Neil Taylor: I couldn't go out in Cardiff!
On the eve of the Premier League's first South Wales derby, the Swansea full-back on why the clubs' players can't socialise together
It's well over 10 years since the then Cardiff City owner Sam Hammam delivered his infamous observations on Swansea City, which for a long time enraged that club's fans but which are these days something to be thrown back into the faces of the neighbours, whom they meet for the first time in top-flight football this weekend.
"Some people tell me Swansea are the enemy," Hammam said, soon after he had taken over at Ninian Park. "Swansea? For Pete's sake. There is nothing wrong with Swansea. But is that the extent of our ambition?" The hubris of the Lebanese businessman's talk is evident everywhere you turn these days at the Liberty Stadium, with its new training facilities, established Premier League status and sustainable business model which this week saw the club announce £15.3m profits.
But a vignette which most mocks Hammam's patronising tone is provided by Joe Kelly, the club's commercial sales executive, who is swamped with signed photograph requests from Swansea fans in China. "I've got 250 pieces of merchandise to get signed," Kelly frets, nabbing Leon Britton to put his name on 50 more in time for despatch in Thursday's post. And finally, to his relief, here comes Neil Taylor – a player with more than a passing interest in Asian football, as we are about to discover – to dash off more of the signatures which come with the territory at a globally recognised club. Only then can Taylor jump onto a sofa at the Landore training base to discuss a South Wales derby that carries intensity beyond the wildest imagining of those in Shanghai and Beijing.
Taylor played in both titanic clashes of 2010/11 – the season which is seared across Cardiff minds as the one which propelled Swansea into the Premier League while they were left behind, marooned in a losing play-off semi-final against Reading, who by a vicious twist of fate Swansea finished off in the final. And now we have the prospect of the Premier League derby, which Cardiff head into against the backdrop of their benefactor, Vincent Tan, replacing the club's head of recruitment with a 23-year-old Kazakh who, it has transpired, does not have a work permit.
Taylor agrees that he'd rather be at Swansea than 40 miles down the M4, subject to the whim of an autocratic owner who changed Cardiff's traditional blue strip to red. "Everyone does it differently," the 24-year-old says. "Perhaps as long as you get there, how you do it sometimes doesn't matter. But as for how long you'll be there – well, then your business model does matter. There's a good business model here. That's the key."
He measures his words, as he must. Taylor's team-mate Angel Rangel has just set off a grenade with his declaration in an interview that Cardiff overpaid in offering Seville £11m for Gary Medel. That's incendiary talk before a derby which is best compared to an Old Firm occasion, rather than to anything the cities of Liverpool or Manchester might throw up. My next appointment after Taylor is with a fans' group in Cardiff who are anti-Tan. It took them five minutes to say anything other than "We hate Swansea".
Taylor – whose initial perspective on these hostilities was that of a curious North Walian observer, making his way through the ranks of his local club, Wrexham – laughs at the notion that he might socialise on Saturday nights with some of the Cardiff players he knows. "Go out? No," he says. "You can't. You can't do it. If a Cardiff player went out in Swansea he'd be spotted. If a Swansea player went out in Cardiff he'd be spotted. You save yourself the hassle, you know?"
His self-assurance is born of being an established Premier League player now. Taylor might not be Britain's best known full-back – at least, not outside the ranks of fantasy football enthusiasts, who have cottoned on to his value – but he has seen fickle fortune do its worst for him in the past few years and emerged the wiser. From a distance, it looked like an inordinate leap in 2010 when he left behind Wrexham's battle to escape the Conference for Swansea, only to see the manager who signed him, Paulo Sousa, leave within two days to join Leicester City. But then he was touched by the undoubted managerial brilliance of Brendan Rodgers. "I read the other day that Harry Redknapp wrote in his book that he wanted Brendan to go with him to England because if he could get Ashley Williams and Garry Monk to play like Franco Baresi then surely it can be done for anyone," Taylor reflects. "And I think that's true." But then, after playing 35 games for Rodgers in Swansea's first Premier League campaign and all four games of the Great Britain Olympic team's campaign, he broke his ankle three games into Michael Laudrup's first season, an injury which kept him out for seven months.
The memories of that time exist in fragments now. The unbearable thought of watching Premier League football at that time. ("At times I couldn't. Didn't want to bother.") The club packing him off on holiday to Dubai, where the cast came off and he tentatively walked. First catching sight of his calf – the thickness of a cricket stump. And then the anxiety of his comeback game, for the reserves against Queen's Park Rangers. "It needed that first tackle, and when I'd made it and it was over I knew I was fine." Only now is he able to begin proving his worth to Laudrup. "You have a whole different outlook on football and different aspect when you come back from it," he says.
His life's ambit certainly reaches beyond football. His mother, Shibani, was born and brought up in Kolkata and though his own childhood in the North Wales market town of Ruthin offered little chance to explore that heritage, Taylor is making up for lost time. He is palpably proud to be of half-Indian parentage and returned to the deeply impoverished West Bengal city earlier this year to begin investigating why the country produces almost no footballers. "I want to know whether it is that they are not encouraged by their parents," he says. "Do they prefer a different sport? From what I remember from India, and what a lot of people say about the Indian people, it could be that a lot of the young people are encouraged to be doctors, surgeons and get pushed down the education route. I just wanted to know, is there more talent out there?
"There are more Korean and Japanese players through the British leagues now but there are over a billion people in India, you know, and there's an incredible density to the place. What I remembered of the country was that it is just cricket-mad. But when I went out this time I saw the change. It was monsoon time and you couldn't even take your feet out of the grass. Sopping! But all the young people were playing football.
"They knew Swansea and the way we played. India is perhaps the only part of the footballing world that is not tapped into. This was about finding out. For years, people didn't know what origin I was. I've thought about it all. That's all it really is."
Taylor has been an enthusiastic advocate for football's version of the Indian Premier League, which launched this week. And there has certainly been a response to him embracing his heritage – in the same way that Blackpool's Michael Chopra began investigating his own Kolkata family. Taylor is becoming something of a figurehead for Asian football here and was named Player of the Year in last month's Asian Football Awards.
Taylor's wife, Genna, is the driving force behind their charity work, seeking to put something back into the caring profession she has left behind as the couple raise a two-year-old, with another on the way in February. But he intends to be back in Kolkata for a longer period next summer, continuing the work. The Kolkata derby between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan attracts 80,000, he points out. And yet it is unlikely to carry the resonance of Sunday's.
"They were ahead of us for a long time and then we stepped just ahead," Taylor says of that deeply significant 2010/11 season which cut Cardiff to the quick. But it is one of those friends he can't publicly socialise with – Wales team-mate Craig Bellamy – who has captured the full agony of defeat. "We were supposed to be the first Welsh side in the Premier League, not Swansea," Bellamy has since reflected. "It was a bitter blow." That's how much it matters.
My other life: Cricket
I've always been a massive cricket fan and perhaps my visits to Kolkata, visiting Eden Gardens, have nurtured that. I've always followed the Indian players, as well as the English and Welsh ones. Sachin Tendulkar is a huge character and sportsman to me. I got my interest in cricket from my dad, John, who was on Kent's books as a youngster. I played for my local village side in north Wales – Rhewl – and dad and I coached the Under-13s there together before I made the decision that it was football for me.
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