Former Wellington Phoenix teammates Steven Taylor and Gary Hooper are celebrating unprecedented back-to-back promotions with their United Arab Emirates club Gulf United.
Hooper scored his first goal for United in their 5-1 win against Al Hilal, ensuring Gulf United became the first club in UAE history to be promoted two seasons in a row.
Main photo: Gulf United clinch promotion. Photo: Gulf United social media.
The achievement caps a flying start to the management ranks of Taylor (37), who was appointed after retiring from playing in 2021, and leaving the Wellington Phoenix.
He signed Hooper (35) in the January transfer window, eager to clinch United’s chance of promotion to the UAE first division.
Taylor says the team’s success was built on player recruitment.
After joining Gulf United’s academy, he was given two weeks to select a squad capable of performing in the third division.
He had to choose 25 players from a pool of 150.
“For me it was, ‘Wow, it was always going to be a tough ask,” Taylor told The National News.
“I looked who I was up against – every team has a very wealthy backing, while we’re the only team that has zero budget. For me to find 25 players, that was the toughest thing.”
Taylor looked abroad, searching the lower leagues of UK football and further afield, sometimes picking up players with histories of injury.
“I don’t care who you are,” Taylor says. “If you’ve still got that bit of drive and hunger, I’ll take a gamble.”
To make the step up to division two this season, Taylor gave trials to 800 players who went to Dubai to try to earn contracts.
Taylor did not sign one.
“I wanted to go into Division 2 not just to stay in the league but to win it,” Taylor says.
“A lot of people thought I was crazy, set myself up to be hung out to dry, but I believed in my team. We turned a team of 25 players, bunch of misfits basically, into a proper team. They came together, and they produced.”
Gulf United found players from Africa, Colombia, Morocco, Netherlands, Germany, Scotland and England.
“The success gets the foundation from my owners,” Taylor says.
“It’s down to them, the backing these guys give off the field. They bring players over, sort visas, make sure the players are looked after – their food, housing, everything taken care off. All the footballers have to do is just play football. They have nothing to worry about.
“It tests me, don’t get me wrong. I’ve no budget, I just can’t go to the owners and say, ‘Can you give me some money to go get a player?’ It’s an absolute no for that. But what they will do is look after the player off the field, allow him to focus on his career.
“But we have to get players who want to buy into playing for Gulf United, as a platform to move players on at any time. The guys we have here now are all fighters. You can see that in the last four, five games, scoring right at end, equalisers, winners. That never-say-die attitude has got us to where we are now – at the top of table.”
Some players have already progressed from United for bigger opportunities.
Manyumow Achol, a Wellington Phoenix youth player known to Taylor from his time with the club, joined Gulf United for pre-season but was quickly signed by rival club, Latvian Premier League side FK Auda.
Taylor believes his performances there will get him another move.