Steven Taylor felt quietly optimistic. His team, Gulf United, were on a winning run and he was rather proud of the tactical trap he had set for their high-profile English opponents.
The consequent realisation that there would be no ambush in the warm desert air proved suitably brutal. “I remember thinking: ‘We’ll give Newcastle a good run for their money,’” he says from Dubai. “But we were 3-0 down after 20 minutes. Newcastle won 5-0 and put on a show. They were special. My boys were: ‘Wow.’”
Admittedly it was only a friendly but, after spending time with Eddie Howe and his squad in the United Arab Emirates last March, Taylor became convinced his old club were renascent.
Sure enough, Newcastle now sit third in the Premier League and on Tuesday night visit Southampton for the opening leg of an eagerly anticipated Carabao Cup tie. It is their first domestic semi-final since 2005 in the FA Cup.
Now Taylor is a highly regarded young manager whose achievement in leading Gulf United to promotion from the UAE’s third tier last season has not gone unnoticed in elite coaching circles but, 18 years ago, he was 19 and impressing in central defence under Graeme Souness.
Despite the presence of Alan Shearer and Patrick Kluivert in black and white stripes, a meeting with Manchester United at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium proved too much for a Newcastle side unsettled by Sir Bobby Robson’s sacking the previous August.
“Manchester United were at a different level,” says Taylor, who spent 13 years at Newcastle, making more than 200 appearances. “Cristiano Ronaldo, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Wayne Rooney, Paul Scholes, Roy Keane and Nemanja Vidic were just exceptional.”
By the final whistle Van Nistelrooy had scored twice and Scholes and Ronaldo had registered a goal apiece in a 4-1 victory, with Shola Ameobi’s consolation offering Souness little solace.
Taylor prefers to remember the preamble. “Going down to Cardiff the atmosphere was incredible,” he says. “Our support was phenomenal: everywhere you looked it was all black and white. In the coach going to the game I saw our fans standing on top of a bus stop pouring beer over each other, kind of celebrating.”
Three days earlier Newcastle had returned from Portugal, where they lost a Uefa Cup quarter-final to Sporting 4-2 on aggregate. After Shearer’s solitary goal won the first leg on Tyneside, plans for the return were derailed by an altercation between Souness and Laurent Robert in the hours before kick-off.
“The Uefa Cup’s the competition I still think we should have won that season,” says Taylor. “We’d looked in cruise control early on but then Kieron Dyer and Titus Bramble went off injured and Graeme Souness’s fallout with Laurent Robert didn’t help. If all that hadn’t happened I honestly believe we’d have won.”
Two years later Mike Ashley became Newcastle’s owner, precipitating an era of underachievement until a Saudi Arabian-led takeover followed by Howe’s appointment in late 2021 transformed the narrative.
“A lot of people mention the money [£200m-plus] the owners have spent,” says Taylor. “But Eddie Howe’s got the best out of the players he’s inherited. He’s enabled some of them to rediscover their love for the game. He’s given the whole group confidence. His man-management’s so good you can see everyone’s fighting for each other.
“After leaving Bournemouth he knew he had to change his style and Newcastle are horrible to play against. I’d say they’re the Premier League’s fittest team. Because of their intensity, it’s very difficult to plan how to set up against them. Alongside that, you’ve got St James’ Park. It’s a fortress. The crowd’s absolutely phenomenal. Trust me, teams don’t want to go there. It’s a totally different environment from London or Manchester.”
After Taylor left Newcastle in 2016 – his last game was a “an incredible” 5-1 win over Tottenham on the afternoon Rafael Benítez resolved to remain in charge on Tyneside – he headed to Turkey but decided against joining Fenerbahce after being caught in the middle of a failed military coup.
Undeterred, a defender whose England ambitions were thwarted by a series of serious injuries, remained intent on seeing the world.
Stints followed in the US playing for Portland Timbers, New Zealand (Wellington Phoenix) and India (Odisha). “Travelling’s opened my eyes to certain things and involved some crazy plane journeys,” says Taylor, who took charge at Gulf United early last year. “But now I’m enjoying being settled in Dubai and trying to take this club to the next level.
“I think about what my successful ex-managers did. They didn’t tend to take work home and overthink. They didn’t panic. Or overcomplicate things. Players need to buy into what you’re doing; top coaches like Brendan Rodgers and Eddie Howe are so clever at making emotional connections with players.
“There were some big names at Newcastle in the past but they couldn’t handle the pressure. When things aren’t going well it sometimes brings out people’s true characters and, so many times, I saw players sulking, telling their agents they wanted to get away.
“A big reason why Newcastle have an opportunity to do something special this season is that no one in Eddie Howe’s squad wants to leave. I’d loved to have had him as my manager.”