Matt Taylor interview: West Ham midfielder has learnt to value Upton Park life
As West Ham man's career winds down he is determined to enjoy every minute on the big stage
Wednesday 26 March 2014
Many things lose their excitement as they become more familiar but playing football is not one of them. Not, at least, for Matt Taylor. Coming to the end of his 10th season in the Premier League, West Ham United's reliable man feels the buzz of top-flight competition more sharply than ever.
Taylor, 32, is nearly at the end of his contract at Upton Park and is loving his renewed role in West Ham's recent run. They host Hull City on Wednesday night, sensing that two wins will probably be enough to keep them in the Premier League for next season, and three certainly will be.
This, then, is a very big game and the prospect of running out, under lights, in a full ground, with so much at stake clearly means the world to Taylor, even more now than it did first playing for Harry Redknapp's Portsmouth 10 years ago.
"When you're younger, you probably don't appreciate what you're actually doing," Taylor reflects after training at Chadwell Heath, West Ham's Essex base between Ilford and Romford. "The older you get, to be running out at Old Trafford, Chelsea or Upton Park, to be in that position as a professional footballer, you appreciate it. The older you get, you realise it's not around for ever.
"When you're younger you don't think that far ahead, because you're trying to get to the next stage of your career. The older you get, you appreciate everything you have and everything still to come."
Taylor certainly has an eye on the future, already coaching youth teams at his former club Luton Town and working on his badges this summer. But his playing days are not over yet, and he has been as important as anyone to West Ham's new year resurgence; a run of four wins and one draw which dragged them, almost implausibly, from the relegation zone and into the top half.
It all started at Stamford Bridge. On a Wednesday night in January, West Ham went there having just been beaten 9-0 by Manchester City over two legs in the League Cup and, even more damagingly, outclassed 3-1 at home by Newcastle United in the League. They needed to tighten up and so manager Sam Allardyce brought Taylor in, not at left-back but in a narrow midfield three protecting the defence.
"We went into that particular fixture believing that we could get something from the game," Taylor remembers. "There were probably a lot of people from outside the club who thought we couldn't get anything."
Allardyce had a plan and it worked perfectly. Taylor, Kevin Nolan and Mark Noble occupied Willian, Oscar and Eden Hazard far more successfully than many other midfields have this season.
"You can't go to Chelsea and try to play expansive football because they will destroy you," explains Taylor. "I don't think that's being disrespectful to us, that's being honest. So we didn't go there and play open. We all got bodies behind the ball, the shape was very good.
"The way Chelsea play is that their attacking players play slightly infield. Willian and Hazard don't play wide. Because of that we bunched up the midfield and were strong in there, and when they got it wide we defended crosses when we had to come into the box."
West Ham escaped with a clean sheet and a point, and Allardyce felt such vindication that he famously spoke in his post-match press conference of having "out-tactic- ed" Jose Mourinho. "We were resolute in defence and we defended for our lives," remembers Taylor. "We were given a game-plan by our manager and implemented it in a professional way."
Mourinho complained about "19th-century football", but two days after this interview Arsenal went to Stamford Bridge without an obvious plan to stop Chelsea and they were beaten 6-0. That stalemate was a triumph.
"It gave us that little boost," says Taylor, who is now established back in the team having hardly played in the first half of the season. "We went on a good run, we picked up good wins and we were solid." They won their next three games 2-0, and those four straight clean sheets made West Ham look like a true Allardyce side again.
"One of the things that stands out here for the gaffer is that he prepares you and gives you all the information you need for the fixture," says Taylor, "and providing you with that information is vitally important, because as players there is a tendency for it to go in one ear and out the other."
That is not the case with Taylor, who is seriously considering coaching when he has stopped playing and is receptive to seeing what works best. "As a player, you look at things that work with certain managers and you try and implement them yourself, if that was what you wanted to do."
As soon as the season is over on 12 May, Taylor and his team-mate Joe Cole will start working on their Uefa B Licences. But Taylor is already working hard, having taken Luton Town Under-15 and Under-16 teams on Thursday evenings for the last 18 months. Some of the same coaching staff are still there who taught him when he was on the Youth Training Scheme at Luton in the late 1990s. "They've been really good for me," Taylor smiles, "the club have a fantastic youth set-up."
Taylor played three seasons as a teenager for Luton in what is now League One and League Two before Portsmouth signed him, and he knows that for the next generation of players the best beginning is in competitive football. "There's no better start for young footballers than playing against other footballers where it's their livelihood at stake. That is how they pay their bills, that's how they pay their mortgage. So everything they do leading up to the game is spot-on.
"There is a space for youth football, but competitive football allowed me to have a platform to achieve what I have achieved within the game and have what I would say is a decent career."
My other life: Carp fishing
I've got three kids and I don't have a huge amount of time to do what I want to, purely and simply because life is just so busy and I'm constantly on the go. But if I did have a couple of days to spare, I really enjoy carp fishing. Last summer I went to France for five days with a couple of mates, we went to a lake called Fishabil, which is about six hours from Calais. I really enjoyed that and had a brilliant time there.
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