The Brian Viner Interview: Taylor's leap from national side to seaside

'People think there's a long way for me to go now. But there was a long way to go when I was manager of Dover. There's maybe less distance now'
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Sven Goran Eriksson prepares for England's friendly against the Netherlands this evening, he has the admiring support of every sane follower of the national team. All those xenophobes who shuddered at the idea of a foreigner managing England ? among them some distinguished men of football, one or two with World Cup winners' medals ? have fallen uncharacteristically silent. And the feverish debate which preceded Eriksson's appointment has been largely forgotten.

But cast your minds back to those dark days following Kevin Keegan's abrupt resignation, to the candidacy of the then-Leicester City manager Peter Taylor.

He had been a hugely successful coach of England's Under-21 side, absurdly sacked in an act of shameful hubris by the Football Association's technical director Howard Wilkinson, who wanted to take charge of the team himself.

Taylor was a coach of growing renown. He was affable, co-operative with the media, and said to do a fabulous Norman Wisdom impression, which could only be a good thing. He had played for England himself. I was one of those who favoured him for the England job, ideally with Bobby Robson as éminence grise if only someone could explain to Robson that éminence grise was not that promising young winger from Senegal.

Taylor was indeed given a game as England manager, in the November 2000 friendly against Italy, and his legacy remains in the captaincy of David Beckham. "I phoned him up on the Thursday morning," recalls Taylor, "and said: 'I'm naming the squad this afternoon and I'm going to name you as captain'. What did Beckham say? He said: 'Brilliant'."

Taylor was only keeping the seat warm for Eriksson that night, but he did seem to have been earmarked as the Swede's probable successor. So what are we doing in a chilly changing-room on the windswept campus at Sussex University?

The answer, of course, is that he is now the Brighton and Hove Albion manager, making do with decidedly iffy facilities. And as well as Brighton are doing in the Second Division – consolidating second place with an emphatic 3-1 win against leaders Reading on Monday night – signing Junior Lewis on loan is a long way from handing the captain's armband to David Beckham.

Moreover, a manager who not so long ago was associated only with domestic progress, albeit with Dover Athletic and Gillingham, must now bear the stigma of failure. His 15 months in charge of Leicester ended on September 30 last year, when a 2-0 defeat by Charlton Athletic hastened a sacking that had looked on the cards since the opening day of the season, when Leicester were humiliated 5-0 at home by Bolton Wanderers.

"I have not lost confidence in my ability and in my opinion they let a good man go," Taylor says. "I would still love to be manager of England. I also want to manage a Premiership team. I said to myself when I left Leicester that I might have to go down one or two pegs, but if we can get the stadium sorted out here then I think I can get into the Premiership with Brighton eventually."

As upset as he was to be sacked by Leicester's chairman Sir John Elsom, he thinks his experience at Filbert Street did him good. ("How lovely for him," I hear resentful Leicester fans saying). It also reinforced his faith in the brotherhood of managers.

"I got fantastic support, from the foreign managers as well as the British ones. (Jean) Tigana and (Gérard) Houllier phoned me up, as did (David) O'Leary and Alex Ferguson, and told me to keep strong. Ferguson told me I had to carry on believing, and make sure that my next step was a positive one. It made me realise that I hadn't been supportive enough myself of people going through a bad time. Even while I was under pressure John Gregory always put himself out to deliver a text message, saying keep it going. And Martin O'Neill (his predecessor at Leicester) put in a tremendous call. He said: 'Do what you feel is right. Don't listen to anyone else'."

O'Neill, as is his wont, had put his finger on it. Taylor feels that his principle failing at Leicester was being too indulgent of others.

"I read that they're playing 4-4-2 now," he says. "That's because it was easier for Dave [Bassett] to change things after me, than it was for me to change things after Martin, who's a god there.

"I wanted to play 4-4-2 for ages, but I gave the players there too much credit, too much scope. I played 5-3-2 because they'd been playing it for years, and a lot of the players were suited to it, but I knew that 4-4-2 was the right way to go. In the end I wasn't strong enough. We played it against Bolton, which was a disaster, but I should have stuck with it. I was always saying to Mattie Elliott 'you're fine in a back four', but I'm not sure I convinced him. That's my fault. I should have been stronger."

Taylor also stands by the signings he made at Leicester, including that of the much-derided Ade Akinbiyi. "Some pundits who've had two minutes in management themselves gave me some stick, but I don't feel I signed bad players. Akinbiyi is not the best of finishers but he's got everything else. And Wise, Scowcroft, Walker, Marshall ... I don't see them as bad players."

On the evening after the Charlton defeat, Taylor was at his home in Rutland when the phone rang. It was Elsom, asking if he could meet him in a nearby hotel. The writing was on the wall in fluorescent yellow.

