By Chris Slavin
Lyle Taylor isn’t someone who’s known to be backward in coming forward. But the Dons striker – who this month became the fifth AFC Wimbledon player to notch up 50 goals for the club – says it’s part of what makes him the player he is. He’s not quite so outspoken now as he was in his days as a youth player, when his extrovert nature threatened to hold him back in his career. But he now sees that as part of his personal learning curve, along with some nurturing by some managers he’s come to respect.
Passing 50 club goals was the latest successful chapter for Lyle Taylor in an AFC Wimbledon career that includes scoring at Wembley, but he was playing as a centre-back until the age of 16! It would have been a completely different story for the Dons favourite if he hadn’t attended a trials day for Staines Town FC’s youth team and suddenly declared that playing up front was his new position.
“I was a centre-back playing for Glebe FC, and then they switched me to play at right-back,” Lyle recalled when we spoke to him last week. “I had more of a non-league pedigree than a pro-club pedigree during my teenage years, playing for various Sunday League sides. I was never deemed good enough or big enough to make it, but then I attended trials at Kingston College to play for Staines Town’s youth team. I decided on the day that I was going to be a centre-forward – and I got signed afterwards. I just thought I could score goals. Defending is OK, but it’s boring! According to Mark Fabian and Martyn Sprott, the managers at Staines Town Youth at the time, I just squeezed through the trials. I scored 23 goals in my first season for Staines and then I scored 34 goals before Christmas the next season. That was when I got the call from Millwall, so it had a massive impact on my career. I actually played against AFC Wimbledon plenty of times in the Ryman Youth League.”
Indeed, a report on a local website from 21 December 2007 stated that Lyle struck a hat-trick in a 3–2 win against the Dons, including “a stunning drive” that left Jack Turner with no chance, the match played in front of just 56 spectators.
When Lyle passed the 50-goal mark for Wimbledon at Plymouth two weeks ago, his display was described by Neal Ardley as “outstanding”. However, he was berated by the Green Army for large spells of the game after his extravagant goal celebrations in front of the home end. Playing with fire in the belly and having that edge to his game is not something Lyle plans to change any time soon, though.
“I’ve always been like that since I’ve been here. I had a conversation with a fan on Saturday, and he told me I should tone it down a bit, but I didn’t want to hear it. I do my job the best way I see possible. I want to win – it’s as simple as that. If that’s what I have to do, so that I do my job to the best of my ability, I will do it.
“The fans here took a liking to me quickly because I scored a hat-trick on the day I signed, in a friendly against Basingstoke. But I didn’t score in the season proper until the JPT game against Plymouth, and then I got sent off at Mansfield. It took until October against Barnet for me to score my first league goal, and then it all came good for me. I think the fans have been happy and proud to have watched me represent their team.”
Of course, Lyle’s first full season here ended in the glory of promotion at Wembley, with his memorable opener sparking the victory. Fast-forward two seasons, and Lyle believes he is now approaching his peak years as a striker. A difficult season has included the big high off the pitch, the removal of the final obstacle to building the new stadium at Plough Lane, but Lyle says the players must not lose sight of the number one objective – staying in League One.
“Between now and the age of 31 or 32 – these are going to be the best years for me. I need to make sure I do everything I can to keep myself physically in shape and keep doing my best so that I can achieve my ambitions. Hopefully, we can finish the season well, and as soon as we can we must get ourselves away from the negativity of wondering if we are going to be in League One next season. That’s the aim for me and my team-mates, to do it for the fans.
“The stadium news is absolutely brilliant. It’s a little bit different for me because I didn’t have the club taken from underneath me. It will be amazing because of the new facilities, and I assume the atmosphere will be amazing because of what the fans have been through to get back there. It’s great news for the club and the fans, but the only thing I’m concentrating on now is keeping the club at this level while I’m able to do that.
“For a large part of the season when we got promoted we were mid-table, but then we went on an unbelievable run from Christmas onwards. It came out of nowhere, in all honesty. Did League Two have bigger clubs in it that didn’t get promoted that season? Yes. Are there clubs in that division now that are bigger than us? Yes. Have they all been promoted? No, it’s not possible. That just proves how hard we worked to get out of that division and how hard it is to get out of it. Portsmouth did not get out of League Two that year, and neither did Plymouth, who had 35,000 at Wembley when we beat them. They are both massive clubs in their own respect, but we got out of that league before they did. Now we have to do everything we can to retain our League One status.
