Taylor fights to keep career and Portsmouth afloat

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The Independent Football

Little Wonder the number plate on Matthew Taylor's car ends in the letters SXY. This is a young player who has been hot-to-trot ever since his former manager likened the fee that his current manager, Harry Redknapp, paid for him to daylight robbery. "At least Dick Turpin had the decency to wear a mask," Joe Kinnear said.

That was after Taylor's £400,000 move (rising to £1m) two summers ago from Luton Town, where he had just won promotion, to Portsmouth, where he went on to win promotion in May. The Premiership beckoned and the precocious left-back/midfielder, 22 in November, made it into every newspaper's "one to watch" list for the new season. There was a juggernaut momentum to his career - it was said he was worth £3m or £4m, England honours were called for (triggering more money for Luton). The question was even broached as to whether he could charge his way into the squad for Euro 2004.

But steady on. The wheels then came off - or, more precisely, a small bone growth was found on the back of his ankle. The diagnosis seemed straightforward. An operation and, within two weeks, he would be jogging again. Except he was not; the injury lingered for six months, eating a chunk out of this season and, at one time, spreading the rumour that he would never fully recover. Even now he has made just three starts in the top division and has, so far, been indistinct in a struggling team.

When his Premiership debut came in September, Portsmouth's flying start had already began to stutter. "It was a bit surreal," Taylor recalls of a 2-0 defeat. "It was at Birmingham and I was half-fit. I played because there weren't many choices so it was a case of being thrown in at the deep end. It was nice to get that game in but the main thing now is to stay in, week in, week out, and help Portsmouth establish themselves as a Premier League team."

It is a recurring theme in his conversation - chanted almost like a mantra, punctuating his diction. So much so that - ahead of tomorrow's bitterly anticipated south coast derby, the first in the League for two decades - Taylor is prepared to offer what Portsmouth fans would equate to a pact with the Devil against the Saints.

"If we get beat 6-1 by Southampton then fair enough, that's what happens. It will be hard to swallow in the short term but if it could be guaranteed that we lost that game but stayed in the Premier League then we would take it," he says emphatically. "It's imperative we stay up. We need the [new] ground ... we need everything at the moment! If we stay up then we get more money, the TV interest, the media interest. It's a big season for us and hopefully we'll come through it." And, Taylor admits, it's a "big season for me personally with the hype and everything and having Portsmouth in the Premier League".

He glosses over his injury - "it was frustrating but we have to deal with injuries, and everyone knows there are going to be bad times and hopefully I've had mine now" - but while he was out, Redknapp increased the squad with a bewildering number of recruits. Did he ever fear he would be overlooked? "Of course you do," Taylor admits before his usual, exuberant self-belief floods back. "But you have to be good enough to get back in and I'm confident in my own ability. Whilst we were winning the manager wasn't going to change it and quite rightly so. But we've had a couple of chances to change it and I'm back in now and won't give up the shirt easily."

Nevertheless, he will have a fight on his hands, as will all his team-mates. Redknapp was furious at "schoolboy errors" in defence during last Saturday's sapping home defeat to Everton. Changes will be made again. Everyone's place is under scrutiny, although Taylor refuses to blame a lack of fortune for Portsmouth's plight. "Have we been unlucky? I'm not so sure," he says. "We've had a few problems and lately have just not been able to score away from home. We haven't won games we maybe should have and we haven't converted chances we should have."

He knows experience is called for and has faith in Redknapp's ability to steady the ship. "I wouldn't have come to Portsmouth if it wasn't for him," Taylor says. "It's a fantastic football club and it's good to play for a manager who has done so much in the game." The manager - and his seasoned assistant, Jim Smith - have, however, had team meetings to outline what exactly is at stake. "Obviously they stay between us. Harry's said his bit - what we could have done, what we should have done. But he's also said that we're in the Premier League for a reason and that's because we're a good team."

Has the descent down the table bred a nervousness, forcing more mistakes? "I don't think so," Taylor maintains. "We all know we're good players and the manager has told us that we wouldn't be at the club if we weren't.

"Coming into the Premiership was a big step for everyone but we've got some great players. Obviously Teddy [Sheringham] has come in and been an influence on everyone. He's been there and done it and played at such a high level for so long that young players like me can only learn from him. If we can only take one thing away from him being at Portsmouth then that's great, even if he's here for only one season, although we'd like to think he's got another two seasons at the top."

Playing - and training - with such players has, he believes, improved his own game. Taylor believes he's making the step up. "The better the players are, the better you play. You respond to that - it's what I've found." Nevertheless, he knows that Redknapp - who has transformed the squad twice already - is prepared to make changes, bring in new faces in the January transfer window. "He's a wheeler-dealer, isn't he," Taylor says. "I don't know if he will bring anyone else in. It's not for me to comment on - we're the manager's tools and get paid to play football, not to choose who he buys ... but I'm sure he will do. Football is becoming a game where the players are going to change, everyone comes and goes and there won't be many players who stay at clubs for 10 or 12 years."

Not that many Portsmouth fans would be happy to see him go. He received some barracking during the Everton defeat, which led to staunch defences flooding the local radio phone-ins. This young talent needs time. He is undoubtedly the most popular player at Fratton Park - not that the accolade means much to him.

"The main thing is that we do all right," Taylor says. "I had a good season [last season] and then got injured. It's nice to be popular but just being popular with the fans means nothing. I want to be in the team. If I can be both then that's fantastic." And Redknapp would again be accused of being the highwayman on the south coast.