Albion loan-pair Caleb Taylor and Zac Ashworth say they are embracing playing regular minutes in senior football since their loan moves away from The Hawthorns.
Commanding centre-back Taylor was the first of the club’s academy graduates to depart the Black Country this term, joining Sky Bet League One side Cheltenham Town for the 2022/23 season.
It didn’t take the 20-year-old long to establish himself in the Robins’ defence and Caleb’s consistency has earned him 40 appearances across all competitions thus far under boss Wade Elliott, while chipping in with two goals against Derby County and Exeter City.
After featuring for the Baggies in the Carabao and Emirates FA Cup in the early stages of the campaign, Taylor’s Premier League Cup-winning team-mate Ashworth threw himself into third-tier Burton Albion’s revival under manager Dino Maamria later on in January.
Zac was denied the perfect start to his time at the Pirelli Stadium when his spectacular strike against Oxford United went down as an own goal. Nevertheless, the full-back has been a crucial part of the Brewers’ up-turn in form, helping them to six wins from his nine appearances.
The young duo caught up with us to discuss the benefits of grasping more first-team football this term, and how they think it will help them upon returning to Albion in the summer.
Caleb, you could reach just under 50 appearances in senior football by end of this season. Was that just what you wanted going into this year?
Absolutely. Going into this year I looked ahead and wanted to play as many minutes as I could in first-team football. Coming to Cheltenham, I’ve played a lot of games which I’m very happy about and if I look back at the end of this season and I’ve nearly made 50 appearances, I’ll see that as a good accomplishment and a successful season playing higher up - which was the main thing I wanted at the start of it.
Josh [Griffiths] texted me when I came here and told me how good the club, staff and the lads were to him when he came on loan here. I knew it was going to be good and they have high expectations of me because of the Albion players who’ve been here before, so I knew I had to keep the standards high and work hard like they did before me to maintain that expectation.
Going from being captain in the U21s at Albion to observing more senior figures in the dressing room at Cheltenham, has that helped those leadership credentials in other ways this year?
Massively, yes. When I was in the U21s at Albion I felt like I was one of the main leaders in the dressing room, and the responsibility was on me to drive the standards of the group and encourage communication in games. But going from that to Cheltenham this year, where there’s a lot of senior players who’ve played a lot of games, I was just keen to learn off them. I haven’t been as much of a leader, but I’ve just been trying to learn from them while getting a good run of form going.
I’m trying to take on a bit more responsibility now to become a leader at a different team because I feel like it’s one of my strengths and the more games I play this season, then the more confident I’ll get in being one of those leaders.
Yourself and Cheltenham came close to reaching Wembley in the EFL Trophy. How did it feel playing in a competition where the stakes were higher?
CT: It was a good experience and very different to league football. After getting to the semi-final, we were so desperate to win against Plymouth because we knew we’d be playing at Wembley - which is every player’s dream. It was a shame we didn’t, but the run we went on to get there was fun and as I mentioned, another important experience which I’m grateful for.
How beneficial has league football been for you where more is on the line, and how have you dealt with experiencing different runs of form this season?
I knew it would be tough at times coming here this season because every game is difficult and such hard work to try and get three points. I maybe didn’t realise it at the start, but I’ve experienced that there are no easy games in this league and that every match will require you as an individual and as a team to be 100 per cent at it all the time. We’ve had good and spells this year and the bad ones have been tough mentally. But you get over it and the positive thing I’ve used to get around that is how quickly the games come around. When you lose a game by small margins, it’s easy to feel down after it for a few days or a week but it’s been so important for me to move on from it because a new game is always just around the corner. I’ve learned how to better deal with losses, but we’ve had some really good spells too so it’s about not being too low on the lows, and not getting too high on the highs.
You’ve managed to grab a couple of goals too and play in front of some big crowds. How did they feel and have you relished those challenges?
It’s certainly different. I didn’t score many goals for the Albion U21s but in league football it is so difficult to get a free contact in the box. It’s taken me 40 appearances this season to get a couple of free contacts in the box to score. I’m buzzing to have scored a couple but at the start of the season I’d set myself targets of scoring because I know it can be a good threat to teams. I’ve definitely learned a lot and all of the lads here have helped me in that regard because they’ve been playing for years and know what it’s like in attacking scenarios. They’ve been giving me small tips which I can use in and around the box to get free and get a contact on the ball.
I’ve loved it. Going to those big stadiums where the crowds are full, I’ve loved it. The atmospheres have been great and it does make it difficult, but at the same time it makes you feel like an underdog and that in a way helps you. You get that unity and togetherness where it’s us against everyone and the whole stadium, so I’ve enjoyed playing under a different kind of pressure at those grounds.
How much confidence will your year at Cheltenham give you going into the summer?
