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Wolves throwback: Road to redemption for Robert Taylor

No one knows more than Robert Taylor that it didn’t work out for him at Wolves.

Robert Taylor wins the ball
Robert Taylor wins the ball

He doesn’t need to be told, as he is sometimes, that he is among the worst to have ever worn a gold shirt.

The memory still lingers from his time at Molineux when, walking around the pitch on the night of a game, unable to feature due to injury, he was threatened with being ‘beaten up’ by a group of disgruntled fans, angered at his lack of impact.

Equally however, no one wanted it to work out at Wolves more than Robert Taylor.

He arrived from Manchester City in August, 2000 for £1.5million, at the age of 29.

Following strikers such as Steve Bull, Robbie Keane and Ade Akinbiyi was always going to provide a stern challenge.

At that stage boasting 137 goals from 383 games, Taylor was ready for the responsibility.

Viewed by Colin Lee as an experienced foil for the previously signed Temuri Ketsbaia and soon to arrive Sami Al-Jaber - a pivot and a presence for the pace and purpose of Michael Branch and Scott Taylor – Taylor put pen to paper on a four-year contract. Yet it was only now, at this point of his career, that injuries would so cruelly, and so painfully, take hold.

He would make only 12 appearances in the next two years, eventually prompting a termination of his contract before short stays at several other clubs prior to retiring.

It was a career that took in the highs – all those goals, scoring in a play-off final for Gillingham against City at Wembley – and the lows, particularly that spell at Molineux and a spate of troublesome setbacks which saw him not only fearing for his footballing future but also for his life.

And that is why, a new direction post-football which has included working with vulnerable children and adults, helping those who are struggling to help themselves, has ultimately proved so rewarding.

Taylor has been through enough trials and tribulations in his own career to feel an empathy in supporting others.

And that has once again shown itself in a new and very worthwhile role, as manager of the Lee Rigby Football team, set up in tribute to Fusilier Lee Rigby, who was attacked and killed in a terrorist attack near the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich back in 2013.

Dan Ferguson, a Rangers fan and regular supporter of charity football matches, had the idea of setting up the team and linking up with the Lee Rigby Foundation, the charity set up by Lee’s parents Lyn and Ian to provide an additional support network for the military, in memory of their son.

Taylor managed several non-league clubs after hanging up his striking boots, and when approached by Ferguson to become involved in this new project, didn’t need any persuading.

“With what happened to Lee and it being such an important cause, to be involved in this way is amazing,” says 50-year-old Taylor.

“Dan asked me to get involved and the amount of people that want to show their support is unbelievable.

“It shows how heartfelt it is with how people feel about what happened to Lee – he was taken so young at just 25.

“I think it has stayed in people’s minds, and Lee’s Mum and Dad have been so brave in what they are doing and what they are trying to achieve.

“It was horrendous what happened, but now they are trying to be positive and raise money to help other people in his name.”

Funds raised by the Lee Rigby Foundation aim to support military veterans and bereaved families of fallen military personnel, particularly by providing counselling and relief from mental and physical distress including respite caravans on different sites across the country.

The Lee Rigby Football team is designed to raise awareness of that mission, as well as funds, and teams made up of former professionals and military veterans will play fixtures far and wide to spread the message.

And for Taylor, that extends an association with football whether on pitch or in dugout that began as a wide-eyed youngster turning out for Watton United in his native Norfolk as a teenager.

There are strong links with each of Wolves’ next two opponents given Taylor once notched all five goals away at Burnley in a 5-0 win for Gillingham – including a seven-minute hat trick - in the February of 1999.

But it was at Saturday’s opponents Norwich in his home city that the footballing dream began, the Canaries taking Taylor on at youth level after he impressed in a friendly for Watton against their reserves.

Regularly operating at right midfield, he was regularly among the goals, securing his first professional contract.

Norwich however, then in the top flight, boasted seven senior strikers, a formidable barrier to breach, but even though Taylor was released it was very much a 50-50 decision amongst the managerial and coaching staff.

“I liked it at Norwich, and really enjoyed my football, although it probably did me good to move on and away from the area,” he recalls.

It most certainly did, as Taylor launched an impressive career across the South of the country, with Leyton Orient and Brentford – “a great family club” – and then under Tony Pulis at Gillingham.

