Two years after being in charge of England, Peter Taylor is helping out at Peterborough. Barney Ronay investigates his peculiar career and eternal youth
For Peter Taylor, former England coach turned Peterborough United hired hand, life really is like a box of chocolates. You just don’t know what you’re going to get next. Apparently cast as a kind of footballing Forrest Gump, Taylor’s story is remarkable for the speed of his climb to the heights, and even more so for the vertigo-inducing plummet in his fortunes over the last two years.
It was in November 2000 that Taylor took charge of the full England side for a friendly against Italy in Turin. A few weeks earlier he had collected the Manager of the Month award as Leicester City took a point at Sunderland to go top of the Premiership. Along with the likes of Steve McClaren and Alan Curbishley, Taylor seemed to be in the vanguard of a new breed of young, tactically astute coaches; softly spoken men in tracksuits with the ability to use phrases such as “David’s got fantastic quality” without even blinking. The applause for the former Spurs winger was all but unanimous. Peter Taylor looked like the future.
Fast-forward just one year and Taylor is back scrapping it out in the Second Division with Brighton, before finding temporary employment this season as a training ground gofer to Barry Fry at Peterborough and making occasional headphone-clutching appearances on the Sky Sports touchline.
The speed of Taylor’s rise to favour and fall from grace is surely unprecedented. So much so that it’s impossible to know exactly what to make of him. Is he the man who gave David Beckham the England armband? Or the man who gave Wolves £5 million for Ade Akinbiyi? Is he Sven’s amanuensis, or Barry Fry’s mucker? Either the world was wrong two years ago or it’s wrong now, and the margin of error is huge.
One explanation is that Taylor was in a strange place at the wrong time, caught up in a national crisis of managerial confidence, which found him being pitched forward almost in desperation, like a guy being hoisted excitedly to the top of a bonfire. At the top England suffered the gung-ho tactical incoherence of Kevin Keegan’s Euro 2000, at the bottom the traditional welly-it-and-hope coaching methods – all those jealous glances towards the youth academies of the Dutch and the French, with their emphasis on “technique”.
During his ascent, Taylor was the darling of the same press who were suddenly calling for his head when things went wrong at Leicester. Perhaps this experience explains why he is more reluctant to speak these days. In the course of trying to contact Taylor I was told various details of his whereabouts (always shrouded in vagueness) through which I built up a mental picture of a frenzied recluse, continually sprinting from out-of-town engagement to training pitch huddle. At one point I was told that he never spoke to people on Fridays. Eventually I got the message – Taylor isn’t talking if he doesn’t have to. And in some ways it’s hard to blame him after the media hysteria that helped to fuel both his irresistible rise and his sudden fall.
Throughout the experience Taylor has worn the same puzzled, pensive expression, lips pursed and eyes narrowed, the look of a man who can’t really understand what is happening to him. A glance at the former Dartford player-coach’s footballing CV might help explain why.
At 23, Taylor was given his England debut by Don Revie – an early example of his anti-gravity qualities, as he was playing in the Third Division at the time. He scored the winner, in a friendly against Wales, but went on to collect only three more caps before retiring from the professional game aged 30. He dabbled in non-League, almost crossing paths with Barry Fry at Maidstone United, then worked in insurance for a while before moving into management, eventually getting his big break at Southend (then in the First Division) where he took over from Fry in 1993. However, he was sacked in February 1995 after a run of eight defeats in 11 games, including a damning 4-0 at home to Watford, and a few months later he was slipping into the hot seat at Dover. The Kent club finished the season third from bottom of the Conference, and Taylor was facing a career in sports shop management.
But the wheel was still turning and out of the blue he was invited by his old Tottenham pal Glenn Hoddle to manage the England Under-21s. Taylor thought about it for five seconds and then said yes. This was a huge step up for a manager with a record of almost total failure. However, a side featuring Michael Owen, Kieron Dyer and Rio Ferdinand lost only one competitive match during his three years in charge, and in the process announced Taylor to the world as a rising star of the coaching firmament. He was championed in the media as a tactical sophisticate and, after his dismissal in the wake of Hoddle’s departure from the England job, was adopted by pundits eager for a stick with which to beat the unpopular Kevin Keegan/Howard Wilkinson regime. He was also, slightly bizarrely, described by almost everyone as a “young” manager.
Let’s get this straight. Taylor will be 50 on January 3. In terms of the Premiership, this puts him in the higher age bracket, several years older than Glenn Hoddle, Alan Curbishley and Peter Reid, and even edging out the Jurassic Graeme Souness. By associating with the Under-21s, by constantly wearing a tracksuit, by appearing out of obscurity, Peter Taylor convinced the world he was young. In fact, he’d just not done very much.
But his career was on an upward path, and in July 2000 Leicester City decided to take a punt on this young Taylor chap they’d been hearing about, appointing him manager in succession to Martin O’Neill. The next four months were the high water mark for Taylor. He described England’s 1-0 defeat in Turin that November night as “one of the proudest moments of my career”. Safe to say, just a year down the line it was clear that this was to be his stellar moment, as the Foxes proceeded to lose 23 of their last 38 games under his charge. In October 2001, only a year after topping the table, and having already given in to pressure to abandon his England connections, the one-time Man-Most-Likely was sacked.
Taylor took over at Brighton, but shortly after guiding them into the First Division he walked out, claiming his hand had been forced by the Seagulls’ uncertain future. After three months of unemployment he took up the chance to talk tactics with Barry Fry, joining Peterborough five games into the season on a “short-term, no-strings-attached basis”, and it was back to the backwaters for the man from Dartford.
And still, no one really knows what to make of him. It was as though for a while Taylor filled a vacuum. With his tracksuit, his strangely personal line in footballing jargon and his eagerness to position himself among the kids, Taylor looked as though he might be a quick fix, the man to usher in a new breed of coaches able to motivate a team of twenty-something millionaires while talking technical with the broadsheets and steering a path through the teacup-hurling, cliche-bound mammoth’s graveyard of the old-style English manager. The final irony is that Taylor has found a temporary home alongside Barry Fry, one of the last of the dinosaurs and a man for whom tactics probably come in little boxes of orange or green.
So what now for Peter Taylor? Two years on from Turin, he’s still out there. Gump-like, he has remained the same essentially affable individual throughout. He’s still wearing a tracksuit. He still has the same opaque, slightly puzzled expression. And who knows if he’s found his level yet? This could be just the beginning. Perhaps the pendulum can swing round once more for Peter Taylor. You never know. After all, he’s still young.
From WSC 189 November 2002. What was happening this month