From the Imps’ bench to Nations League success – the international you may not have heard of

Much of the talk this weekend has been about Brennan Johnson and his Wales debut, making him the second full home international to play for the Imps in successive seasons.

Joe Morrell lifted himself into Euro 2020 contention whilst playing for the Imps, whilst Johnson is surely hoping to do the same after his eye-catching start to life in a Lincoln shirt. This week, Wales are hunting victory in their final Nations League group game, ensuring top place in League B, Group 4. Their opponents are Finland and it is a winner-takes-all game which could feature not only an Imp and former Imp in red, but also a former Imp in the white of Finland.

Rewind, if you dare, eight years, almost to the day. On November 13th 2012, the Imps went to League One Walsall having enjoyed a 1-1 draw at Sincil Bank in the FA Cup 1st round. It was hardly classic Lincoln, but the youth team were represented by one Robert Taylor, who got his solitary outing with the first team. The Imps won 3-2, Vadaine Oliver coming off the bench to bag twice and give us some great memories. The name Robert Taylor may not have registered with Imps’ fans and by the end of the season, the youngster was gone.

Whilst he may not have been a player that fans saw much of, he did make a name for himself in the youth team and played in some non-competitive matches too. He was on the field for the full game as we lost the Lincolnshire Senior Cup Final against Grimsby on penalties in July 2012, even scoring the first spot-kick. He also bagged regularly for the youth team, against Hartlepool, Lutterworth and Blaby & Whetstone. When he wasn’t scoring, he was earning rave reviews in the FA Youth Cup, playing as we thumped Mansfield Town 8-1 and bagging twice in a 4-2 win against Notts County.

Robert Taylor was born to an English father and Finnish mother, serving some of his youth with JJK. He had a brief spell with Nottingham Forest before a return to Jyväskylä but was keen to try his luck in England and joined the Imps following relegation from the Football League. He spent two years ith the Imps, a time he described for an article on In Bed With Maradona.

“Lincoln gave me a lot and made me more or less the person I am today,” he said in 2017 whilst playing for AIK in Sweden’s top flight. “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 v France

Taylor did get senior experience, playing on loan at Lincoln Moorlands and Boston Town, but his single game with the first team came in that FA Cup tie with Walsall. As he sat on the sidelines watching on, few could imagine he might eventually grace the international scene with a goal. However, he did earn Finland Under 17 and Under 19 caps whilst with the Imps, as his talent got recognised in the wider football world, if not at Sincil Bank by Steve Tilson, David Holdsworth or Gary Simpson, all managers he played under.

It was during his spell at Lincoln Moorlands that he changed his direction, saying: “The coach told me that I wasn’t good enough to start. 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.”

He left the Imps before the end of his youth contract, having a short stay with Barnet during Edgar Davids’ reign as manager. Their relegation from League Two in the summer cost him the chance of a permanent contract, and he went back to his homeland, and back to JJK. His career began to take off and he swiftly earned a move to Rovaniemen Palloseura, where 17 goals in 54 games prompted AIK to swoop. Whilst he struggled for game time in Sweden, he did earn his first international call up, appearing as Finland beat Morocco 1-0, just two days after the Imps’ drew 2-2 at Ipswich Town in the FA Cup. In the time it had taken us to go from Walsall to Ipswich, Taylor had gone from nowhere to an international footballer.

He spent two years with Tromso, appearing six times for his country and scoring eight goals in 61 outings, moving in January to SK Brann. In October, he bagged his first international goal as Finland beat Bulgaria 2-0, and if he appears against Wales as expected, he will earn his 16th senior cap. He even played as his country beat World Champions France 2-0 last week. In just eight years, the 26-year-old midfield has gone from sitting next to David Holdsworth and struggling to get a game for Lincoln Moorlands, to beating Anthony Martial, N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba. Not bad at all.

It seems his decision to return to Finland, where his father Paul played for Kuopion Palloseura, paid off, something he confirmed in that interview in 2017. “I always knew I could make it as a pro and get a professional contract somewhere,” he said. “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.”

If you do watch wales this week to keep an eye on Brennan Johnson or to look fondly over Joe Morrell, keep an eye out for Taylor, arguably the most famous Imp you’ve never heard of (until now).