In a darkened corner of an elegant hotel in Newcastle, on an otherwise sunlit afternoon on Quayside, Steven Taylor counts the names out aloud. He uses seven fingers and his two thumbs to accompany his quiet chanting of the nine managers he has played for at Newcastle United.
Taylor begins respectfully, naming the Geordie icon who picked him for his first-team debut in the black-and-white shirt of his hometown club in March 2004. And then the other eight names follow in a steady procession: “Sir Bobby Robson â€¦ Graeme Souness â€¦ Glenn Roeder â€¦ Sam Allardyce â€¦ Kevin Keegan â€¦ Joe Kinnear â€¦ Alan Shearer â€¦ Chris Hughton â€¦ Alan Pardew â€¦”
Taylor’s murmured incantation ends with a helpless smile. “Amazing, isn’t it?” he says, knowing how each name conjures up a slice of Newcastle renown or infamy, chaos or dissent, until the previously unwelcome Londoner, Pardew, steered the club into their current heady position.
Newcastle, who face Spurs at home on Sunday afternoon, remain unbeaten after seven Premier League games. Despite being dismissed as likely relegation candidates, they stood fourth in the table after Saturday’s results, with Taylor’s performances at centre-back a key reason why Newcastle have the best defensive record in the league this season.
“There’s a massive difference,” Taylor says of life under Pardew, “and the main factors are determination and team spirit. In the past, we were too divided and accepting of defeat. We lost some big characters in the summer â€“ Kevin Nolan, JosĂ© Enrique, Joey Barton â€“ and we’re a small squad now. But we’ve now got players of real pace and quality. And we stick together.
“In our last match, away to Wolves, we won [2-1] and that was because we now have this never-say-die attitude. Near the end, you could see our players would do anything to keep the ball out of the net. Last season, we would have lost that game because we didn’t have such determination.”
The 25-year-old Taylor might have been born in London, but he belongs to a family of Geordies who returned to theÂ north-east when he was a baby. He has lived most of his life in Whitley Bay, on North Tyneside, and his Newcastle bonds run deep. Taylor used to watch hisÂ heroes from the Leazes End of St James’ Park â€“ having signed for the club academy at the age of nine. In his time as a first-team squad member, he has witnessed anarchy and strife, despair and relegation.
Taylor was on the pitch in 2005 when his team-mates, Kieron Dyer and Lee Bowyer, were sent off for fighting each other during a 3-0 defeat by Aston Villa. He has also seen chairmen heap down ridicule upon themselves and a reeling club. “It was a massive kick in the teeth when we got relegated [in May 2009]. It really hurt people and that’s why I was never going to leave the club then. I just wanted us to get back into the Premier League. And that’s where the turnaround began â€“ with relegation. We developed a winning mentality in the Championship and stopped being negative. We’ve got that same mentality now. We believe we can beat anyone in the Premier League.”
The wage ceiling that Mike Ashley, the derided owner, imposed on Pardew has meant a combination of imaginative scouting and simple team-bonding have transformed the once moribund atmosphere. Graham Carr, the chief scout, recruited seven French players â€“ Yohan Cabaye, Hatem Ben Arfa, Sylvain Marveaux, Gabriel Obertan, Cheik TiotĂ©, Mehdi Abeid and Demba Ba, the Senegal striker born in Paris â€“ who add creativity and zest to a squad previously dominated by high-earning veterans.
“I speak to Graham a lot,” Taylor says. “He ain’t as funny as his son [the comedian Alan Carr]. Graham cracks a few jokes, but they’re a bit old. But he has a huge knowledge of football.”
Taylor acknowledges the Gallic contribution while stressing that Pardew’s ability to gel together a disparate squad has been fundamental to Newcastle’s success. “I’m concentrating on my Spanish these days,” he quips, in deference to his captain and partner in central defence, Fabricio Coloccini. The understanding between the Geordie and the Argentina international gives Newcastle a solidity that has resulted in them conceding just four goals in seven games. “The gaffer has me and Collo working together in training and I know enough Spanish to say ‘get out’. But Collo’s English is excellent, so I’ll stick to that.
