Neil Taylor’s contract at Aston Villa will run out this coming summer and while you’d be forgiven for thinking his influence in the English top-flight has run its course, the Welshman is now intent on becoming a trailblazer to promote inclusion in the game ‘for all’.
Not many people know that Taylor’s mother, Shibani Chakraborty, is a Bengali from Kolkata and the half-Welsh, half-Indian footballer is now using his experiences to support the hopes and dreams of aspiring footballers of similar backgrounds to himself.
As a child, Taylor played cricket for his village side in North Wales and looked up to his sporting role model: “Sachin Tendulkar is a huge character and sportsman to me,” he told The Independent newspaper.
After pursuing careers in cricket and football during his teenage years, the Aston Villa left-back has since become a mentor for more Asian footballers to get their equal opportunity.
“Around Birmingham, I still don’t see enough Asians playing in other youth teams,” Taylor told The Associated Press. “The higher numbers you have, the more chance you’ve obviously got of creating elite players.”
Eight years after making his professional debut for Wrexham in a 5-0 loss to Villa in 2007, Taylor was named player of the year at the Asian Football Awards at Wembley. The annual awards ceremony recognises the achievements of British Asians in English football, and in 2015 Taylor was acknowledged for his outstanding work.
Villa’s former defender and youth product Easah Suliman, who is of Pakistani heritage captained England Under-17s and won the prestigious young player award at the same ceremony. Four years prior to Villa’s double award scoop, those from an Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin made up 5.3% of a 56,075,912 population in England and Wales.
But after only eight players from Asian backgrounds made first-team appearances across the 92 clubs in England’s top four divisions last season, Taylor is now helping to improve those statistics.
“Society is changing,” Taylor told the Today Programme on Radio Four.
“We are at the point now where everybody is united in the fact that if it happens, it’s being reported, people are being found and we’re getting to the root of the problems.
“As a society, we are starting to realise that you can’t get away with what you say these days. You’ve got to be careful and I think that racial prejudice is starting to get out of the game.
“We’ve seen it with ‘Black Lives Matter’ and it’s great what is happening. Society is changing.”
This season, though, we’ve seen Punjabi teenager Arjan Raikhy make his first-team Villa debut in the FA Cup against Liverpool after Taylor continues to mentor and provide support to the 18-year-old around Bodymoor Heath.
Raikhy is one of nine Asian scholars in the English game this term with 15 players on a professional contract, including the likes of Leicester City’s Hamza Choudhury and Swansea City’s Yan Dhanda. 32-year-old Taylor has remained a big part of Dean Smith’s senior group that he often leans on for advice surrounding Villa’s younger players, despite his lack of minutes on the pitch this season.
PFA launch Asian Inclusion Mentoring Scheme
In February of this year, the PFA launched its Asian Inclusion Mentoring Scheme, an initiative focused on increasing the number of Asian players within professional football. The scheme, which has been running since early last season as a pilot, aims to enhance the experience of Asian footballers at all levels of the professional game by creating a structured network of support that allows them to thrive.
Current and former players, who have playing experiences across all four leagues and internationally, including Danny Batth, Malvind Benning, Otis Khan, Zesh Rehman, Anwar Uddin, and Taylor are all working with the PFA to provide support to the future generation of Asian heritage players.
Although Asian and Asian British people make up almost 7.5% of the British population, in the 2019/2020 season just eight players made first-team appearances across the Premier League and English Football League.
PFA mentor, Taylor said: “It’s what’s needed from the bottom going up.
“The mentoring is the bare minimum we can do for the upcoming players as we’ve had a career in the game. Less than 1% make it right to the top and it’s important we instil the right mentality to the players from a young age.
“I’ve been talking to the scholars, academy players and their parents on this programme about the player pathways and some of the potential pitfalls they may face along the way. If we are to make a mark, and send the right messages to those who want to take up football as a career, this is a step in the right direction and it hasn’t been done before.”
PFA Player Inclusion Executive, Riz Rehman, added: “Historically, Asian players and their parents have not had the networks in the game to help them navigate the academy system.
“Connecting them to those who have lived their experiences will ultimately give them the confidence to believe that it is possible for their son/daughter to have a professional playing career.
“Throughout their careers, the senior players involved in our AIMS initiative have frequently been asked by the media to comment on the under-representation of Asian players in football but have never been offered the opportunity to actively get involved and make a change.
“For the last 25 years we’ve heard the same lazy stereotypes labelled against Asian players, but no one talks about the positive contribution these players have made to the game, or their achievements. The narrative needs to change and this is a start. Connecting these players together and having a player-led approach through a peer-to-peer nature can only be of benefit to all involved.”
In 2013, Taylor visited Kolkata as part of a charity project, Kolkata Goalz, to promote the game amongst underprivileged kids in India. Now, almost a decade later, there’s still plenty of work to be done, but the Villa full-back is up for the challenge.
Kick it out – Neil Taylor’s message to football
In an interview with Sky Sports, Taylor lifted the lid on the racist abuse he’d received during international with Wales as a youngster and why there’s a lack of South Asian role models in our game.
“I’ve talked about this a lot with different people to try and find the reasons as to why there are not so many South Asian players out there,” Taylor said.
“People need to think there is a pathway for us, there is a way we can get to the top and we should believe because there is somebody we can look at who does it.
“So I am hoping over the next decade we get somebody who comes through, who is pretty much a superstar from South Asia.”
Taylor grew up in a small market town in North Wales. His experience growing up was largely positive but as his football career began to blossom, Taylor became more aware of racism directed at him.
“As a team, I had it [racism] with Wales – it was U16 or U17 level and we were playing abroad, and all the lads were subjected to racism there.
“There were a lot of uneducated people out there but it was coming from their coaches, fans, people on the side, everything.
“You always get the P*** one, I’ve been called the n-word, which shows how people are so uneducated that they can’t even insult you properly, which is terrible. It’s almost laughable that people can be that bad but I think they are the type of words you don’t want to hear.
“I believe if you ask players that used to playback in the early 90s or 80s – especially when black players were first coming into the game in the 70s – they would tell you it was a lot tougher.
“They had a lot more to deal with but of course they probably didn’t have the social media outlets and the barrage people get there, but it’s still something that needs kicking out.”
After failing to make the grade as a trainee at Manchester City, Taylor grabbed his chance with his first professional contract in 2007 with Wrexham. After 75 appearances and three goals for the Red Dragons, he secured his move to the Championship with Swansea City in 2010.
Taylor went on to amass almost 250 appearances in the top two divisions of English football after impressing none other than former Villa great, Brian Little. Taylor went through a turbulent time at Wrexham as they dropped out of the Football League in 2008, despite the young left-back shining in the side.
The following season, in 2008, another former Villan took control of the Welsh club. Taylor scored his first goal under his new boss, Dean Saunders and it seems that he never looked back.
During a career that has taken Taylor to the ecstasy of scoring on international football’s biggest stages, Villa’s forgotten man is determined to make his legacy count for the next generation of Asian footballers.