Blue-eyed boys - Gordon Taylor

Gordon Taylor
Gordon Taylor.

They were a great football crowd and I’m always made very welcome there. You bump into Birmingham City fans all over the world and it’s a long time since I played for them, but they always remember you.

Gordon Taylor

Next up in our series of 'blue-eyed boys' interviews, Sean Cole catches up with former Blues winger Gordon Taylor and talks about his continued high-profile involvement in the game…

Gordon Taylor is a busy man. As Chief Executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association he has plenty of demands on his time, but still takes the opportunity to speak at length about his life and career, from growing up on a council estate in Ashton-under-Lyne to representing the interests of players at all levels, including the Premier League’s millionaires. It’s been quite a journey and one he’s thoroughly enjoyed.

Taylor played football obsessively as a young boy, first in informal kick-abouts and later for his school team and local side Hurst Wesleyans, who have since evolved into non-league stalwarts Curzon Ashton. He then progressed to representing Lancashire Schoolboys and had a trial for England Schoolboys, playing in the same game as Graham Taylor, David Pleat, Frank Casper and Barry Fry. All went on to become significant figures in English football.

“Then the scouts came calling. My Dad had always supported Bolton Wanderers because he’d been at a school in Ashton where George Taylor – same name, no relation – had gone on to play for the club and he was the coach at the time. I’d watched Bolton Wanderers in the 50s, they were my team. I never got a ticket, but I saw them when they won the FA Cup in ‘58,” says Taylor.

He doesn’t miss a beat as he proceeds to reel off the line-up that won 2-0 against Manchester United in the final. Despite interest from United, Arsenal, Blackburn and even Birmingham, Taylor chose Bolton because of that family connection and their reputation for bringing youngsters through. The side that won the FA Cup was made up of predominately local players and he soon joined them, in 1960.

Already Taylor was planning for a life outside of football as he carried on with his education, finishing his A-Levels in Bolton and then completing an external degree through the Manchester School of Commerce, which formed part of what is now Manchester Metropolitan University. He was always preparing in case he didn’t make the grade, ensuring he had a fall-back option. It’s stood him in good stead ever since.

The breakthrough came in 1963. Taylor had earned his first professional contract the year before, being signed up even as Alan Ball, who went on to become the first £100,000 player and win the World Cup with England, was released. The manager Bill Ridding was distinctly old school. Rarely seen on the training ground, he was firm in his approach and commanded respect. Taylor recalls a request for two complimentary tickets for his parents being rejected on the grounds that if they weren’t prepared to pay to watch him, no one else would be.

Bolton were relegated from the First Division in Taylor’s debut season as they lost their final two games. Blues won theirs and ended up edging ahead on goal average. Bolton fell just short of an immediate return, finishing third in the Second Division the season after. The club became mired in mid-table and several of their most promising players moved on.

“They got rid of the best players,” says Taylor. “The removal of the maximum wage meant that a lot of players were looking to better themselves. We lost Francis Lee, who went on to Manchester City and had a lot of success there. We lost Wyn Davies to Newcastle. We were close to doing well but they were difficult times. Suddenly clubs like Preston, who’d had Tom Finney, and Blackpool, who’d had Stanley Matthews, were starting to struggle compared to the big city clubs.”

After a decade at Bolton, Taylor was also keen to further his career elsewhere. He’d impressed in a 3-0 win over Blues a few weeks prior to the move, setting up goals for Roger Hunt, to spark their interest. The move was driven primarily by the chairman, Clifford Coombes, with Freddie Goodwin admitting that he wasn’t too sure about Taylor. Despite the initial scepticism, a £15,000 fee was agreed, and Goodwin would later describe Taylor as the best value-for-money signing he ever made. The respect was mutual.

“He thought about the game and he gave you a chance. He saw the potential in Trevor Francis, who’s become a Birmingham icon. Lads like Bob Latchford were developed too, and others. It was a really good time and I really enjoyed it. To be playing on the wing and supplying players like Trevor Francis, Bob Latchford, Bob Hatton, Phil Summerill was great. It was an attractive style of football and I know a lot of people still remember those days. I certainly enjoyed it,” says Taylor.

“I loved my time at Birmingham. To get promotion, to reach two FA Cup semi-finals, I had a great time. I always wanted to get to the cup final but that wasn’t to be. They were a great football crowd and I’m always made very welcome there. You bump into Birmingham City fans all over the world and it’s a long time since I played for them, but they always remember you.”

