Catching up with: Steven Taylor

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It's brilliant being back with the lads here [in Wellington], it’s a small group at the moment but being with them and around them is what I’ve missed.

After re-joining the Wellington Phoenix in Wollongong last season - following his stint in the ISL – and helping guide the squad to some impressive late-season from, Steven Taylor re-signed with the ‘Nix for the 2021/22 campaign.

We catch up with Steven as he discusses the challenges of being in quarantine and his advice on how he maintains his ‘mental fitness’ during these times – as well as his return to training with the boys and what it’s like to have Gary Hooper back in the squad next season.

 

You recently had to do 14 days in MIQ – your seventh stretch in quarantine, which adds up to more than three months in managed isolation since Covid first hit. How much of a mental and physical toll does that take on you as a professional football player?

I’m very happy to be out of quarantine, it’s not nice on anybody. Your first week is probably the hardest, but once you get out of that first week then it’s all downhill from there and not too bad. But it can be frustrating when you’re inside.

The last quarantine I did [in July/Aug 2021] was probably the hardest time I’ve had since I’ve been in lockdown.

At the end of last season when the rest of the boys were on their holidays and going back to see their families, I was stuck back in Wollongong and I couldn’t get out. I went to the airport twice and both time my flights were cancelled at the last minute.

I started asking myself “Am I ever going to get back to New Zealand?” with everything that’s going on, it was all such a big unknown. I was worried.

And when I did get into quarantine in New Zealand, I had to get used to being by myself again which is tough – but then again it’s the players who have families that I really feel for, not knowing the next time they can see their wives and their kids. I take my hat off to them.

But for me I just had to get into the routine of what I’d normally do on a day-to-day basis and try and focus on that. I’ve got to try and keep busy, because if you get to that lazy stage where you just feel sorry for yourself, that’s when you’re going to have problems.

It’s the mental part, call it mental fitness, that’s important – I stay on the phone, contacting people, speaking to friends and family who are very supportive. And especially my teammates, I was speaking to my teammates every day, Hoops and Bally every day – it kills good hours catching up with him and it keeps you going, you need good friends around you and I’ve got that with them.

And not just the mental part, it’s the physical side of things too.

People would say to me “oh you’ve got to really watch your diet” in quarantine but I think it can go two ways - in India I went to the extreme of watching every calorie I ate because I wasn’t able to train as much. But I lost over 4kg in India and coming back to the Phoenix I was playing catch-up to put the muscle back on; I had to be careful because when you lose that much weight you’re at higher risk of injury.

The focus for me was to keep things ticking over, the main thing is to do something like a bit of core work in the morning - but you don’t need to do a lot of work.

So yeah it’s tough but at the same time this is the sport we play – and the world we’re living in - and everyone else is in the same boat as myself.

 

What’s your advice for someone struggling to cope with being in quarantine?

When I first went through my first ever quarantine in Narabeen [during the 2019/20 season re-start] and I was in isolation, I couldn’t surround myself with other people as we were in our own bubbles. That was a big shock for me and I wasn’t used to it at all.

The problem that everyone has got in quarantine is that you’ve got too much time on your hands, and often you start overthinking and it can lead to negative thinking.

When you’re in the hotel, you get that 7am knock on the door and it’s breakfast and then when it’s lunch time, you get another bang on the door and it all just becomes a bit of a routine – so you’ve got to buy into that routine, you have to think “it’s two weeks and I’ve got to get through it”.

Just counting the days down and sticking to the routine you set for yourself is 100% the best thing I can advise anyone. It’s what’s got me through all my quarantine stays, all seven of them.

You might have your bad days when you’re over thinking it all, so when that happens I say speak to family, speak to those people you’re close to is the best thing to do – they’ll cheer you up. I’m very lucky to have had good friends who can cheer me up and help me have a laugh, it helped deflect away from my quarantine situation.

Wellington Phoenix
Steven Taylor poses with fans after the Phoenix's 3-0 win against Western United at Sky Stadium in May 2021.

How was it to get out of MIQ, re-unite with your teammates again and get back into training?

It's brilliant being back with the lads here [in Wellington], it’s a small group at the moment but being with them and around them is what I’ve missed.

And being around people is what I’ve been used to my whole career, especially in that football environment – something you really miss when you’re by yourself in a room in MIQ!

We’ve been doing some training with Greeny [Chris Greenacre], he’s been giving us a good workout and he’s pulled out his old school pre-season training sessions to get the boys working hard. And we’ve been working with Weijie [Lim, the new Head of Strength and Conditioning] on our fitness, overall it’s been positive and just getting back on the grass has been a great feeling.

