As featured in our matchday programme, we speak in-depth to defender George Taft about his career to date.
George, from doing a quick search online, we know quite prominently that you were on Leicester City’s books as a youth player and for the first couple of seasons as a professional, but was there football before then for you?
I started out as a young lad at Derby County and then around scholarship time, I moved to Leicester and signed my scholarship there. The Head Scout there asked me to go over there and see if I liked it there before I chose which club I signed for.
What was Leicester like as a club for you then? You obviously had a couple of years there as a scholar and a couple as a pro.
Amazing. I’m a local Leicester lad, that’s who I supported growing up and I used to be a season ticket holder so to pursue my dreams at my boyhood club was amazing. I was only 15 minutes away from training, I knew everyone in the city and got to go to their games. It was incredible.
As a Leicester fan, when that option came along, it must have been an easy decision to make the move there, with no disrespect to Derby?
Yeah, definitely. It was an easy decision. To be able to try and become a professional footballer at the club I grew up with was amazing.
I’ve spoken to a number of the lads so far this season, with a few of them coming from Category One academies. Ryan Loft was one who also experienced life at Leicester, but slightly later than you. How were your surroundings back then?
They have just built their new training ground now and I’ve got a few friends who have worked on it and say how amazing it is, but even when I was there, the facilities were really good. They had everything I would have needed, so it was a good place to learn my trade.
Did you see a pathway there?
I felt there were opportunities for me, yes. I was on the bench a couple of times in the FA Cup third round against Nottingham Forest. Leicester were doing so well as a team when I was coming through and the season I left them, they were promoted to the Premier League, so the club was on the up. During that spell, I wanted to play, so went out to get games.
You ended up never making a senior appearance for the side. But for those unused substitute “appearances”, did you feel you were ever close to making your professional debut there?
Not at the time really. They were doing so well, so it didn’t look likely. It was just a great opportunity and a great club to be at. It would have been amazing if I did get that opportunity, but unfortunately it never came.
Looking back through your time at Leicester, there were a few quotes of praise from Sven-Göran Eriksson as you were coming through. What was he like as a manager?
I used to train a lot with the first team when Sven was there and I actually went out on loan to Karlstad - in Sweden - which he helped to sort out, which was amazing. I signed my first professional contract with Sven. The pull he had, not just as a manager on the pitch, but the fact he was the ex-England manager really brought the profile of the club up. It was a different side of the game to see.
He was obviously, most notably, the first foreign manager of the English National Team. He had a big profile coming to Leicester, didn’t he?
Yes, he did and he was amazing. I really enjoyed working with him.
Do you think his departure thwarted you or damaged your chances of playing for Leicester? Once he left, looking back, you didn’t appear to be in the fold as much.
It could have been, in some aspects. I did feel like when Sven was there, I would have got a bit more of an opportunity. When he went, you’ve got to impress whoever comes in and try and show that you can play first team football.
You touched on that loan spell going to Sweden. I guess that was a bold move for you at 21-years-old, going to a different country and culture?
I thought it was going to be really difficult, but everyone speaks English over there. Everyone is really into their fitness and health too, which is good. I went over there and there were already a few lads in the team I knew. One was from America who I used to play with at Leicester. That helped going over there and it was a great experience for seven months. Leaving friends and family is tough, but I saw it as an opportunity to see how they play football out there and work on different aspects of my game that wouldn’t have been as prominent over here.
How different was it, footballing-wise?
It wasn’t as physical, so for me as a big and physical lad, I added that to their team. It was a very technical league with technical players, so it helped me to develop that side of my game.
Prior to that loan spell you went to Kettering in non-league, and after that you went to York City who were in League Two at the time. That must’ve introduced you to men’s football with a bang.
Definitely. I was going from youth football to men’s football, which is a big transition in itself. It was good to do that at a young age to really see what it’s all about and to see where I needed to improve and also how my career would turn out.
When you were released from Leicester, you ended up at Burton Albion. Did you have a lot of offers, or was it an uncertain time for you?
There were two or three that I was umming and ahing about. Burton isn’t too far from Leicester and they train at St George’s Park, so that was a big incentive. I sat down and spoke with Gary Rowett and he sold me on the club and where they wanted to go. What he said was proven, with us going on to get promoted that season. Even the year after, the team got promoted to the Championship, so it was definitely the right move for me at that time.
They’re a club that have done remarkably well over the last decade, aren’t they? People will see them as an established EFL side now, but they were in fact one of those non-league sides to make a surge into professional football.
Definitely. Since they’ve been in the league, they’ve always been challenging up there. They were always in-and-around the play-offs when I was looking to go there. I actually went to their play-off final game against Fleetwood Town at the end of the season before I signed for them in the summer. They’re an underdog team and they always have been. To achieve back-to-back promotions to the Championship, considering the size of the club was amazing.
While you were there, you had your first of four spells at Cambridge United, three of which were on loan. The first looked to be going well until you suffered a serious injury.
Yes, I ruptured my anterior cruciate ligament about six or seven games into my loan spell, which also cut my season short, which was a shame. It meant I had to sit out through the remainder of my contract at Burton and they’d had a change in management. It was a case of looking elsewhere and I managed to sign for Mansfield, although I was still injured at the time. Mansfield took a gamble on me, so it was a difficult time thinking about where my career was going to go and if anyone was going to want me.
Once you’ve had that one serious injury, I bet it plays on your mind at the start and affects you?
I didn’t know how my knee was going to hold up. It really makes you think about how to look after yourself and what’s important. You have to think about not rushing back too soon and making things worse, but at the same time, I was out of contract, so it was a worrying time. I needed a club, but I was injured and didn’t want to make things worse. It was like the toss of a coin as to what worked best.