"We had always got on very well, actually. My only criticism of John Elsom is that he allowed the pressure to mount straight away. As far as I'm concerned I was sacked after one game, when he said to me: 'Another one like that and you could be out'."

When Elsom broke the news, Taylor told him, if not in so many syllables, that he was acting precipitously. "At the time there were four teams on five points, one on six and a lot on eight. Of course, if they stay up then they've made the right decision."

But Saturday's defeat by Tottenham left Leicester five points adrift at the bottom of the Premiership. Survival is beginning to look unlikely, and who knows whether the club would be in a healthier position had Taylor stayed, or even further in the mire? Whatever, only 25 league places now separate Taylor's present club from his previous one, and the odds are that they will be meeting each other in the league next season.

So what of Brighton? Taylor took the job against the advice of his friends, who thought he should take a longer break to consider his options. "My wife helped me make my mind up because she wanted to be close to Southend [their home town]. And I knew that there was a good fan base here. I spoke to Mickey Adams [his predecessor, now, ironically, Bassett's assistant at Leicester] and he said: 'You'll love the club, the players, the chairman'. Although, to be fair, he also said there would be frustrations." Those frustrations are manifest here in the grounds of Sussex University.

Brighton's training facilities and temporary Withdean stadium are clearly inadequate for a club with ambition. On the other hand, chairman Dick Knight has so far been true to his word concerning the rampant goalscorer Bobby Zamora, whose opener on Monday was his 26th goal of the season.

"The chairman told me in my interview that Bobby would not have to be sold, which we won't do unless we get an incredible offer that is right for Bobby and right for the club. Gordon Strachan has watched him, Walter Smith, Sam Allardyce. But Bobby knows that he is better off playing regularly here than going somewhere else to be a squad player." Here, though, Taylor slips in what might even be a little sales pitch.

"There's no doubt that he's got what it takes [to succeed in the Premiership]. He's an excellent finisher, doesn't need too many chances, and even though he gets all the headlines our players all love him because he works so hard."

Taylor, 49, was himself a busy player, a left-footed right-winger cut of the same unconventional cloth as Nottingham Forest's John Robertson, who was right-footed playing wide on the left. From Southend he joined Crystal Palace, where his manager was Malcolm Allison. "I owe everything to Malcolm," he says. "He was well ahead of his time, with great imagination. I think that's what people like Glenn (Hoddle) think about me, that I'm imaginative. Even during a training session I might change things, try something new. I learnt that from Malcolm, and a little bit from Dave Sexton."

In 1976 – the year he won his four England caps – Taylor joined Tottenham for a then-substantial £200,000. And in 1978 he was in on the start of a revolution, when manager Keith Burkinshaw audaciously brought a pair of Argentinians to White Hart Lane.

Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricky Villa had a huge impact, on and off the pitch. "If they didn't think the club was doing right by them then they'd let everyone know, which was new to us. British players at the time would do whatever the club wanted, never questioned anything. On the field, Ossie was one of the most positive players I've ever seen. He would run at defences as fast as possible. 'If you touch me, I'm over' was the message. And they would never think of crossing the ball, because then there was a chance of losing it. Their idea of a goal was after 500 passes and 300 one-twos."

I ask Taylor whether he thinks the foreign invasion of English football, heralded by the arrival of Ardiles and Villa, has been a uniformly good thing? "I think there should be a restriction of maybe three or four per team," he says. "We should have the cream of foreign players. The Zolas, the Desaillys, the Henrys. But not if they're just average. We need young English players playing, not just being squad players. For our national game that's important."

Whether Taylor will ever again be a figurehead in the national game depends, in the short term, on whether he wins promotion for Brighton. "People think that there's a long way for me to go now," he says. "But I had a long way to go before, when I was at Dover Athletic." He smiles. "There's maybe less distance now."

It was Hoddle, something of a mentor despite being the younger by nearly five years, who surprisingly plucked Taylor from the Nationwide Conference and appointed him coach of the England Under-21 side. And in 1999 the team had played six, won six, scored 18 and conceded none when Wilkinson dismissed him. "To lose my job like that was a little surprising," he says, with admirable restraint. "But I understood that Howard had plans. I have a lot of respect for Howard. Him and Jim Smith were on Sky the other day. I could listen to people like that all day."

Although he firmly believes that Hoddle should never have lost the England job, Taylor also has boundless respect for Eriksson. "I don't think the FA knew [when they appointed him] how well he would get on with the players. They love him. He's got a lovely way about him but he's very strong. And they know he knows what he's talking about. I've learnt things about 4-4-2 from him, like making sure you don't attack too silly, that you keep your shape. But he doesn't want a rigid 4-4-2. Once you've got the ball you should not necessarily be able to see the 4-4-2 shape, but it's important that you have it when you lose the ball. That's what Manchester United do when they're playing at their best."

The question is, could Manchester United at their best win the World Cup?