Maik Taylor: 'For some players there is always an excuse. They don't appreciate their job. It amazes me'
Maik Taylor left the military to battle his way up through the ranks of professional football. Mike Rowbottom finds the Northern Ireland goalkeeper full of gratitude, as well as grit
Saturday 22 December 2007
More than one Birmingham City player has expressed a degree of bewilderment about the unsettling nature of the club's circumstances this season, as speculation about a takeover from Hong Kong was compounded by uncertainty over the tenure of manager Steve Bruce.
Now that Carson Yeung's putative bid has been declared dead in the water, and Bruce has departed for Wigan to be replaced by Alex McLeish, there is a gathering sense of business as usual at St Andrew's. But then, for Maik Taylor, it has always been business as usual.
At 36, Birmingham City's custodian has experienced much of what the game has to offer from non-League football with Petersfield Town, up through all the divisions, and on to an international career with Northern Ireland.
He has known promotion, relegation, praise, blame, managers who say they love him, managers who say they love him but then drop him, managers who are replaced by other managers (he played for three in the space of a fortnight earlier this season), mega-rich businessmen in charge, mega-rich businessmen saying they are in charge (but turning out not to be), players with the right attitude, players with the wrong attitude...
As he speaks, the morning's training sessions over, Taylor exudes all the calmness and judgement you would want from a goalkeeper. He readily admits that a key part of his attitude has been shaped by an Army upbringing.
His father was a staff sergeant in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers who had met his wife while based in Germany, where Taylor spent most of his childhood. Son followed in father's footsteps at 16, joining up straight from school and spending the next eight years in uniform, ending up as a lance corporal at the School of Electrical and Mechanical Engineering (SEME) in Borden, Hampshire, where he combined working on tanks with playing part-time for Farnborough Town. Like Kelly Holmes, who turned to full-time athletics after a long Army career, Taylor has adapted that discipline to telling effect.
"I think it has to help, that work ethic," he says. "It's quite sad to say it, but not every professional footballer that I've come across has that mentality. There's actually more than a minority that don't have it, which is pretty sad to see. But having worked six hard years, up at the crack of dawn, and working for relatively peanuts, it helps me appreciate everything I have now and it's certainly hardened me up a little bit.
"When I have had disappointments in the game I've managed to put them to one side and look at the positives and realise what a fantastic job I'm in. I'm still enjoying it. I still wake up every morning looking forward to training, and while that's the case, long may it continue."
Taylor had an extended opportunity to study professionals with dodgy attitudes when he found himself relegated to the reserves soon after helping Fulham to achieve Premier League status in 2001. Manager Jean Tigana appreciated how he had played in the Championship but brought in Edwin van der Sar. That meant a long spell in the stiffs for Taylor something of a setback in a career that had described an upward curve since he turned professional at 24.
"For some players, there's always an easy excuse for not getting down to hard work," he says. "It often happens when players aren't involved in the first team. I spent 18 months out of the first team at Fulham and I couldn't get my head round guys turning up for reserve games and just going through the motions.
"I felt that I needed to be ready in case something happened to Edwin so I needed to get as much as I possibly could out of these reserve games. And if nothing happened to Edwin, there were always scouts at the games.
"But people were just going and not trying a leg, because it was the reserves and they were seeing it as some kind of punishment. It was amazing. A lot of pros do appreciate their job. But not all.
"At 24 I thought if ever there's going to be a chance of me turning professional it's probably passed me now," he reflects. "But you live in hope and it all fell into place."
The man responsible for this dramatic transformation was Ray Clemence, the former Liverpool and England keeper who bought Taylor out of the Army for the princely sum of 700 and signed him up for the team he was then managing, Barnet. A case of now you SEME, now you don't...
"Ray gave me a phone call over the summer and asked if I could go full-time," Taylor recalls. "Obviously I was well up for it. He said he'd never actually seen me play himself but he'd had people watching me all season and could I go up there for a couple of hours training session with him so he could see me first hand? It was a month out of the season and I was a little bit rusty but he was there with a couple of the young Academy boys and I think we covered every aspect of goalkeeping in that two hours. And it's always there in the back of your mind: 'Am I doing all right?'"
