Peter Taylor: Taylor-made to succeed?

Brian Viner Interviews: The England Under-21 manager preceded Sven Goran Eriksson (albeit for one game) and has attracted shrewd money to succeed the Swede
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A patriotic Englishman in his early fifties, who played football four times for his country, has a decent international pedigree as a coach, is respected by the captain, has been contentedly married to the same woman for more than 30 years, is not likely to be duped by a man in flowing desert robes... could it be that the best possible candidate for the Eriksson succession has been under the noses of the Football Association mandarins all along?

Somebody clearly thinks so, because in recent weeks the odds on Peter Taylor becoming Sven Goran Eriksson's successor as England manager have shortened from 33-1 to 9-2, before lengthening slightly following this week's whispers about an "unofficial" shortlist of Martin O'Neill, Sam Allardyce, Alan Curbishley and Stuart Pearce. But unlike the men on that list, Taylor knows the international scene.

He has spent five years, in two spells, as the England Under-21s coach, which he now combines with the day-to-day job of managing Hull City. On Tuesday he presided over a 3-1 defeat of Norway that was somewhat more emphatic, it has to be said, than the defeat of Uruguay 24 hours later. Moreover, he has taken charge of the senior squad before, albeit only once, in the difficult interregnum between Kevin Keegan's resignation and Eriksson's arrival. He it was, indeed, who first handed the captain's armband to David Beckham.

At a press conference on Monday at Pennyhill Park, the swish hotel near Bagshot better known as the pre-match base for England's rugby players, the Under-21 captain Anton Ferdinand insisted that Taylor would be a great appointment, that he is an excellent coach, with finely tuned man-management skills. "I know that my brother [Rio] and Frank Lampard speak very highly of him," he said.

The younger Ferdinand was followed into the hot seat by Taylor himself, who was asked a few routine questions about his players' form and fitness, before the handful of reporters got to the real nub of the matter. Did he think he was in the frame? Did he have the right kind of experience? And then a doozie: did he think Sven was in his corner? Unfortunately, the FA's press liaison man, sitting alongside, quite properly ruled this question out of order. But it hung, unanswered, in the air. The Swede must have his own fancied candidate, and it might well be Taylor.

Of course, if the former Southend United, Gillingham, Leicester City and Brighton & Hove Albion manager was to leap the more glamorous contenders, then we would have the curious phenomenon of a man leaving unfashionable Hull City to become England boss. Taylor thinks that this counts against him more tellingly than anything.

"I honestly don't think I'm going to get the job," he says, in a lounge at Pennyhill Park safely away from the hawkish attention of the press liaison man. "If I was still at Leicester City, in the top six in the Premiership, with five years coaching the Under-21s behind me, then I would fancy myself to be quite high up the list. But I feel there are English managers in the Premiership ahead of me. Not many people have mentioned Steve Bruce, for instance. To me he could be a very respected England manager, and the players would like him. I know Birmingham City are struggling, but to me, he's a better manager now than he was a year ago. It's the same with Steve McClaren. The best team could lose 3-0 or 4-0 to Arsenal, but he played youngsters in his [Middlesbrough] back four and lost 7-0, and suddenly he's no longer in line."

It is certainly true that the reputations of prospective England managers wax and wane like the moon. It was ever thus. I can recall some influential voices being raised loudly in support of Peter Reid's claims when he was enjoying success with Sunderland, and I can also remember what he said when I asked him whether he would ever put his name forward. "It's not for me and I'll tell you why," said the forthright Scouser. "I like a bird and I like a pint. The press would crucify me."

As far as I'm aware, the most embarrassing thing in Taylor's closet is the flat cap he wears for his fabled Norman Wisdom impressions. If only the FA would ask each contender for Eriksson's job to do a Norman Wisdom impression, I say, and frankly it wouldn't be the daftest thing it has ever done, then he'd be a shoo-in. Taylor laughs. "He came into the dressing-room, you know, after the game in Albania [where, bewilderingly, the veteran comedian enjoys iconic status]. That's where Sven was great, he was quite happy for him to come in, and he had everyone in hysterics."

The FA might be wise, post-Sven, to pick a man whose only well-known weakness is for old Norman Wisdom films. All the same, it seems valid to ask whether the attendant media attention - the long lenses, the fake sheikhs - would make him think twice if he were offered the job. "No, it wouldn't worry me," he says. "And maybe if it were me there would be less of that."

There was hardly time for anyone even to get a sheikh kit on or a long lens out during his stint as temporary England manager. In November 2000 he oversaw a 1-0 defeat by Italy in a friendly in Turin and that was it. "The shortest 90 minutes of my life," he says.

