After a chastening experience in the lower echelons of the Football League, Taylor made a move to his native Finland – and his career has taken off in a big way since.
It’s fair to say Robert Taylor is not entirely complimentary about his time in England. While he has nothing but good things to say about the club he called home for two years between 2011 and 2013, Lincoln City, he views the English game with a critical eye. “The two years as scholar in Lincoln were probably the best two years of my life,” he tells me via an intermediary at his current club, AIK. “Only football and that's it; living in digs with good friends was great. Football there taught me that I had to leave fancy tricks behind to make it as a pro. Otherwise, though, the football didn't suit me at all. It was too direct – stereotypical English football.”
Born in Finland to an English father and a Finnish mother, it’s little surprise Taylor wanted to test himself in England. His father, Paul Taylor, was a schoolboy at Nottingham Forest under Brian Clough, but after failing to earn professional terms at the club – and turning out a few times for Chesterfield, Grantham and Belper Town – he moved to Finland and made a name for himself at KuPS and JJK (or Kuopion Palloseura and JJK Jyväskylä, for the real Finnish football heads out there). Robert Taylor also played for JJK as a kid, in two spells either side of his own brief stint at Forest. Then, in 2011, The Imps came calling.
Though Taylor failed to break into the senior set up at Lincoln, he learned a lot during his time at the club. “Lincoln gave me a lot and made me more or less the person I am today,” he says. “But, if I was offered a pro contract in Lincoln and had signed it, most likely I wouldn’t be playing this high up now. Young pros didn't get a chance and were loaned out to lower-division teams, and the same went for me when I was a youth player there.”
Taylor was farmed out to Boston Town and Lincoln Moorlands Railway FC, and his account of the latter is a window into the gloomier side of non-league football. “The coach told me that I wasn’t good enough to start,” he says. “I sat on the bench and watched the players kick the ball up and down the pitch and the coach smoking on the sidelines. It was then I decided I needed to leave.” Next, in the spring of 2013, Taylor had a whirlwind adventure in the youth set up at Barnet, this during the chaotic and unpredictable tenure of Edgar Davids. Despite impressing his coaches in training and a handful of development games, The Bees were soon relegated from League Two and Taylor missed out on his chance of a permanent move.
Like many young players trying to make it in the lower leagues, Taylor struggled to settle at a club and had few opportunities to show what he could do at senior level. Even in the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh – even eleventh – tiers of English football, the onus on results sees many clubs eschew youth in favour of gritty expedience. This is not so much the case in Finland, as Taylor realised when he returned to play for JJK after being let go by Barnet. “[Youth football] is much more ruthless in England – you play if you're good. In Finland it's more like everyone needs to play to keep their parents happy.”
While there may be some throwaway humour in this, Taylor has certainly seemed happier on the pitch since his arrival back at JJK at the end of the 2012-13 season. Perhaps responding to a more relaxed and progressive approach, he worked his way into the senior set-up there and began to score goals from attacking midfield. This earned him a move to RoPS (that’s Rovaniemen Palloseura, do try to keep up), where he continued to excel in an attacking role and impress in the Finnish first division. Earlier this summer, he was snapped up by AIK – one of the bigger clubs in Sweden – this coming only a few months after his debut for the Finland national team.
Still only 22 years of age, Taylor now finds himself at a club which last year finished second in the Allsvenskan. AIK narrowly missed out to Braga in the third round of Europa League qualifying this season, and could feasibly play European football in the not-too-distant future. “I always knew I could make it as a pro and get a professional contract somewhere,” he says. “The decision to leave England and come to Finland did pay off. I think in Finland I got to express myself on the football pitch a lot more, and by doing that started to score goals and play better.”
It’s hard not to feel that Taylor’s journey in football might light the way for other young players struggling in England. While his upbringing and family ties to Finland meant that he had no need to worry about adapting to a new lifestyle, his success in a different sporting environment suggests that some youngsters ought to think about their progression on a vertical, as opposed to horizontal, plane. Instead of bouncing up and down the lower leagues, churning through loan moves and half-opportunities in England, there are youth players in the Football League and beyond who might thrive in Northern Europe, where cultural and linguistic barriers are far lower than most places and first-division football is an achievable step up from non-league.
Taylor is not the only one to find his feet in Nordic football having floundered in England. Östersunds FK, another Allsvenskan club, made headlines over the summer owing to the Europa League heroics of Jamie Hopcutt, who helped them reach the group stage with a brilliant goal against Galatasaray in the second qualifying round. Having seen his career stall at hometown club York City and ended up at Tadcaster Albion, Hopcutt moved to Östersunds in 2012 and hasn’t looked back since. He’s even been joined there by another young Englishman, fellow midfielder Curtis Edwards. Maybe young players stuck in England’s lower leagues have already realised there’s a world on the other side of the North Sea.
By Will Magee. Will is a freelance football writer, formerly of the now defunct VICE Sports. You can find him on Twitter here.
Header image credit goes fully to Greger Ravik.
Quotes have been lightly edited for clarity.