Dave Collett appraises the Villa career of an overlooked left-back.
It was a sign of the extent to which Aston Villa had fallen that a transfer between us and Swansea City for left-back Neil Taylor in January 2017 was seen as a downgrade for the player. For some years Swansea had been a model of how to run a club in the ‘proper’ manner. Eschewing massive fees for players, using good scouting systems, they had not only survived but thrived at the top level since promotion in 2011.
Neil Taylor had been very much a part in this rise. He started off in 2007 at Wrexham, making his first appearance as a late sub in a League Cup tie – against Aston Villa. That was a routine 5-0 win for Martin O’Neill’s side but the season was to get better for Taylor, with twenty-six appearances, yet worse for his club, as they ended were relegated out of the league. Two years in the Conference ensued but fellow-Welsh club Swansea had clearly spotted something they liked, as they swooped for Taylor over the summer of 2010. Technically, the player should have been able to move on a free but the two clubs agreed a nominal fee.
Jumping from non-league to the Championship looks quite a leap for any player but for Taylor, it was not only painless but actually pleasurable to boot, as the Swans under Brendan Rodgers climbed up to the top level, with the full-back a sure starter. Neil’s exploits had not gone unnoticed, and a pre-bonesaw Newcastle were rumoured to have made a bid for his services. Rather than leave, he extended his contract in South Wales. This turned out exceedingly well. Neil rack up thirty-six league starts as his team of newcomers finished eleventh in their first year back. He then experienced the other side of the game, suffering a broken ankle in a tackle with all-time Villa loyalist Craig Gardner in a game against Sunderland. As a consolation prize and a recognition of how valued he was at the club, he was offered, and signed, an improved three-year contract.
While Villa fans were licking the deepest of wounds in the summer of 2016, Wales, including Neil Taylor, showed that you don’t need misspent millions to put a decent team together and motivate them to play. England had already nicked a late winner against the Dragons in their group game, but Wales’s win over Russia helped to guarantee their qualification from the group stages. While an abysmal England were deservedly knocked out by Iceland, the Welsh bandwagon rolled on, as they swept aside the much-fancied Belgians on their way to the semi-final.
If this sounds like Neil was in a secure, happy position, it needs to be remembered that football is always undergoing change, and a player highly-rated by one boss may be judged surplus to requirements by another. By January 2017, Taylor was under pressure for his place from two younger players at Swansea. At the same time a new manager, Paul Clement, wasted little time in deciding that his strike force could use a boost. So it was that £5 million plus Taylor was enough to tempt Steve Bruce to release Jordan Ayew, a talented forward and a real trier who had had the misfortune to play in a struggling side for eighteen months.
What were we getting for our money? Taylor’s good technique meant he could always take and give a pass, not that his passing range was particularly eye-opening. His tackling was secure. He had no great pace, though wide players found it hard enough to get past him. You could say he arrived at a bad time, with Bruce moving players wholesale to build on his promising start of seven unbeaten games, with home wins a staple feature of the Villa mini-revival. The transfer window brought all that to an end. The newcomers were always likely to take a while to settle, the African Cup of Nations brought further disruption even to second-level Villa, with Kodjia and Ayew away for weeks, and before you knew it we’d lost seven league games out of eight, including five in a row and suddenly, far from the anticipated new year surge for a play-off spot, we were looking over our shoulders at the relegation places.
Neil Taylor made his Villa bow in the middle of this mess, wearing a protective mask for his recently-fractured cheekbone, as we slumped haplessly to our first home defeat of the season against a poor Ipswich side. Taking a regular slot in the Villa side wasn’t a shoo-in for Taylor. Jordan Amavi, a fine technical player, had stuck around following relegation, unlike others who seemed to think second-level football somehow beneath them and were off ASAP.
If Steve Bruce’s nature was to play it safety-first, then you could see that Taylor would suit his cautious nature; a full-back unlikely to do anything brilliant but solid, reliable and consistent enough to play a part in a promotion team. With Amavi having played enough games to prove his fitness and with him being one of the most saleable items in what was now looking like a Championship squad, it made a certain amount of sense to agree to a transfer to Olympic Marseilles, where he would establish himself as the quality player we suspected we had signed two years earlier.
This left Neil with a clear run in the left-back slot and thirty appearances in his first full season was a good return. The holes in Villa’s squad meant there was no natural replacement should he be unavailable. Despite the lack of direct competition, Taylor proved as solid and steady as had been predicted, a seven out of ten player as the great Graham Taylor once put it. Neil would have added to these numbers had he not been sent off for a lunging tackle against Bolton and received a three-match ban. Occasional groin twinges accounted for the other absences, which gave Alan Hutton the chance to show his versatility on either side of defence. Alan did this so well that he became a vital cog in the side that beat Middlesbrough in the play-off semi-final, completely marking the dangerous if erratic Adama Traore out of both legs. He then kept his place for the Wembley final, where some felt his positioning might have been slightly out to allow Fulham their winning goal. Was it true? Would Taylor have done better had he been in the side? Who knows?
A disruptive summer, to say the least, hampered manager Bruce’s team and squad building for 2019-20, so Neil Taylor still found himself number-one-in-a-field-of-one, so to speak. Bruce seemed to be too distracted with the unnecessary signing of goalkeepers to deal with other defensive problems – a scathing verdict on a boss who, as a defender of some distinction, should have recognised what needed doing. With the squad horribly unbalanced and quality players like Abraham, Grealish and McGinn largely unproductive, it didn’t take too long for the new owners to act.