When you were fit, you went back to Cambridge for a second and third loan spell before making that move permanent. You must have sufficiently impressed them in that brief first spell to be wanted back?
It’s a very well-run club. There were so many familiar faces in the squad when I went back. It was like I’d never left to be honest, and the lads welcomed me back and the club made me feel wanted. I enjoyed all of my time there.
It obviously is, in terms of appearances, but would you rate your time at Cambridge as the best spell of your career to date?
Yeah, I’ve played a lot of games there and there were so many ups and downs. I’ve got most of my career games there and I enjoyed it.
It must’ve been a difficult decision to leave them last summer for Bolton then?
With COVID and budget cuts, it made it difficult for Cambridge. Bolton came in for me and they’re a big club with great facilities. It felt like the right move at the time.
You would have been one of those players in a boat of uncertainty with being out of contract in the summer. Were you concerned with the virus hitting and there being so many unknowns?
Not at the start. No one really knew how bad COVID was going to affect football at the time. Obviously, we see now that there are some great players out there without clubs. There were four or five clubs interested in me, so I had to look at my options and look at what was best for me at the time.
I know we covered this when you signed here on loan, but I bet the most disappointing thing for you with your time at Bolton is that you were never able to play in front of the fans at that stadium? I guess that was a massive reason why you chose them?
Definitely. From the first day I went there, the fans were amazing with me and the fact that they sold eight or nine thousand season tickets is a massive amount for this league. It would have been great to play in front of their fans in that stadium and that environment and to see the passion that they clearly have.
There’s a lot of speculation on social media that the reason you never got a real opportunity at Bolton was due to a disagreement or argument with the Bolton manager. Was that the case?
No - I’ve seen that on Twitter and people have got different opinions on things. It’s not the case though, I got on really well with Ian Evatt. It was just a case of every time I got a bit closer to playing something happened. I got COVID, then my partner got COVID, so I had to isolate for two weeks. I was back training and played a game against Newcastle United Under-23s within a week of being back. The day after, I was in close contact with someone else who contracted COVID, so I had to isolate again for another two weeks. That kind of put me back and at the time, the lads were doing well. I think they went five games unbeaten. The game time wasn’t there, and I felt like I needed them. I’d missed nearly half of the season and just wanted to play. There was no argument at all, we got on really well and still do.
Was it you that approached Bolton and said you wanted to go out on loan to get games?
I went into Bolton and asked about my situation, how I’m doing and what I needed to improve and what I needed to do to get in the team. I asked about the option to go out on loan to get games and I said that if the right club came in and I felt I could go and do well at, could I do it? The gaffer said that was fine and said I had to do what was best for me. The club were really good about that.
The one thing that struck me when you first joined was the amount of comments from Bolton fans on social media. Without naming other players in your position, they were offering others to us, rather than you. To have that sort of backing having only played a couple of games for them must have felt nice.
It was nice to see. I only played five games this season for Bolton, but I gave my all in every single one of them and thought I did well. It was nice to know I was appreciated in that aspect and it was nice for the fans to see that well.
It was a similar reaction when you made the move permanent too. I guess from their perspective, you’d come here to get games, boost your confidence and be in their plans next season, so it came as a shock somewhat?
I still had another year on my contract for next season, so I do think it came as a real shock to a lot of people. I even had close friends who didn’t know that I was making the move permanent.
If I went back in time and spoke to the George Taft coming in on loan that 25 days later you’d make that move permanent, would you have believed it?
No, it wasn’t in the plan at the time. When I signed, I wanted to come here to help the team out and get some game time. I wanted to get back fit and see how it went. I just enjoyed it so much from the moment I came in.
You touched on it ever so slightly earlier, but I want to finish on your experiences with England Under-18s and Under-19s and being selected for the Under-20 World Cup in 2011. How do you reflect on those experiences?
It was amazing. I played with some amazing players that I look at now and are playing in the Premier League. They were outstanding and it was a real honour and privilege to represent my country at youth level. I went to the Under-20s World Cup which was amazing. Just to travel and play against some countries which play unbelievable football was fantastic.
Were you surprised to get a call-up in the first instance?
I was, yes. I was at Leicester in the youth team, and we went the whole season unbeaten, but it was still an amazing surprise. I played my first game against Poland and got a goal, which was a good experience.
You touched on the World Cup and, although you didn’t play, it must have been an unbelievable experience to go to Colombia and be part of it?
It was amazing. We went to Colorado in America first for altitude training and then went onto Colombia. We were away for five or six weeks just playing football. It was an incredible experience.
What is your first footballing memory? It would be in the garden with my dad, kicking a ball around.
Who was your first manager? I really enjoyed working with Gary Rowett at Burton Albion. My first professional manager was Sven-Göran Eriksson.
Who was your first room-mate for an away game? My first real away game was when I went away with England and I shared a room with Jack Butland, the goalkeeper.
What was the first album or single you bought/downloaded? I’ll go with Razorlight.
What was the first film you saw at the cinema? I’ve not got a clue here. I’ll go with a James Bond one, can’t remember which one, but I went on a school trip.
Who is your favourite band/artist? I’m into Drake at the minute. He’s the go-to.
What band/artist do you always switch off? I don’t really not like a lot, I like a bit of everything.
What do you always watch on TV? Game of Thrones or Money Heist - can’t wait for the next part out soon!
What makes you change channel? Cricket.
What is your favourite meal? A fancy restaurant steak.
What food do you never touch? Pickled onions.
What is your biggest achievement in football? I think it would have been playing and scoring in my first game for England Under-18s against Poland. That’s something that will stay with me forever.