Boothroyd is playing the long game with England at Euros.
Aidy Boothroyd shedding long-ball tag as England on verge of making final of U21 championship, writes Richard Jolly
Nicknames can linger. Particularly unwanted ones. It is more than a decade since Aidy Boothroyd was branded “Aidy Hoofroyd”. It is a tag he has not fully shed, even though it seems outdated now.
If England’s progress to the semi-finals of the European Under 21 Championship has been notable for direct football, it is of the kind of quick counter-attacking characterised by skilful wingers, rather than lumping the ball at an oversized target man in a fashion associated with the Boothroyd of stereotype.
“My teams are tattooed with the long ball,” he told Michael Calvin in his book Living On The Volcano. Boothroyd took the direct route to the top, getting a Watford team tipped for relegation to promotion to the Premier League at 35. His fall was similarly surprising and swift. His fourth and so far final managerial posting in club football ended when he was dismissed by Northampton with the Cobblers bottom of the Football League. Now he stands 180 minutes away from completing an improbable renaissance. England face Germany today, with the prospect of a meeting with Spain or Italy in Friday’s final.
For the first time since 1984, they could become European U21 champions. It would bring a remarkable double for seemingly failed managers.
Paul Simpson, last in charge of non-league Northwich Victoria, steered England to the U20 World Cup. Simpson, however, did not have the notoriety of Boothroyd, whose appointment as England’s U20s manager – he subsequently took over the U21s when Gareth Southgate replaced Sam Allardyce – prompted criticism, some based on incorrect rumours that he had been FA technical director Dan Ashworth’s best man at his wedding.
The greater concern was not misplaced accusations of favouritism, but that a manager whose tactics seemed plucked from the past appeared hired to oversee the future.
Three years on, there is a growing body of evidence that Boothroyd is the best man for the position. England may have begun unconvincingly, needing Jordan Pickford’s penalty save to draw against Sweden, but wins against Slovakia and Poland have been notable for Boothroyd’s input.
A comeback against Slovakia was aided by the manager’s decision to replace right-back Mason Holgate with winger Jacob Murphy.
The Norwich City player, rapidly shaping up as his preferred super-sub, was brought on in attack against the Poles.
Tellingly, another winger, Leicester City’s Demarai Gray, was preferred to Tammy Abraham as the main striker then. Boothroyd, whose game plan long seemed based around an intimidating, abrasive centre-forward, whether Darius Henderson or Clive Platt, has proved more flexible than many expected. His Watford side became increasingly one-dimensional. His England teams are harder to pigeonhole.
While many of his peers are operating in similar circumstances, it is worth pointing out that Boothroyd has been deprived of several players still eligible for the U21s. Marcus Rashford, Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling, John Stones and Eric Dier have all been in senior squads instead.
This England squad could be more talented. Their predecessors provide a warning from history.
It is worth mentioning Stuart Pearce steered England to the final of the 2009 tournament and few hail him as a managerial mastermind now. It is in part because that final was lost 4-0 to a German group whose graduates helped Joachim Low’s team reached the semi-finals of the 2010 World Cup and win the 2014 World Cup.
Germany, with their smooth pathway from under-age teams to a successful senior side, have become the role models in youth development. Few have sought to emulate England, let alone Boothroyd.
But now, from the depths of the foot of League Two, the byword for long-ball football could be taking a curiously indirect route to glory.
Despite making it to the semi-finals, Adrian Boothroyd’s England have been deprived of many players eligible for the U21s.