villa, where he secured promotion to the top-flight and a second-place finish in 1990.
He returned as club management after his England stint, taking Watford back into the Premier League and enjoying one final spell at Villa before leaving the dugout for good in 2003. He was a regular commentator on matches in recent years for BBC radio.
He is survived by wife Rita and daughters Joanne and Karen.