Adrian Boothroyd: 'The most important space on the field is between your ears'

Watford were sinking when Adrian Boothroyd took over. He tells Jason Burt how he rebuilt them

As Adrian Boothroyd talks there's a piece of paper pinned to the wall behind him. "Have I missed the battle," reads one line. Below is the reply: "No, you have missed the war." It's taken from the script for the Hollywood film Gladiator - the words of a Roman emperor to his son.

Boothroyd explains why it now appears at the Watford training ground. "Because before you know it, the game has gone and before you know it, your career has gone," he says. "And you haven't done what you wanted to do. The only reason why is because you didn't take responsibility."

The quote was selected by the club's psychology coach but Boothroyd has another image. "I've got one go at life," he says. "And when I'm on that rocking chair, with my grandchildren around me, I'm going to tell them what I did and what I had a go at. Not what I should have done and could have done."

Boothroyd is 34. He's no longer the youngest manager in the Championship - that distinction is now held by Millwall's David Tuttle, 33, whose first match in charge was against Watford on Wednesday - but like Tuttle he took over a club in free fall. Boothroyd's first task last March was to stave off relegation. He lost the first three matches.

By then the pundits had piled in. "I have nothing against Adrian," wrote Mark Lawrenson. "I don't know the fella and I wish him good luck - but I will be very surprised if he is still the Hornets manager by the end of next season." It was harsh stuff. "I think I was like a Christian going into the lions' dens," says Boothroyd. No one, he admits, had heard of a self-confessed "poor player", a journeyman through the lower leagues, who retired through injury at 26 but who had built a promising coaching career. Yet he had just one season, at Leeds United, working with the first team, before he succeeded the popular Ray Lewington at Vicarage Road.

"I'm not going to get upset by people's opinions," he says of Lawrenson's words. "I'll be judged. Look, he might be right. I might be gone by the end of the season." If Boothroyd does leave, it will only be because he has been poached for a bigger job. What he has achieved at Watford, fourth in the table, has been nothing short of astonishing.

Not that he is remotely fazed. "I've got a job to do and I've got a board and a chairman who've shown massive bollocks to appoint me," Boothroyd adds. His task, he says, has only just begun while Watford have recognised his worth by quickly converting a 12-month rolling contract into a four-and-a-half-year deal. "I have this belief that I'm different and unique. I hope that people don't think I'm big-headed but part of my uniqueness is that I know I'm not very good yet."

Finding out how good he can be, Boothroyd claims, is part of the excitement. "I've not had any real pressure because Watford were down and out," he says of last season's task. "I had nothing to lose so I may as well do it my way."

They scraped a win at Stoke City to stay up. Boothroyd, having spent three months "in the trenches assessing and observing", made his move. "People had to go," he says. It wasn't popular. Ten players left, six coaching staff departed. Among those were the "mercenaries".

It appears a brutal assessment but, he adds "I can talk about mercenaries because I used to be one. Professional footballers should be professional. They have a responsibility to come in, listen and learn, watch their performances, analyse where they went wrong and improve. Not to come in, have a five-a-side, bugger off and play golf. I get quite passionate because I was that person. I was a mercenary who went from club to club on a free transfer and, really, that's not how football should be."

Boothroyd, a defender, travelled from Bristol Rovers to Hearts, from Mansfield to Peterborough. He laughs at the argumentative "pain in the arse" he was for Barry Fry. But his life was defined by another career-ending injury, suffered by a friend, a fellow apprentice, at his first club Huddersfield. "I thought I'd better have something to back [me] up, just in case," he says.

It was prescient. Aged 19, Boothroyd took his first coaching courses and realised that he was a "far better" coach or, as he terms it, "leader" than he was ever going to be a player. "The most important space on the field," he says, "is between your ears. That's something I wasn't particularly good at - dealing with mistakes, with the crowd, with not playing well, with managers who didn't communicate and I wanted to know more about it."

Now he devours information and there are courses in business and project management, media and neuro-linguistic programming - learning how to communicate and be in control.

"I've done a lot of unconventional stuff. There are certain players who might not like what I do but the majority want to be better," Boothroyd, says, adding, "I see myself as a pioneer for youth coaches." Football, he believes, is evolving. "It has to. These are multimillion pound businesses and people need to be able to carry it." He adds: "One of the best things I've ever done was to go into youth football. I could go on a windy, horrible Norwich pitch and play a team and make terrible decisions tactically, lose the game, and learn. And my job was not on the line."

Managers, Boothroyd believes, need to go through that "stringent process" of learning. He speaks admiringly of Stuart Pearce, Paul Jewell, Jose Mourinho and others. "I think football used to be a closed shop," he adds. It is why he welcomes the arrival at Southampton of Sir Clive Woodward. "He's going to be great for the game," Boothroyd says. "I hope people give him a chance, but I don't think he'll be bothered if they do or don't because that's how you get to be a world champion and anybody who can be at the top of their sport has earned respect."

Boothroyd, who today faces Crystal Palace, the club immediately below Watford, has been demolishing a few traditions himself. "Every club I go to you see these circles with a keep ball," he says of training. "Piggy-in-the-middle. I don't see that happening in a game. So we don't do it." He is a believer in "specificity". One Watford player, for example, is being forced to go boxing "because he won't make the far post to reach crosses," Boothroyd says. "It's only pain and pain goes. We used to have a player at Norwich and we'd say to him, 'You'll only become a good player when you break your nose'."

Every player is "graded through the season". They also have a "job description" and analyse their own performances - and then have to give a mark and explain, in a team meeting, why. Boothroyd, also wrote to all the players at the start of the season "to say this is what I expect". The fines system was drawn up by the players. Boothroyd wanted to know "what we stand for, what's the code".

It has all worked and to such an extent that he talks clearly about his "three-year plan to get this club into the Premiership". The board has set a four-year target, while the manager has "periodised the season", anticipating "suspensions, systems" and so on. The detail also includes a prediction of where Watford will finish. What does he see?

"An open-top bus," Boothroyd says. Seriously? "Why not?" is his reply. But what about the four-year plan? "That's their [the board's] rules. When I asked the players and staff it's a different matter. I told them what I thought. I don't know if they believed me or not. But they do now." There's a pause. "Remember," Boothroyd says. "I'm one of these weird people who doesn't need evidence to believe. I know where I'm going. I know where I'm going."

Generation game Youngest managers

* CHRIS CASPER (Bury)

Age 30 Appointed Oct 2005

* DAVID TUTTLE (Millwall)

Age 33 Appointed Dec 2005

* PAUL TROLLOPE (Bristol Rov)

Age 33 Appointed Sept 2005

* ADRIAN BOOTHROYD (Watford)

Age 34 Appointed March 2005

* CHRIS COLEMAN (Fulham)

Age 35 Appointed May 2003

* SIMON GRAYSON (Blackpool, caretaker)

Age 35 Appointed Dec 2005

* BARRY HUNTER (Rushden)

Age 37 Appointed Mar 2005

* PAUL MERSON (Walsall)

Age 37 Appointed May 2004

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