Taylor was indeed doing all right. And within three years after moving from Barnet to Southampton and then on to Fulham, where manager Kevin Keegan laid out 700,000 for the man he described as "the best taker of a cross in Britain" the nervous Barnet trialist was an international 'keeper. Taylor's rise has been all the more surprising given that he was a late starter not just as a pro, but as a goalie. Until he was 19 he always played outfield centre forward, wouldn't you know and only took a place between the sticks after the regular custodian in his junior Army team decided he didn't fancy the conditions.
"There was a huge puddle in the goalmouth and the keeper didn't want to be diving about in it," Taylor recalls with a grin. "So just as a laugh and wanting to get my face in it, I said 'Give me them gloves'."
Taylor's reflections upon this historic moment are interrupted by the arrival of a cup of tea borne by Birmingham's striker Mikael Forssell, although judging by the amount of covert laughter going on there is clearly more to this than a comradely gesture. "I made him tea on the bus the other day and he thinks he's going to get away with it," says Taylor, bringing the cup to his mouth. Ah, the strange, joshing world of the professional footballer...
Despite his own defensive preoccupations, Taylor admits that there are times when he is able to stand and appreciate the good things going on in front of him now that he is playing regularly with players of Forssell's calibre.
"In the early years, coming from non-league football straight into the League, I was getting to know what players were capable of," he says, laughing at the recollection. "Sometimes I couldn't believe what I saw. But then when I was at Southampton I saw players like Matt Le Tissier doing things with a ball that I'd never seen before. It was a real eye-opener. Whereas in the early days you can only roll the ball out slowly to players, suddenly you can throw it out as hard as you possibly can and it sticks. It's a different world."
That world soon widened still further when he was called up for Northern Ireland as he was born abroad but had a British passport he was entitled to play for any of the Home Nations. After enduring a 14-match run without scoring, the players transformed their fortunes under the leadership of Lawrie Sanchez.
"Under Lawrie we managed to do well against the so-called bigger teams because we tried to keep it a British-style game and sort of rough them up a little bit." He grins. "A little bit of Lawrie's old Wimbledon style ... some teams don't like it."
The words "up 'em" hang unspoken at the end of his sentence. But if Taylor is pragmatic, he soon reveals that he is far from cynical, as he assesses the goalscoring phenomenon of Fulham's David Healy, who, despite Northern Ireland's ultimate failure to earn a place at Euro 2008, became the highest ever goalscorer in a qualifying campaign with 13 goals in 11 games.
"People in England don't appreciate how well David is thought of in Northern Ireland," Taylor says. "He is the David Beckham, an absolute icon over there. A lot of players talk about how it was great to play with George Best. I feel really proud to have played in the team with David Healy when he has broken the scoring record. That will be talked about for years."
While the international experience has been broadly beneficial for Taylor, he empathises with those for whom that happy circumstance is not true such as, to draw a name at random, Scott Carson.
"There was huge, huge pressure on Scott coming in for the Croatia game. He's been out on loan and he hasn't played in a game of that magnitude before. I really felt for him because obviously we all wished him well and hoped that he'd do well. But unfortunately the ball's moved for the first goal and that's history now.
"For Scott to get the headlines he did after making a mistake I felt was very, very harsh and very cruel for someone of 22 years old. He's just gone in there and tried to do his best. The manager has made the call and unfortunately it's turned out like that.
"People say we can't believe England goalkeepers keep making mistakes and that our goalkeepers aren't as good I think they are good keepers, but unfortunately there have been a few mistakes and they've been highlighted. We seem to be very quick to come down on people rather than offer them a bit of encouragement."
Taylor knows of what he speaks. "I've had the crowd on my back numerous times in my career. But I don't think anyone can question that I have tried my best. Mistakes happen in games, and if you are a goalkeeper that normally means a goal.
"You have to be thick-skinned. If people are going to slag me for making a mistake, well they pay their money and that's it. I'm not going to let it affect me."
The same mindset has been employed in recent months as Birmingham have experienced managerial changes with Bruce leaving for Wigan, then Eric Black leaving for Wigan, then McLeish arriving and much boardroom speculation.
"No question it's been unsettling," Taylor agrees. "But as professionals you need to just get your head down and worry about what goes on on the pitch. As long as we are all fighting for the same cause, to retain our Premier League status, then no one can argue. We can't use it as an excuse for failure. Everything else is out of our hands, but this is something we can do while we're here."
If it comes down to battles, Lance Corporal Taylor is someone you'd want in the trench alongside you.
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