Football: No mystery why Taggart can master Klinsmann

Guy Hodgson talks to the burly Northern Ireland defender who has one of the most demanding jobs in football in tonight's World Cup qualifier
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The Independent Online
There was a poster a few years ago which showed a footballer, head in hands. The gist of the words (with apologies to the author) were: "You're in the team, your parents have come to watch... and you've just learnt you're marking Ryan Giggs."

Gerry Taggart could identify with the disconsolate defender. When he returned to the Northern Ireland team the opponents could have been World Cup cannon fodder, San Marino or Monaco, for example. The man he was marking might have been inexperienced, carrying an injury or past it. In his dreams. The striker he had to subdue was Jurgen Klinsmann.

Germany in Nuremberg is no one's idea of an ideal comeback and even the normally imperturbable Taggart was edgy. "I hadn't played for a year," he said, "and what a game to come back to. You have to try and block those things out but it was a bit nerve-racking to tell the truth. I had a few butterflies that night."

Which suggests Taggart, who will meet the Germans again in Belfast tonight, should get nervous every match, because he was the cornerstone around which Northern Ireland built a wall of such obduracy that they slipped away with a 1- 1 draw. To complete a happy night for the Bolton central defender he got his sixth goal for his country.

"It was like the Alamo," Taggart said of a famous Irish night. "The second half was unbelievable. They were hitting the bar, the post, Tommy Wright was making magnificent saves. We were clearing off the line, all sorts. The whole team played that well that night."

The goal? "Just a stroke of luck," he said, smiling at the memory. "It fell right for me; it was there to be smacked."

Taggart, 26, was talking between tackling a doorstep of a sandwich at Bolton's training ground near Chorley. "I made it as big as I could," the woman serving him said, past experience teaching her that he has the appetite to match his size. A big man, he would command respect at a bouncers' convention but, while it would have been a brave person to tell him to his face, it took him a long time to get the same from his own supporters.

A pounds 1.5m signing from Barnsley two years ago, his career at Burnden Park virtually mirrored his new employers'. In his first season injury and suspension restricted him to 12 appearances as Bolton plummeted out of the Premiership. At the same time his international career came to a halt after a lacklustre performance against Latvia.

"It was so frustrating," he said. "I wanted to make an impression and I was trying too hard. It worked against me. I had so many injury problems and there was nothing I could do about it but wait to get fit."

The Bolton, who had not been good enough for the Premiership, were far too good for the First Division, however, and they and Taggart enjoyed a renaissance. Strong as an ox, he played more than 50 times, winning over the fans and the Northern Ireland manager, Bryan Hamilton. Cue an awesome performance against Germany.

Now Taggart faces Germany and, in all probability, Klinsmann again. "He's the best striker I've played against," he said. "His movement is fantastic: you're never really sure where he is going to go to next.

"Some strikers are fairly static, preferring to hold the ball up, but he's going here and there all the time. He makes space for others running through as well as for himself for the long diagonal ball over the top. A very clever player. You have to treat him like you would any centre- forward, basically get stuck into him."

The last sentence was accompanied by a chuckle, registering that his rugged style is not always appreciated by opponents on and off the field. Taggart's role model is Steve Bruce, another tough player who he describes as not blessed with lightening pace. "But what a reader of the game," he added with an air of wonder. "He more than made up for any deficiencies with his anticipation."

A player who is more than the sum of his parts in fact, which is similar to how Taggart regards the Germans. "They are not the most skilful side in the world but they have this system which they use so well and they work so hard at it. They just grind people down. They are like a machine. It keeps ticking over."

Whether Ireland can throw a spanner in the vorsprung durch technik for a second time is debatable, although Taggart is optimistic. "Our problem is that we've too many young players. I'm 26, I've got 43 caps but apart from Jim Magilton, Iain Dowie and Michael Hughes, the rest are relatively inexperienced. It's a good thing in many respects, but in a sense this World Cup has got come a bit too early. If the young players develop we could be a fair side.

"In our group there's the Ukraine, Portugal and Germany up at the top; qualification from it is not over by any stretch of the imagination. They need a result: it's a bigger game for them than us. And for some reason Northern Ireland seem to do better against the big boys."

They do not come much bigger than Germany, nor Taggart come to think of it. Someone large, either by reputation or bulk, will have their head in their hands tonight.