So Graham Taylor is to retire at the end of the season. Already the news has inspired thousands of words from thousands of sources. Whilst little that I write can add substance to that sum, we each have our own reactions to the news. I confess that my first response was to ask "How could he? What will we do without him?".
It's easy to believe that Watford FC is Graham Taylor. Certainly he embodies all of its most enviable traits and has been responsible - almost single-handedly, it often seems - for its unprecedented era of success and for its fans' finest memories. That in so doing he has never lost his dignity, humility or good humour is possibly a greater tribute still. Few football managers can have been so beloved. It is typical of the man that he should take such care to prepare the club for his departure. Few managers get to choose the moment of their passing either.
My first reaction was unworthy: Graham Taylor has surely earned the happiest of retirements - to be active in football to the extent that he wishes but without being committed, to regain control over his life and to share it with his family. How could I begrudge him that? As fans we owe him everything; he owes us nothing but has given so much. He once said that he would carry on until he stopped enjoying it. There have been moments this season when none of us have much enjoyed our involvement with Watford. We know Graham Taylor will have enjoyed such moments least of all.
In retrospect, the Taylor days seem to stretch back into the past like memories of a long, balmy summer. They are preceded and divided by dreary, frustrating, wintry months spent searching vainly for harbingers of a new spring. "What will we do without him?" remains a pressing question, since the answer we are accustomed to is 'struggle'. Fortunately, the organisation of the club has come increasingly to reflect Graham Taylor's character and attention to detail. He leaves a promising youth policy - the best hope of future success - and financial stability - a legacy most clubs would envy, achieved through realism and prudence most would benefit from following. Watford also appear to have a dependable and supportive Board, many of them fans of long standing, with the capacity to invest, genuine intentions to serve Watford's best interests and no signs of showboating or asset-stripping.
If we are not to struggle in the future, this Board must find the right answer to my question. Without Graham Taylor, the first thing we must do is to appoint a manager. That appointment is the catalyst for the club's future failure or success. The Board have already said that they have no particular name in mind and that they have yet to draw up criteria. It seems to me that they must begin by deciding what type of manager they wish to appoint, and that there are essentially three options. And when the best option is agreed, names begin to suggest themselves automatically.
Option One: Dynastic
Some of the most obvious candidates to replace Graham Taylor are those who have worked closely with him - as players, as coaches, frequently as both. Here, as in the fabled Liverpool boot room, the theory is that the values and ethos of the club - its coaching methods, its modus operandi - are greater than the mere individuals who administer them. Greater even than Graham Taylor himself. And by continuing the dynasty, Watford can continue the dream with the least possible disruption to current development plans and budgets, and to its newly-restored relationship with its supporters. Given his strengths as teacher and coach, the dynastic route stands a good chance of emulating Graham Taylor's success.
Dynastic succession throws up half-a-dozen obvious candidates. Kenny Jackett and Luther Blissett are presently in key coaching positions. They have worked closely with Graham Taylor, have the players' confidence and understand how they play. They are 'Watford through and through'. Maybe they are the ones to get the best out of the present squad. Although without coaching experience, senior players such as Nigel Gibbs and Steve Palmer have also been mentioned as possible candidates. For similar reasons, and for his international reputation and experience, John Barnes has been suggested. Perhaps the most popular dynastic choice would be John Ward. Ward is supposed to have been Graham Taylor's 'anointed successor' when he first departed, having worked with him from their playing days at Lincoln to his position as Assistant Manager for most of the glory years. He has had spells of success managing other clubs, notably Bristol City, remains among his mentor's closest friends and is widely seen as embodying Graham Taylor's approach to management and integrity.
Reliance on a supposed dynasty can be dangerous, however. Steve Harrison and Colin Lee, themselves coaches under Graham Taylor at Watford, both failed in the job of manager (though even they may be outsiders in the present race) and there is an ever present danger that the magic may be more and more thinly spread. The demise of the Liverpool boot room happened as promoted coaches were finally unable to repeat their predecessors' achievements. There are no guarantees that the present coaching staff can reproduce 'the Watford way' and the success that has accompanied it, no matter how immersed they are in the Taylor tradition. They lack experience and Jackett's previous managerial spell, albeit under tight financial strictures, produced neither success nor spectacle. Barnes' disastrous record at Celtic also bodes ill, not least in his acquisition of over-priced, underachieving foreigners - the antithesis of 'the Watford way'. This also negates any advantage that his high profile may bring in persuading players to come to the club. That leaves John Ward. He at least has had spells of success, remains closely identified with Watford and is now very experienced in football management at a range of clubs.
