Former Boston United physio Lee Taylor is currently working at NorthEast United in the inaugural Hero Indian Super League, with and against some of the game’s best-known superstars. Here he discusses life in Asia with sports editor Duncan Browne...
With World Cup, European Championships, Copa Del Rey, Spanish Supercup and Portuguese League Cup winner’s medals at home, it’s fair to say that Joan Capdevila’s 18-year career has been more than successful.
An Olympic Games silver from Sydney 2000 and a third-placed gong picked up at South Africa’s 2009 Confederations Cup can also be found in the Spaniard’s trophy cabinet, mementos from an impressive international career which ended as recently as 2011.
And as the former Atletico Madrid, Villarreal and Benfica left back landed in Asia to compete in the inaugural Hero Indian Super League he may not quite have won it all, but you could be forgiven for thinking he’d seen it all.
Maybe the boy from Tarrega thought he had... until he was introduced to the ice bath.
“Joan is our marquee signing and great lad. Never had an ice bath before, so that was fun to watch. Still is,” said Lee Taylor, NorthEast United’s high performance manager, completely without remorse and just maybe a hint of sadistic pleasure.
Indeed, it’s all in a day’s work for the former Boston United physiotherapist, whose mop of bright red hair and desire to outsprint any other fitness expert on the York Street turf once earned him the nickname the Flying Mullet.
The Indian Super League is a strange mix, a fledgling football league where virtual unknowns from the host nation are joined by some of the world’s most famous sportsmen in front of a backdrop of colour, hype and some brash and bold team names.
Think MLS, but on the Indian sub continent.
Sporting Lisbon legend Miguel Garcia, well-travelled Spaniard Koke (‘our biggest whiner, but you can’t help loving him’) and ex-Greek international keeper Alexandros Tzorvas are NorthEast’s other big stars, currently playing alongside footballers who, in some cases, were hardly household names in their own land before ISL fever took over.
And in the middle of the squad, holding it together, is Taylor, the man with the task of whipping those fading forces and up-and-coming Indian talents into shape.
“It’s been very demanding, but I’m learning Hindi and Spanish very well now,” said Taylor, who jokes that his own international language - which he jokingly calls ‘LT says’ - is powerful enough to get his message across to every member of his multi-lingual dressing room.
“Football is a world game and football has its own language, but our nationalities include English, Korean, Indian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Greek, Czech, Colombian and Portuguese.”
Bringing so many different cultures together will always create certain language barriers, but when the players take to the pitch other differences quickly become apparent - not only to Taylor but also to the other fitness experts, coaches and former players who have flown across the globe to help create this new venture.
As Taylor explains: “Of course there is a gulf in class, but the Indian lads are embracing the opportunity to learn and rub shoulders with the international boys.
“To be fair, when I’ve spoken to Ian Hume, David James, Zico, (Nicolas) Anelka and Peter Ried, they all say that the Indian nationals are mixing it up with the international boys and developing well, which is fantastic as the diversity in the league is unbelievable to say the least.
“Most of them (the international players) are fitter than the Indian lads, with the exception of a few. But I have very high standards and never back down from my philosophy, so some arrived in great condition and my job was made a tad easier.
“As internationals they know what sort of areas to hit in the close season, so then it’s up to me to transform them into the specimens that I want them be.
“The Indian lads were another kettle. They thought they were fit, but they were nowhere near it at all.
“But this isn’t their fault as they do not have the football education into sports science, nutrition and performance as our kids do at academy level in Europe.”
Before the Indian Super League kicked off on October 12 - Atletico de Kolkata defeating Mumbai City 3-0 in front of a crowd of 65,000 supporters - there were still question marks over how successful this new division could be in a nation where cricket has always hit all other sports for six.
But the excitement surrounding the league has only been heightened by the influx of celebrity.
Bollywood stars co-own franchises, Atletico Madrid have an interest in Northeast’s biggest rivals Kolkata, and when the likes of Alessandro Del Piero, David Trezeguet, Freddie Ljungberg, Robert Pires and Luis Garcia are in town, the locals are lapping it up.
