Brave Maik Taylor preparing for another big battle
Goalkeeper Maik Taylor will, a fortnight from today, be guarding the Northern Ireland goal in Slovenia.
He could just as easily have been on guard duty in Afghanistan or Iraq.
Taylor began his working life as a soldier long before he got his big break in professional football.
It gives the Birmingham City keeper a perspective on life not shared by many of his Premier League contemporaries.
“People talk about footballers as heroes but the guys serving in places like Afghanistan and Iraq are the real heroes,” he said.
“I have a brother-in-law who has just completed three tours of Afghanistan and I still have friends in the Army who have been out there as well so I know the difficulties they face,” explained Taylor, who followed a family tradition by joining up.
“My dad was in the army so it seemed the obvious career choice.
“I had the opportunity to become a professional footballer with Barnet when I was nearly 24 and would probably have stayed in the Army if that chance hadn’t come along.
“I was in the Army for six years and know what it’s like to work hard for very little return.
“So I really appreciate what I do now and it probably explains why I’m still hungry for the game at my age,” said Taylor, who turns 39 the day after the game in Slovenia.
“It’s frustrating when you see young lads who maybe haven’t even got 50 league games under their belts and they are strutting about as if they have it made.
“In my case I appreciate everything because it’s such a short career and you have to make the most of it,” he added.
Taylor faces a battle to see action at Birmingham City.
Blues boss Alex McLeish splashed out a fee approaching £6m to sign goalkeeper Ben Foster from Manchester United during the summer and Taylor was never under any illusions that the new man would start the season as St Andrews’ first choice custodian.
And that proved to be the case with the 27-year-old England international between the posts for last Saturday’s 2-2 draw against Sunderland at the Stadium of Light, with Taylor getting a seat on the bench.
City host Blackburn tomorrow with Foster again expected to start.
“It will be up to me to push him and hopefully get in and get a few games myself,” he added.
“If he produces the level of performance of which he is capable — similar to Joe Hart last season — it’s going to make things extremely difficult for me,” admitted Taylor, who hopes to add to his 82 caps against Slovenia despite the lack of first team action at Birmingham.
The big keeper didn’t get much of a look-in last season — just two league and two Carling Cup appearances — as understudy to Hart, who has now returned to Manchester City following a one-year loan deal.
But Hart’s switch back to Eastlands looks unlikely to re-open the door for Taylor at Birmingham after the big-money plunge on Foster.
Taylor is determined to stay sharp and make it difficult for Northern Ireland boss Nigel Worthington to leave him out of the team, especially with the 100-cap milestone well within the German-born keeper’s reach.
“If I am not getting many games (at Birmingham) it’s going to be difficult with Northern Ireland but I am up for the challenge,” he said.
“If I am not producing the goods and someone is there who’s playing well regularly for their club then I’m sure Nigel Worthington would make the change.
“So it’s up to me to work hard to make sure I keep the jersey and stay in.
“Hopefully I will keep performing at the level I know I can and help Northern Ireland qualify for Euro 2012.
“I’m aware that we have some good young keepers coming through so I’m going to work extremely hard.”
Taylor’s main challengers to be Northern Ireland number one include Inverness Caley Thistle’s Johnny Tuffey, Ross County’s Michael McGovern, Linfield’s Alan Blayney and Shamrock Rovers’ Alan Mannus.
Michael Ingham is first choice for York City in the Blue Square Premier but doesn’t appear to be in Worthington’s plans, while the experienced Roy Carroll is plying his trade in Denmark with Odense and now seems keen to add to his 19 caps.
Tuffey possibly represents Taylor’s biggest threat having stepped up from Partick Thistle in the Scottish First Division at the end of last season to top flight Inverness — largely to boost his international chances — but found himself on the bench for last Saturday’s 1-0 home defeat by Neil Lennon’s Celtic, Derryman Paddy McCourt sending Worthington reminders by firing a superb effort past first choice Ryan Esson for the only goal of the game.
So Taylor’s place as Northern Ireland number one seems safe for now.
“I’m taking nothing for granted,” stressed Taylor. “But I would love to make it all the way to the Euro 2012 finals, although it’s going to be tough with the likes of Italy in our group, a side who will be determined to bounce back from a disappointing World Cup.”
Taylor is one old soldier ready for the battles that lie ahead.