Charlie Taylor’s famous Renault Clio went the journey earlier this year. Well, not quite. Like any good brother he passed it on to his younger sister but Leeds United’s left-back is finally part of the Range Rover fraternity.
He was teased by three of his peers, Alex Mowatt, Lewis Cook and Sam Byram, at last summer’s kit launch for driving the worst car amongst them but the image of Taylor in a reasonably-priced motor was amusing and endearing. Some who know him well playfully accuse him of being tight. Down-to-earth might be closer to the truth.
“The Clio’s gone,” Taylor says with a smile. “I’ve swapped it for a Range Rover. It had to happen eventually I guess but it’s taken a while.
“The lads used to give me stick about the Clio but it was just my car. I only swapped it a couple of months ago and it’s still on my drive. I’ve handed it down to my little sister so I see it every day.”
A trait of so many of Leeds’ academy players is that they see professional football in the right way and with sharp perspective. If it sounds trite to say that Taylor lives for the sport, his record proves that he does. Over the years he has been an example of why loan deals in more obscure parts of the country are worth the effort; not only at Fleetwood Town, where the 22-year-old truly came of age, but 400 miles north in Inverness too.
Taylor was 19 when Terry Butcher asked to take him to the highlands of Scotland and out of his comfort zone. Taylor took the plunge and stayed there for five months without ever setting foot in Yorkshire. “I never came home in all that time,” he says. “It was too far to travel back here so even in the international breaks, I didn’t bother. I tried to make the most of being up there, to settle in.
“At the time I was playing in the 21s (for Leeds) and it felt no good. It wasn’t for me. I don’t mean any disrespect but I wanted to be playing first-team football. There’s no tempo about 21s games, they don’t matter in the same way, so when I got told about Inverness I thought ‘I either go for that or things stay as they are’. It was an offer to play in the SPL – a no-brainer for me.
“I went there and I loved it. I had Terry Butcher as a manager, you know all about him, and I learned so much. Getting to play at Celtic Park, in front of a packed crowd when they won the league – that’s the sort of thing that happens when you go out on loan. It’s never bad.”
Those stabs in the dark, culminating in a League Two play-off final appearance with Fleetwood in 2014, have paid off in spades. In the summer of 2014, in the aftermath of Massimo Cellino’s takeover of Leeds, a teenage Taylor was the only out-of-contract player who the Italian took much interest in. At a time of cuts and redundancies at Elland Road, the left-back’s deal was renewed with a three-year replacement.
It is, to date, one of Cellino’s sharpest investments, even though Taylor’s contract is winding down again. The defender has amassed more than 60 Championship appearances and is, give or take, the first name on every teamsheet. His defending has been consistent this season and only Lewis Cook and Stuart Dallas have more key passes to their name. Yesterday, Taylor won the Yorkshire Evening Post’s poll for the 2015-16 Player of the Year award, narrowly ahead of Gaetano Berardi.
Rarely has a vote been so heavily dominated by two full-backs.
Taylor says what everyone says when asked if he feels he deserves the award. “I don’t know. Maybe. I mean, I’m pleased with how my season’s been, considering everything that’s gone on. I do feel I’ve improved hugely since I got my chance here last season. I thought I improved massively in the year at Fleetwood but the last 18 months have been so much better. My all-round game, my defending and my supporting up front – I’ve contributed more in attack. But I think a few of us have had good seasons here.”
For Taylor it could easily have been over before it started in earnest. In October, shortly after a 2-0 defeat to Birmingham City, he was diagnosed with glandular fever and told that he might take a year to get over it. “It was horrible and for the first two weeks I was completely bed bound,” he says. “I hardly moved or did anything. After that, the physios told me to stay in my house and do nothing. I didn’t leave the house for a month.” How tedious was that? “I played a lot of Xbox and watched a lot of series (TV box sets).” In other words, very.
