Football: Villa inspired by Taylor's work ethic

Stephen Brenkley studies the talents of a late developer who turned European hero
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Nobody could remember the last time a former forklift truck driver ensured an English team's progress to the quarter-finals of the Uefa Cup. This is probably because it has never happened before. It will never happen again unless Ian Taylor manages to stay around a while longer with shooting boots intact.

It was Taylor who scored Aston Villa's second goal of the second leg match against Steaua Bucharest at Villa Park on Tuesday night, running unchallenged from the halfway line and deftly beating the goalkeeper. It was a wonderfully satisfying conclusion to a memorable night, not least because of the scorer. Taylor is living, if all but solitary, evidence that to be a professional footballer in the glitziest league in the world it is not absolutely necessary to have been discovered at six, polished at nine, signed at 12 and either retained or discarded at 18.

He has become a solid part of the Villa midfield, running all day, doing the simple things well, using his deceptive fleetness of foot to surge into the penalty area: a footballer's footballer. Manchester United will not underestimate him in the Premiership at Old Trafford tomorrow. It was Taylor who scored first for Villa in their 3-1 victory when the sides met on the opening day of the 1995-96 season. That proved to be an utterly false indication of United's impending demise but it was also the last time the two sides were separated. The three Premiership matches between them since have all been goalless.

"When Brian Little and I were at Leicester we tried to get him," said Villa's assistant manager, Allan Evans. "He was our type of player. I've got so much time for him. Maybe it's because he got his chance late and takes nothing for granted but he's got a tremendous engine. It's fashionable to decry hard work on the pitch but it can't be over- rated and he trains like that as well."

Taylor was 24 before he was signed by Port Vale and even then he was discovered by accident. Two Vale scouts, Ray Williams and Eddie Tatton, had been sent to gauge the potential of a Burton Albion forward called Darren Roberts. They reported back that Roberts, now with Darlington, was a likely prospect but they were also smitten by a midfielder with the opposition, Moor Green of the Beazer Homes League, to wit Ian Taylor.

"I saw him play once in a West Midlands Cup final and liked him straightaway," said Vale manager John Rudge. "By that time Notts County had got wind of him and it took me until nearly midnight to get him to sign. He played in a pre-season match at Leicester and I put him straight in the team.

"I never truly thought then that he was a Premiership player but he was some acquisition. We went to Wembley that first season, got promotion the next and he couldn't stop scoring."

Rudge signed him for pounds 15,000 and sold him for pounds 1m to Sheffield Wednesday. That move was doomed to failure but Little, the Villa manager, recognised his unselfish qualities in central midfield. Evans suspects that his willingness and temperament will enable Taylor, 29, to continue for another six, perhaps seven, seasons. It is a remarkable story and it should gladden the hearts of forklift drivers everywhere.