Promotion was achieved at the end of his first full season, with a dramatic final day win over Leyton Orient. Taylor’s corner set up the winning goal for Bob Latchford and even threats from watching Millwall fans, who invaded the pitch as their team were set to miss out at the expense of Blues, couldn’t spoil the day. Celebrations back in the dressing room were followed by a big night out in London and a parade through the centre of Birmingham on their return home.

Blues adapted well on their return to the First Division as they finished 10th. A few narrow survivals followed, along with a second run to the FA Cup semi-finals in 1975. It was an exciting and eventful time for supporters enjoying one of the most talented sides in the club’s history. Taylor remembers it fondly too and is quick to praise the players involved.

“I think the special talent of Trevor Francis triggered a lot. Shortly after joining Birmingham, we played my old club Bolton Wanderers and he got all four goals, which for a 16-year-old was phenomenal. He went on to have a great career. There was Bob Latchford – if you got your cross right, he’d be on the end of it. He was quality. And Bob Hatton knew how to finish.

“You had Roger Hynd, god bless him, who was tough at the back with Stan Harland. You had Ray Martin, Tommy Carroll, Garry Pendrey, Malcolm Page – he was as tough as they come, Alan Campbell and Kenny Burns, who was coming through. They were all really good lads and we just blended as a team. It suddenly clicked, and it was really enjoyable under the guidance of Freddie Goodwin. There was a lot of talent about. It was unfortunate in a way when we lost Bob Latchford. We got a good player in return with Howard Kendall, but we missed Bob really.”

Latchford’s departure marked the beginning of the end and Taylor would follow him out of the exit door in 1976. A training ground altercation with the fiery Burns started everything. Both players were called into Goodwin’s office the day afterwards and were fined, with Burns bearing the brunt of it. He railed against receiving the worse punishment of the two, requesting a transfer and refusing to play. The news hit the headlines and Goodwin left the club shortly after.

Taylor felt that things weren’t the same under his replacement, Willie Bell, and chose to join Jim Smith at Blackburn Rovers on deadline day. David Wagstaffe also arrived from Wolves and the two helped the struggling Second Division side to safety. Even a bad injury sustained soon afterwards didn’t set Taylor back too much.

“Every cloud has a silver lining,” he says. “I broke my leg the following season, in the first game against Bolton. It wasn’t picked up – it was a stress fracture – so I was playing for a bit with a broken leg. In order to get it right at the end of that year, Jim allowed me to go to Vancouver Whitecaps with Tony Waiters.

“That was the North American Soccer League and lots of big stars were being signed. One of the best nights of my career was when we played New York Cosmos. It was a full stadium – the Empire Stadium in Vancouver – and Cosmos had Pele, Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto, Chinaglia, and we beat them 5-3. It was a full house and I got the man-of-the-match award for putting in three crosses that led to goals. That was a very special night.”

Two final seasons at Bury brought Taylor’s playing career to an end. He was initially going to pursue an interest in coaching, having already worked closely with Terry Venables, but was offered the chance to take over from Cliff Lloyd as Secretary of the PFA. He’d first paid attention to players’ rights and terms of employment in his time at Bolton, becoming the club’s delegate. Taylor got onto the PFA’s management committee whilst at Birmingham and became Chief Executive of the organisation shortly after retiring in 1980.

“After a lot of thinking, because I could have gone out to Vancouver again, as player-coach to Tony Waiters, I chose to join the union and, as they say, the rest is history. I’ve been here now for 37 years and seen the advent of the Premier League and millionaire footballers and many other things. It’s been a really challenging time, but I’m thrilled to bits, having played the game, to still be in it. So, I’ve got absolutely no regrets at all.”

As part of a varied role Taylor’s often found negotiating with the Football Association and the Premier League, as well as global bodies during an 11-year stint as President of FIFPro – the international players’ association. Yet he is most passionate when talking about the work the PFA has done on education, social responsibility projects and community programmes. Even as football has grown and become more remote, Taylor is keen to keep it rooted in local areas and ensure that those involved are giving something back.

“You can’t really regret that football has never been better off, but just because there’s unbelievable money coming in through satellite television companies and sponsorship, spiralling transfer fees see a lot of money going out the game to agents. You worry that the money in the game needs to be going into capital projects as well, good training grounds and grassroots football. I try to impress on people that there’s no guarantee that football will, or should, remain the world’s biggest spectator and participation sport. There’s no divine right for that.”

And with that, Taylor heads on to another meeting, this time with Premier League chairman Richard Scudamore. There’s always a lot to do, but even at the age of 73, he shows no sign of slowing down just yet.

GALLERY: A few images of Gordon Taylor in action.