Sometimes people will let you know what they think of your work and if people don’t like what you’ve done you have to develop a thick skin, but the thing is they can’t have any idea what you’ve put into a piece of work, they don’t know about the days when you doubted everything and think you’re not going to get finished, and, really, why should they?
To write anything I think, whether it’s journalism, or fiction or ghostwriting, you have to know your subject and your character or characters as well as you possibly can. I’ve never written fiction but you have to create characters who are three-dimensional and real. You have to know how they would react and what they would say in different situations.
In my case, I was ghostwriting for someone who was famous, who had a public profile and quite a distinctive way of expressing himself, and I found that made it quite a lot more difficult to capture Graham Taylor and put his life story down on the page.
For two years I worked with Graham, and for a further year I worked on my own trying to think and write like him, and the end result is this: Graham Taylor, In His Own Words.
For those who don’t know, Graham was the England football manager but before that he was Watford manager and he transformed the club and with it the fortunes of the town. If anyone remembers the club in the mid-1970s it was really a greyhound stadium with a football pitch in the middle and he turned it into one of the best football clubs in the country, and he did that by the force of his character.
I am going to explain how I came to become Graham Taylor’s ghostwriter because, after all, who am I? And I’m going to talk about how a friendship developed that made it harder for me to work on the book. And then I’m going to talk about completing the book after he died, when it became almost overwhelming at times.
In order to explain all that, though, I suppose I need to go right back to the beginning and talk a little bit about my own career because although this project was 70 years in the making for Graham, it was also, in a way, 20 years in the making for me.
I first met Graham Taylor when I was about nine or ten at a Watford Football Club open day for young supporters at Vicarage Road when you got to play on the pitch and meet the players. It was either 1984 or 1985 and I queued up for Graham’s autograph with dozens – hundreds possibly – of other young supporters, all dressed head to toe in Watford kit. Eventually it was my turn at the front and I can still remember the conversation.
‘Hello son. What do you want to do when you grow up?’
‘I want to play for Watford. If I’m not good enough for that, I want to write the programme.’
* * *
Scroll forward 12 years to 1996. Graham had left Watford, he’d gone to Aston Villa, he’d become England manager, he’d been portrayed as a turnip on the back page of The Sun, he’d failed to qualify for the World Cup, then he had to rehabilitate himself and his career at Wolverhampton Wanderers and that didn’t work out either. So he came back to Watford, the one place that would still welcome him unconditionally. There weren’t many places queuing up to offer Graham Taylor a job at that time.
In the meantime, I’d grown up a bit and I’d joined the Watford Observer, where I started my career. I’d been on a training course in St Leonards-on-Sea to learn the trade. I’d done all the stuff that young journalists do – I’d covered the births, deaths and golden weddings. I’d been to council meetings and magistrates court and covered local sport and by 1996 I was one of the paper’s sub-editors, laying out the pages, correcting the copy and writing the headlines.
Someone tipped me off that there was a job going at Watford Football Club as head of communications and programme editor. I thought, ‘Well, this is it. This is the job for me.’ I applied and got an interview and found myself sitting opposite Graham being asked how I saw this job. I obviously did okay because I got a second inteview. The questions were a lot harder the second time round because Graham was obviously narrowing down his candidates.
I didn’t get the job, which was very disappointing because I thought it was made for me.
A couple of days after finding out I hadn’t got it, the phone on my desk at the Watford Observer rang.
It was Graham. In the course of a brief conversation he made me feel better about myself than I would have had I got the job. He said, ‘It’s not that you’re not right for the job – although you’re not – it’s that the job is not right for you. Stick at what you’re doing, carry on in journalism and see where it takes you.’ Coming from the son of a journalist, I took that as a compliment.
A bit later I left the Watford Observer and joined a cycling magazine and in 2001 I teamed up with a photographer called Alan Cozzi to write my first book, Four Seasons, which is about Graham’s second spell as Watford manager. I made life easy for myself by making it a coffee table style book with loads of photos and not too many words.
One day a letter arrived on nice paper, written in fountain pen. It was from Graham Taylor and he’d enclosed a cheque for six copies of Four Seasons to give to his friends and family. However, he’d neglected to add on anything to cover postage costs so I had a dilemma. What should I do? I rang him up and explained that as I had financed the printing and publishing of the book and needed to make my money back, every penny counted. He said, ‘I’m sorry about that, why don’t you drop them round to me?’ so I went to his house in Chorleywood and we had a cup of tea and a chat in his kitchen.
I carried on writing about cycling for magazines and, later, The Sunday Times and eight years on, I started work on my second book about Watford, Enjoy the Game, which involved interviewing as many of the players and management from the 1980s as I could. I ended up interviewing around 45 people for that book and quite early in that process I contacted Graham. He already knew what I was up to, because one or two of the players had tipped him off. He said that he was perfectly happy to give me an interview but he asked me to wait until I had interviewed 15 or 20 players because he said he wanted to know the book was well underway so he wasn’t giving up three or four hours of his time for nothing. He also joked that he wanted to know what everyone else had said about him before he started talking about them.
So, the time came and I met Graham at The Belfry hotel near to Sutton Coldfield, where he lived at the time, and he gave me three or four hours of fantastic material. I remember sitting there having had quite a few cups of tea and coffee and I was absolutely bursting for the toilet. He was right in the middle of telling me about Elton John’s battle with drink and drugs and it was great stuff. I had my tape recorder on the table between us. He was in full flow, and I was very close to being in full flow myself but I dared not stop him. Fortunately, with the bead of sweat breaking on my brow, he said, ‘I’m sorry to have to stop here but I need to go to the loo.’ I have never felt so relieved and The Belfry is big enough that I could use a different toilet so we didn’t have to stand awkwardly next to each other at the urinals.
A few weeks after the book came out, my phone rang and the screen said, ‘Graham Taylor.’ I hesitated because there were only a couple of reasons he could be ringing – either to tell he didn’t like the book or that I’d fouled something up terribly, or to ask me how much the postage would be on six copies.
He said, ‘I’ve been reading the book and I must admit I have been struggling because it has brought back so many memories, most of them very happy, but some sad, and I have been getting emotional. So I’ve been picking it up and putting it down. It’s a very good book even if I disagree with a few of the comments by the players. People have remembered things a different way to me but perhaps one day I will do my own book and iron out a few things.’
I said, ‘Well, if you ever do get round to doing your own book let me know as I would drop everything if you needed any help with it.’