The last time Jay Bothroyd looked at an Arsenal shirt in anger it was heading out of his hand towards Don Howe in the dug-out. It was 2000, he had just been substituted in an under-19 final against West Ham and the young striker was in the process of making the biggest mistake of his burgeoning career. Teenagers do not throw shirts at the respected Don.
And if they do, they find their backside taking a similar trajectory out of the door. For Bothroyd, the axing was both neat and cruel, transferred to Coventry for £1m in the time it took Arsenal's head of youth development, one Liam Brady, to issue a chilling statement that still reverberates around the corridors of the Emirates Academy like the Ghost of Big-shot Past. "Although Jay Bothroyd is a highly promising young talent, we will not tolerate this behaviour," said Brady, before adding: "He is not wanted at this club any more."
Inevitably, this last remark was to play on loop within the Bothroyd cranium as he travelled around the leagues of Britain and Europe in the increasingly desperate search for a place to transform all that potential into some sort of reality. At Coventry, his resentment clearly held him back like a ball and chain (he even dared take a blast at Arsène Wenger with the devastatingly stupid claim – "he is not interested in youth"). Although he did struggle free to flee to Serie A. Yet only to Perugia and the mad world of Luciano Gaucci.
The president made two other signings that summer – the striker Saadi Gaddafi, son of the Libyan leader, and the fitness coach, Ben Johnson, the disgraced sprinter. Bothroyd was the troubled, talented one in the footballing asylum. But he came through the experience, found a wife and returned to Britain refocused and re-energised. He knew his time would come again and in many ways it does tomorrow afternoon with the visit, in the FA Cup fourth round, of the team that will forever remain his first love, no matter how fraught the break-up. Yesterday he could be found at the Cardiff City training ground and his sense of anticipation was obvious.
"It will be a special occasion as I haven't played against Arsenal since I left," he said, shrugging off the substitute appearance he made against them for Coventry in 2001 as a non-event he can barely remember. "And it will be extra special as well because I want to prove to myself and to my family that I can play to that level and not look out of place. I believe I can do that. I always have."
It has taken a little while, but the Welsh capital is coming around to his mode of thinking. At first they might have watched a 26-year-old coming to his eighth club – Blackburn, Charlton, Wolves and Stoke all followed after Italy – and wondered why. But now, as Bothroyd has gone a very small part of the way to fulfilling the startling claim of his manager, Dave Jones, that, "Jay could be the complete centre-forward", they understand why.
Jones still warns that Bothroyd has a propensity to start well at a club before "drifting", but the bad lads at the Bluebirds always have been adept at drawing a veil over previous misdemeanours. It is left to Bothroyd to wrestle with the demons.
"I had a great time at Arsenal – but what happened is one thing I do regret in my career. Really regret," he said. "It's a chapter I try not to look back on, but I can remember what he [Wenger] said to me when I left. I knew it wasn't because of my footballing ability, but what happened, happened. I'm a different person now. Then I was an immature boy and looking back now, I guess Wenger was right at the time. In my age group there were a lot of arrogant young boys playing there who didn't realise what we had at the time and he probably was right. And I've had to live with that and try to get back to where I once was."
If there is any lingering bitterness in his voice then he hides it admirably with his own personal frustration. At Ninian Park tomorrow there may be a few more of that lost Arsenal generation in attendance cheering on last year's finalists with something more vehement than mere loyalty to an old mate. Only one of their much-vaunted number went on to play for the first team. And Jermaine Pennant hardly set Highbury alight. Nearby lamp-posts, maybe.
"I'm still in touch with some of the boys from that youth side – quite a lot of them actually," said Bothroyd, when asked to reflect on the team which won the FA Youth Cup two years in succession at the end of the last century. "Jermaine Pennant [now of Portsmouth], Jerome Thomas [Portsmouth], David Noble [Bristol City], Graham Stack [Plymouth]... some of them are even coming to the game. But we've all gone our separate ways and we've all done well. It's gone fast, but a few of us have grown up. Namely myself."
