Matt Taylor On Portsmouth, Promotions And Coaching Aspirations

Matt Taylor On Portsmouth, Promotions And Coaching Aspirations

An interview with Matthew Taylor, by Callum McFadden for WFi.

You started your career at your boyhood club Luton Town. What was that like for you and your family?

“It was a very proud moment for all of us as I joined the club at sixteen and was quite late into the game.

“However, to make my debut at 17 years of age was a surreal experience. I remember it like it was yesterday because we were playing at away Meadow Lane against Notts County.

“We drew the game 1-1, and it was one hell of an experience for me to play the majority of the game. It certainly whetted my appetite to want more of it.

“Fortunately, I was able to kick on and win Young Player of the Year, Player of the Year, and be a part of a promotion-winning team in the couple of years that followed on from my debut.

“Overall, my time at Luton gave me an insight into what professional football was and the impact that it has on people’s lives.

“Most importantly, my experiences at the club enabled me to approach the rest of my career without any fear because I had played lots of league games by the time I turned 20 and I was loving my football.

“I played football for the love of the game because I just love football.

“I learned so much at the club and I enjoyed every minute of my time there too. Playing at Kenilworth Road was amazing. It was not the most modern of grounds, but it was sold out almost every week and the fans backed us through the good times and the sticky times.

“Looking back, I was ridiculously fortunate to be at the right club at the right time in terms of learning and developing within a successful team alongside good professionals and staff alike.”

There was interest in you from numerous clubs in the Premier League however you chose to join Championship side Portsmouth in 2002. What was your reasoning behind that move?

“Quite simply, I wanted to give myself the best chance to play regular football because at Luton I was a regular at such a young age and I wanted to ensure my next move could give me a realistic chance of continuing that trend.

“I did not want to join a Premier League side and risk sitting on the bench at a young age.

“Any move I made in my career was always driven by the desire to play football rather than financial.

“The season before I arrived at Portsmouth, the club finished 16th, however, Harry Redknapp had arrived at the club and it was clear that he was ambitious.

“He was true to his word because we went and won the league in my first season to reach the Premier League.

“It was a surreal time for me because I had joined Portsmouth having just won promotion as a runner up in League Two and within 12 months, I was preparing to play in the Premier League.

“I can honestly say that I adored my time at Portsmouth. I have many great memories.”

In the promotion-winning season, Paul Merson was a crucial member of the team. What was it like for you to play with someone of his calibre at an early age having come from League Two?

“I did not expect to see someone like Paul Merson at training on the first day of pre-season.

“I had only ever watched Merse play on the TV at the highest level of the game for Arsenal and England so it was unbelievable to be now training and playing alongside him.

“For myself and all of the younger players, he was brilliant.

“To emphasise his quality and how easy he made the game for me, I would make a run in the game up and down the line and invariably Paul would find me with a pass through the eye of a needle.

“Then, the rest was up to me because he had done the hard part by playing the killer pass that put the opposition on the back foot.

“He was our captain in the promotion-winning season and he was remarkable because on a match day, he would not warm up.

“He would sit in the changing room with Harry having a chat and a cup of tea then at ten to three, he would put his boots on and go out onto the pitch for the match itself and be the best player on the pitch every week.

“An unbelievable talent and what he gave us at Portsmouth in that season was truly unbelievable. Paul is a God to the Pompey fans and rightly so because he was vitally important to us reaching the Premier League.”

What was your experience of working under Harry Redknapp like?

“Harry was great. He was good at knowing which areas of the team needed strengthening and being able to go out and get the right player to fit what he wanted to achieve.

“Harry was tactically knowledgeable and had a great backroom staff with the likes of the late Jim Smith, Joe Jordan and Kevin Bond who were great.

“He knew how to delegate and as such, did not take training every day but I loved playing for him because his knowledge was immense as was his man management skills.

“He brought freedom to my game and gave me clear expectations of what he wanted me to achieve within a game but with the free reign to be creative and take risks too.

“I played with no fear under Harry. He made me feel at ease from the moment I met him and he told me what his ideas for the club were.”

What is the main difference between playing in the Championship and the Premier League?

“Personally, the fitness data between both leagues is similar but the main difference is the speed at which the ball moves.

“Players also make decisions at greater speed in the Premier League compared to the Championship. Those were the two things that I had to adapt to most.

“You played against world-class players every week in stadiums that were full whilst also being on television around the world. The scale of the Premier League was, and still is, immense.”

How do you reflect on your time at Portsmouth as a whole and what are your personal highlights?

“Sometimes in life, you seem to instantly connect with people and that was what it was like for me at Portsmouth.

“I connected straight away with the fans, and I had a brilliant relationship with them.

“Having retired, I look back on it now and realise that all football fans want to see when they go and watch their team is that the player wearing their shirt is giving every ounce of energy that they have for the team.

“Mistakes will be forgiven because no one tries to make an error, but hard work has to be a given.

“That’s how I approached my career too. The Portsmouth fans recognised that from me, and I think the town as a whole shares those values as a hardworking, naval town.

“What stands out for me most from the club and the city is the amount of support that the football club has locally.

“You can walk down the high street in Portsmouth and 95% of adults and kids who are wearing a football shirt are wearing a Pompey shirt.

