‘It’s like a drug’: Steven Taylor and the lure of first team football

He had offers to play and coach in England and Europe, but Steven Taylor says he’s happy he made the decision to leave the comforts of home for New Zealand.

Taylor – who made over 200 appearances for Newcastle United and enjoyed a renaissance with Peterborough last season – says the desire to improve himself led him to sign with Wellington Phoenix FC, New Zealand’s only professional football club.

“I want something that’s challenging and going to be a test,” he said. “I was 16 years old, leaving school, and there were seven centre-halves ahead of me at Newcastle, and I’ve always loved those competitive kind of challenges. It’s like a drug, you just can’t get rid of it.”

He played in a friendly in Dunedin for Newcastle United in a 2014 friendly, and had fond memories of playing in the Wellington sunlight.

He consulted former Leeds United and Newcastle Jets striker Michael Bridges about the area before putting pen to paper, and was given a ringing endorsement.

Taylor is manager Mark Rudan’s first signing for Phoenix, but dismisses any idea that being the first signing for a new boss changes how he approaches the game.

“I’m just another number to be added to the squad,” he says.

Rudan was brought in to replace former manager Darije Kalezić, and has stints with Australia’s U-20 squad and Sydney United 58 – a semi-professional Australian club – under his belt.

The Phoenix finished the previous season just a point above bottom dwellers Central Coast Mariners, and Taylor admits players said it was a slog – and that trickled into the stands.

Taylor talks of a project, much like managers do, of building up fan support and helping reconnect them with the team.

The club has a stadium capable of holding 34,500 fans. But average attendances in 2017-2018 were in the 5,000s, with a high just over 8,000 in an October game against Adelaide United.

“I hear lots of the players say last year they didn’t feel (the current) kind of vibe around the training ground. The training wasn’t as high tempo and as competitive as it is now,” he said.

Taylor made the jump to play abroad once before, signing for Major League Soccer’s Portland Timbers in 2016, but only made a handful of appearances – including a disastrous own goal in his opening match – before moving back to England to join Mick McCarthy at Ipswich.

But what led him to Portland, is part of what led him to Wellington.

“I think when you look at the MLS, it’s getting better and better as well, and there’s no reason why it can’t happen in the A-League,” he said. “For example, (Keisuke) Honda. These are top, top players. They’re players who could play in Europe.”

But where Taylor becomes arguably his most animated is talking about his revamped approach to nutrition and discussing the sports medicine approaches in the A-League.

His nutrition change came before signing for Peterborough, out of a desire to prove he could play multiple matches a week with no ill effects.

He estimates he dropped six to seven kilograms of weight last summer and hasn’t missed a training session in that resulting period. He even passed along his tips to Peterborough teammates, who embraced his approaches.

“I think that’s one of the biggest things as a footballer now, you’ve got to look after yourself,” he said. “You can’t be slacking and expect to turn it on on the weekend. You’ve got to from Monday to Friday to get yourself in the best possible condition.”

The worst time is after training. Footballers go long periods of time on their own after training has finished, and the boredom can manifest itself in a variety of ways.

“The biggest thing for a professional footballer, I’d say, is after training. They find themselves with a lot of time on their hands and they’ll get bored. And when you’re bored, you’ll snack,” he said.

He admits he is interested in passing along his knowledge to younger players — an attribute his new manager paid tribute to in his signing press conference — and would like to go in to coaching once his playing career comes to a close.

But until then, he wants to be able to take to the pitch, week-in and week-out.

“There’s no better feeling, when you’re playing week in and week out. No matter what people say, there’s no better feeling. You want to be out there on the pitch expressing yourself.”

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