"Six inches from glory"
By John Preston
For those who were not there, it must seem hard to believe that Watford were a major force in English football in the early eighties. But the record books do not lie. They don't recall, however, the furore over their success: "Route one football", "Back to the dark ages" and when they played Liverpool, it was "Ian Rush v Kick and Rush". And then the repeated claims that they had no midfield, just a long ball from the back for Blissett and company to chase after.
Perhaps that explains why there has, until now, been no profile of Les Taylor. Alongside Kenny Jackett, he was that anonymous midfield. Think of Andy Hessenthaler and add on another fifty percent in fitness, ability and desire to get the ball and you have our man. As soon as possession was lost, there he would be, at the opposition's ankles in an attempt to get the ball back. More than one opponent admitted that they just couldn't keep up with him over ninety minutes.
Yet his arrival was a fairly low-key affair. Joining from Oxford, in exchange for Keith Cassells and a bit of cash at about the same time as more high profile players like Pat Rice and Gerry Armstrong were signed. Indeed he was considered more of a squad player than a regular first teamer. But with Martin Patching a long-term injury and Luther going back up front after a spell in midfield, he began to establish himself.
For me, 1981-82 was the most exciting season ever. As the club kept pace with Luton and raced towards Division One, it was clear that history was being made. Whatever else follows, the first time is always that bit more special. There were so many stars that season, but Les shone brighter than the rest. There was no real doubt as to who the "Player of the Season" would be. All action, covering every blade of grass and a handful of goals to boot.
If I had to pick one game that season, it would be against QPR in a League Cup tie. They were thought of as one of the stronger sides, having just come down from Division One. Added to that, the "great" Terry Venables (yeah, right!) was their manager. 4-1, they were magnificent and Les got the first and last. Catching the bus home, it dawned on me that this was the best team in the club's history and that the "impossible dream" was very possible.
It couldn't get any better. Or could it? Division One didn't know what hit it as the upstarts surprised one big name after another. The whole "long ball" saga really began to hot up when "cultured Spurs", Glenn Hoddle et al, were beaten at White Hart Lane. There was Les in the right place to get the only goal right at the end of the game. For the "purists" it was just all too much. For the players it was easier, a settled side with a settled system.
The bubble had to burst and by the end of 1983, the Horns were near the foot of the table. Maurice Johnston is rightly credited for getting the goals that turned things around, but just as significant was an injury to Les that kept him out for the first half of the season. It wasn't his greatest season, but when he was needed he was there. In that bruising quarter final at St.Andrews, there was little between the teams. Then, out of nowhere, Les smashes a left foot shot beyond Tony Coton. Barnes' goal from that game has been shown time and time again, but it was Les Taylor's that won it.
When Wilf Rostron was suspended for the final, it was left to our man to lead the team out on that historic day. Looking back, winning was probably more important for Everton. Just being there was an amazing achievement for the boys in yellow and red. And whether anyone wants to admit it, some of the players did freeze on the day. It needed an early goal to settle them down, but it never came. When Graeme Sharp scored, the game was over. Forget Andy Gray, the game was lost by then. But it was close, very close. There were chances in those early exchanges. Les Taylor on the edge of the area, with the goal seemingly at his mercy. The ball flashes just wide of the post and the chance is gone. But look again, very closely. Gary Stevens is on the line and just gets his toe to the ball. It's the faintest of touches and deflects it six inches at best. But it's enough. Everyone misses it; the ref gives a goal kick (and we didn't get a corner the whole game). Who knows how history would have been changed if it had gone in. The win gave Everton the boost they needed to go on to League and European success.
The Cup Final was the last element of "The Impossible Dream". There comes a time when you can no longer top the previous years' achievements. That Graham Taylor managed to do that for seven years, even now, seems impossible. It was time for consolidation; time to make Watford a permanent fixture in Division One. Players with a proven track record at the top level were needed to compliment the young talent. 1984-85 was another solid season for Les Taylor, but rumours abounded that Brian Talbot was on his way from Arsenal. It took a little longer than expected, but in the summer of 1985 he arrived. And that was more or less it for Les Taylor. He slipped into the reserves and then, more or less unnoticed he slipped away to Reading for a small fee.
It was, in a way, a fitting end to a superb career. He arrived unnoticed, the press loved to ignore his efforts in midfield, and he just quietly slipped away. No throwing his shirt to the crowd, no return with another club. But the fans recognised his efforts and he rightly takes his place in the all-time eleven.