How Aidy Boothroyd beat the Burton curse to boost the Cobblers
Aidy Boothroyd could be forgiven for casting a wistful eye towards the likes of Swansea City’s Brendan Rodgers and Paul Lambert of Norwich City – two young managers who are the flavour of the season following their successful adaptation to the Premier League. It could have been him.
Or could it have? When Watford were promoted under his charge, everything seemed rosy. But Boothroyd soon forged a reputation for workmanlike, unattractive football. Percentages, you might say. Balls into the channels. An over-reliance on set pieces. Strong arm tactics in places. This reputation stretched further than his time at Vicarage Road and into subsequent spells at Colchester United, a moderate success, and Coventry City, a disappointment in comparison. This is no extensive career history but it gives you an idea of Boothroyd’s place in the football world – respected for his record but ostracised by some for his approach – prior to his most recent appointment.
Now, following in the footsteps of other managers – Martin Allen’s time at Barnet the most obvious recent example, while just this week, Brian Horton pitched up at Macclesfield Town – who have dropped down to the foot of League Two to conduct firefighting missions at nosediving clubs, Boothroyd is reviving Northampton Town.
In January 2007, the Cobblers appointed Stuart Gray as manager. Gray initially prospered before relying on loanees a touch too heavily and plummeting back into the basement division with a sudden need to build an almost entirely new team from scratch. Gray failed to return the side to League One, one of his final acts a 3-2 defeat at Burton Albion. Club legend Ian Sampson was given the reins but didn’t meet owner David Cardoza’s expectations and was removed from his post as a play-off charge faltered. Another 3-2 defeat to Burton proved a nail in the coffin. Gary Johnson came and went – and Boothroyd was handed the responsibility of keeping the Cobblers in the Football League. Would yet another 3-2 defeat to Burton be out of the question? In a word, no. It’s been a strangely addictive scoreline for the two sides over the past few years.
How long ago that must seem to those at the Pirelli Stadium. Burton are far from the side that verged on swashbuckling to rise into a play-off place earlier in the season. Before Northampton arrived in town, the hosts hadn’t won for fourteen games. Boothroyd would soon ensure that became fifteen.
Northampton began positively, buoyed by a large and noisy travelling support, but they weren’t irresistible. They sought out promising winger Michael Jacobs on the left at every opportunity and Jacobs beat his man each time, without quite managing a telling end product. Clarke Carlisle was the stereotypical rock at the back. Brett Williams, on loan from Reading, led the line well, without having a shot in anger. At the other end of the pitch, Burton managed to fashion a couple of chances which Northampton, for all their comfort in possession, couldn’t replicate. It remained goalless at half time.
As the second half wore on, Burton began to look increasingly like a side that had forgotten when their last win was. The yellow and black shirts dropped further and further towards their goalkeeper Adam Legzdins and Boothroyd went for the kill, moving substitute Lewis Young, the brother of Manchester United’s Ashley who recently turned up on the terraces at Macclesfield, into a central position alongside Williams. It would have been the ultimate vindication for his manager if Young had hit the net with a fierce shot when sent clear towards the end. Instead, Legzdins made a firm stop and it looked as though the visitors were to settle for a point.
But soon after the board was raised to signal three minutes of stoppage time, a Northampton free-kick from the right resulted in centre-back Kelvin Langmead firing home from close range. When the final whistle went, Boothroyd was acclaimed by the away end and Burton were left to ponder whether they could possibly be dragged into the scrap beneath them.
The former Leeds United coach retains his reputation as a man who relies on the percentages game rather than the more beautiful game played, for example, by Rodgers at Swansea, and the Cobblers may have remained cautious in not throwing too many bodies forward when attacking Burton. Nevertheless, Northampton entered an important away game with two out-and-out wingers: Jacobs, who seems destined for greater things, and the Liverpool loanee Toni Silva. And when Boothroyd felt his team could grab that vital late winner, he stuck two up front and emerged victorious.
A world away from the tactical tinkering of multi-million pound footballers at the highest level, to see a football team transformed from eleven men each seemingly unsure of their respective role into a solid unit both in and out of possession is a real education. Sometimes, football is about making sure the percentages add up. Northampton, seemingly down and out for months and having hit rock bottom not so long ago under Boothroyd, can now look down on six teams beneath them.
There is still a way to go, but all the signs here showed a club on the up. And when you’re manager of Northampton Town and you don’t lose 3-2 to Burton Albion, maybe you begin to believe that anything is possible.