Dean Smith was the replacement. He knew he was months away from the winter transfer window and that FFP issues would tie the club’s hands when it came to new signings, so he had to get the best out of what he’d already got. The improvement was astounding as Villa suddenly went on a run of half a dozen games where the opposition goalmouths resembled a shooting gallery. Comparisons were evoked with the gold standard year of 1976-77 as the goals flowed freely. In the bizarre five-all draw with Forest, Taylor joined in the fun with a crisp square ball to El Ghazi, whose bending finish inside the post was the pick of the night’s strikes and put Villa ahead for the only time in the match.
In some ways, this moment encapsulated the problem with Neil’s contribution. Strong defending and good technique would have been good recommendations for a Smith side, but the lack of pace and general sluggishness going forward meant Taylor was seen as a brake on the side’s progress. For those with higher ambitions than the Championship, watching Alexander-Arnold and Robertson tearing down the flanks for European champions-to-be Liverpool week in, week out, made for a stark comparison. Social media is not renowned for its tolerance and understanding, as acerbic comments on the left-back’s contributions demonstrated.
At this stage, Villa had bigger problems. The three-month absences of Grealish and Tuanzebe were a blow to our creative abilities and defensive resilience, respectively. While difficult to replace the unique skill-set of Grealish, the centre-back’s injury was even harder to cater for, the previous manager having left, unbelievably, the cupboard bare of replacements. Thus, Villa limped into the new year regularly conceding two goals per game, sometimes more. It’s not easy to win in these circumstances, though Dean Smith’s side rarely lost during this long run. Recalling Tommy Elphick on loan from Hull and Jed Steer from Charlton helped a bit. The loaning in of Tyrone Mings and Kortney Hause solved the problem of the complete absence of a left-sided centre-back on the books, or at least it did when they had time to shed some of the ring-rust that gathers when you aren’t playing enough games, along with learning to play with their new team-mates.
Slowly, the team gelled and we became harder to score against. Strangely, a late defeat at Brentford offered some encouragement as the team defended well until stoppage time, with little getting through to the keeper. Kourtney Hause played left-back in this one, as Taylor had one of his niggles but he was soon back, just as Grealish was finally fit again, and Conor Hourihane and McGinn managed to find their shooting boots. If not quite a light-switch moment, it was fairly spectacular to see what the team could do with Grealish back, a solid back four and reliable ‘keeper, goals from midfield and regular contributions from Tammy Abraham, one of the top Villa loan signings.
The football was good to watch, as well. When Villa didn’t win with something to spare, they often should have done. Taylor, perhaps proving the old adage that footballers play better when they have better men around them, clearly noticed that the bloke in front of him looked a bit useful and came forward more often to link up with him. So it was that Neil got the assist when Grealish scored THAT goal at the Sty. He also showed some slick skills in the inter-passing move that saw the same player get the winner for the ten men against Rotherham, for some Villa fans a hot contender for goal of the season.
In the midst of all this fun, there was a near-sighting of a unicorn, or at least its football equivalent, when Neil, pushing forward once more, fired a shot which beat Raya, the Blackburn ‘keeper. Anwar El Ghazi was on the spot to make sure but, alas, was judged offside. Would Neil’s shot have carried home for his first-ever Villa goal? It was a close call and no-one blamed Anwar for not waiting around to find out. By the time the record run of ten wins was ended, we were already sure of a play-off place. The draw at Leeds, in what will go down in history as an ‘interesting’ game, saw Villa being allowed to equalise after the home side’s controversial strike had put them in front. Neil didn’t quite manage to make the front of the queue for the tap-in, Uncle Albert taking the dubious honour instead.
When the play-offs came, Neil was as solid and reliable as ever in the two battles against the Baggies. If he had been practising his penalties, he’d been wasting his time as Jed and the boys did their stuff to good effect. The Wembley final could have been an occasion for big-match nerves but not for Taylor; Frank Lampard’s negative tactics, presumably to counter the Grealish threat, meant he had a bit of an armchair afternoon, leaving him free to get forward and have a hand in Anwar’s deflected shot that set up the decisive goal for McGinniesta. Elmo had enjoyed the same freedom on the other side of the pitch, to the same effect.
Long and happy were the celebrations but the following week revealed the nature of the massive task ahead, when twenty-five contracted players left the club. Clearly, this was going to have a massive impact on the extent and nature of the summer transfer deals, as Villa went about the business of putting together a new squad to give us some chance of survival.
In these circumstances, a Welsh international full-back with plenty of Premier experience was far too valuable to get rid of. However, when Villa brought in Matt Targett from Southampton, the received wisdom was that Neil would fall back to the bench. Dean Smith took a different view and gave Taylor and Elmo the chance to keep the shirt for the opening matches. In the end, Neil made fourteen appearances in total and was a more than useful pick as Targett didn’t enjoy the easiest of first seasons as a top-flight regular. Targett’s significant improvement last season had some talking of an England call-up. He didn’t quite make that mark, but such was the consistent quality of his game that Neil only had one league chance all season. He had a slightly happier time in the cup games; in fact, against Burton, he recovered from the shock of Grealish’s brilliantly-conceived pass, to knock a good ball across for Ollie Watkins to grab his first Villa goal.
After that, it was back to the bench until the end of the season when Neil’s contract had run down and he became a free agent. It’s fair to say that no-one was surprised when his deal wasn’t extended, his appearances record telling its own tale. Currently, he’s getting regular games at Middlesbrough on a short-term deal that was extended until the end of the season. It’s good to see that a team ambitious for Premier League football see Neil Taylor, even now, as a man who has a part to play in achieving exactly that, just like he did for us.