IN THE era of the prima donna footballer with a modicum of talent and a giant ego who gets rich before he can even spell lucre, it is refreshing to meet a promising young player with his feet on the ground rather than his head in the clouds.
Hibs’ hard-tackling midfielder Tom Taiwo is Yorkshire born and bred, which helps explain his level-headedness, a quality that stood him in good stead when he and Michael Woods, a fellow apprentice at Leeds United’s academy switched to Chelsea six years ago, bringing about the mother and father of “tapping up” rows, as well as reported seven-figure compensation payments to Leeds.
It was Taiwo’s parents who bore the brunt of the controversy in Yorkshire, as he explained: “I was in London and quite shielded and guarded. I lived two minutes from the training ground so I was never really exposed to the kind of furore that was going on at home – so that was a good thing for me.
“There were a lot of false claims made about my parents. They are very good, honest people so that was the most upsetting thing, that somebody could write bad things about good people who had done nothing wrong. Things like they’d sold their son for a new kitchen, they’d been bought a car, basically backhanders.”
Dad Stephen was a BT apprentice who worked his way up to management. Tom’s teacher mother Kay wanted Taiwo to be a doctor but he says: “I didn’t fancy that, too much like hard work!”
He played along, though, gaining GCSEs and A Levels so that his parents would keep giving him lifts to training three nights a week but, after the switch to Chelsea and a broken leg, Taiwo’s upward rise – he played for England under-17s – faltered and he realised that his destiny lay at a lower level.
He said: “I wasn’t good enough to play for Chelsea and I had to try to forge a career elsewhere. I was fortunate that Carlisle United gave me a chance. If it wasn’t for a little bit of trust from the manager [Greg Abbott] and a lot of hard work and mental resilience, I wouldn’t have been playing here, enjoying my football. It’s all about how you’re brought up, if your parents are honest and open with you. You see kids with the Leeds United youth team and their parents are treating them like superstars already. My parents were always focused on academics and grades and realising that there is life outside of football. I’ve always been a realist and that’s because of them.”
The move from Carlisle to Hibs was principally for family reasons: “I’d just had a little baby and wanted her to be with me at all times. I’d already been to the club and seen the set-up. I was familiar with the place. It meant my family could be together and it was a fresh start for us. I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s the first time I’ve experienced playing in front of 10,000 on a regular basis. I played at Wembley [in two Football League Trophy finals] and we had 70,000 for the first game. I was on the bench and came on for 30 minutes or so. It’s a totally different pressure to be coming out in front of 10,000 expectant fans every week. That’s something I’ve had to adapt to.”
Ahead of today’s SPL game against Kilmarnock, Hibs manager Pat Fenlon said he feels there’s much more to come from a player the fans are beginning to warm to and who is only now really match fit. But, with all his exam passes, what does Taiwo consider doing after football?
“I’d quite like to go into journalism – but you lot have put me off!” he says. Yes, Tom, find another career. You’re far too clever for this nonsense.