The Truth About The Turnip and Me
Rob Shepherd

It’s not every day the England manager tells you to “F**k off” out of the country.

Twenty years ago Graham Taylor did just that on the eve of England’s decisive World Cup qualifier against Holland in Rotterdam.

In a scene you might have seen on the cult fly-on-the-wall documentary: The Impossible Job, which has been re-named by its cult following ‘Do I Not Like That’ (one of several Taylor catchphrases), Taylor lambastes me for my pessimism about England’s chances of avoiding defeat.

“You can worry Rob, but don’t make the rest of us worry,” Taylor blasted – yes he really did blast – as his tirade against me gathered pace.

“Rise yourself man! Look, if you were one of my players I’d…”

Believe it or not there are some people out there who can recite the whole exchange and indeed the remarkable documentary made by Neil Duncanson and Ken McGill by Chrysalis for Channel Four.

In many ways it is football’s Spinal Tap with a hint of Monty Python.

To this day many people when I meet them want to talk to me about the cameo I was caught up in.

A few years later a mainstream movie came out entitled Mike Bassett: England manager. It was a decent film, and at times very funny, but essentially it was a dramatized version of “Do I Not Like That.” And in terms of comedic value not a patch on the real thing.

The fact was far stranger, far better, far more bizarre, and in the real sense of the word far more pathetic than the fiction.

Epitaph

I remember going to to see a press preview of the documentary about six months after the The Row in Rotterdam. I had been tipped off that I had featured significantly.

That worried me…

Had I been trailed by a camera man taking the wrong turn down a dodgy strasse on the road to England’s ruined World Cup campaign..?

What unfolded was astonishing.

My instant review that day was that what Graham Taylor; England manager had believed would be a eulogy to his prowess as a football manager became an epitaph.

I stand by that appraisal.

Graham-Taylor-in-Rotterda-001

Taylor believed the documentary would put him in a positive light

You see none of us “Hack Pack” who followed England at the time – in a pre-internet, pre-social media era there was a hard core of print radio and TV correspondents which ranged between ten and fifty depending on the size of the assignment – knew that a documentary was being filmed.

But Graham Taylor did.

Why on earth did he allow such access..?

It was an attempt to prove a point that he was not ‘Taylor The Turnip Head’ as he had been depicted after England were humbled at the 1992 European Championships finals in Sweden.

For the record (and isn’t it funny how time and ill informed perception alters mind) I, Rob Shepherd, was not the guy who cast Taylor as the Turnip. I can tell you many people now assume I did – but then some of them think I look like Desperate Dan! On that front; strangely enough my first job in journalism was working for DC Thompson who published The Dandy and I once had to do a photo shoot…er, that’s another story.

Graham Taylor - Sun Turnip 200

Taylor: Headline maker

So let’s get this straight; Taylor was pilloried by The Sun with a morphed image (yes there were fun photos before Instagram) of his head fused with a turnip.
Why..? It was on the back of one of the immortal tabloid headlines, dreamt up not by the sports editor of the time (although he has dined out on it and got jobs on the back of it for many years) but a stalwarts sub editor called Dave Clement.

The simplicity was stunning as England’s chaotic Euro 92 adventure ended in abject failure when Taylor’s team were eliminated in the final match of the group phase by hosts Sweden, who came from behind to win 2-1.

The whole campaign had been a shambles, defined best by Taylor’s ludicrous decision to take off Gary Lineker and replace him with Alan Smith as England chased the game.

It might have seemed a bit crass but Swedes 2 Turnips 1 summed up the feelings of the hoi polloi.

Backlash

As the son of a Journalist Graham Taylor had thought he could cajole, even control or at least appease the press with a combination of bravado and bon homie.

But he hadn’t accounted for the city-slick media machines who would dance over graves and, at least for the first edition, boast “Up yer Junta” when the battleship of a war time enemy was sunk and many lives were lost.

In contrast pillorying an England football manager was mere bagatelle.

