Had it not been for the brilliance of the late Sir Bobby Robson and a daily battering from Alan Shearer, the last decade and a half could have been very different for Steven Taylor.
It’s 15 years to the day since Taylor made his Newcastle United debut on a soggy night in Mallorca.
Taylor went on to play in two European quarter-finals and an FA Cup semi-final for his boyhood club.
Now playing for Wellington Phoenix in New Zealand, Taylor is older and wiser.
Back then, he had been a wide-eyed teenager.
Robson had been putting Taylor up against Shearer and Craig Bellamy in training since he was 16, and when Andy O’Brien picked up an injury late in Newcastle United’s UEFA Cup tie against Real Mallorca on March 25, 2019, he turned to the defender.
Taylor found himself up against Samuel Eto’o, on loan from Barcelona, for the last nine minutes.
“Bobby used to bring the young lads into his squads for experience, so they could be around the experienced heads like Alan Shearer, Gary Speed and Shay Given,” said Taylor.
“For me, it was a massive learning curve being in that kind of squad and getting the experience of what it’s like on a matchday and seeing how they prepare for games.
“That night, I just remember Bobby Robson telling me to warm up.
“Andy O’Brien was struggling, and it was an opportunity for me to go on. It was an unbelievable experience.
“What a feeling. The butterflies were kicking in, but there was no better feeling when he got a hold of me and said ‘listen, just enjoy the occasion’. I was a like a fan, and to get on the pitch with the likes of Alan Shearer was a dream come true.
“Every trip we had leading up to it, Bobby would come round each individual player and sit down with you.
“When he talked to you, you were just in awe of it. I was just praying to get my opportunity under him. It was an unbelievable experience, especially to play against Samuel Eto’o.”
Taylor and Eto’o swapped shirts at the final whistle.
“I kept the shirt – it’s framed, and my most memorable one,” said Taylor.
“I remember after the game I was next to him, and I took my shirt off and gave it to him. He probably used it to clean his windows. For me, it was special to get an opportunity against someone like him.
“I remember our paths crossed when we played Anzhi (Makhachkala) and against when he was at Chelsea. I spoke to him about that and he had a little laugh.”
Three days after the Mallorca game, Taylor was given a start, this time away to Bolton Wanderers.
Taylor’s Premier League debut, however, didn’t go so well thanks to a nudge in the back from Henrik Pedersen, who scored the only goal of the game.
“Andy O’Brien was injured,” said Taylor. “We had three or four injuries, and there was no other cover.
“I think it was the first five minutes. I was going to head a ball back to Shay. I’ve got a nudge in the back, and he’s just whacked it on the edge of the 18-yard box over the top of Shay.
“I just couldn’t believe it. I think it stood me in good stead. You learn from those scenarios.
“The good thing for me was that I had a lot of experienced players around me, which you learn from.”
Taylor, once a ballboy, went on to make 268 appearances for the club. He also captained England at Under-21 level.
Thanks to Robson, he had been ready for that first chance in Mallorca.
“When I was with the reserves, Bobby would always get me into the first-team set-up and put me against the likes of Alan Shearer,” said Taylor. “I was 16 years old at the time, and he’d always have me against them.
“I was getting battered day-in, day-out, but it toughens you up. You have to learn at an early age if you want to go to that next level, especially the Premier League.
“As a defender, you have to toughen up. There were days in his office when he put his arm around you. You go from being a boy to a man very quickly under him.
“He watched the reserve games, which was a big thing. He was in the changing rooms before and after games. He gave you that belief.
“And every day Alan Shearer and Craig Bellamy were telling me where I should be position-wise, what they didn’t like being done to them and what they did like.
“They were two very different players, so I learnt different stuff from them. For them to take the time to speak to a young lad was special.”
Taylor – whose career at St James’s Park was punctuated by a series of injuries – left Newcastle in the summer of 2016. He joined A-League team Wellington last year after spells at Portland Timbers, Ipswich Town and Peterborough United.
“There were offers from a few teams in Europe, but A-League is going the same way the MLS is going,” said Taylor.
“You play in the summer out here. It’s definitely a new challenge. Wellington have been struggling in the past few years, so that was another challenge. This is definitely testing me.”
Taylor, physically, feels fitter than ever.
“I’ve had a few injuries,” he said. “I snapped both Achilles, hamstrings, dislocated both shoulders ... people will have thought I’d hang my boots up. But you keep going. I’ve looked after myself body-wise. Here, in New Zealand, the sports science is helping prolong my career.”
Taylor no longer wears a black and white shirt, but he’s never far from one in New Zealand.
“Every game I play out here, there are Newcastle fans everywhere,” said Taylor.
“The Newcastle following is phenomenal. Where I live, there’s a Newcastle fan at the local cafe. You find Newcastle people in the city. When we go to Australia, the following is huge.
“It’s great to see black and white tops at games. It’s nice to see Newcastle fans out here.”
Meanwhile, Wellington coach Mark Rudan dedicated last weekend’s 3-1 win over Western Sydney Wanderers to the 50 victims, and their families, of the Christchurch mosque shooting.
“It certainly shaken me up and my players,” said Rudan.
“It’s not what this country is about. It’s a great country – it’s opened its arms to so many different people, so many different races.”
Taylor said: “It’s hit everyone hard. It’s something they thought would never happen here – it’s devastated everyone.
“Our thoughts are with the families.”