Steven Taylor: I'd sacrifice a cup final ticket for seeing Gulf United win promotion

Former Newcastle defender now UAE-based coach could be forgiven for having split loyalties this weekend. But, as he tells 'The National', his focus is on securing back-to-back titles with his Dubai club

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As a lifelong Newcastle United supporter and a long-time club servant, Steven Taylor could be forgiven for split loyalties this weekend.

On Sunday, not long before his boyhood club contest their first League Cup final in almost half a century, when they take on Manchester United at Wembley, Taylor will be thousands of kilometres away, plotting a victory of another kind in Al Mamzar.

The former defender, who represented Newcastle from 2004-2016, has for the past year managed Dubai-based Gulf United, leading them last year to promotion from the inaugural Third Division – the recently established fourth tier of UAE football.

Now they’re on the cusp of back-to-back titles. With three matches remaining, Gulf United sit top of the Second Division, with a win against Laval United on Sunday all but securing another vault up the league ladder.

But with his beloved Newcastle a solitary match from that elusive piece of silverware – it would constitute the club's first major trophy in 68 years – you wouldn’t blame Taylor for wanting to be among friends, family and fellow fans in London this weekend instead.

Yet that’s not the case at all.

“No, because this now is special,” Taylor tells The National having just taken a fitness session with his team in Al Quoz. “For what I’ve got here, I wouldn’t change it. If you ask me if you could sit on the bench or be here with the boys … I’m being here with my boys.

“It’s what the lads have done to get to this position. For me, Gulf United, these final stages, hopefully going to start something special for them having a career … I’d sacrifice a ticket for the final for this. All day long. I’m so obsessed by this now.”

Clearly, the passion is reaping rewards. Just like Newcastle, Gulf United are enjoying an upward trajectory, even if their business model could not be any farther from the Saudi-Arabia-sovereign-wealth-fund-backed, English Premier League club.

Following his retirement from playing professionally in September 2021 when at New Zealand’s Wellington Phoenix, Taylor relocated to Dubai to work for a fitness company he used throughout his career.

A few months in, he received a phone call about joining Gulf United, an upstart academy launched initially to develop footballers from Under-9s to U23s.

Taylor was then given two weeks to set up a team to compete in the nascent Third Division, tasked with selecting 25 players from a pool of 150. It was some introduction to his first managerial role.

“For me it was, ‘Wow, it was always going to be a tough ask,” Taylor says. “I looked who I was up against – every team has a very wealthy backing, while we’re the only team that has zero budget. For me to find 25 players, that was the toughest thing.”

So Taylor dipped into the local amateur market, taking on some who had competed down the football pyramid in the likes of England or Wales. Others who were perhaps overlooked elsewhere; some had history of bad injuries.

“I don’t care who you are,” Taylor says. “If you’ve still got that bit of drive and hunger, I’ll take a gamble.”

Almost immediately, it paid off: last May, Gulf United won the league.

For the move into the Second Division, and the increase in standard, Taylor and his fellow coaches trialled 800 players in Dubai during pre-season, but did not take on even one.

“I wanted to go into Division 2 not just to stay in the league but to win it,” Taylor says. “A lot of people thought I was crazy, set myself up to be hung out to dry, but I believed in my team. We turned a team of 25 players, bunch of misfits basically, into a proper team. They came together, and they produced.”

The make-up of the squad speaks to how well Taylor, his staff, and the club owners have done, blending a team of footballers from a myriad of backgrounds.

Gulf United scout extensively academies in Africa, with aspiring players brought over throughout the season for trials. Other countries represented in the team include Colombia, Morocco, Germany, Netherlands, England and Scotland.

Taylor, who as a coach has spent time at Leicester City and Newcastle to learn from Brendan Rodgers and Eddie Howe, plumped for experience at his core. The rest are young – and hungry.

“The success gets the foundation from my owners,” Taylor says. “It’s down to them, the backing these guys give off the field. They bring players over, sort visas, make sure the players are looked after - their food, housing, everything taken care off. All the footballers have to do is just play football. They have nothing to worry about.

“It tests me, don’t get me wrong. I’ve no budget, I just can’t go to the owners and say, ‘Can you give me some money to go get a player?’ It’s an absolute no for that. But what they will do is look after the player off the field, allow him to focus on his career.

“But we have to get players who want to buy into playing for Gulf United, as a platform to move players on at any time. The guys we have here now are all fighters. You can see that in the last four, five games, scoring right at end, equalisers, winners. That never-say-die attitude has got us to where we are now – at the top of table.”

