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Ex-Swansea, Aston Villa defender hopes UAE football gets more inclusive

Neil Taylor had sessions on and off the field for fellow coaches at Precision Football, Ibn Batuta Mall, Dubai
9 Apr 2024 10:15

Kuumar Shyam (Abu Dhabi)

A range of international football stars are in town; the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Sadio Mane, Karim Benzema, Aymeric Laporte are only visiting Abu Dhabi for the Saudi Cup this week, but there are many illustrious names like them in the past who have come to the region to prolong their career walk into the sunset.

From the days of Sunderland’s Asamoah Gyan more than a decade back with Al Ain to Andres Iniesta (Barcelona, Emirates) very recently, some players of good pedigree have headed to the UAE, with mixed fortunes.

Then there was the late Diego Maradona, joint FIFA Player of the Century, who put on his coaching cap with Al Wasl and Fujairah in two stints. Having just crossed the age of 35, former Swansea, Aston Villa and Middlesborough defender Neil Taylor comes across as an exception on both parameters.

The former left-back and still-fit Welshman took retirement in November 2022 and within six months became the assistant to the Under-21 side’s manager Matt Jones. A further six months later, he was headed to Dubai where he took over as coach of Gulf United and led them immediately to promotion to the Second Division in the same season.

Holding the dual role and his experience put him as the star participant at a coaches’ forum organised by those behind the Mina Cup, an annual gathering of academies around the world for competitions in the Under-12, 13, 14, 15, and 16 categories.

Taylor, having played football at the highest level among those attending, was clearly the brains everyone wanted to pick on even at his young age. Taylor told Aletihad he shared his dressing room knowledge with the coaches at the forum at the Precision Football facility adjacent to Ibn Batuta Mall.

“I gave an insight into international football, what we do to prepare the players, the information we give about the opposition, etc. There was a field session where I shared how coaches can give individual attention to players even while working with the team in training.”

The annual Mina Cup sees professional teams travel to Dubai from all corners of the globe. These teams compete alongside regionally based academies and clubs needed to qualify through a series of UAE qualifying rounds held in the last week of November 2023. It was a wonderful opportunity for the coaches to gain inputs from English football’s premier name, one surely to benefit UAE football in the longer run.

Talk of Taylor 2.0 as a young coach has to bring the question: why so early? “Why not? I always did coaching part-time even when I was a player. It is something I enjoy very much. And my game was coming down a bit. So I wanted to do this while I am still fit,” Taylor said.

To a question on following suit like others to playing abroad in other leagues, he said: “I have moved up the ranks and went on to play at the highest level. I didn’t want to go to a lower level where I know it will be difficult. I would rather make my own environment. I am not as fit as I used to be, but I am okay.”

A Liverpool and Steven Gerrard fan, Taylor grew up polishing his skills as a boy and teenager at Manchester City before leaving for Wrexham in 2005 and then making the senior team two years later. He had a seven-year-long stint with Swansea from 2010 and scored his first goal for Wales at the 2016 European Championships.

As Gulf United coach, operating out of Al Jaddaf in Dubai since last September, Taylor a fresh perspective on his assessment of the state of UAE football. “It needs to be better. There is a lot of age-group coaching here, but not enough quality coaches. Sometimes you have to ask: ‘How qualified are they?’, and if quality players do not get good coaching access what are the plans being put in place? This are some of the things we discussed here too,” Taylor said.

“If you are not in an academy by the age of 11, the chances of progressing are extremely low. In the UK, there is a pyramid system where children come up through the community and academy levels on their way to the top. In the UAE, it is the other way round. It is the top clubs and if they do something for younger generation then, or else... [thumbs down signal]. If all the clubs do it, the national team will also improve.”

Born to a Bengali mother from India and Welsh father, Taylor is spot-on about needs to change if the UAE’s transient population can produce national-level players.

“We have a lot of mixed-nationality players in the UK team. Even the French team has players from African descent. The UAE is only a young country with football to the fore maybe 15-20 years. Maybe the children of the generation who have been here for some time could make it, but the rules will have to change for that, obviously. The system is not there. Sport can bring people together, but the inclusivity is not here as much.”

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