Bothroyd's humility is commendable, although on listening to Jones it should not, perhaps, be taken at its face value. "The one thing Jay is finding at Cardiff is that we're not giving him a minute's rest," revealed Jones. "We're at him all of the time and that is what we have got to do. He'll pull faces at us and mumble under his breath, but we've told him we won't go away. We'll be in his face. It's not my challenge to bring the best out of him – it's up to Jay. All I can do is give him a stage to perform on."
For his part, Bothroyd has apparently leapt up at his cue. As Cardiff have camped themselves in the Championship top six, the influence of their 6ft 4in link man has been more noticeable by the game. At Birmingham last week he was particularly impressive, even more so as he had spent the preceding few days in bed with food poisoning. The home side's last-gasp equaliser was, as Bothroyd confirms, "the real sickener of that week", but it took Cardiff's unbeaten run to 10 and assisted in raising the expectation to levels unprecedented even in this city of believers. Bothroyd has plainly been swept away in the hwyl and the hype.
"I know they're eight [games] unbeaten [actually seven] as well, but I think this is the best time to be playing Arsenal," he said. "You really wouldn't have wanted to play them when they were on their 49-game unbeaten run. Saying that, they won't be putting out their young guns against us. It'll be pretty much their full-strength side as realistically this is the only competition they can win.
"This season they're not going to win the League or the Champions League or nothing like that. They're still a great side and one of the best passing sides in the world. But they just don't have the depth at the moment to compete with Man United and Liverpool and Chelsea."
As a boy from Archway, Bothroyd feels eminently qualified to discuss the Arsenal downturn. Indeed, he has to do so most times that his mobile goes off. "It's hard not to keep in touch with what they're doing as all my family and friends are always phoning me up moaning about them," he laughed. "So I do tend to talk about Arsenal a lot, to be honest; probably too much. But my mum lives literally five minutes from the Emirates and I am the typical local boy. You know, I must have been six when I first went to Highbury. I can't remember the game, I just remember being on the terraces with my Dad and watching the games with some of the hooligans."
Fast forward two decades and there is little wonder that Bothroyd feels he has at last located his home from home at Ninian. "I've not been happier at a club than I am here, apart from those years at Arsenal," he said. "And it would be good to show Wenger how I've progressed.
"Like I said, first and foremost there's a lot I want to prove to myself and my family. But then you still want to show people who doubted you what I can do now. He's probably one of them." Not that Bothroyd is talking revenge or any of the like.
He has grown up and gone forward the best that he can and the only grudge he bears, if any, is of the future he may have hurled away in those seconds of petulance. No, should Cardiff win, there will not be any throwing of shirts in the Arsenal dug-out tomorrow. A mischievous glance or two, just maybe.
Where are they now?
Bothroyd was part of the Arsenal side that won the FA Youth Cup in 1999/2000, beating Coventry 5-1.
Five loan moves preceded a switch to Colchester in 2004 after failing to make first team appearance.
*ISRAEL DA SILVA
Departed soon after Cup win after failing to make impact.
Gunners career restricted to cup games, left for Reading in 2006.
Brief spell at Watford before switch to West Ham in 2003. Now pushing for promotion with Bristol City.
Left for Stoke in 2003. Unsuccessful spell at Reading followed before move to Brentford.
Talented defender died in a road traffic accident in February 2001.
Made successful switch to Reading in 2003 before leaving for Chelsea. Now impressing at Aston Villa.
Bit-part role at Spurs before move to Wolves. Now playing in the MLS.
Series of loans before moves to Coventry and now at Falkirk.
Enjoyed success at Charlton before moving to Portsmouth last year.
*MORITZ VOLZ (sub)
Defender played over 100 times for Fulham. Now with Ipswich.
*JEREMIE ALIADIERE (sub)
Failed to settle at Celtic, West Ham and Wolves. Currently warming bench at Middlesbrough.Reuse content