Option Two: Like-minded
In print and in cyberspace, a wide variety of names have been circulated as suitable candidates because they are seen as possessing the qualities, potential or experience of a Graham Taylor. Some, like Joe Kinnear, qualify because they have been successful in similar circumstances at other clubs. Others, younger and less proven, are attractive because their appointment could coincide with a managerial 'coming of age', enabling Watford to appoint them just as their managerial value becomes apparent to others in the game. The ideal to emulate here is Leicester's appointment a year ago of Peter Taylor. He is now out of our league, but Wycombe's Lawrie Sanchez or Gillingham's Andy Hessenthaler have shown similar potential. Either might be expected to see Watford as a desirable step forward in their career. The Watford connections of Kinnear (born in the town; reputedly a fan) and Hessenthaler (a terrace hero) would not go amiss either.
Appointing a like-minded manager would be a dynastic move by another means - an attempt to perpetuate the Graham Taylor ethos but through an outside candidate. We should be wary, however. Dave Bassett was expected to be a like-minded manager but he found the burden of following the Great Man too hard and dismantled the team and the dream in attempting to prove that he was his own man. Nevertheless, recruiting a proven or up-and-coming manager in the Graham Taylor vein would be an exciting move, offering the prospect of some continuity with perhaps less risk and inexperience than an unproven internal appointment.
Option Three: Iconoclastic
The supposition so far has been that the Board should seek to give priority to continuity and the preservation of Graham Taylor's legacy, perhaps because only under him has Watford enjoyed success. But there is an argument that continuity is not desirable. Despite the fabulous opening run, the pattern of this season is not one we'd wish to see repeated; perhaps last season's campaign suggested impotence and na´vety as well. Graham Taylor himself has spoken of his dissatisfaction with the modern, money-driven game and hinted at a feeling that his methods and attitude are growing old-fashioned. His cautious approach to spending has also been criticised; this season the right players wouldn't sign at the right time, so money available to bolster promotion prospects has gone unspent. Such logic suggests that a new manager should have a completely different, more modern attitude, that somebody should be appointed who will shake up the club and drag its playing and coaching methods into the modern era.
There is no shortage of candidates - mostly high profile names associated with success at other, larger clubs but currently between jobs. George Graham's name has been touted, possibly in tandem with Tony Adams. Other possibilities include Gianluca Vialli, Kenny Dalglish, Kevin Keegan or even the less illustrious Roy Evans. Any of these would make attractive appointments, raising the profile (and income) of the club, attracting good players and suggesting a strong possibility that Watford could consolidate and build upon its present levels of success. My objection to them is less tangible but shared, I believe, by many supporters: they are simply not Watford. Under them, the Watford values of which we are so proud - the family and community club, the plucky underdogs whose team spirit inspires them to overachieve, the development of talent, the fearless attacking, the selflessness of putting club before personal ambition - would probably be allowed to wither for a second time: It's Watford, but not as we know it. Fans, and the Board, must examine their consciences: Do we want success at any cost? Even at the expense of the club's very distinctiveness and supportability or its future security? Would we sell our souls for it?
Of course, any managerial apointment is a gamble. No candidate guarantees continuity, stability or success. The Board can only play the odds, weigh up track records and decide on the most desirable combination of continuity and change. In my opinion, Graham Taylor's example and legacy is inspiring enough - sufficiently representative of the values to which I believe my club should aspire - that it ought to be safeguarded. Not preserved in aspic, of course, and not for its own sake, but as the basis for further development. But simply appointing one of those closest to Graham Taylor to carry the flame may not be enough. The new manager should have enough experience from elsewhere in the game to judge where fresh blood or a fresh approach may revitalise tired habits. If revolution is not the way, neither is stagnation. The odds are also improved if he has a proven talent.
The conclusion is plain. Of all those named above, only John Ward combines continuity and experience effectively. His appointment would be widely approved - from the supporters to Graham Taylor. The senior coaching staff were once his junior colleagues and he would probably support rather than replace them. He achieved promotion with Bristol City in more straightened and less professional surroundings than he'd find at Watford. His success cannot be guaranteed, but these factors make it more likely and under him Watford fans will surely continue to keep the faith.