ROI U21 star Jack Taylor talks to Damian Dolan about rediscovering his love for the game at Barnet and being on the cusp of something special with ‘Kenny’s Kids’
There was a time when Jack Taylor might have been lost to the game. Disillusioned with life as a youth player at Chelsea, the Republic of Ireland U21 midfielder drifted away from the sport he’d grown up playing, and loving, since the age of six.
He was only 14.
After seven years at Chelsea, he left. He wasn’t released he’s at pains to point out – his relationship with the club had soured for a variety of reasons he alludes to, but there’s a reluctance to go into detail.
It’s all in the past, and he’s moved on since then. His departure was a “mutual” one and it’s not something he’s ever lamented.
But after a brief spell at Reading, he lost interest in football.
And that might have been that for Taylor, but for a call out of the blue from his former coach at Chelsea, who was heading up the academy at Barnet.
A successful trial relit a fire within him and led to Taylor joining the Bees academy. He signed full-time in 2016 and passed 100 games for the club at the start of this season.
“I just needed a little bit of a break, and it paid off. I started enjoying my football again,” Taylor told the Irish World.
Now one of the stars of Stephen Kenny’s Ireland under 21 team – ‘Kenny’s Kids’ as they’ve been dubbed – Taylor has high hopes of 2020 being a very big year on several fronts.
Not that 2019 has been too unkind to him so far.
Overlooked by Ireland coaches and scouts an underage level in the past, Kenny obviously saw something in Taylor that others didn’t.
He was named in his squad for the Toulon tournament in France in June, and Taylor’s featured ever since in an under 21 team which has caught the Irish public’s imagination.
The likes of Troy Parrott, Aaron Connolly, Lee O’Connor, Jayson Molumby and Adam Idah are fast becoming household names.
Their recent 4-1 win over Sweden cemented their place at the top of their European Championship qualifying group, three points clear of Italy, but who have played two games less.
That impressive victory took Ireland’s points to a lofty 16 – the highest ever amassed by an Ireland U21 team in qualifying – and they still have three games to come next year, when they’ll look to reach the finals for the first time ever.
“It would be a great achievement for everyone involved to get to the finals,” said Taylor.
“It would be a moment we’ll never forget because the under 21 team has never qualified before. We’d be history makers.”
He added: “We’ve got the quality to compete with the top teams, like Italy. We should have beaten them [Italy in Dublin] – we were the better team.
“But we beat Sweden, who were meant to be second seeds, comfortably in both games, so there’s lots of positives for Irish football.
“We’ve done well and it’s now for teams to chase us.”
These are certainly exciting times to be part of the U21 set-up, and Taylor is clearly enjoying every minute of it.
“We love meeting up and it’s a good laugh – we’re quite close. We push each other as hard as we can and we set our standards as high as the first-team,” he said.
Taylor has no doubt that some of this current U21 crop will go on to be “stand out players for the first-team” in the future.
“Training with them every day you see their quality, whether it’s goalscoring or just keeping the ball. It’s another level,” he said.
That’s been reflected in senior manager Mick McCarthy’s willingness to promote Parrott (17), O’Connor (19) and Connolly (19) to his senior team.
Connolly was the first, propelled on the back of his two goals – his first in the Premier League – to help Brighton sink Tottenham.
“The player Aaron is and the sort of person he is, he just wants to score all the time. He’ll probably never look at the under 21s again. They’re the players you need in a successful team,” said Taylor, who is 21.
The highly rated Parrott of Spurs and Celtic’s O’Connor have followed. Both made their full debuts in the friendly against New Zealand.
Born in Hammersmith, London, Taylor’s Irish roots are on his mother’s side. His grandfather is from Carrickboy in Co Longford. His father comes from Salford in Manchester.
To play for Ireland was always the hope and his family in Longford were “really proud” to see him pull on the green jersey. One of his Ireland shirts is now a pride of place possession for the folks in Longford.
“It’s a great honour for me to represent Ireland, and for my family. They’re always asking for pictures of me in an Ireland top and things like that,” he said.
Taylor had been on the radar of the FAI’s scouts for a couple of years, but call ups never came, despite the midfielder racking up the games for Barnet in League Two and the National League.
“I knew an Irish scout was watching me when I was under 18s, but I don’t think I was good enough at the time,” he says.
Kenny’s appointment as Ireland under 21 manager in November 2018 coincided with Taylor enjoying a good spell of form for his club.
Kenny took in Taylor and Barnett’s 3-3 FA Cup draw with Brentford during a whistle-stop long weekend in London back in February, which began with Kenny addressing the London branch of the Ireland supporters club at the Claddagh Ring in Hendon, no less.
“That was the first time I spoke to him (Stephen Kenny),” said Taylor, who refused to take anything for granted.
“I just kept working hard and even if he wasn’t there, I just kept putting in performances as if he was there.”
Kenny “kept in touch” and Taylor should have been involved with Ireland for the qualifier with Luxembourg in March in Dublin, but a hernia operation ruled him out.
“That was a little bit of a set-back, but he (Stephen Kenny) still watched me and followed me until the end of the season, and then he called me up for Toulon. He seems to like me.”
And that’s certainly no bad thing, especially with Kenny heir apparent to McCarthy for the senior job.
But before Toulon, Taylor had already announced himself to his new Ireland teammates, scoring both goals as the under 21s put one over the seniors, 2-1, in a training match.
“No one really knew what I was about, because it was the first time they’d seen me,” he recalled.
“I thought ‘just play your game’, and all of a sudden I scored two goals and we won the game. It was a bit of a mad day, and I only played 45 minutes. I was buzzing.
“It was only a training game, but everyone was taking it seriously.”
At the Toulon tournament, Taylor forced his way into the reckoning by the end, coming off the bench against Brazil in the semi-final. He started the third-place play-off with Mexico’s under 23 side, and scored a penalty in the shoot-out, which Ireland lost.
He returned to Barnet and in August marked his 100th appearance club, for which his older brother Harry also plays, with a goal in a 2-2 draw with Chesterfield.
“On the day I didn’t even know it was my 100th appearance until they announced it before the game over the speakers,” he said.
Currently fifteenth in the National League, but only six points off the play-off spots, the goal is to get the Bees back into League Two, following their relegation in 2017/18.
Despite picking up 13 points from their last five league games that season, it wasn’t enough to save the Bees from the drop.
“I think I had four managers that year – it was like going on trial every few weeks,” said Taylor.
“Hopefully we can go back up this year. The play-offs is our aim and anything else is a bonus. If we don’t get in the play-offs it will be a disappointing season with the players that we’ve got.”
“The aim is to play as high as I can and to break into the [Republic of Ireland] first-team, like some of the lads who are playing Championship and League One football,” he said.
“They’re getting recognition from the senior teams and that’s good.”
2020 could be a very big year indeed for Taylor, Ireland’s under 21s and Barnet, and Taylor is very much “looking forward to it”.