I’ve just focused on Cheltenham this year and doing the best I can for them. Whatever happens later down the line will happen, but I know if I keep working hard, keep my head down and keep playing games, then everything will work itself out going forward.
I know the first team at Albion are watching my clips and Bealey speaks to me quite a lot and he always catches up with me. This loan has given me a lot of experience to help me potentially come back to Albion and play, but now I’m concentrated on finishing the season well at Cheltenham.
Zac you featured for the PL2 side and senior team at Albion before January, but was getting regular football elsewhere the only thing you wanted in the new year?
Yes definitely. It was something I knew I needed to do at some point and it was good to be around the Albion first team for 12/18 months, but it came to a point where I needed to play regular league football at a good level. Thankfully, the manager gave me the opportunity to go out and gain the experiences I’m getting now.
It was challenging to begin with, especially going in mid-season where you don’t have that time to bed in and find your feet. I was straight in at the deep end and it’s been a challenge, but one which has benefitted, one I needed and one which will, hopefully, put me in a good position long term. I’m playing against big teams at this level and it’s exactly what I need.
Your last game for the Baggies was v Chesterfield in the FA Cup. It was high-tempo, physical encounter - did you know that was the kind of regular football you needed now more than ever?
The Chesterfield game was a difficult game for everyone. We didn’t perform well enough and I think it was at that point, more than ever, that I needed to go out and play that style of football and opponent every week. I was gutted afterwards but in a way, it’s a good thing it happened because if we’d won three or 4-0, then I wouldn’t have realised what I needed to do. I’m playing against different styles now, playing in a different system against men every week and that’s the learning curve which most players need.
I played a few games last year and a couple this time around for Albion and you always think you’re good enough to play for the first team, but that experience really does separate you from the other senior players. If you don’t see the bigger picture it can be frustrating. Some weeks you’ll travel, other weeks you won’t, sometimes you’re on the bench and others you aren’t. But the games I played at Albion gave me the chance to play in League One and without those experiences, a lot of players struggle and I think this year has stood me in good stead for the position I find myself in now.
You must’ve thought you made the perfect start with a goal on your debut v Oxford, but even though it went down as an own goal, we assume you’ll still be claiming it…
It was a shock more than anything for it to happen so early on into my time at Burton. I’m obviously still going to claim it even though it went down as an own goal, but it was just the perfect start for me and it really helped me settle into my loan.
How have you found football in League One compared with what you’ve been used to at Albion?
It’s been completely different. People say U21s football isn’t really football and you don’t realise that at the time, but as soon as you step out of there and start playing league matches then you see it’s a different ball game entirely.
It’s a challenge mentally, physically and those have been massive changes for me, but we’ve picked up a lot of points and we’re good form and hopefully we can continue that in order to finish as high up the table as possible.
You’ve experienced starting and coming on off the bench while at the Pirelli. Has that pushed you even more to stay on top of your game?
You’re always fighting to stay in the team and here, I’m up against players who’ve played a lot of games. At Albion when I was in the 21s, it was almost a given I’d start and get 90 minutes whereas at Burton, you have to prove yourself and fight every single day.
I missed one game through injury and I’d have been naive to think I’d go straight back in. I was on the bench following that but fortunately barring those occasions, I’ve been lucky enough to start most matches.
At the start I had to find my feet quickly because I knew if I didn’t, then I knew I wasn’t going to be in the team. Points are on the line every week and we want to consolidate ourselves in League One and if the manager doesn’t think I’m capable of helping with that, then I don’t play and it’s as simple as that. It’s harsh at times and it’s not about development at the moment because it’s about winning games and you have to prove you can play in a winning team.
Carlos Corberán came in as boss while you were still at The Hawthorns, Zac. Did you speak to him before heading to Burton and has he explained what he wants you to improve on?
A lot of the lads say he’s incredibly detailed with each and every position and he’s definitely the best coach I’ve come across so far. You go into every game knowing how it’s going to pan out and what he wants in different scenarios.
Before I went out he spoke to me in his office for 20/30 minutes analysing loads of my clips and highlighted areas which he thinks I’m good at and others I needed to improve while on loan. That meant a lot to me because he could’ve just picked up the phone and asked if I was happy to go out. But for him to speak to me on a personal level, say where he saw me in the long term and say he’d keep an eye on my games really helped me and it was a really nice touch.
It’s my goal to be in the first team at Albion, but that’s another challenge in itself. There’s so many good players in that team and I know how good Conor [Townsend] is and he’s another one who’s helped me along the way and a lot of the lads have spoken to me while I’ve been away. So I’ve got a lot of good relationships there and that’s the next step and if I don’t believe in myself, then there’s no point in trying. You’ve got to have that confidence in yourself and I want to go back ready to kick on. But I’m loving my time out on loan with Burton and they’ve been great to me, from the players, the manager and the fans. I want to play as many games as I can, continue playing well and enjoy as many experiences as possible to help get as many points as we can.