It has also granted players moves to professional clubs. Taylor reckons between six to eight have graduated from Gulf United, with Joel Achari Picula and Prosper Ojanomare now impressing at Fujairah in the First Division. Originally a striker and a No 10, Taylor refashioned them as a left-sided centre-back and a No 6. Another, Mamadou Fall, is plying his trade in the same league, as a winger with Emirates Club.

In pre-season, Taylor flew over from New Zealand Manyumow Achol, a player he knew from the Wellington Phoenix youth team. Within three friendly matches, Achol was snapped up by one of Gulf United’s opponents, Latvian Premier League side FK Auda. Such has been his impact there, Taylor believes he will soon secure another move.

“We allow players to leave at any time; we’re probably the only team in the UAE to do that,” Taylor says. “No matter how important the game is on a Saturday or Sunday, if a phone call comes on the Thursday the player goes.

“The experienced players understand they’re here to guide young players from Africa or from Europe who may have been overlooked and now have the chance to go to the next level, whether in the UAE or in Europe.

“There’s the platform for them to get on the market, play games, be part of something special, and we move them up and move them on. These guys, when given a chance they take it.”

Gulf United players are put through their paces by Steven Taylor and his coaching staff. Victor Besa / The National.

Taylor, 37, has been surprised by the level of talent among expats who, for whatever reason, have not been given that chance by other clubs, or that were let go at an early age. It all melds together to give the team something money cannot buy, he says.

“The character is the biggest thing we have,” Taylor explains. “Are we man-to-man better individually than other teams? No, probably not. But what we have as a team is never say die. We never give up.

“Even in the latter stages of games, you just see how much more we want it more than anybody. You could put us against any team in Dubai, my boys would back themselves to do well. They don’t back down, they don’t shy away, they fear nobody.

“And that’s because the belief we have in the squad. The characters, the leaders we’ve got, and the healthy guidance of the players. That’s huge.”

Taylor acknowledges, though, that there are many strands to making Gulf United a success. He is eternally grateful to the club’s owners and to sponsors such as Adidas, who provide the kits and boots, even to the academy.

“The amount of people who’ve bought into what we do is amazing," he says. "It’s helping put Gulf United on the map.”

Their reach is extending. Gulf United offer scholarships with colleges in the United States, with an estimated 40 players currently set to go out to America. More are expected to secure spots in the next few weeks.

The owners have used their connections, too, to benefit the first team. In December, Liverpool midfielder Thiago Alcantara dropped by to check out the academy, watch training and speak to the first team, not quite believing the strides made in such a short space of time.

Georginio Wijnaldum, Taylor’s former teammate at Newcastle, helped recruit a talent from Feyenoord. Meanwhile, Gary Hooper, the former Celtic and Norwich City striker with 249 career league goals, had heard such good things about the club that he cancelled his contact in Cyprus and joined earlier this month.

Hooper’s presence on the pitch has already been felt, not just by Gulf United but opponents weary of his ability. The Scot has two assists in two games. Taylor is convinced Hooper will score that landmark 250th league goal before the season is out.

He hopes that comes as soon as Sunday. However, no matter who gets on the scoresheet, Taylor is sure his team will seal promotion in the run-in – “100 per cent. My boys deserve it, I feel good for them” – and is targeting a win this weekend to send them on their way.

After that, he’ll race off to a friend’s house to watch on a giant projector screen, hopefully, Newcastle holding aloft finally a major trophy.

“Fingers crossed,” says Taylor, who made 268 appearances for the English club. “I’m very excited for it. I honestly think it will change the city. It’s a sleeping giant. One cup like this would change everything, really put us on the map of getting the top, top players wanting to come.

“What Eddie Howe has done so far, it’s amazing. I’d put him in a category now up there with Sir Bobby Robson. Because he’s brought the city together. Forget about the football, it’s what he’s done to change the city.”

Taylor witnessed Howe up close last March, when Newcastle trained in Dubai and then played Gulf United in a friendly. They won 5-0.

“He’s so intense,” Taylor says. “You should see the way those guys train, man. It’s phenomenal. For me, it looks like we’re the fittest team in the league. Individually, every player is playing out of their skin.”

Newcastle will most likely need a continuation of that on Sunday, against Erik ten Hag’s resurgent United.

Asked what provides the most stress heading into the weekend, Newcastle’s trophy quest or Gulf United’s clash with Laval, Taylor says: “For Gulf United, it’s more an emotional thing, a big emotion. It’s massive to me now.

“This is my job. This is a priority for me. So, priority No 1 is Gulf United. After that, 100 per cent Newcastle.”

Updated: February 25, 2023, 7:46 AM