Academy Alumni: Matthew Taylor's story
For some people, playing football isn’t always the dream. Take Matthew Taylor for instance. He wanted to be like his hero, his dad, who was an architect.
“I’d chosen my A-levels and I was ready to go into education – I knew my career path and it didn’t involve football,” says the very same person who has since gone onto make 582 appearances as a professional footballer.
That disinterest of the game – from a career perspective – stemmed from the fact a 14-year-old Taylor was rejected by his hometown club Oxford. “I was playing in their centre of excellence and one day they were short of a goalkeeper,” Taylor remembers. “I thought I’d done well but they said they wouldn’t offer me a scholarship. I was small and I was carrying a bit of weight. And that was it, I started playing with my mates again.”
But by chance Taylor, now playing Saturday park football and for the Oxfordshire District team, was being managed by a Luton fan who recommended to then Town Head of Youth Paul Lowe a young left-footed attacker. After completing his GCSEs and following a successful trial, Taylor earned his place in the Hatters’ youth ranks.
“I spoke to my dad about moving to Luton,” explains Taylor. “In the end I just thought ‘why not?’ I saw it as an opportunity. Football was never my ‘dream’ because I never conceived it to be a reality at that age.
“I left home at 16, lived in somebody else’s home and spent 10 hours a day playing football with lads of a similar age. Ask any 16-year-old what they’d like to be doing every day and I’m sure most will say ‘play football’.
“I was paid £42.50 per week as a scholar but money never interested me – it has never been an issue whenever I’ve moved. At that age it was a no brainer, I saw the opportunity and said to myself that I will dedicate two years of my life to football and if, at the end of it I wasn’t good enough, then so be it and I could go back and take my A-levels. I had nothing to lose and I knew that regardless I’d still gain some life experience.”
Taylor’s time in the Hatters’ academy didn’t last long...because at the age of 17, and with the first team light of players, he was called up into Lennie Lawrence’s first team squad in the pre-season of 1999.
“I was fortunate in that aspect because, unfortunately, Luton were in the midst of some financial difficulties and Matt pictured in 1999 Lennie was told to look to the youth team,” says Taylor. “I was only 17 but soon I signed a professional contract. I did well in pre-season and I remember making my debut away to Notts County. We drew 1-1 and the rest, as they say, is history.”
The teenager was a revelation in his first full season at Kenilworth Road, scoring five goals and playing all but five matches in today’s equivalent of League 1.
The following season saw manager Lawrence leave, but even after Ricky Hill and Lil Fuccillo were axed too, new boss Joe Kinnear couldn’t save the Hatters from relegation to League 2.
“Although we were relegated in 2001 that first season still acted as a great grounding,” admits Taylor. “I don’t think Lennie had much of an option but to play me as many times as he did but I soon realised I was playing against players whose livelihoods depended on football.
At 17, 18, 19 I was lucky to experience that at Luton and that’s made me appreciate what is done for you when you get to clubs like West Ham and Bolton.
“Even when I was in the first team I remember having to clean Tony Thorpe’s and Phil Gray’s boots – I was still a youth team player.
“I don’t think without that type of grounding I would be the person I am now. It’s the silly things like coming in and seeing your kit laid out, or the chef cooking your breakfast. Somebody’s had to do that for you – and your hard work has got you in that position.”
The 2001/02 season was a memorable one for the Town as they romped to an immediate promotion back to League 1, scoring 100 goals and earning 98 points. Taylor was instrumental: he scored 11 times in the league, missing just two games. It’s a campaign he remembers well.
“I can vividly remember that season,” he says. “For me they were the best times. They were fantastic. I recall playing with a certain Mr Valois. The relegation the season before had toughened me up, fortunately I’ve not suffered that feeling again my career. But that season we got promoted I remember the boys at the front banging the goals in.
“I scored 11 goals – a couple were a bit scrappy! – but we had a good team and I think whilst having a dressing room full of ability is one thing, having a closer dressing room is another and the team Joe assembled just got the job done, it had the right mix of characters and it was great to be a part of.
“I also remember scoring in the game at Swansea which saw us win promotion but I missed the celebrations because I was in Swansea hospital after taking a knock! As I say, it was a good time.”
On Friday: Taylor on joining Portsmouth.
This article first appeared in our official programme Talk of the Town for our home issue against Portsmouth on 28th December.