Goalie, defender and now manager!
AS LEE McEvilly, the giant Cambridge striker, prepared to face Exeter City in January 2008, he spotted a familiar face across the halfway line.
Matt Taylor had played alongside the scouser for Burscough, keeping goal as the Lancastrian side won promotion to the Northern Premier League in 2000.
McEvilly departed shortly afterwards, joining Rochdale for £20,000, winning international recognition with Northern Ireland and forgetting all about the teenage keeper he’d spanked balls at in training.
Imagine his surprise, then, when Taylor stripped off his tracksuit, donned a striped shirt and lined up against McEvilly in the centre of the Grecians’ defence.
“I was gobsmacked,” said the 36-year-old, a feeling that only intensified as Taylor hacked McEvilly’s goalbound header off the line to cap a man-of-the match performance.
It was no fluke, either. Within months, Taylor had won promotion to the Football League, beating McEvilly’s Cambridge in a Wembley play-off final.
Within three years, he was captain of Charlton Athletic, facing off against the likes of Leeds, Leicester and Nottingham Forest.
So how did a Non-League goalkeeper become a Championship centre-back? In a word, happenstance.
“Ever since my school days, I’d played in two positions,” explained Taylor, who spent time on the books at Everton and Preston as a teenager.
“I’d be in goal for my age group and in the next year up as an outfield player, doing it every Saturday and Sunday. Afterwards, I carried on playing centre-half for my college and the county but was still in nets for Burscough under-18s.”
When Burscough’s regular keeper suffered an injury, Taylor was asked to fill in by manager Shaun Teale, the former Aston Villa great.
He seized the position and, for six years, that was that. Taylor won the FA Trophy with Burscough, then traversed the NonLeague scene whilst studying sports science at Sheffield Hallam University.
Rossendale United, Hucknall, Halifax Town. An unsuccessful trial at Lincoln City. Matlock, where he won player of the season in 2003-04. Guiseley, in 2005. Then came his lucky break. Off duty, Taylor had been playing at centre-half for the university first team. “A nice guy who never missed a single header,” recalled one former team-mate. Chosen to represent England Universities, he was spotted by Ged Roddy, Bath Uni’s director of sport. Roddy recommended Taylor to the manager of Team Bath, the amateur uni side who at that time played in the seventh tier of English football. The manager’s name was Paul Tisdale. Tisdale had no idea that Taylor, by then 24, had ever been a goalkeeper.
“And it wouldn’t have mattered if I did,” he said. “Matt performed excellently at centre-half, with a great willingness to learn. Nothing else was relevant.”
Taylor won player of the year in his first season as a defender, then followed Tisdale to an ambitious Exeter City outfit gunning for a return to the EFL. Nine goals, 46 games and one promotion later, he was a playing in League Two.
Two more promotions would follow, one with the Grecians, followed by the League One title in his first season at the Valley.
Often described by gaffer Chris Powell as a “captain without the armband”, Taylor struck up a fondly-remembered partnership with Michael Morrison that in 2012-13 saw Charlton post the sixthbest defensive record in the Championship.
It got the Addicks to within
“Matt was such a good defender,” said Yann Kermorgant, the French striker who spent three years at the Valley. “He was a rock – nothing got past him. Especially in the air where he was so dominant.”
Released in 2013, Taylor’s peak years were over. Nevertheless, he remained a solid lower league defender for Bradford City, Cheltenham Town and finally Newport County, where – in a late return to his roots – he provided goalkeeping cover during an injury crisis.
Throughout, Taylor already had his eyes on the future. Already possessed of a degree and a diploma in sports coaching, he enrolled on an MSc Coaching Science degree at Hartpury Sports Academy in 2014.
Alongside those studies, he coached – and eventually managed – the academy’s senior football team.
“The fact that he studied for a masters and assisted me with the first team while still playing at a professional level speaks volumes about his work ethic, ambition and commitment to absorbing new ideas,” said Marc Richards, now assistant director of elite sport at Hartpury.
As before, Tisdale was the beneficiary of Taylor’s transformation. Still at Exeter after 11 years, he invited his former defender to head up the club’s Under-23s in 2017. And when he finally stepped down a year later, Taylor was asked to fill his boots.
So far at least, it couldn’t have gone much better, with nine wins from his opening 19 games and 47.4 win percentage. But then, Taylor always could turn his hand to something new.
“You could always tell he was going to go on into coaching,” said Dean Moxey, who was in the Exeter team that won promotion to the EFL and returned to the club in 2017. “He was one of those that you talked to and he would help you. And he would also tell you off if you needed it. It’s not a surprise to us the start we have made.”
VERSATILE: Exeter City manager Matt Taylor and, inset, playing for Charlton Athletic