“It was going well before that happened and when I got the news I thought that could have been me done for the season. I didn’t think that seven games later I’d be back playing. I was lucky in one way but I do owe a massive thanks to the fitness guys here. I surprised myself by getting back so quick. It felt like ages but the worry for me was that it could have been so much longer.”
In September, before his sacking, former Leeds boss Uwe Rosler called Taylor “a machine”, admitting that a lack of cover and an inability to rest the left-back was pushing him beyond the call of duty. The description was apt. Taylor recovered from glandular fever inside two months and has not missed a game since. At no stage of this season has he been substituted. Taylor says the dismissal of Rosler after only 12 games in charge, coming in the middle of October was a shock to the squad. “Everyone was gutted. I know I was. He made a massive impression on me and I loved playing under him. He was great to me on and off the pitch. There’s genuinely not one player who had a bad word to say about him so, yeah, it was a shock. Personally I was gutted but that’s football. People always tell you that you have to be able to move on. The new manager (Steve Evans) came in and I’ve enjoyed playing under him too. He’s played me every week so I’ve no complaints.”
Taylor’s impression of the Championship after 18 months in it is that the cliché of no easy games applies to him. Away at Hull City last Saturday, he came up against former Leeds winger Robert Snodgrass and was schooled in periods by the Scotland international. “That’s the thing about the Championship,” Taylor says. “At Fleetwood I had a hell of a lot of games but the Championship’s much more physical. There’s much more quality in it.
“The quality of the wingers you get ... I was up against Snodgrass last weekend and there’s no way he should be in the Championship. He’s probably better than players in the Premier League. That was hard work. In the first half he got the better of me before I grew into the game but he’s too good for this level.
“Right through the league, there seem to be a lot of quality right wingers in the Championship. I’ve seen quite a few of them! There’s never been an easy game for me, I know that.”
Taylor, nonetheless, looks comfortable in the league. Other coaches think so, which is why links between him and Premier League sides – most recently Crystal Palace and West Brom – appear from time to time.
He has 12 months left on his contract and is in that twilight zone where academy products and better players at Leeds start facing questions about where their future lies.
Sam Byram, a close friend of Taylor’s going back many years, was in the same position last summer and left for West Ham in January. Lewis Cook and Alex Mowatt are currently entering their final seasons.
“It’s no secret that a few of us are up next year – me, Cooky, Mowatt – and I’m not really sure where that’s at,” Taylor says. “The dream is still to play in the Premier League with Leeds. I’m not just saying that, it’s how we look at it.
“But it’s the same every season – you get to the end of it and say ‘next year could be our year’. Maybe it could be this time. The season tickets (United’s recent promotion offering fans a partial refund if they fail to reach the play-offs next term) are a big thing, I’ve not seen that before. I just hope that there’s some investment in the summer. Because if that happens then next year could be our year. That’s how it works.”
Would prominent players at Elland Road be more inclined to stick around if that investment was made? “One hundred per cent,” Taylor says. “I think Sam (Byram) would still be here, I really do. And under past ownerships people have gone. We’ve sold players for silly amounts of money. Going back to Snodgrass, I wish a player like him was still here. But if some investment in the summer is done then I think we’ll have a chance.
“Back in February you might have said there was a chance of getting in the play-offs but it hasn’t ever felt that close. That hope died pretty quickly. But we’re finishing strong and I read somewhere that this could be the highest finish since 2011 so there’s a feeling about what could have been if things had been right.
“When I think about it properly, it’s massively frustrating because you think about how it would be if we had a really good go. We could be up with the Boros, the Burnleys. There is quality here, that’s true, but there do need to be additions.”
And equally, no destructive departures. Taylor is on the list of players who Leeds cannot expect to lose in the summer without drawing ire in their direction.
The tale of his Renault Clio suggests he is not in the business of chasing money. Decisions from here are more likely to come down to the football.
But he expects to be with Leeds next season.
“Unless anything drastic happens, I’m sure I’ll be here,” he says. “I’m not thinking any other way.”