Sporting Bygones: We do not like missing out on World Cup finals, but did we not like this insight into failure?

England manager Graham Taylor mutters the immortal words "you've cost me my job" to the linesmanEngland manager Graham Taylor mutters the immortal words "you've cost me my job" to the linesman
England manager Graham Taylor mutters the immortal words "you've cost me my job" to the linesman
ENGLAND’S failure to qualify for a major tournament is rarely a laughing matter.

Poland’s draw at Wembley in 1973 may be best remembered now for a goalkeeper described pre-match as a “clown” by Brian Clough when working as a TV pundit, but no one was smiling at the final whistle as the realisation dawned that a World Cup finals would be going ahead without England.

A similar sense of despair met the failure of another qualifying campaign four years later as Don Revie’s reign ended in bitterness and acrimony, while missing out on the European Championships of 1984 and 2008 were further bitter blows that took some time for the country’s football fans to get over.

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Amid this tale of woe and misery, however, lies one early exit by the national team that the merest mention of, 20 years on, is invariably able to raise a titter or a smile amid the shaking of heads.

It is, of course, England’s failure to qualify for the 1994 World Cup under Graham Taylor.

At the time, missing out had proved every bit as demoralising to supporters as any previous ignominious exit.

But then, a few months later, came a documentary that has since gone down in footballing legend as one of the unintentionally funniest of all time.

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The Impossible Job, as the original Cutting Edge documentary for Channel 4 was known before being re-titled Do I Not Like That for video release, had intended to show the unique pressures of being England manager.

It did that, all right. What it also did, however, was provide a window into a world that, even allowing for the excellent Mike Bassett film starring Ricky Tomlinson that followed, was beyond parody.

Overnight, the aforementioned ‘Do I not like that’ and ‘Can we not knock it?’ passed into the nation’s lexicon as Taylor, assistant Phil Neal and Lawrie McMenemy became unwitting stars in the funniest ‘sitcom’ of the year.

The documentary covered the full qualifying campaign but it was the trips to Poland, Norway and Holland that dominated in the final cut.

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No wonder, thanks to the increasingly tortured touchline persona of Taylor as his side stumbled from one calamitous performance to the next.

Taylor, so ruthlessly abused by the national media following a disappointing Euro ‘92 in Sweden, bore all the hallmarks of a man on the edge as he berated the latest slapstick moment out on the pitch.

In Poland, England were very lucky to escape with a point thanks to a late equaliser from Ian Wright.

In Norway, however, there was to be no such reprieve as Taylor was put through the emotional wringer by his hapless players as they stumbled to a 2-0 defeat. The comedy gold included a now infamous monologue about Les Ferdinand – which, for the uninitiated few ran like this: “Go Les! Hit Les! Les, over the top....oh, f***** ****! Les, demand it! You tell ‘em, Les. That’s...well, you tell ‘em. They perhaps can’t see you, Les.”

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In living rooms up and down the land, where the penny was finally dropping as to why the World Cup finals in the USA would be taking place without England in a few months, fans sat open-mouthed at what they were seeing.

The confusion on substitute Nigel Clough’s face as he tried to make sense of his instructions before heading out on to the field also spoke volumes.

The final nail in England’s coffin came with a 2-0 defeat in Holland. Poor refereeing undoubtedly played a part, not least in how Ronald Koeman was allowed to stay on the field despite a clear professional foul on David Platt as he raced clear with the game still locked at 0-0.

That it was Koeman who later scored the opening goal with a re-taken free-kick added to the sense of injustice. It prompted the final outstanding moment and one that, amid the cracks about nonsensical outbursts and parrotting of touchline instructions by the coaching staff, brought Taylor more empathy from supporters than at any previous time in his reign.

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“I’m just saying to your colleague here,” he said to the linesman in a near whisper while leaning over from his technical area. “The referee has got me the sack. Thank him ever so much for that, won’t you?”

Only someone with a heart of stone could not have felt for Taylor in that moment. Sure, many, many mistakes had been made over the course of the qualifying campaign, not least the decision to invite the cameras and TV microphones into a hitherto largely unseen world.

But here was, quite clearly, a decent man who had simply been swallowed up by what had, in his case, proved to be an impossible job.