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More Than a Theory

Nick Catley on Aidy Boothroyd and the 2005/06 season


It now seems almost a truism that the 2005/06 promotion just isn’t, somehow, remembered as fondly as any of our others. Further evidence of this, if it was needed, comes from the fact that when preparing these special issues, regular contributors were asked which promotion season they’d like to cover. All the usual suspects were taken quickly – even 1899/1900 had a piece volunteered, while another covered a fictional promotion (although you’ll have to read those two in a future edition, as closing the top on these issues had to be done carefully to avoid breaking the zip as it was). Every season was soon allocated.

Except 2005/06.

An article about the gradual excitement of realising we had a team not just good enough to stay up, but to do considerably more – about the good bits of that season, and there really were an awful lot – would be much more in keeping with the joyous tone of these issues.

But it’s a scab I just can’t stop picking. Why is that promotion so unloved?

Colin wrote about this in Home Tied issue 6, so I won’t retread the same ground. Instead, I’ll focus on one man – Adrian ‘call me Aidy’ Boothroyd. He didn’t get off to a good start with me. In the summer of 2005, I felt distanced from the club in a way I hadn’t for some time. Physically, I’d moved away – still Hertfordshire, but the traitorous, Luton-supporting part, and certainly not somewhere you could get the same sense of involvement in community and gossip as living a five-minute walk from the Harlequin Centre.

It was also true mentally, though. Ray Lewington, Boothroyd’s predecessor, did an incredible job with no resources. Getting the wage bill cut when it became clear that the chickens named Gianluca and ITV Digital had begun to roost in the Main Stand was one thing. Avoiding relegation and getting us to a pair of cup semi-finals, with a likeable team, was quite another. His sacking seemed undeserved and shabby. That wasn’t Boothroyd’s fault, of course. But it didn’t help.

The promotion was remarkable, and Boothroyd deserves credit for it. There was so much to like – from getting to know future England goalkeeper Ben Foster, through the solidity of Malky Mackay and Jay DeMerit, to Ashley Young coming of age and the classic strike partnership of Darius Henderson and the season’s main inspiration, Marlon King. King turned from a second-tier journeyman to an absolute world-beater for just that one season, but sadly, due to subsequent events, pleasant memories of him don’t so much come with an asterisk attached as with Sharpie right through them.

Boothroyd got the best out of all of them. He had a toolbox of techniques which shook things up and clearly inspired the players, at least to start with, including team kabaddi sessions, rising with the lark for early kick-offs, and players grading each other after matches. The mock penalty shoot-out at the end of a home game against Ipswich made a lot of sense, and was a bit of fun to boot. But he always felt like a management consultant, with his constant adherence to theory, and use of empty corporate-speak. Once, talking about a biography of Abraham Lincoln, he said “When he was president, there was a war going on, and there are wars going on every Saturday and Wednesday in football”, and at a time when The Office was fresh in the nation’s minds, this felt worryingly close to something David Brent might have said. If not a management consultant, he could have been the insecure teacher who tries just a little too hard to get the kids to like him – I’m willing to bet he called the players by their nicknames – then turns on them abruptly for inexplicable reasons.

One regular criticism was a little unfair, at least to start with. He was often called ‘Hoofroyd’, but the promotion team wasn’t a long-ball side. They were quick, exciting and direct. An Independent profile on the day of the play-off final calls the team ‘attractively successful’. I’m certain I’m not remembering them over-fondly – because the next season, we saw what a long-ball side was really like. It was embarrassing. I’m a firm believer that the only ‘right’ way to play football is to score more goals than the other lot – essentially, I’m with former manager Alan Durban, who once said “If you want entertainment, go and watch a bunch of clowns”. While many would argue that this was half true for the people who saw his Sunderland side at Watford in September 1982, it wasn’t the dullness that was the problem, it was the hopeless ineptness and naïveté of the tactics, against some of the best defences in world football. We were a burglar attempting to get into a heavily alarmed house by banging drunkenly on the door.

Things got worse from there, of course, making it tempting to look back at his first season and wonder if maybe he got a little lucky. Certainly not all the signings worked – Sietes, anyone? Martin Devaney? Junior? Adam Griffiths? – although, in fairness, King, Henderson and Jordan Stewart came in for a combined fee less than that obtained for the departing Heidar Helguson. It’s also impossible not to wonder how big a part assistant Keith Burkinshaw played – although by the time he left in December 2007, the slide was well underway.

I wonder if the biggest clue to his failure to repeat that first season’s success is signalled by an anecdote from its opening day, a 2-1 defeat at home to Preston. The tracksuited Boothroyd felt that opposite number Billy Davies received more respect from the ref than he did, due to being in a suit. From then on, Boothroyd always dressed up on the touchline. Even what he wore was determined by a theory. It was incredibly difficult to know the difference between who he thought he ought to be, and who he actually was. Maybe, when the difficult times came, when the players started to doubt him, there was no him to fall back on, nothing of his own essence, just other theories to try.

Either way, he’s not particularly fondly remembered, here or anywhere else, really. Not like Ray.