""But I was delighted even to get one game. I never thought that would happen to me, someone who started by running Sunday morning teams. Suddenly to get a phone call from the FA saying they wanted me to run the national team ... I couldn't believe it."

Once he had got over his disbelief he told Adam Crozier, then the FA's chief executive, that he wanted to pick a younger squad, which meant that he needed a new captain to succeed Tony Adams. "My options were Gary Neville, Gareth Southgate and David Beckham, and I went with David because I remembered him being sent off against Argentina [in the 1998 World Cup] and how brilliant he was the following season, despite getting stick wherever he went. I thought he should have got player of the season that year, and I also knew how much he enjoyed playing for his country. So I said to Steve McClaren, 'Just mark David's card that it's in my thoughts'. And on the morning that I was naming the squad, at a hotel near Leicester, I rang David and said, 'You're definitely in the squad and I'm going to name you as captain'. He had a little chuckle, and I think it's worked out brilliantly."

Eriksson would doubtless concur, although there are those who think that the Swede is so in thrall to Beckham that he picks him even when his fitness and form are less than assured.

"I honestly don't see Sven as that type," Taylor says. "In the Southend Sunday League you might play your best mates, but I think that for England, and in club management, his record shows that he picks teams to win matches."

OK, then what of the criticism levelled at Eriksson as a tactician? I don't expect Taylor to knock him, but he must at least be aware that certain manoeuvres - playing five in midfield against Northern Ireland, for example - expose the coach to the charge that he is tactically less shrewd than his quiet, unhistrionic demeanour suggests.

"Well, I've worked with him, and I've heard him explain everything so easy, so that the players are very clear in their jobs. And I've been on the line with him when substitutions were made, or not made.

"Just because you don't make a change, it doesn't mean you don't know what you're doing. All it means is that it might be more beneficial to keep it the way it's going. I'm sure a lot of people out there who are not managers would use their three subs up very quickly.

"Now, I have to say that in the last two tournaments we've been disappointing on the attacking side. I think Wayne Rooney is the answer, I really do, but we've got a lot of players who would get in a World XI: Rooney, Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Steven Gerrard, David Beckham. And the team's a great age, too. People talk about Brazil, and yes, Ronaldinho is absolutely amazing, but are their centre-halves better than ours? I think that, 11 for 11, we've got a fantastic chance of winning the World Cup."

He is similarly upbeat about 2010, when the likes of Beckham and Gary Neville will have given way to the players Taylor is working with now. He's hardly likely to be downbeat, but his optimism seems sincere. "In my first campaign as Under-21 manager I didn't have too many wingers. I played with wing-backs. Now, it's obvious we should play with wide players. I've got some very exciting players who take people on, and I think that's a little bit to do with the academies."

It must be hard, I venture with due respect, to work with the cream of England's young players and then head back to Hull, who - following two successive promotions - are struggling in the Championship.

"Yeah, but it's my team. I've been there three-and-a-bit years, and I've got some very good players. So I'm not going down so many levels. It's not like I have to put two different coaching hats on. I will eventually leave Hull, whether it's this year or next year, but I'm desperate to keep them up, because we won't be fighting relegation next year if we stay in the division this year. We'll be a better team for it, there's no doubt, and maybe the year after that, knowing the chairman, we'd be ready to try getting into the Premiership. We could do a Reading in a couple of years."

More imminently - in fact tomorrow - Taylor has to take his team to the Walkers Stadium, where smoky bacon might be the flavour of the month but he is not. He was sacked by Leicester City and some fans ascribe to him the club's woes even now.

"I understood why I got the sack. There was a new stadium being built and they felt they had to stay in the Premiership. I made some wrong decisions, and may not have signed the right players. But when we lost to Wycombe [a 2-1 defeat at Filbert Street in the sixth round of the FA Cup in March 2001, a humiliation from which Taylor's reputation as Leicester manager never really recovered] we were fourth in the Premier League, having just beaten Liverpool and Chelsea. And in that same game, against Wycombe, we lost three players who never played again that season. Those three players were [Robbie] Savage, [Muzzy] Izzet and [Matt] Elliott. So I don't think it was all my fault.'

A pause. "I saw a fantastic documentary about Bobby Robson recently. I could listen to that man all day. And he was basically saying that when the going gets tough as a manager, you have to get going. You can't feel sorry for yourself, you have to be able to lift yourself as well as your players and if you can't do that then you're in the wrong game. I was gutted to lose my job at Leicester, because it's a great club and I'm sure that on Saturday they will make it known that I wasn't the most popular manager there. In a way that was my main problem. I took over from Martin O'Neill and it's not easy taking over from a god."

Indeed. Still, if it is O'Neill who succeeds Eriksson, Taylor will at least have the satisfaction of knowing that it is easier to work in a god's shadow than to follow in his footsteps.

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