“It’s always going to be a test of character when things aren’t going well. It’s very easy to ride on the crest of a wave, which is exactly what we did when we got promoted. In comparison, that was much easier. This has not been an easy season, but we’re doing everything we can, day in and day out, to give ourselves the best opportunity of staying in this division.”
Having scored more goals for Wimbledon than he has at any other club, Lyle is very appreciative of the role Neal Ardley has played in taking his career forward. Lyle also added that he’s learned to cut out some of the raw emotion that hindered his chances of making it as a youngster at Millwall.
“I’ve been given a framework to work within by the manager. The gaffer has allowed me some freedom within that framework, which has helped me to express myself, and that has enabled me to show what I’m capable of. In all honesty, the relationship I have with the players and staff here has really worked for me. Being back home with my family has also really helped me. It’s been a few different things that have made it work here, compared with what I experienced at other clubs.
“I’ve come a long way in my career. You only have to ask Robbo, who knew me as an 18-year-old at Millwall, what I was like back then! I was a bit more outspoken when I was 18. I didn’t have the best reputation at Millwall. I felt that things should be done in a certain way, and when I thought that wasn’t happening I’d say my piece. That hasn’t changed completely. I still do it now. If you asked the manager, he would probably say that Lyle has not learned to be more diplomatic! But in a way, I’ve earned the right to have those opinions. People have some respect for what I’ve done when I speak my mind now, rather than being an 18-year-old kid who has done absolutely nothing in the game telling others what they should be doing!”
Despite the obvious disappointment of being let go by Millwall, Lyle says it was the best thing that could have happened to him – and he was determined to prove then manager, Kenny Jackett, wrong.
“There have been quite a few tough times for me in my career, but I am quite stubborn! When I was released by Millwall at 19, my step-mother said to me, ‘Are you going to let him win, or are you going to prove him wrong?’ From then on, until I was about 23, I felt I’d been wronged and I was determined to show what I could do to prove him wrong. Maybe I wasn’t ready back then. Football is all about opinions. I’ve had conversations with Kenny since and I respect him for what he did. At the end of the day he was doing his job. It was a good thing because it then made me hungrier to do well, it gave me something to cling on to. I’m proud of what I’ve done since and of how my career has worked out so far. I’ve grown a lot as a player since then.”
After leaving Millwall, Lyle reignited his career in non-league with a prolific spell at Concord Rangers, 34 goals in one season attracting the attention of AFC Bournemouth, who signed him on a two-year deal.
Lyle is very thankful to current Lincoln City manager Danny Cowley, who was manager at Concord Rangers at the time. “He just said to me, ‘Go and win the game for us.’ That was it, and I was good enough at that level to do it. I scored 34 goals that season, and Bournemouth spotted me.”
Though his subsequent move to Bournemouth did not work out, with just 29 league appearances for them in two seasons, Lyle has a lot of respect for manager Eddie Howe, who has gone on to win plenty of accolades in the game after leading the Cherries into the Premier League.
“He’s a brilliant manager. You learn everywhere you go in football, and it’s up to you to choose what to do with what you’ve learnt. I was probably not old enough to realise all the things that Eddie was trying to do. I’d like to think that now I have a good grasp and understanding of football. I’d like to think that I know my job and I can work out other roles in football. Steven Pressley at Falkirk also really helped me in my career, but he left halfway through the season that I was there on loan. I’d say that Eddie, Steven, and my current gaffer have been the key influences on my career.
“They are all young managers, but Eddie was different. He was not long out of playing, and he had a really good relationship with the players, while still having that fear factor. If you stepped out of line, you’d get it both barrels! To go from playing with all those players to being the manager, it was really strange, but he wasn’t that bothered about being called ‘gaffer’ or anything like that. Obviously, now it’s a bit different because he’s a Premier League manager, and he commands that respect without even opening his mouth.”
Lyle’s goalscoring exploits at AFC Wimbledon have certainly commanded respect, and everyone at the club will be hoping he will be scoring in blue and yellow for some time yet.