Tinker, Taylor, labourer, footballer: the former hard hat helping Derby rebuild

The Rams captain is nearing 500 appearances after a late start as a professional. He talks to Phil Shaw.
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The Independent Football

Put him in a hard hat and stick him behind the wheel of a forklift truck. Those were the orders for many a photographer dispatched to Aston Villa to snap Ian Taylor during the nine years that he scrapped for supremacy with the likes of Patrick Vieira, Paul Scholes and Steven Gerrard. The midfielder, you see, was steeped in what he calls "the real world" before establishing himself in the often unreal world of the Premiership.

Taylor, who is now driving Derby County's promotion challenge as captain of the Championship club, never knew the thrill of breaking into an academy XI, graduating to the reserves and then to the first-team bench. When he left school, he went on the dole and turned out for a non-League outfit in Birmingham. After training to be an electrician, he took a labouring job in a warehouse "to get some money in my pocket". Hence the snappers' stereotype which now causes him such amusement.

It seemed Taylor would come no closer to top-flight football than cheering his claret-and-blue heroes at Villa Park. But he kept on trucking around the semi-pro circuit until the age of 24, when Port Vale finally took a chance on his box-to-box industry and goalscoring flair. Far from harbouring any regret over the sporting education he missed or the humble nature of his early jobs, the relentlessly upbeat 36-year-old has always regarded his route into the game as beneficial.

"I'm so glad I saw the other side of life before I got into professional football," Taylor told me after George Burley had put his fifth-placed Derby side through their paces before leaving for today's match at Brighton & Hove Albion. "It means I don't take anything for granted. I've always been used to having to work for anything I achieve."

The sentiments are articulated with a smile rather than sanctimoniously, although Taylor's feats in 12 years and nearly 500 League and cup appearances as a full-time player are not to be sniffed at. And he has not finished yet. "I've been lucky with injuries. As long as I feel fit and well, I'll keep playing. If someone still wants you in your late thirties, you want to go on."

That the late starter does not want to stop is scarcely surprising. "I played with a club called Moor Green for seven years in front of the proverbial man and his dog. I assumed that was my level. People were always saying that clubs were watching me, but nothing materialised. At school I'd played with Julian Dicks [later of West Ham and Liverpool]. He signed for Birmingham City and so did some other lads I knew. It was a bit disheartening, but I just kept going."

Taylor had no sooner started to convince himself he "wasn't good enough anyway" than John Rudge, Port Vale's sleuth-like manager, watched Moor Green beat Nuneaton in a floodlit cup final at West Bromwich Albion. "I had a decent game and scored. Rudgey sat in his car and waited for all the other scouts to leave, then jumped out and collared me. It was like being stalked! The money on offer wasn't much better than my pay from football and labouring. But what an opportunity."

Rudge, having sold Robbie Earle to Wimbledon for £775,000, replaced him for £15,000. In the first of Taylor's two goal-strewn seasons with Vale, they reached Wembley twice. In his second they clinched promotion - at Brighton's former Goldstone Ground home. Trevor Francis paid £1m to take him to Sheffield Wednesday, but by his own admission, the 6ft 1in Taylor struggled in a wide-right role.

He stayed at Hillsborough only half a season. "Mr Francis saw me as a makeweight to sign a striker, Guy Whittingham from Villa. He said: 'You'll never guess who has come in for you' and started explaining why he was letting me go. There didn't have to be any reason. It was my dream move. It felt like I was coming home."

On his home debut for Villa, against Chelsea 10 years ago last Christmas, Taylor scored at the Holte End where he stood as a boy. "A far-post header - I remember it all," he said, beaming at the memory. "I'd give my best for any club that signed me, but there was always something extra-special about doing it for Villa."

He "did it" to stunning effect in the 1996 League Cup final, when he scored ("right-footed volley") as Villa humiliated Leeds 3-0. And he was the heartbeat of the side that went unbeaten under John Gregory in the opening 12 games of 1998-99. "That may be the last time we see an all-English team in our game," said Taylor, almost wistfully. "It was good while it lasted, but the manager wanted to kick on and add to the squad while we were top, and wasn't allowed to. In the end the pressure told on our lack of depth and we finished sixth."

Gregory called him "the first name on the team-sheet", but Taylor's modesty, rooted in his feeling that he was a supporter who had struck lucky, militated against his gaining the recognition he merited. When he went to Mauritius to get married, a waiter informed him that Patrick Vieira was in the bar.

"My wife went to the toilet to see if it was really him. She told me to go and say hello. Me being who I am, I said I couldn't. I didn't want to bother him. I was basically acting like a fan. We got up to leave and as we walked past, Patrick called me over. We had a great chat and he bought us champagne as a wedding present."

His fellow Villans certainly appreciated his efforts. The night before the final game of 2002-03, at Leeds, Graham Taylor told him he was releasing him. The last home fixture had been a week earlier, which meant he was denied the chance to bid farewell to his admirers on the Holte. One supporters' group was not about to let him go quietly and held a charity testimonial in his honour. He entered to a song of praise that made his spine shiver. Last August, when he scored for Derby against Villa in a friendly, the away end applauded unreservedly.

Ian Taylor's rapport with Derby's followers is different. But, as Burley has rung the changes to raise his team from the relegation zone to the play-off places in the space of nine months, Pride Park has come to value the sense of stability engendered by his leadership and experience. How did he explain their transformation? "Better-quality players. The manager has dug out some really good foreign free transfers, like Marco Reich, Inigo Idiakez, Grzegorz Rasiak and Morten Bisgaard.

"These aren't mercenaries looking for quick money. They're all great lads as well as good players and they've integrated well off the pitch. Mr Burley was also brave enough to bring through excellent young players like Lee Camp, Pablo Mills and Tom Huddlestone [who will join Tottenham in June]. It's a new team - me and Tom were talking and we reckoned there's only me and him left from the side that started last season. We were thrown together, but it has worked."

Derby have collected more than half their points away from home, an anomaly which makes next week's FA Cup replay at Fulham anything but a formality for the Premiership outfit. "In any football, the onus is on the home team to attack. We've overdone it at times and left ourselves exposed at the back. We feel we've got it sorted now and in a very open division, we have as good a chance of promotion as anybody."

Taylor would love to don the metaphorical hard hat and get back on the shop floor with Vieira and co, but his contract expires in the summer. While he waits to learn whether he will be offered another, helping in the rebuilding of the Rams is reward in itself. "The fans here have been very patient and understanding," he said, typically taking a punter's perspective. "But they can see we're getting back to where we want to be."