Having already played in one Wembley play-off final for Brentford, Taylor’s one full season with the Gills included not just that five-goal salvo at Burnley but scoring in the play-off final against City in which they were agonisingly pegged back late on before losing on penalties.

“Tony Pulis is a very good manager and we knew how to win football matches,” Taylor explains.

“A lot of teams were scared of facing us, but we just couldn’t get over the line against Manchester City.

Colin Lee with his new signing Robert Taylor.

“Even though we lost, playing at Wembley was the best day ever, particularly getting a goal as well.”

Taylor had already found himself on City’s radar with his performances, and an explosive start to the following season saw him make the move to Maine Road, albeit for a debut which perhaps provided an unhappy glimpse into the future of what was to follow.

The striker’s City bow came on a Friday night at Molineux, and goals from Akinbiyi, Branch (2) and Kevin Muscat earned Wolves a 4-1 win.

Taylor was admonished of any blame by boss Joe Royle – all strikers rely on service of which there was none for City that night – and went on to play his part as back-to-back promotions, and a place in the Premier League, was secured.

Competition for places suddenly rocketed, George Weah and Paulo Wanchope coming in, but Taylor excelled in pre-season and was partnering Weah up front and keeping the likes of Shaun Goater and Paul Dickov looking on.

Family reasons however dictated that the striker needed to move further South, and with the list of interested clubs extending into double figures, it was the inspiration from two former frontmen that helped shape Taylor’s next move.

“I had followed Wolves a bit growing up and then particularly when it was Steve Bull and Andy Mutch up front,” he reveals.

“I’m a Liverpool fan but I enjoyed watching Wolves because of those two and how they worked together.

“I made the decision to sign and I was really looking forward to it.”

Football, unfortunately, is never an exact science, and sometimes things can happen shorn of any real meaning or understanding.

Through no fault of his own, footballing fortunes quickly plummeted for Taylor, namely as a result of a string of injuries, the extent of which were perhaps hidden from the public gaze and supporter consciousness.

“I liked everything about joining Wolves, but a lot of people don’t know what really went on behind the scenes,” he explains.

“The injuries, operations, everything started to go wrong.

“I ended up suffering from cramp in my calves every single game – it usually kicked in after about ten minutes.

“My calves would be black when I came off the pitch, I couldn’t run and couldn’t jump, I could barely move.

“I wouldn’t train all week, I would rest up just so I could play on a Saturday, but I just tried to keep going because all I wanted to do was to play football.

“The pain was horrendous, like someone had got a knife and was shoving it into my calves all the time.

“It’s something called popliteal entrapment, where basically the blood supply was getting shut off behind my knees and the calf muscles would expand and burst the blood vessels to stop it getting through.

“There is a fascia which sits on top of the calf muscle and eventually I had an operation to cut it in half so the muscle could move through it.

“But in time the fascia just started getting back together again so the surgery didn’t work.

“I tried to play again but when you have something like this it makes the muscles weak and I later had a tear in my Achilles which ruled me out for several months.

“I also had Gallbladder problems for around six months which included needing a doctor to come out at 2.30 in the morning to give me morphine just to kill the pain.

“Eating certain foods would leave me doubled up in agony, and eventually I needed an operation on that as well.

“At one stage I lost two-and-a-half stone in weight, but still I tried to carry on because I knew what I was capable of if I could get fit.

“Ultimately though, while my mind was telling me I could do it, my body certainly wasn’t.”

And therein lies the deep dilemma for any professional footballer who is unable to operate at full throttle.

While it is certainly a privileged existence, the physical pain of injury is often matched by the mental anguish of not being able to take to the pitch.

Taylor was no exception.

“With everything that was going on I just started to feel very miserable and didn’t want to do anything,” he recalls.

“It was one thing after another, and it can be difficult as a footballer moving to a new place, trying to sort accommodation, looking after your family, and then things going so wrong.

“Part of me felt so down that I didn’t want to be around anymore.

“I just wanted to be in a hole and for no one to see me again – that is how low I got and I did think about committing suicide.

“How did I get through it? Well I thought about my kids, and how lucky I was to have them.