“That is huge and the mentality of the fans to back their club to hilt is immense.

“My six and half years at the club was the most enjoyable time of my career such was my connection with the fanbase and the club as a whole.”

You left Portsmouth in 2008 for Bolton Wanderers. How did your time at Bolton compare to Pompey? 

“It was different especially given that Bolton is at the opposite end of the country to Portsmouth.

“I left Portsmouth purely for footballing reasons. I was not playing as regularly as I would have liked, and it was the right time for me to move on.

“Don’t get me wrong, I would’ve loved to stay at Portsmouth for my whole career which was the way I felt about the clubs and the fans, but I am not very good at watching games.

“I need to play, and I wanted to play because I knew I was good enough to play at the level.

“Upon arrival at Bolton, Gary Megson made feel me very welcome and backed me in his team.

“I always gave everything that I had for Bolton just as I had done at Portsmouth.

“I also had my best goal-scoring season while I was at the club too by reaching double figures in the Premier League which was a big achievement for me.

“Personally, it was a great time for us as a family because two of my kids were born in Manchester while I was at Bolton, so it was a good part of my career over the three and a half years that I was at the club.

“I have a lot to thank Bolton Wanderers Football Club for.”

You played with Jack Wilshere who was a talented teenager on loan from Arsenal at the time. What was your opinion of him having worked closely with him at that time? 

“We were able to attract top young players at Bolton at that time such as Jack, Daniel Sturridge and Gary Cahill.

“Having players like that at Bolton showed just how highly regarded the football club was.

“In regard to Jack, he was an exceptional ball carrier with a steeliness to his game. He also manipulated the ball very well and could see a pass too.

“It was no surprise to me that he had a top career at Arsenal after his loan spell because he was an exceptional talent.”

Following three and a half seasons at Bolton, you joined former Wanderers boss Sam Allardyce at West Ham. You win promotion from the Championship with the Hammers and play in the Premier League with them too. What was that experience like? 

“I did not want to leave Bolton because I was settled at the time and my kids were young and happy in the area with schools etc, but I was told that I had to move on.

“The decision was out of my hands so I had to weigh up my options and I chose West Ham.

“I will be honest and admit that I did not realise just how big a club West Ham was until I got there.

“The fans were passionate and the expectations they had were clear. We had to deliver promotion.

“Thankfully, we did, albeit not automatically, through the playoffs.

“That day at Wembley was incredible and to see 40,000 or so West Ham fans going crazy as we gained promotion at Wembley was unbelievable.

“The build-up to the playoffs was difficult because the expectation was all on us and we were expected to turn up and win against Cardiff and then Blackpool in the final.

“In the final, Blackpool were the better team, but Rob Green was superb for us on the day, and we were able to capitalise and reach the Premier League.

“I enjoyed being a part of the team who returned the club to – where the fans expect them to be – the Premier League.”

Following West Ham, you played in the Premier League with Burnley under Sean Dyche. How did your time at Burnley compare with West Ham?

“I was offered another year at West Ham, but I had spoken to Sean Dyche who I had played with at Luton as a youngster when he came in on loan.

“I met him and it did not take long for me to make my mind up to join Burnley.

“Sean was a manager who was honest and open, empathetic towards his players but also demanding with the standards that he expected you to uphold.

“It was just unfortunate that I partially ruptured my Achilles four games into the season after I had joined.

“The club went down in my first season, but we bounced back by winning the Championship title in the next season.

“That was a testament to Sean and the players that we had. It was my second Championship title and third promotion from the division and another moment I look back on with pride and fondness.”

You ended your career at Northampton and Swindon Town who you later managed on an interim basis. Was coaching always the inevitable next step for you as you approach retirement? 

“I definitely wanted to become a coach and at the age of 28, I started to prepare for life after playing by taking my coaching badges.

“I enjoyed my time at Northampton and the main reason for joining the club was to play football and be closer to home as my family returned south.

“I had great fun at Northampton and I enjoyed my season at the club in League One.

“Then, Swindon came in for me and to see out my career was great because the fans were superb with me.

“It was more than time to retire after my time at Swindon at the age of 37 and I am grateful to them for giving me the opportunity to coach as well as play.”

You have coached Tottenham’s under 18’s side and managed in the Football League at Walsall. How do you reflect on those experiences, and do you want to return to management in the future? 

“The main difference between coaching academy football and first-team football is development.

“Development is crucial to academy football because you want to prepare individuals on and off the pitch to best equip them for a career in football.

“Helping players reach their potential is the main aim at that level rather than building a winning team above all else.

“However, in the first team environment, the only thing that matters is winning.

“That took a while to fully adapt to given my background in academy coaching.

“However, whether I return to management again is something that I do not know.

“Opportunities have arisen but they have not felt right for me. The most important thing for me moving forward as a coach is to move to a club that feels right.

“I know that the next decision of my coaching career has to be the right one because I am acutely aware that after that then I might not get another opportunity.

“In preparation for that, I take in as many games as I can, I visit as many coaches and clubs as I can to learn from them and I also speak to current and former coaches to deepen my knowledge.

“Whether my next step will be coaching or management, only time will tell.”