Talented, loyal and for sale: Taylor lost in Redknapp zone

Defender's celebrated commitment to the survival struggle at Fratton Park is unshaken, even by finding himself on the market to finance new signings
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The Independent Football

Interview over and Matthew Taylor, still in his Pompey blue training gear, grabs something to eat, stuffs it in his mouth, runs downstairs, collects his clothes and sprints across the training ground car park. He jumps into his black Range Rover and, with a brief wave, is off.

It is a fast life at Portsmouth FC. The pace of change is always unpredictable. Indeed, hours after he volunteered that "no one player is bigger than the club" in response to the speculation concerning the transfer targets that his manager, Harry Redknapp, has lined up - and the competition for places - and it emerges that Taylor could himself be sacrificed to help finance those deals. "I don't want to lose Matt Taylor, for sure," says Redknapp. "But it depends."

Wigan Athletic made the early running. Then the rest of the Premiership woke up to the surprising availability of the former England Under-21 international. The names came thick and fast - Fulham put in a substantial bid, thought to be around £1.2m, which was rejected, while Newcastle United proposed a swap deal involving Amdy Faye. At the time of writing a deal is yet to be concluded but the indications are that today's encounter with Birmingham City, the most intense of relegation dog-fights, could be Taylor's last as a Portsmouth player.

Such is the transfer window and life under Redknapp. "Same old manager, same old Harry," Taylor says of his return. Not that Taylor's possible departure had anything to do with his sudden training ground getaway. Instead, the 24-year-old had to get back to domestic duties. His girlfriend, Hanna, gave birth four months ago and Taylor is keen to make the one-hour drive home. "It changes everything," he says of fatherhood. "I used to fixate about work. But now, with the birth of Georgia, football can take a back seat when I go home. You shut the door and if it's been a bad weekend she smiles at me - and it all goes away. It changed my life. Don't get me wrong, football is no less important than before but my home life is far more important."

There were a few "bad weekends" at Portsmouth in 2005, with just eight wins - two gained after Redknapp came back - in 41 games and, as Taylor settles down in the first-floor canteen to explain what it has been like, Gary O'Neil sits close by. The two - along with Richard Hughes - have represented the core of the club, providing some stability during that volatile time. "We are English boys - and a Scot - who know how much it means to the fans," Taylor says before nodding towards his grinning team-mate. "Gaz is the longest-serving player. I think he was born wearing a Portsmouth shirt. How long have you been here now?"

O'Neil, just 22, pauses from eating his lunch. "Since I was 13. Been a pro since I was 16," he replies with a mouthful of rice. "Fingers crossed there will be a few more players staying here for longer than that," says Taylor. His commitment to Portsmouth's cause has never been questioned and there is a genuine love of the club he has made more than 100 appearances for after joining in the summer of 2002 from Luton Town for an initial £400,000.

Take Taylor's views on Fratton Park - or "Fortress Fratton" as he also calls it. "Well, it's like what you would expect an old-fashioned football ground to be like," Taylor explains. "And that's what we are. I wouldn't have it any other way. Teams go there and maybe they're used to four or five baths and 15 showers in the dressing-rooms and it's not like that. It's a shock for them. Everyone wants the ground re-developed but for us it's a positive the way it is. I'm sure teams don't like playing there. It's a smaller pitch, tight, the fans are close and you can hear things being shouted at you." Taylor has heard things about himself in the past. "Everyone's always had an opinion about my defending, saying I can't defend well enough. But I'll play wherever," he says.

Nevertheless Taylor gets a "tingle" every time he plays at the antiquated stadium and, as he speaks, he shudders a little. "Go to some grounds and there's no atmosphere," he says. "Fratton Park is a ground you want to perform at, to play at. It's a cliché but the fans are our 12th man. They've not got on our backs and there have been times when they would have been well within their rights to have done so. This is a fantastic football club."

The message boards on the fans' web-sites have been buzzing with the news that Taylor could leave. "Mystified by the sale of Matt," reads one thread. "There have already been many words typed on this, and I'm sure there will be a few more," begins another bewildered comment. The general theme is clear. Taylor's sale is a mistake. He is, the fans agree, at the very least "a whole-hearted player who has worn the shirt with pride".

That is the least, he feels, they deserve. " If you don't work hard we're not going to get out of this," Taylor says of Portsmouth's plight. "If you don't give 100 per cent we'll get found out. All the best teams do that - Chelsea or whoever - and that's what we have got to get back doing."

It went under Velimir Zajec and slipped further under Alain Perrin. Taylor is not going to criticise the men who took over after Redknapp's sudden departure in November 2004. Perrin was thorough, tactically aware but - perhaps - a bit too technical in his approach. "The months prior to Harry coming back were hard because we were trying to play a different style of football that we were maybe not used to," Taylor says.

The inference is also that Perrin beat some of the passion out of the team. "His English wasn't too bad. He got across what he needed to get across. But in the position we're in, the type of football club we are, then..." Taylor stops himself, before adding: "The biggest thing for me is our home form. With our former manager we weren't doing it at home. With Harry we are. The first thing he has instilled is that we get after teams. The other thing is that not every football match has to be pretty. You go out there and get a 1-0 win and it doesn't matter. The main thing at this stage is the points."

