WITH four games of the season remaining, it feels as though some Newcastle United players have already switched off for the summer. For Steven Taylor, however, it could be argued that the campaign has only really just begun.
Regarded as a key performer for the majority of his ten years as a Newcastle player, this has been a challenging season for the 28-year-old, who has had to come to terms with his status as the club's fourth-choice centre-half.
Sent off on the opening day of the season at Manchester City, Taylor was not seen again until he returned to action in January's FA Cup defeat to Cardiff. A run of six successive league starts in January and February hinted at a return to his previous senior status, but Fabricio Coloccini's return sent him back to the sidelines for another two months.
His latest exile ended at Stoke last weekend, and while there are some big decisions looming in a couple of months time, Taylor's first priority is to ensure his season does not end with his appearance in the Potteries. With two years of his contract remaining, the dyed-in-the-wool Tynesider will have to decide whether it is time to move on when the transfer window reopens. First though, he wants to make four more appearances for the club that means so much to him.
“It's been a long while out of the team and it's been hard,” said Taylor, who was linked with a possible move to Championship promotion hopefuls QPR ahead of the January transfer window. “It was great to get out there against Stoke and I'm obviously hoping I stay in the side now for the rest of the season.
“There's nothing worse than not being involved, and I was loving being back in the thick of things again (last weekend). From a personal point of view, it's all about trying to build on that in the next game now and trying to make sure I'm right back in the manager's plans.
“I'm absolutely 100 per cent as committed as ever and just want to get back to doing what I think I do best, and that's defending.”
Taylor's return to last weekend's starting line-up owed much to Alan Pardew's decision to switch to three centre-halves.
Having watched his side concede 11 goals in their previous three matches, Pardew beefed up his defence in an attempt to create some defensive solidity and, while Newcastle ultimately suffered their fourth defeat in succession, they were much more robust than they had been.
The Magpies manager must now decide whether to stick with the formation against Swansea on Saturday, and face inevitable accusations of being overly-negative when facing lowly opposition at home, or return to a flat back four and potentially leave gaps for Wilfried Bony in particular to exploit.
Unsurprisingly, Taylor would recommend the former, arguing that a strong defensive platform could help create additional attacking opportunities, even if it does mean having an extra centre-half on the field.
“The formation worked against Stoke and it's something we look comfortable with,” he said. “It felt very natural and easy, and although we didn't get the right result in the end, for long periods it felt as though we were controlling the game.
“We had options whenever we had the ball, and that's important. With three centre-halves, you need midfielders and wing-backs making runs, and we had that at Stoke.
“In some of the previous games, we hadn't really had players making those kind of runs and that's been one of the biggest let downs for us.”
Saturday's game is being billed as a potentially decisive moment for Pardew, who faced calls for his resignation from his own supporters during last weekend's defeat.
As one of the players ostracised by the under-fire boss, Taylor could be forgiven for harbouring few positive thoughts about his manager.
Yet as someone who seen more than his fair share of ups and downs during his decade of service at St James', Taylor insists it is crucial that everyone remains united whether they are enduring a difficult personal spell or not.
“We've regrouped, and the main thing now is that we have stick together until the end of the season,” he said. “That's what we'll continue to do, and I think the solidity we showed at Stoke gives us something to build on.”