By Chris Dowsett
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Peterborough United return to nPower Championship action tomorrow night as they host a Millwall side also looking to move further away from the relegation zone.
Both sides have had an alarmingly poor run of form since the turn of the year and Posh and the Lions will see this fixture as a must win. Posh are just one place higher than the visitors in the Championship table, but are 4 points clear, have one game in hand over the South London side and possess a significantly better goal difference. The two sides last met in August with Posh snatching a 2-2 draw, thanks to a number of good saves from goalkeeper Paul Jones and late goals from the much-improved Lee Frecklington and Paul Taylor.
Taylor's season has kicked on at a furious pace after his excellent strike at the New Den on that balmy Wednesday summer evening. A virtual unknown but with a chequered past, Taylor arrived at the club on an initial 18-month deal from Belgian side Anderlecht last February. He featured very little last season with a fleeting appearance against Yeovil in a, by then, a dead rubber fixture, however his ascent to a first team regular has been dramatic. His first game this season came in a 2-1 defeat away at Blackpool after being introduced for the last 20 minutes, and his impact was immediate. His strong running and the ability to create space for others instantly caught the eye as was his willingness to shoot, however it was his introduction, again as substitute, four days later at Millwall that convinced Posh supporters that he was the real deal. Coming on at 2-0 down with the game looking dead and buried, the 24 year-old changed the course of the game, scoring one and setting-up the other, generally wreaking all kinds of havoc in Millwall's back line. Three days later, Taylor further cemented his claims for regular inclusion with a brace at home to Ipswich in which Posh trounced the Suffolk side 7-1.
Taylor's undoubted ability makes him hard to leave out, however there are obvious weaknesses in his game at present, which can make him frustrating and exciting in equal measure. Taylor may be of an age where he should be nearing the finished article, however in real terms he has the experience of a youth player or a player making his way through the non-league pyramid. His talent is obvious for all to see, in fact the scouting team at Posh identified his ability when he was with lowly Vauxhall Motors back in the 2007/08 season, however they felt he was too big of a risk at that stage of his career and Posh’s positioning of powering through the leagues. The move evapourated and he, instead, moved on to Chester City.
Taylor's problems were well documented at Chester with the player disciplined for missing training and matches, before he was eventually sacked by the club for failing a drugs test, testing positive for cocaine. After a few years in the footballing wilderness Taylor was given a lifeline by Belgian fifth division side Montegnee. Out of the limelight Taylor was able to concentrate on his football and adapt to a new life and culture outside of the problems and disturbing influences that he had back in England. His form and performances were not to go unnoticed while in Belgium and after scoring 13 times in 18 appearances at Montegnee, Taylor attracted attention from some of Belgium's elite sides, in particular Standard Liege and Anderlecht, with the latter signing him in December 2009.
Unfortunately for Taylor he found life tough going at Les Mauves, the added pressure and tough disciplinarian regime unsettled the player and alarmingly his life started to take a similar tact to the problems he had encountered previously. He escaped from Anderlecht in January 2010, but had a similarly unsuccessful spell on loan at Charleroi.
However, Darren Ferguson was so impressed with what he had spotted back in 2008 that he had kept an eye on Taylor and he invited the striker for a trial and finally in February 2011, he offered Taylor a contract keeping him at the club until the end of the 2011/12 season.
Ferguson had taken a huge punt, but took Taylor underneath his wing and the player immediately felt loved once again and was placed in an environment that would let him enjoy his football without adding any increased pressure. Taylor appeared just once that season in an exciting showing as a substitute against Yeovil but that fleeting appearance only served to highlight what was left to come, and he has certainly repaid the faith in him since. In 34 outings in all competitions, he has scored 8 times and contributed a number of assists with the promise of achieving much, much more.
His upper body strength belies a player of his stature and his eye for goal is one of the best at the club. One criticism levelled at the 24 year-old is that he needs to get his head up more and occasionally realise that others may be in a better position than him. Taylor is a complex character, who often shows little emotion and appears somewhat embarrassed by the admiration of the Posh fans, but most importantly, however, Ferguson recognises his attributes and has used them wisely, leaving no regular Posh supporter in any doubt that the sky is the limit for Paul Taylor and I have no reason to suspect that he won't reach it.
Tomorrow's fixture leaves the Posh manager with a selection conundrum with his forward line as the aforementioned Taylor limped off with a groin injury in Saturday's trip to Crystal Palace and faces a battle to be fit for the visit of Millwall.
Ferguson admitted in an interview at the weekend that he realises he needs to address a consistent forward line with a number of combinations used this season without any of them consistently coming off. New £1million signing Tyrone Barnett is almost certain to start but the question is who will partner him? It is expected to be one out of David Ball or his former Macclesfield team-mate Emile Sinclair, who has had an inconsistent start to his Posh career. Both bring different qualities and it will be interesting to see what Ferguson goes with.
Ball is primarily a poacher, however I believe that his anticipation and positioning ranks amongst one of the best at the football club and therefore provides a perfect foil for the strength, pace and power that Barnett possesses, consequently being an ideal player to exploit the space created. Sinclair, on the other hand, offers lighting pace and has the ability to run Millwall's back four into the ground. For the reasons outlined above, I feel that Ball will start with Sinclair introduced off the bench to stretch the game in the closing stages.
Posh have another headache at the back and they must decide whether the ever-versatile Craig Alcock covers in central defence or if new-signing Shaun Brisley makes his Peterborough United debut. Brisley has been brought to the club in a similar way that Taylor was introduced, to first adapt to the fitness and conditioning expected in training before playing an integral role in next season's campaign. Lee Tomlin and Lee Frecklington are also back in contention for tomorrow night's game but it is yet to be seen whether either will make an immediate return.
Peterborough United have an outstanding record in midweek fixtures at home in recent seasons with the last midweek league defeat coming in September 2010, 3-2 against Notts County. While Ferguson's last loss at London Road in an evening game was back in September 2009. Posh need to win tomorrow night to avoid being dragged into a relegation scrap and subsequently leave Millwall further trailing in their wake. Posh have so far only played once on a Tuesday night under the floodlights at London Road, culminating in a fabulous 4-3 victory over Cardiff City.
The London Road support have a huge part to play tomorrow evening. The atmosphere at home in recent games has either been as flat as the Fens that surround the city or it is felt particularly poisonous or unfairly charged. It is about time the supporters recognise where the club has come from and firmly put their support behind this young team, who have performed far beyond anybody's expectations so far this season. A united front needs to be reaffirmed to help the club put together a run similar to the early part of the campaign and ensure Championship survival.
With the month ahead presenting tough away trips to the somewhat resentful Ipswich and improved Barnsley, Posh also host teams making a strong push for the promotion spots and playoffs. Blackpool, Reading, West Ham and Leicester City all visit London Road in March and with that in mind, the Millwall game on Tuesday evening is massive and one we absolutely must take all three points from.
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