“Sometimes you have to realise it’s not just about you as a person, there are others you need to consider, and at the time I knew I needed to be with them.

“Even when you feel that you are on your own and have no one on your side there is always something or someone to keep you going.”

With the deep and dark extent of those feelings, talking about the failure in a footballing sense of Taylor at Molineux seems almost churlish by comparison.

But he is not looking for sympathy.

He is just as frustrated as those fans who were hoping for so much more from him when he arrived at a team which at the time was perennially locked in a battle to try and reach the Premier League.

“I have heard all the people say that I am the worst player to ever play for Wolves,” he volunteers.

“And I only played a few games over the two years.

Robert Taylor

“It just wasn’t my time at Wolves, I hadn’t been injured before I went but then all those things started happening.

“I didn’t get a chance to show what I could do, I really wish I could have done, and for that I was gutted - really gutted.

“I was desperate to make a difference and help a club like Wolves go on and go forward.”

There were one or two moments of promise, particularly in the League Cup with a goalscoring performance from the right of midfield at Oxford and a brace at Grimsby.

Ultimately however the pain was too much, and Taylor went to see CEO Jez Moxey to agree a termination of his contract, before winding down his playing career with several short stays elsewhere.

There have been other low points for Taylor since, but plenty of job satisfaction as well.

In addition to those several management roles he also opened up an agency for players, but it is perhaps in the care and education sector that he has enjoyed his greatest sense of fulfilment.

Taylor has worked extensively with vulnerable young people, in children’s homes with many who have been in care from the age of four or five, self-harming and even trying to commit suicide.

He has also worked in behaviour units in short stay schools, whilst also returning to support vulnerable adults via Norwich’s official charity.

Living in Swaffham, Taylor has also been involved in the Street Life Soccer programme at Norwich which offers football sessions for those experiencing homelessness, drug or alcohol misuse, seeking asylum, or ex-offenders.

“All I want to do is try and help people who are struggling or haven’t had the best start in life,” he explains.

“I can use some of the experiences I have had and I don’t think it matters who you are – we all go through tough stages at some parts in life.

“It gives me a sense of satisfaction and feels like I am achieving something in making even a small difference to someone who needs help.

“We never know what people are going through, or what is around the corner, and so I think any support we can give is always so important.”

Taylor has found that many of those experiencing homelessness are of an ex-military background whom, in a similar but perhaps more pronounced way to footballers, find it difficult to adjust to ‘normality’ when their careers come to an end.

That dovetails back perfectly to his new assignment, leading the Lee Rigby team, which promises to be both a proud and groundbreaking moment.

Full of praise for the Rigby family and the likes of chief organiser Ferguson, Taylor says the interest in the team, and the fantastic shirts which have been produced, is already off the scale.

Initially they thought they might play ‘seven or eight’ games a year – but almost immediately they have had interest for fixtures from 136 clubs or charities.

Many ex-players have also put their names forward, including former Wolves man Jon Purdie, and it is likely there will end up being a network of different teams and managers representing the badge at fixtures across the country.

Much of the planning has been carried out online in recent months, but on Saturday night the key influences, including Lee’s parents, with entertainment from comedian Duncan Norvelle and ‘Ziggy’ from Grange Hill, met together for the first time at a fundraising event at the Railway Tavern in Dereham.

It was a great night, a night for coming together and looking ahead to an exciting new chapter.

Trial matches are planned ahead of the first fixtures next year which already comprise facing a Rangers XI at their indoor arena and a tournament at AFC Blackpool.

Assisted by Justin Singleton, Taylor admits that the competitive juices are sure to flow when the team hits the pitch in 2022.

“No one wants to lose, do they?” he says with a laugh.

“As long as everyone enjoys it, and loves being part of what we are doing, that is the main thing.”

Sadly Robert Taylor didn’t get to enjoy his football too much at Wolves, injuries put paid to that and there is nothing he can do to change it nor the mindset of supporters.

But with his work since, and in managing the Lee Rigby team moving forward, it feels like there has been a redemption which has proved a far more positive and satisfying experience.

Any former professionals interested in playing for the Lee Rigby team, or anyone interested in supporting in other ways including sponsorship, can email Robert at Rob.ataylor11@gmail.com

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