Football: Taylor's trip from Bulgaria to Bury

Guiding Gillingham to promotion will be a tough task after their close call last season
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The Independent Online
WITH ALL his experience of the Kentish non-League scene, Peter Taylor's appointment last month as manager of Gillingham, the county's only League club, would appear to be a natural progression. It should be of little interest to anyone outside the county.

However, instead of moving directly from Dover, who Taylor managed after playing for Maidstone and managing Dartford, he arrived at Priestfield Stadium having travelled across Europe as coach of the England Under-21 side. His progress at the Gills will thus be followed by the likes of Lee Hendrie, Emile Heskey and Frank Lampard.

Taylor's last match, in Bulgaria in June, secured the Under-21 side's passage into the next stage of the European Under-21 Championship. His next, at Gigg Lane on Saturday, begins the task of gaining promotion from the Second Division. "It's been very different," said Taylor, "because the phone hasn't stopped ringing and I've been busy every day. In the last job you were busy for a week and then had more time to plan for the next one."

Taylor's departure from the national set-up was controversial, neither his success nor experience seeming to count for much. There is still a lingering sadness over his departure, even though the bitterness at the way he was forced out by the Football Association's technical director Howard Wilkinson has eased.

"No job lasts forever," Taylor said. "It was a lovely experience and great for me as a coach. I would like to make clear the only thing I have against Howard is that I am not the Under-21 man in his eyes. Apart from that we get on just fine."

In theory Wilkinson, the FA's technical director, will run the Under- 21s in conjunction with the Sunderland manager, Peter Reid, but in reality, notes Taylor, "Howard will run it - Peter hasn't got the time. I was full- time, watching players everywhere. Not even Howard is going to have the time to do that."

Despite his results there is a reservation about Taylor's record as England Under-21 coach - several of his key players, such as Lampard, John Curtis and Kieron Dyer, have yet to make the step up to the senior side while Heskey, who has, was unconvincing. The young players who have made the biggest impact, Michael Owen, Jonathon Woodgate and Paul Scholes, made only one Under-21 appearance between them.

However, Hendrie obviously benefited from Taylor's tutelage, and the team clearly enjoyed it - several were in tears when he left. From a Gillingham perspective, while the true worth of his work with the likes of Heskey, Jamie Carragher and Richard Wright will only be known in years to come, his evident ability to organise a team despite chronic problems with availability of players will be invaluable.

While the side Taylor inherits is deflated, having lost to Manchester City on penalties in last season's promotion play-off final, it is not rebellious. Though his predecessor, Tony Pulis, was acrimoniously sacked after a row with the chairman, Paul Scally, he was respected rather than loved. The fans, who seem divided as to whether Pulis or Scally - who rescued the club from bankruptcy four years ago - was most at fault for the split, also seem to be behind the new manager.

However, this support comes with a high level of expectation after last term's near-miss. "People have said to me we should get automatic promotion but when you lose a play-off final it sometimes takes the players two or three months to get over it."

The last three teams to lose the Second Division play-off final, Notts County, Brentford and Northampton, have each been relegated the following season, which underlines the need for a good start - a task not helped by the loss of their leading striker Carl Asaba to injury for three months. Taylor says he has money, but has so far signed a quartet of unknowns.

Like Priestfield Stadium, currently being rebuilt on two sides, it may take the team a while to look the part. Should they do so, the potential is obvious. The club has a vast catchment area and the sale of 35,000 Wembley tickets in two days underlines the depth of latent support.

There may also be a new spectator. "Glenn [Hoddle] has promised to come down and watch a few games, though at the moment there is no director's box to sit in," Taylor said. "I've invited him to training as well - he can still put on a show. I'm sure he will be back, but once you've been England manager there are only certain jobs you can come back to. Myself, I was desperate to work and it is a job I'm enjoying."

Taylor, 46, is looking to build a British team - "they are more reliable, team spirit is easier to foster, and it is criminal to bring in foreign players at this level unless there is no alternative." He has managed before in the League, enduring a difficult 16 months at his home-town club, Southend. When he left them, in 1995, they were in the First Division. Now they are in the Third.

Taylor was the last player to be capped while in the lower divisions. His final appearance in an England shirt was against Team USA in the 1976 Bicentenary Tournament (for which caps were not awarded).

If England had promoted from within, as the French, Italians, Germans and Scots usually do, Taylor might now be looking towards Warsaw. Instead he is heading for Bury. It is not necessarily any easier an assignment.

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