The city of Guwahati, in the state of Assam, lies south of the Eastern Himalayas. With the exception of a thin strip of northern teritory, the state is separated from the rest of India by the width of Bangladesh.
Here is where Taylor and NorthEast United call home.
And although the club finds itself geographically isolated, interest in the ISL remains just as strong.
The players - and Taylor - are treated as superstars, with the fans flocking to the Indira Gandhi Athletics Stadium in their tens of thousands.
Taylor, who quit his job as head of performance at Notts County for his latest venture, describes the standard of the league as similar to England’s League One.
Although the likes of the Magpies may feel they could give NorthEast a good game, they can only turn green-eyed when discovering the attendances United boast.
“The brand is new but evolving every day,” said Taylor, the lad from Romford who is still attempting to get used to his newfound fame.
“Around 1.2 billion people live in India, and our average crowd is 35,000 - it’s manic.
“The stadiums are awesome and the passion is unreal. I taste it every time we play.
“I’d say the standard of football is around League One at the moment, but in time that will rise with more development and structure put in at a grass roots level.
“The support is fantastic, I’ve never seen so many people at a game.
“The biggest crowd will be 120,000 at Kolkata and probably the smallest around 35,000 - and believe me they make noises you and me ain’t never heard before. Sometimes I hear animals. That’s very worrying indeed.
“If you’re winning you’re good, but if you’re losing and not doing well you will feel you’re in the scene of Gladiator and looking up to the royal box for the final thumb-up or thumb-down treatment.”
But even away from the stadium that interest remains.
Perhaps that’s what you have to expect when your club is co-owned by Bollywood idol John Abraham (‘so cool it’s a joke, but he just leaves me to get on with my job’). The actor and model shot to fame in Jism and has remained a superstar in his home nation ever since that 2003 debut.
“It’s gone crazy over here, the media coverage has even swamped the cricket, and that’s saying something,” added Taylor, who was the youngest-ever physio in the English professional divisions when he joined Scarborough United in the old Division Three.
“I switch the telly on and I even see myself on Star Sports, with a world star smashing balls about in a commercial. It’s just amazing, the razzmatazz is huge.
“It’s crazy, once you’ve been here for a week nothing surprises you anymore. Laid back and no rules is the name of the game here.
“It’s just about embracing the culture and educating the guys to our level of expertise and thought patterns. But on the streets you can’t move, six people on a motor bike is the norm here.”
Travel and football are in Taylor’s blood. There’s no escaping that combination when you are the son of former West Ham United defender Tommy.
Although best known for helping the Hammers lift the FA Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup in consecutive seasons, Taylor senior has coached across the globe.
Since his employment as Boston United manager was ended in 2008, the former Hammer has coached Grenada’s national team and is currently celebrating winning promotion with Finland’s PS Kemi Kings.
Despite their similarities, Taylor has always avoided the option of using his dad’s name and contacts to get work, prefering to find his own path.
And his constant desire for a fresh challenge found himself leaving Meadow Lane when offered the opportunity to move to India by NorthEast coach Ricki Herbert, the man who led New Zealand to three draws at the World Cup in South Africa, the tournament which Capdevila won.
Herbert and Taylor have history, previously working together at Wellington Phoenix, the New Zealand side which competes in Australia’s A League.
“He asked me to go as his number two and head up the high performance side, so I accepted,” Taylor added.
“It’s a brand-new league with massive potential, and massive world class names, so it was a no-brainer.”
And right now Herbert and Taylor are reunited, focusing on the pressing matter of Monday’s match at FC Pune City.
With five matches played, NorthEast sit third in the table, three points behind leaders and fierce rivals Atletico de Kolkata, the only side to have beaten United so far.
NorthEast’s other fixtures have seen them defeat Kerala Blasters (1-0) and Mumbai City FC (2-0) as well as being held by FC Goa (1-1) and Delhi Dynamos (0-0).
But with whispers that the ISL is planning to expand next season, Taylor is already looking to be involved in a second season.
“I return in December and I hope to secure another deal here,” he said.
“I would love to come back here as it’s going to be massive again next year. In a big way.”