When the Wellington Phoenix hold their 2019/20 awards night, Ulises Davila is odds-on to pick up the top gong. Many believe the Johnny Warren Medal for the A-League's best player is also his for the taking. But the Mexican supremo isn't actually the club's most important player.
Steven Taylor is.
When Taylor was withdrawn at halftime against Adelaide on Saturday night, it brought an end to a quite remarkable sequence. This was his 45th game for the side and the first time he didn't play 90 minutes. It's quite some feat to never be substituted, sent off or injured in 66 hours of football. He's also never been dropped; in fact, the only games Taylor has missed during his nearly two seasons with the club have been with a niggly calf injury which sidelined him for a month last year.
There's no way Taylor would have asked or wanted to come off, but he would have understood the rationale and respected coach Ufuk Talay's decision. There are bigger fish to fry in the days ahead as the Phoenix push for a top-two spot and direct passage into the A-League semifinals.
When Talay took the reins at the Phoenix last June, he had just seven players on his roster, but crucially, Taylor was one of them. With the departure of long-time captain Andrew Durante, he was the obvious choice as skipper and a worthy new owner of the club's armband.
Taylor is clearly an excellent footballer but the biggest thing he brings to the Phoenix is an unwavering belief and confidence which inspires everyone around him. Every time he speaks publicly he oozes positivity and conviction and there's no reason to presume he's any different inside the team environment. Every Phoenix player is buoyed and boosted by his bullishness. He's utterly infectious.
Even when the 2019/20 campaign began with four consecutive defeats, Taylor was steadfast in his faith in what the team were trying to do. One Australian reporter asked what it was like to be the captain of the worst Phoenix team in A-League history. Taylor just smiled and asked him to check in again later in the season.
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You only have to spend a few minutes in Taylor's company to understand the influence he must wield in the Phoenix dressing room. His broad smile, firm handshake and personable nature are ever-present and if he's having a bad day, you certainly wouldn't know it. If his Instagram account is anything to go by, Taylor is living his best life in the capital, mixing footballing feats with jet-skiing exploits and enjoying stunning vistas from the deck of his apartment in Wellington's eastern hills.
You could forgive Taylor for taking his foot off the gas in the A-League. This is a player with more than 200 games of Premier League experience and who, but for some unfortunate injuries and a rare loyalty to Newcastle when they were relegated to the Championship, would have played for England.
But instead, it's been the opposite. Taylor has approached the A-League like an 18-year-old who's been handed his first contract. He's impeccably fit, hugely disciplined around preparation, nutrition and recovery and day-in, day-out the epitome of professionalism. On the field, it's hard to remember a poor game. That's probably because there hasn't been one.
As the Phoenix size up their last three matches of the regular season and then a tilt at the playoffs which they hope will result in their best A-League finish, the importance of players like Davila, David Ball, Reno Piscopo, Gary Hooper and Libby Cacace is critical. They are the game-breakers and goalscorers who may well provide the moments of magic that are replayed over and over.
But under-pinning all of them will be Taylor, the dependable, determined and fiercely driven leader of the side. Without wanting to tempt fate, one possible scenario would see Taylor play his 50th game for the club in its first Grand Final. How fitting it would be if he could mark that milestone by hoisting aloft the piece of silverware that has eluded the Phoenix for so long, but is now tantalisingly within reach.