I’m living with Hoops [Gary Hooper] at the moment in Wellington, he’s got his kids and his wife that he’s missing and he’s planning to get them out here – but he doesn’t know when. So every day Hoops is face-timing his kids and speaking to them on the phone, it must be hard for him but these things are part of life as a professional footballer.

Even though it’s challenging times, the lads still put a smile on their faces, they’ll go out and train hard and when it comes to match day we’ll all put on a performance for the fans – that’s one thing that’s a given. With this group of players we’ve got good lads, we haven’t got any big egos – we’ll just get on and get things done so we’re fortunate with this group that we’ve got.

For us at the moment as players, we don’t know what’s going to happen so we just wake up every morning, we go to training and we wait for the call from upstairs as to what’s going to happen. And we keep in touch and have fun too; we went golfing as a team the other day and had a great time.

 

What’s it like for you to have Hoops back in the squad, both as a football player and as a close friend of yours?

Hoops is a massive player. When you’ve got someone of his stature on the pitch you’ve just got that extra bit of confidence going into the game, especially when you’ve also got the likes of Waino [Ben Waine] and Bally and Jaushua Sotirio. You’ve got these players now, and you’ve got Reno Piscopo, it’s going to be difficult for our opponents now because we’ve got so many options on attack.

With Hoops, what he offers on the pitch is football intelligence, his power and the strength that he has – his finishing ability is just unbelievable, his record with goals in the Champions league, what he’s done in Scotland, the Premier League, the Championship – he’s always delivered wherever he’s gone.

You saw the quality the first year he was out here [the 2019/20 season], and how we missed him last season – if we had him here last year we would’ve been in the playoffs, it was that kind of quality that the Club missed.

With Hoops he can pin anyone in pockets and play as a 10, his passing ability – he’s just a very clever player and is difficult to play against. You don’t want him pinning you, he’s a very strong boy so it’s one thing we’ve massively missed I think, his ability and his finishing.

So I think we’re very lucky that he’s come back so it’s good to have him here, and the link-up play with Bally as well, you look at the goals they scored together last time. They way they play they’re both very clever – both can come off the line, both can pin defenders, in different situations in games they can each offer different styles of play.

So we expect a bunch of goals from him and Bally and Waino – a young lad who came through and did fantastically last year - next season.

Wellington Phoenix
Steven Player celebrates with his teammates during a home match at Wollongong's WIN Stadium last season.

Speaking of Waino and the other young players in the squad, what’s your thoughts on their growth last season and how much they can impact the team next season?

Watching the Kiwi boys playing in the Olympics while I was in quarantine, I thought they were fantastic and it just shows how far football in New Zealand has come over the past few years.

And look at the young players last year and what they achieved – like Clayton [Lewis], he was fantastic in games, he was so consistent and his passing ability in games made a difference. He just got stronger and stronger as the season went on, he improved and was able to show his ability.

That’s another great thing about having Hoops here too, is that he’s only going to benefit the younger players coming through the ranks too, the Wainos and the Sotirios, you know after training they’ll be picking his brain, getting knowledge from players who have been there and done it all back in Europe.

Because for all these youngsters, their ambitions should be “I want to play in Europe”, to get to the English Leagues and test themselves against the best players in the world. That should be the ambition of every young Kiwi and Aussie player who’s come out to the Phoenix.

You’ve got the younger generations coming in through the Academy now, and they should want to be making it at an early age – to go and set themselves up for a fantastic career. Look what Libby [Cacace] and Sarpreet [Singh] have done, that’s got to be the benchmark for all the young kids coming through, they need to think “that’s where I want to go”.

 

Looking back on last season, what are some of your thoughts?

Look it was a difficult season in tough conditions but the boys dealt with it, they were a different class and they all came through it. As I said he have a lot of good lads who look after each other, and hopefully we’ll look back upon the past season in better times and it’ll make us an even stronger unit.

One thing I remember [from last season] was when we came back to Wellington for a game, and you got to see the frustration we took out on the pitch against Western United - we put in the performance of the season. The lads that came back and put on that display were incredible, and the fans as well turning out in record-breaking numbers; it was fantastic for us and well-deserved for players, staff and the fans.

At the end of the day as players, it’s what we do on the field that the fans and everyone else judges us on – that’s the business we’re in and despite the challenges in our personal lives we have to put our egos aside in these situations and focus on doing our jobs.

 

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