Graham Taylor has been described as a “complete visionary” by the Director of the club’s Community Trust, the award-winning charity the pioneering GT was so influential in creating and making part of the local landscape.
The Graham Taylor Matchday against Real Sociedad this Saturday is a chance to celebrate the life of the club’s greatest ever manager and recognise his unrivalled contribution to the club both on and off the field. Taylor’s achievement in taking a then unheralded club through the divisions to finish runners-up in the First Division and the FA Cup is etched in football folklore, but arguably his greatest legacy is the way he connected the club to the community.
“He was a complete visionary,” said Rob Smith, the Trust’s Community Director. “He was way ahead of his time, in terms of taking the club to the community.”
Six clubs were chosen in the 1980s to pilot a Football in the Community scheme as the game desperately tried to tackle big burning anti-social issues like hooliganism. Watford were not one of the selected half dozen but GT was already ahead of the game.
“Graham was already doing some of that work under an unofficial banner, way before in the early 80s,” said Smith. “He clearly introduced it at Lincoln and he brought that belief across to Watford. Players had it in their contracts that they had to do community work and stressed that he preferred them to live locally. The contribution he has made to the community and the people of it is immense. He even raised money for the first Family Stand to be built. He was way ahead of his time.” Not half.
Watford officially set up a Football in the Community department in 1992 and appointed John McDermott as their first official Community Officer at the club. McDermott is now head of coaching and development at Tottenham. As if managing the first-team on his return in 1996 wasn’t enough, Graham took on such a hands-on role with the community that he interviewed candidates for the role of Assistant Community Officer. Smith got the job and has been in situ ever since.
“I was quite nervous,” said Smith, “as I didn’t expect to see Graham Taylor at the interview. How many first-team managers would have sat in on an interview for quite a low-level position? That said a lot.”
Along with the likes of McDermott, Jimmy Gilligan and Kirk Wheeler, Smith set about executing GT’s grand vision.
“He gave me the opportunity and the chance to make sure we kept the family and community ethos at the club,” Smith said. “He created a culture that was carried on by the likes of Nigel Gibbs, Tommy Mooney, Steve Palmer, Alec Chamberlain, Malky Mackay and Sean Dyche. With Graham you always felt he was in the background and that you could always go to him. We tended, in more recent years, to call on him for the big events. He always attended the events we asked him to and he was so supportive.”
Indeed in the months before he died, tragically at the age of 72, GT attended a Show Racism the Red Card event at Vicarage Road and, as patron of the Trust, was also the guest of honour at the unveiling of the multi-million pound upgrade and refurbishment of the Meriden Community Centre, achieved thanks to funding secured by the Trust. The satellite centres at the Meriden and the one at Cedars Wood in Harrow, built thanks to more funding of £4.2m, are the jewels in the crown of the Trust’s work over the last 25 years.
“We had a vision seven or eight years ago around how do we make an impact beyond just running community projects,” said Smith. “We’ll always be about outreach work and they are great while they are running, but it’s what happens when we are not running them. We felt that by establishing some community hubs we’d be able to engage with the community and provide opportunity six or seven days a week. We started with Cedars Youth and Community Centre in Harrow five years ago. It was an old youth centre that was demolished. We were were getting 70, 80, 90 people turning up two or three nights every week. After we rebuilt the youth and community centre we were getting 1,000 a week foot-fall through the centre. That’s been a real success story.”
The facelift of the Meriden Community Centre, meanwhile, has now made it a hub for football as well as table tennis, yoga, martial arts, dance and music. “It’s about more than just football,” said Smith. “It’s about providing opportunity.”
Thanks to the Trust, opportunity knocks for plenty in south-west Hertfordshire these days. The days of opening multi-million pound centres are a far cry from the embryonic days of the organisation. “I remember, in the early community days, there was just a couple of us in a broom cupboard with a bag of balls, a desk and a phone,” recalled Smith. “Now we have 45 full and part-time staff plus 70 sessional staff out there delivering the projects and programmes. We have grown immensely. We try and keep it fairly lean where we can and we are always careful about who we bring in. They have to have a set of values and want to make a difference and be passionate about the power of sport and education in a wider sense.”
Basically, they must have a bit of GT about them. “Graham really brought an expectation of not only the community coming to the club but taking the club to the community,” said Smith. “Initially that was through football engagement, coaching young people and taking the brand of Watford FC into the community. Over the years we’ve moved into social impact and addressing social issues, working hard to engage young people, using football, education and sport as a tool to make a positive difference.”
Plans are already in the pipeline to look at projects around mental health and dementia. Being a Premier League club should accelerate those plans and open doors.
“The money that filters through from the broadcast deal means there is more generated through the community and more that comes through the Premier League charitable fund,” said Smith. “There has been a chance to start four or five new programmes thanks to that funding. In the Football League the funding can be tighter and we were always looking at how we could keep projects alive. There is nothing worse than having to stop projects that are working and making a difference because the funding dries up.”
The Trust falls under the club’s umbrella but, Smith is keen to stress, it’s not bankrolled by the football club.
“We are very much part of the club but we are an independent charity and we have to raise the funds like most charities do through grants, sponsorship, donations and fundraising,” explained Smith. “The support from the football club is immense – we couldn’t put a value on that, like with access to players and tickets for community activities.”
This was evidenced by the presence of the entire first-team squad turning up to greet a mix of Junior Hornets and Community Trust coaching course participants at Westfield Academy last week.
“That was the club and the Trust working perfectly together, hand-in-hand, giving young children access to the players and spending some quality time with them alongside some fun activities.”
Smith says the Trust aren’t in it for awards, but being named the Football League Community Club of the Year in 2008 and 2010 is recognition of the unseen and unheralded work they do.
“I’d like to think we have improved a lot of people’s opportunities and in their lives in general,” said Smith. “We had somebody who came through one of our employability programmes to go on and work for the club in the retail store. There have been a number of stories like that.”
A number of staff have also gone on to success. Nick Cox is now Academy Operations Manager at Manchester United and Simon MacQueen is Head of Strategy at Sport England. On the playing front, Britt Assombalonga and Michael Folivi were both early participants in one Trust programme or another.
They should all feature in a book being put together, thanks to funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, to mark the Trust’s 25-year anniversary. There will also be a museum exhibition, a website, a designated Trust Awareness Day and a Gala Dinner in April, events to ensure the legacy of Taylor continues to burn bright long after the tribute match against Real Sociedad.
“Saturday is a tribute to Graham both on and off the pitch,” said Smith. “It’s the 25th anniversary year so, through the book, we want to make sure people understand those early years that formed the family ethos the club is renowned for. We want to properly recognise Graham’s role in the growth and development of the Community Trust.
“It has been a lot of hard work over the years. There have been lots of ups and downs along the way. It’s not just about the 25 years – it’s a reflection of the work that went on before that as well. But the work and the ethos is now embedded in the club. It’s part of the club’s DNA and that’s thanks to Graham’s early work.”
Be there as we pay tribute to Watford's greatest ever manager at The Graham Taylor Matchday this Saturday.