Nevertheless Taylor's career in the Premiership did prosper under Perrin with the Frenchman pushing him into a more advanced position, on the left of midfield, taking advantage of his athleticism and commitment - and powerful shooting. "I did OK, I did OK," shrugs Taylor although he volunteers that - despite the tribulations - "it's definitely been, for me, the best season I've had in the Premier League. I've scored a few more goals, I've played better. But there's no reason to get carried away."

It's not just the danger of relegation that is a sobering thought. As one of Redknapp's originals, a survivor from the Division One-winning side of 2002-3, Taylor arrived in the Premiership after making it into every newspapers' "one to watch" list for the new season. Such was his swash-buckling, energetic form, and the momentum to his career, that the question was even broached by some as to whether he could gatecrash his way into England's squad for Euro 2004.

Then he got injured. A small bone growth was found on the back of his ankle. No matter. It seemed straightforward. "It was meant to be four weeks [out] but it didn't heal, got infected," Taylor recalls. "It was a setback". Some setback. It took him a year to recover, including time spent seeing a war-wound specialist, who fitted a suction pump to the heel to drain away excess fluid.

"I remember my Premier League debut," Taylor says. Curiously, it was also away to Birmingham. "I wasn't fully fit and I didn't do myself justice. It took me another six months to get back to where I needed to be." By then the season had finished. "Last season I had a knock and didn't start but finished the season strongly," Taylor says. This term and Perrin left him out for "four or five games" and there were "a couple of chats but I just had to get on with it. Knuckle down." But he got his chance and has added, he says, "consistency" to his game, making 18 appearances so far. He is also the club's joint top scorer, albeit with four goals. "Before I would get maybe an eight or nine out of 10 performance and follow that with a four or five. Now I'm more consistent and that's a big thing, a key aspect for me."

Such consistency - and commitment - is in direct contrast to the now departed Laurent Robert who Perrin had brought in to take up that left-sided berth. But Taylor eclipsed him - not least in the match against Sunderland last October after which the headlines would have been dominated by Robert's walk-out and refusal to sit on the bench had his replacement not struck that spectacular 45-yard half-volley over the head of goalkeeper Kelvin Davis.

"I think Dario [Silva] was injured so we had nothing up front. It came to me and I just hit it," shrugs Taylor. "Nine times out of 10 and it's over the bar or wouldn't even have reached the goal." Yet he did score a similar goal when at Luton, he adds. Taylor says of the Sunderland match: "Yes, it was important. We'd had a rollicking at half-time, and rightly so, so to then come out and score four times was massive. But I was just as happy with the cross for Dario's goal." It is, he repeats, a team game. "If you want to be in a one-man sport you'd play tennis. We're part of a team. We're in a team."

Still the events at the Stadium of Light were not enough. Portsmouth needed a new leader. So out went Perrin, back came Redknapp. What did Taylor think when the speculation first started that Harry might return? "I smiled and thought it can only be a good thing for us," he says. "Having played under him I know what Harry's mannerisms are like, what he's like. He brings a certain air. You can't put your finger on it but he's a football manager you want to play for. You can't explain it. He has a certain thing that we were lacking. Enthusiasm for the game, professionalism."

Not that Redknapp has been universally accepted following his bitter departure and year down the road at even more bitter rivals, Southampton. The Portsmouth fans remain divided. "Obviously it's been mixed, hasn't it?" says Taylor. "For the majority though it's been positive and, for the others, well I'm sure he'll win them over with the performances on the pitch. For Harry to come back has been a difficult decision for him. I think it's the best decision he has made. It's certainly the best decision the club has made and he's big enough and man enough to make the decision. He's the best football manager we could have employed to get us out of trouble."

Redknapp, also, pulled no punches on what he inherited on his return. The squad had been "run down", was unbalanced - and had too many players, from Colombia to Uruguay, who, frankly, did not even understand English. Taylor concedes the latter has been a problem but it is something that is being addressed. "They are learning, getting better daily," he says. "But I don't think the English factor is a big factor."

Indeed, he speaks of his admiration of how players can deal with the "huge upheaval" of moving abroad with their families but understands why they want to play in the Premiership. "It's the best league in the world and that's why we want to stay in it," Taylor says. "You can see that from the signings we are making."

The arrival of the Tottenham three - Pedro Mendes, Sean Davis and Noe Pamarot - plus Benjani Mwaruwari and Emmanuel Olisadebe has set Portsmouth back more than £11m. With Redknapp wanting at least three more signings before the end of the month it is, even by his standards, an astonishing rate of change.

"It doesn't worry me at all," says Taylor. "It can only be good. It keeps everyone on their toes and I imagine everyone feels like that. There can't be any negativity." The fact that he might have to be sold, however, shows the limits of the spending and the investment of the new co-owner, Alexandre Gaydamak.

"The main thing is we've got the right manager," Taylor contends. "Harry's a very, very likeable manager. He's back now. The old partnership has resumed, if you like." But why is Redknapp so special? "It's just that you do want to play for him," Taylor says. "He's the most successful manager in the club's recent history. He brought me into the club and him coming back is a positive thing. You can't put your finger on it but he gets the best out of people. It's just the way he is. And that's why I believe we will be fine this year. I really do."

Avoiding relegation, Taylor says, is "massive, huge". But what if it happens? "We're not worrying about that," he adds. "We're not thinking about that because we're not going down. This football club belongs in the Premier League and that's where we want to keep it. I don't even want to consider going down." But Taylor has, however, had to spend the last few days considering having to leave to help make that happen. And, for someone who is also a young father, it is a big decision to make.

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