From Montserrat to Norwood Junction: a goalkeeper’s journey

World Cup dream: Nic Taylor, now a Croydon FC player, in training with his national team

ANDREW SINCLAIR charts one of the more remarkable pieces of summer transfer business conducted in the Southern Counties East League Div 1

On June 2 this year, Nic Taylor kept a clean sheet for Montserrat in a 4-0 victory over the US Virgin Islands in the 2022 World Cup Qualifiers. On June 13, Taylor signed with Croydon FC for the forthcoming season, when he will be playing his football at Croydon Arena in South Norwood in the Southern Counties East League Division One.

Montserrat’s latest World Cup victory kept them in touching distance of making the second round of Central American and Caribbean regional qualification process, ultimately missing out, finishing second, just two points behind group winners El Salvador. But the assuredness of the performances and positive results of Taylor and his teammates are a far cry from the past.

On the same day as the 2002 World Cup final, Montserrat competed in “The Other Final”, a match between the two bottom sides in the FIFA world rankings. Montserrat played Bhutan, and Bhutan won 4-0. Sort-of officially, less than 20 years ago, Montserrat were the worst team in international football.

Montserrat struggled to play competitive games on a regular basis and they simply lacked the resources to be competitive. The massive eruption of the previously dormant Soufrière Hills volcano in 1995 had made anything approaching “normality” pretty impossible for the people on the small Caribbean island.

Montserrat was devastated by the eruption, with mudflows and pyroclastic flows – cascades of hot gas and rock – destroying the capital, Plymouth, and 20 other settlements. Dozens lost their lives.

Having been inactive since the 1700s, after the 1995 eruption, Soufrière continued to spew forth ash and lava across the island sporadically over the next 10 years.

Eruption: the volcano dominates Montserrat and devastated the island when it erupted for the first time in nearly 300 years in 1995

Two-thirds of the island’s population was forced to leave, with many heading for Britain as Montserrat was, and still is, a British Overseas Territory. The island’s population is now about 5,000, less than half of what it was before the eruption. At one point in the first decade of this century, barely 1,000 people still lived on the island. Getting a football team together was the least of their worries.

Montserrat’s British diaspora has been central to the islanders’ football resurgence. The national squad is now packed with players from across the English football pyramid. Spearheaded by Lyle Taylor, formerly of Charlton and Wimbledon and now of Nottingham Forest, they also boast Football League players like Crewe’s Donervon Daniels and Bolton’s Brandon Comley. And, of course, Nic Taylor.

Eligible for Montserrat through his paternal grandmother, Taylor made his international debut in March 2014, keeping a clean sheet against the US Virgin Islands and picked up a second cap three months later in a goalless draw with Bonaire.

Scout: Bradley Woods-Garness at Sutton helped Taylor get his international cap

Taylor is originally from the Croydon and Wallington area. Even before embarking on his international career he was what might be described as “well-travelled”. Over the past decade he has played for several of south London’s leading non-league sides, including Sutton United, Tooting and Mitcham, Cray Wanderers, Fisher and even the Trams’ fiercest rivals, Croydon Athletic, where he made 50 appearances between 2019 and 2020.

It was through his stint with Sutton that Taylor got his international break, finding himself in the same club side as Montserrat’s then record goal-scorer, Bradley Woods-Garness.  “I will be eternally grateful to Bradley,” Taylor told Inside Croydon.

“I was at Sutton with Bradley and I mentioned it to him. He said something to Lenny Hewlett, who was Montserrat manager at the time, and they came down to watch me at Cray. After they saw me, I got the call to play.

“To have had the opportunity to represent my country is something that will live with me forever.”

Personal circumstances stopped the 6ft 1in ‘keeper from adding to his tally of two caps for seven years, but he’s firmly back in the fold.

Green for go: Montserrat’s ‘Emerald Boys’ before their World Cup qualifier earlier this month. Goalkeeper Nic Taylor is No21 on the back row

“Our squad now is fantastic. It’s got more professional and we’ve continued to add real quality in all areas. It helps that we’re genuinely a band of brothers, too,” said Taylor.

“Regardless of background we’ve all come from the same place and we are all 100 per cent committed to helping Montserrat move forward and be successful.”

Montserrat may have missed out on progressing any further in the World Cup qualifiers but they are now potentially just 180 minutes away from an historic maiden Gold Cup appearance next month. To do that, they’ll have to get through Trinidad and Tobago and the winner of Cuba’s game with French Guiana. Should they emerge victorious from those games, the tournament proper promises ties with Curacao, recent rivals El Salvador and global powerhouses Mexico.

Inspiration: Montserrat coach Willie Donachie

“Imagine that, playing for Montserrat against Mexico in the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium. That’s a proper game of football!” Taylor said.

Key to Montserrat’s recent progress has also been Willie Donachie’s appointment as manager. The Scot played more than 350 games for Manchester City in a 22-year professional career that saw him win 35 Scotland caps in the team that included Kenny Dalglish, Bruce Rioch and Graeme Souness and made it to two World  Cup finals.