Shocked by the intensity and cruelty of the backlash Taylor decided he needed to adopt a PR strategy. And so he agreed to allow a TV crew unprecedented access for a warts-and-all documentary.

He felt this would be the way to get his revenge in first. This was the way to prove he was the best man to manage England. This was the way how he would be the Pied Piper leading England’s merry men to the World Cup in the USA. And this was the way to reverse the tables and make the media men look like melons.

Graham also had a slight advantage. He knew the cameras were rolling. The Press didn’t. Neither did the players – well at least for a while, by which time they had allowed themselves to be filmed in some Pythonesque scenes.

But he hadn’t accounted for a, erm, Turn up in the books.

After only drawing to Norway and Holland at Wembley England’s World Cup campaign was suddenly on the back foot.

Then when England lost 2-0 against Norway in Oslo after Taylor has made disastrous tactical and team selections, it became a case of shit or bust when England faced Holland in Rotterdam.

The Oslo experience was on my mind when I challenged the team Taylor named for the Holland game 20 years ago. But there was more to it than that.

My agitated barrack room lawyer demeanour, which raised Taylor’s cackles, was enhanced by a heady mix of adrenalin and anger.

Adrenalin because I had actually scooped the rest of Fleet Street’s finest and named the team Taylor announced at the start of the press conference that morning in the now defunct Today Newspaper.

Anger? I was aghast. I so wanted England to qualify for the World Cup finals.
Three years earlier, after England had lost the World Cup semi-final to Germany the first guy I bumped into after I had filed my tear stained report was Bobby Moore who was working for Capital Radio at Italia 90.

“Don’t worry son,” Mr Moore told me.

“This time close, but in four years time the boys can do it. Let’s have a beer to that son.”

Now here we were in Holland. Bobby wasn’t going to make it to the USA, tragically he had died six months earlier. Neither I feared would England, and I kept thinking how upset that would have made Mr Moore.

I just had to vent my view that Taylor’s bizarre (as it seemed to me, even if I had the heads up) team selection would mean it ending in tears just as it had done against Norway in Oslo.

And here I just have to point out that there was more to me than just being a 31 year old big chinned gobby journo having a dig at the England boss in search for a headline.

I had done some decent journalism too.

Airport

In those days the press and players all flew on the same plane and we departed from Luton Airport at around midday on the Monday for the Wednesday night game.

I had a phone call very early that Monday morning from a contact I will not and will never reveal. I was told the team.

It was read to me from one to eleven (bearing in mind Paul Gascoigne and Stuart Pearce were suspended); Seaman, Parker, Adams, Pallister, Dorigo; Palmer {really!!! are f**king sure?} Platt, Ince, Sharpe (really!!!); Merson (No!), Shearer (What? So no Wright or Ferdinand??).

I was shocked. A month earlier England had beaten Poland 3-0 in the previous qualifier and Ian Wright (who declared we will win with “BullDog Spirit Man”) and Les Ferdinand had monstered the opposition.

WrightvPoles

Not Wright: The Arsenal striker had tormented the Poles the previous month

Even give the suspensions and Shearer’s potential, FIVE changes and no Wright or Ferdinand seemed very strange.

Merson was a super player. But how could he get the nod ahead of Wrighty who most of the hack pack assumed was a nailed on selection..???

As team news ahead of a pivotal international goes, this info was dynamite.

But it had to be checked. Not easy. But with the help of my colleague Dave Harrison we nailed it.

In the duty free at Luton I pulled Paul Parker aside. He said he couldn’t divulge. So I struck a compromise. If I ran through the one to eleven could he nod or shake. Parks gave me a nod and a wink all the way through.

So did Paul Ince.

When we got to Schiphol the Dutch started some dirty games – which would continue during the match two days later thanks to a German referee Karl- Josef Assenmacher – by pretending there were no baggage handlers. Nor courtesy buses.