“The French lads have got straight into the banter and team-bonding the gaffer has us doing. They’ve absolutely loved it. But Cheik TiotĂ©, an absolute animal on the pitch, is like a little girl at paintballing. He looks like he could run through a brick wall, but hit him with these little pellets of paint and it’s like he’s been shot. All I could hear was TiotĂ© screaming. Afterwards we all went out for a meal and had a laugh. That would never have happened a few seasons ago. We’re socialising and having a good time now. That’s what we need to keep tight as a unit.”
Ashley’s ability to spread ill-feeling has also been curbed and Taylor pinpoints a harder business reason for the changed mood. “We had an issue last season. We couldn’t negotiate a bonus scheme and that caused a separation between the playing staff and the chairman. It was a big divide. But things changed in pre-season. The chairman agreed straight away to the bonus scheme and he now lets the gaffer get on with what we do best.”
of the most likeable Premier League footballers you could ever meet and if that revelation makes it sound as if Newcastle’s squad has been bound together by mercenary motives, it is striking to hear him talk about bonuses in a wider context. “You know,” he says, “when I was young, it was good for me to go on loan to Wycombe. Sir Bobby came to me [in December 2003] and said, ‘Tony Adams has been on the phone a couple of times and he’d like to take you on loan.’ I said, ‘Tony Adams is my idol â€“ and for him to manage me would be amazing.’
“At Wycombe, players were not on much money and they had wives and kids to look after. A win bonus really made a difference to their lives. Until then, I’d been playing reserve-team football where, if we lost a game, players would shrug. That frustrated me. But everyone cared at Wycombe â€“ especially Tony Adams. He did so much for me.”
Taylor’s respect for Adams is bound up in his reverence for the great old Arsenal defence. Even when he was a kid, delirious with happiness when watching Keegan’s cavalier Newcastle team of the mid-1990s, his deepest admiration was reserved for Adams and the Arsenal back four. “I loved watching them. They were so good at their job and they did it perfectly as a unit. At Newcastle, we have the best defensive record, but it’s nothing like that Arsenal back four. But we’re in a new era and attackers have much more pace. You can’t really play like Arsenal did then.”
On Sunday, against Arsenal’s north London rivals, Newcastle’s defensive steel will be tested by one of the best attacking sides in the country. “Offensively, they’ve got so much to offer,” Taylor says of Spurs. “They’ve got pace on the flanks and players who can score from anywhere. And [Emmanuel] Adebayor works really hard for them. He was quality at Arsenal, but he’s even better having played at Real Madrid. He’s a real handful and we’re going to have to perform better than we’ve done all season.”
Pardew has urged Fabio Capello to pick Taylor for England, arguing that a footballer who has captained his country at every level from Under-16 to Under-21 is in the form of his career. Taylor flushes and it is easy to see why Stuart Pearce, England’s Under-21 coach, was smitten with him.
“Stuart Pearce was a massive influence on me,” Taylor says. “He would come into the dressing room and you felt he was still playing the game. He had so much aggression and passion in his face. You never wanted to let him down and he gave me so much confidence.”
In 2007, Taylor was selected for the full England squad by Steve McClaren. “It was the proudest moment of my life, being called up for that friendly against Germany. I was on the bench, but there’s no greater honour than being picked for your country. Four years on, I’m a much better player and it’s great that my gaffer is talking about me playing for England. But it’s up to Mr Capello.”
Taylor is typically pragmatic when talk turns to Euro 2012. “I’m not holding my breath for that one,” he says wryly. “But I hope to play for England one day. I’m ready and hungry for it. In the meantime, I’m just happy playing for a winning Newcastle team.”
That team may be less colourful without Barton; but, in his affection for so many quintessential characters in English football, Taylor celebrates his former team-mate. “Joey is Joey,” Taylor grins. “He cracks me up with some of the things he comes out with. Joey likes to read his books and come up with big quotes, which he communicates to the outside world on Twitter. I’m very different because I keep myself to myself.
“But Joey has time for everyone. It doesn’t matter who you are. I’m still inÂ touch with Joey and I know how much he’s enjoying life in London and going to all them art galleries and catching the Tube and talking to ordinary people. That’s a good way to be: an ordinary person.”
That last phrase could also define the unassuming Taylor, for he has instilled the best of himself into a troubled club. “I’m just a fan, really,” he says, “and if you’re a fan of Newcastle United you can understand why this is a special club. We’ve had a lot of pain but the passion has stayed. And now we’re more than just passionate. We’re united. There’s a long way to go, but we want to keep that spirit. We want to do better than we’ve done for years.”