As a coach, Donachie, 69, has worked with Millwall, Newcastle United and the Antigua and Barbuda national team before linking up with Montserrat in 2018. Taylor has felt first-hand the benefit of Donachie’s wealth of experience and cites him, and his life journey, as “inspirational”.

Taylor now works as the director of sport in a Sevenoaks school, but as a youngster played in the academies of both Millwall and Crystal Palace before starting his senior career with Woking in 2008.

“Technically and tactically I took so much away from the time I spent in those academies. I was playing with lads that have ended up earning a decent living out of the game and I got the chance to develop my own skills with some brilliant coaches, especially at Millwall.

“When I left, it knocked my confidence a little because it’d been my dream since I was eight. It was a reality check and it made me realise that I had to forge a back-up career for myself in case football didn’t work out. That’s how I fell into teaching and coaching, and they’re still my proper jobs.”

Back home: Croydon Arena will be hosting Croydon FC matches again from the start of the season

Taylor runs his own goalkeeper academy, Taylor-Made Goalkeeper Academy, as well as running an after-school sports club and working with football academies in Oxted and Croydon.

Being a goalkeeper is perhaps the most solitary of football experiences. Unlike other substitutes, if you’re a keeper and you haven’t started you know that, barring a catastrophe to someone who might be a friend as well as a teammate, you probably won’t be playing. But Taylor has kept on an even keel thanks to a single-minded, determined attitude.

“I’ve always been driven to not take ‘No’ for an answer and to prove people wrong.

“I think coming through academies, especially as a goalkeeper, you’ll end up technically proficient but I think it’s more important to get out and play senior football as early as you possibly can, regardless of the level or money.

“I don’t want to sound like Roy Keane, but of course all ‘keepers should be shot-stoppers. The difference is what you are like on crosses, distribution and communication. You get that from experience. Experience is invaluable. I was with Tony Roberts at Dagenham and saw first-hand how important experience is. He was first-class.”

Taylor’s new boss at Croydon, Liam Giles, has described the signing as a “coup for the club”, which also learned this month that it will be able to play its home games from the start  of the season at Croydon Arena, after  the venue was closed during the first lockdown last year.

The hope for Croydon is that Taylor’s goalkeeping ability, experience and coaching work will help make the difference as they chase one of the SCEFL Division One’s two promotion spots this season.

No1: promotion is Nic Taylor’s priority at Croydon

It was clear that Giles views Taylor’s arrival as a vital bit of business. “I’ve known of Nic for a few years from playing against him a couple of times and I knew he was a very good goalkeeper,” Giles said.

“We played against Croydon Athletic a couple of years ago in the cup, we lost 1-0 and if it wasn’t for Nic that day I think we would have advanced to the next round. He pulled off some great saves.”

It was Taylor who made the initial approach to Giles and Croydon, using social media, of course. “Doing his own football academy classes in an evening, and working in a school during the day means playing at Step 4 or 5, with the extra training and midweek fixtures, might have been too much for him this year,” Giles said.

“We spoke while he was out with the national team. Not about Croydon or next season but just about life and football. When we came home from the national team games, we had another conversation and got it done pretty quickly.”

Taylor cuts a vocal, commanding figure on the pitch. The two things he looks to instil above all else in the children he coaches are passion and dedication and you see that in his performances, firing off instructions to the defenders in front of him, always having a word or two for the crowd and, inevitably, the referees.

“I love it,” Taylor joked.

“I try to influence a game by any means necessary. If that means creating a siege mentality for the lads, or trying to get the official onside, then I’ll do it. I can’t go and send a message with a big tackle or chasing down the opponent in a press, so I am vocal to keep myself focused.”

Liam Giles: Taylor is a ‘coup’

Giles put it another way. “He’s such a larger than life character, some might say he’s like Marmite, you either love him or you hate him.  He’s a great, great person to have around our club.”

Croydon have a 17-year-old goalkeeping prospect, Dan O’Donovan, also at the club. Said Giles, “Nic’s working at international level, he’s been at a number of pro clubs and high-level non-league clubs and Dan can learn a lot from that. I think Dan will come on leaps and bounds. I still think Dan’s got a very good chance of making it – he’s 6ft 6in, a great shot-stopper and when he’s stepped in, he’s never let me down. Working with Nic will benefit him massively.”

For Taylor, the coming season – hopefully uncurtailed by covid like the previous two – will see former Isthmian League-standard club Croydon haul themselves back into the SCEFL Premier Division.

“What really attracted me to Croydon was the project of helping to take what I believe to be a sleeping giant back to where it should be.

“The fans here are great and I believe that Croydon FC are the ‘people’s club’, with community at the heart of everything.

“We have one priority this year. Promotion. We absolutely need to get promoted and I won’t shy away from saying that is 100 per cent my ambition for this season. Anything else comes a poor second if I’m honest.”

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