24 September 2002.
My beloved Aston Villa have just been beaten (on 16 September 2002) by bitter rivals Birmingham City in a most humiliating 3-0 defeat. I had watched the dire performance on the TV at my home, 350 miles away in Fife, Scotland, and the jaw-droppingly awful sight of the Villa goalkeeper letting the ball roll under his foot following a throw-in from a team-mate for Birmingham’s second goal, felt like the last straw.
A few days after the defeat, on 24 September, I decide to pen a letter to the manager, offering my services and my psychological toolkit to improve the players’ mindset and ramp up performance. I suggest meeting up at some point to discuss what I might be able to offer as I have some business trips planned that involve travelling to the midlands within the next few weeks.
1 October 2002.
I’m away on business, delivering a speech in Birmingham.
I get a call from my office to say there’s a reply in from the Villa manager. The letter says they’ve just taken on a performance consultant and that therefore it wouldn’t be possible to use my services at this stage … but that he would be happy to have a chat when I’m in the area, and he’s provided a number to give him a call.
I phone the next morning (Wed 2 October) as, coincidentally, I’m on the A42 passing the Villa training ground at Bodymoor Heath on my way to Loughborough where I have a speaking engagement the next evening.
My call reaches the manager’s secretary and I explain I’m in the area. She says that unfortunately, with the International break about to start, the manager is meeting each player individually before they head away, and so he has no time in his busy schedule today, but she will certainly let him know I’ve called.
Ten minutes later…
My mobile phone goes.
I pull over into a lay-by and answer.
It’ Graham Taylor
…. From Aston Villa.”
The “from Aston Villa” after the short pause is, of course, not required. We all know Graham Taylor.
The voice is so familiar.
Former England Manager,
Villa Manager, twice,
TV and radio pundit … one of the unique band of household “Mr Football” names our country is blessed with.
I restrain myself from bursting into song. “Graham Taylor’s Claret and Blue Army!”
We speak for ten minutes or so. He’s open, warm, friendly, interested, and interesting.
He apologises for not being able to see me that day and assures me he’s not just putting me off. I say how pleased I am, and a little surprised, that he responded to my initial letter, let alone calling me back.
“Oh well, Phil,” he explains “I respond to every bit of correspondence I receive. I’ve made it a personal policy over the years.”
He asks when I’m heading back north (I have a few more meetings and a speech to give in St Albans later in the week), suggesting I might pop in on the return journey to Scotland.
Unfortunately, he’s not available on the day I’m next passing that way, as he explains he has a personal commitment (he told me what it was, and I’m not going to divulge it here). We agree that I will call him and we’ll arrange to meet the next time I’m due to be in the midlands.
Sadly, our schedules were unable to accommodate taking things any further, and soon after, he left the club.
The fact remains.
He made it a personal policy to respond to every communication he received.
And he was genuinely interested in discussing what I might be able to offer.
Fast Forward. – 26 January 2016.
Villa are again facing a challenging season, languishing at the foot of the Premier League. Relegation is pretty well certain; survival is still not out of the question, but a minor footballing miracle would be required.
I write to the Villa manager, again offering my services, on the basis that surely they would want to leave no stone unturned in seeking to survive… not simply for the prestige of remaining in the top flight, but for the financial ramifications alone.
I provide my mobile number, as time is short… and as each game goes by, the odds get more difficult.
The response has nothing to do with Villa.
Nothing to do with whether or not I can help them.
It’s far deeper than that …
Not a peep.
An abyss that is as empty as the wage packets of the superstars are full.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, says it all.
Graham Taylor, rest in peace.