So for nearly 90 minutes the England team were left loitering on the tarmac getting more and more wound-up.

It did give me and Dave Harrison the chance though to tug a few players and have a discreet word.

Once we both had got the nod from David Platt we were decided; the crazy info was correct. Well as far as we could make out and we’d done enough checks to satisfy a demanding sports editor in Mike Crouch who decided to go to town.

Our snapper Eddie Keogh had taken a picture of Carlton Palmer (“Carlton! Carlton!”) playing a piano in the team hotel.

As far as I was concerned, as good as a club player as Palmer might have been, Carlton couldn’t hit a cows arse with a banjo (that was a saying of ex-Wimbledon boss Dave – not Mike btw – Bassett, not mine) at international level.

That he was playing in such a big game beggared belief really. In fact I still didn’t really believe it despite at all the checks.

After all the players could have been playing a blinder, their version of three card brag and I can assure you Mr Ince was very good at three card brag back then.

But we went for it and beneath this strange picture of Palmer playing the ol’ Joanna was the team in 24 point emblazoned on the back page.

In many ways my balls were on the line.

After filing my copy I suddenly got very nervous.

If I got that wrong I would be hung out to dry by Taylor. The Turnip would have ridiculed me as Shepherd’s Pie.

But one thing I was sure on was that Wright would be on the bench and Merson would start. That’s because Merse told me.

I went on the missing list that night as far as the other hacks were concerned. This was too big a story to share. Except one who worked on a paper that was owned by the same company as Today.

We arranged to meet and slip out for dinner and few glasses of wine away from the hack pack. Just before we left the hotel he told me he had done a big piece on how Ian Wright could fire England to the finals. The first edition of Today has gone off the press by then so I advised him to re-write his piece and change the name Merson with Wright.

He did so. By that point I was confident.

Let Down

But even then when I went into the press conference the following morning my stomach was still churning. It was a similar feeling to getting exam results at school.

And I passed.

Taylor revealed the team…and I was right in terms of the facts but I felt he had got it so wrong.

Maybe as a football writer I was too passionate about the game back then, too patriotic. But we are who were are. And I kept hearing Bobby Moore’s soothing words in my ear and I just felt Mr Moore was being let down. England were being let down.

“Does the whole nation rest on whether Rob Shepherd’s happy or not?” Taylor intoned.

He was aware the cameras were rolling. I was not.

Ahead of the game this could have been his coup de grace. The Turnip tables would be turned.

As Taylor continued his tirade against me nervous stares from the Hack Pack turned into some polite twittering then guffaws of laughter. It was funny.

But who was the joke on; Taylor or me..?

I held my own for a while, then let it go. I didn’t want to ruin the rest of the press conference for everybody for the sake of an unseemly row. I had made my point but maybe he had a point. I was determined to show respect.

Whatever mistakes Taylor made as England manager he was not nasty man. Naïve back then perhaps. But not nasty. We got on.

But I thought he’d called it wrong. So it proved.

The team which had displayed so much energy and purpose in the win over Poland just a month earlier was all over the place in terms of shape and direction.

Yes, decisions and luck went against England and thus Taylor, but it was an accident waiting to happen given the team he had selected.

Holland won 2-0 and World Cup qualification was beyond England.

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Koeman, who should have been dismissed earlier, scores to seal England’s fate

The following month Holland beat Poland to seal their place in USA 94 with Norway which meant England’s 7-1 against San Marino was meaningless.

My match report intro that night – which became part of the closing scenes of the documentary – was, using a slight twist of Kenneth Wolstenholme’s brilliant last minute commentary of the 1966 World Cup final: ‘They Thought it was all Over…It is Now.’

Later that night I collared Graham Kelly, the chief executive of the FA at the time, who “off the record” told me Taylor was finished.

Taylor and England parted company the following week.

Six months later the documentary came out and Taylor’s reign as England manager was a bit like a Month Python sketch. Bobby Moore would not have been impressed.

 

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