The very loose intersections that occur around the lifespan of Over the Turnstile and various Northern Ireland internationals retiring or similar, mean we generally work in some sort of awkward retrospect. Maik Taylor last played for Northern Ireland in 2011. It is only earlier this month that he stated is finally leaving his adopted country in his role as goalkeeping coach.
Goalkeeping coach is a vital job in any footballing operation but it can sound like it is just another role. But it’s not just another role, especially if the leaving of that role is by someone of the calibre of Maik Taylor. That may have been his occupation but for many Northern Ireland supporters, he was as much a keeper of the goalkeeping flame as much as a keeper of the net. A flame that has passed down the generations and has been handled carefully by the likes of Elisha Scott, Harry Gregg, Pat Jennings and now Maik Taylor. 88 caps of Maik Taylor. 88 caps of story and glory.
That number of caps has him in the loftier environs of Northern Ireland legends. Indeed he shares the same amount of caps as Sammy McIlroy. We could use that as a starting point if we like but we’ll not. As you have probably gathered, these sorts of reviews are not some factual account of his time. They are more designed to fit into the fans’ view. In that respect, there is a natural fit into that particular glove.
For many, he had the biggest goalkeeping presence since Pat Jennings. He was simple authority at the back. He looked the part and was not someone ever close to panic, which is a big thing to say as panic is easily accessible if you play for Northern Ireland over a significant period of time. He had an interesting backstory and was off to a good start with the Windsor faithful immediately by actually choosing to play for Northern Ireland without any blood connection. Born in Hildesheim, Germany to a service family, FIFA rules allowed him to play for any of the home nations. If one was to look at Maik Stefan Taylor as some form of Teutonic reparation to Northern Ireland for the blitz of May 1941, it was a start.
He had actually come out of the armed forces to become a footballer. That military bearing and discipline was always evident. It would not have taken a huge leap of imagination to see him standing ramrod straight as a drill instructor in the middle of a parade ground. Ironically enough, his senior debut in March 1999 was a 3-0 defeat to Germany.
Whilst he was to be the last line of defence for 12 years, my most famous memories of him mostly happened in 2005. In March 2005, Northern Ireland played England at Old Trafford and were to lose 4-0 to second-half goals. Stuck in the second tier of the West stand, the Northern Ireland fans looked down on Taylor below them. He seemed to draw strength and defiance from them to defy England time and time again. How the team reached the interval goalless was simply down to him. As the teams changed sides for the second-half the dam broke. It was almost as if that invisible link at the other end of the ground had made him superhuman in the first-half. Away from the fans at the far end, it looked like the footballing equivalent of Samson having his hair cut. The 4-0 final result tends to overshadow that first half performance from him.
If losing to England was not extraordinary, losing to Malta in a friendly later that summer would have caused much more difficulty. The match had not gone well. After taking the lead through David Healy, Malta equalised with their first international goal against us through the Ulster-sounding name of Ivan Woods. Woods was then later sent-off with Keith Gillespie. A last-minute penalty conceded by Stephen Craigan and given by Mike Riley meant we were facing Mediterranean humiliation unless Maik could perform heroics. Of course, he did, and to this day many Northern Ireland fans can remember not being sure if they could have dealt with a Malta defeat. Some were still processing the acid of a home defeat to Canada six months earlier.
The other moment worthy of mention I’m pleased to say happened in the return match against England six months later. It was like a ‘you interrupted me at half-time’ throwback. As everybody knows, Healy had bought the Three Lions a licence in the 74th minute and the Northern Ireland fans were in ‘hold onto your dreams territory’. With minutes to go every ball into the NI box was a further bite on the nails. A ball came in straight onto Michael Owen’s head in the six-yard box. It is the sort of ball where neither forward nor goalkeeper really has time to react. It was the ultimate Pat Jennings moment as big Maik, perfectly placed right behind Owen and dead centre of the net just stuck a paw out, dropped on the ball and the danger had passed. Jennings, in different fashion, had managed a similar calming moment in the match against Spain in the final moments of the famous 1982 game.
This is the sand and water that builds a concrete legend. He famously came on as sub for an injured Roy Carroll not long into another battle against Spain in 2006. Having come back twice against Spain, his assist for David Healy’s dinked lob over Iker Casillas put him beside Billy Hamilton and Steve Davis for their respective assists for Gerry Armstrong (Spain ‘82) and David Healy (England ‘05). His quick thinking in seeing an already running Healy sprinting away from a disorganised and startled defence was a huge part of the goal. Route one became goal three.
It was so appropriate that he was such a part of the backroom staff that took to France for the Euros in 2016. Not just with the pitch-side coaching but as a proper hero and master of times previous. ‘Influence in the dressing-room’ is the phrase bandied about. For the fans, Maik Taylor would be one of the first out of the tunnel to warm up the goalkeepers in Nice, Lyon and Paris. No better man to receive the first guttural roar of the day. No better man to tell them that all would be well.