Boothroyd the ideas manager

Watford's players grade each other's performances. Now for their biggest test yet
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Having just returned from a holiday in the Himalayas, Watford's psychologist Keith Mincher is handily positioned to address the playing squad about the skills needed in climbing mountains, precisely the task they undertake this afternoon against Leeds United in the Championship Play-off final at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium. And should Mincher find himself short of advice, there is no doubt whatsoever that Watford's dynamic young manager, Adrian Boothroyd, will be able to provide the oxygen of a thought or two.

Before taking over at Vicarage Road in March last year, Boothroyd was Leeds' head coach and he says of this afternoon's battle for a place in the Premiership: "They are dogged, resilient, very strong and very experienced." And what can Watford do to counter these strengths? "Hope and pray," he grinned, at ease in his red tracksuit at the Hornets' London Colney training ground, before this warning: "We have a few things we think will unsettle them."

It would be nothing short of astonishing if the 35-year-old Boothroyd did not have a surprise or two tucked up those tracksuit sleeves. He has spent much of the recent season elevating eyebrows with his reshaping of a team who avoided relegation by two points into an attractively successful mix of eager youth and solid, been-there know-how.

Along the way, Boothroyd has imposed an entirely new slant on how best to prepare footballers for their job. A firm non-believer in weight training, he encourages bonding with sessions of wrestling and an Asian sport called kabaddi, which had its prehistoric origins in the teamwork needed to defend in groups against attack by predators.

Before a lunchtime kick-off against Crystal Palace in the play-off semi-finals, Boothroyd had his squad up and about by 7.15am ("out on the road with the foxes" as top scorer Marlon King put it) to ensure they would be fully alert, while post-match managerial inquests have been replaced by a lively debriefing session in which the players analyse each others' performance and award school-style grades, from A downwards.

Expressing surprise that such a debriefing was new in football, Boothroyd cautioned: "You can't just point the finger and say 'You are fucking useless', it has to be more constructive. We are all in it together and want to be better, so we all have to accept responsibility. I don't rule by fear. If you do the job on a consistent basis you become a consistent player and stay in the team."

Boothroyd's methods have reignited the career of the 25-year-old King, who spent time in prison on a receiving charge and was a million-pound failure at Nottingham Forest, farmed out on loan to Leeds, where he first ran across the man everybody calls Aidy. "At Leeds it was a massive disappointment, from the top level down to the young lads, when he left. So when the opportunity came up to work with him again at Watford I grabbed it with both hands.

"Analysing each other's performances and awarding a grade in front of each other helps to build team spirit. There are no punch-ups, players are honest and can deal with constructive criticism. As we all got to know each other better, we know what is expected and when that isn't done it is only fair for another team-mate to point that out. The gaffer doesn't overpraise. He will give you a pat on the back, tell you where you've gone wrong and how you can do better."

Malky Mackay, a 34-year-old defender who has appeared in previous play-off finals for Norwich and West Ham, left the Hammers at the end of last season on the prospect of more regular football with Watford, and played 35 games as one of the experienced leaders of a squad brimming with academy graduates. The "grading" sessions are backed by Mackay. "We have got to the point now where it is very open and nothing is taken in an offensive manner, which is quite an achievement. We don't have a manager sitting talking at us, it's a debate."

Another Boothroyd "first" was his decision to take the squad to Cardiff last week for a look round. "We went down on Monday, stayed overnight at the hotel booked for the final, trained on the Tuesday morning and then went to the stadium in the afternoon to give everyone a feel of the size of it," said Mackay. "That's one of the manager's key things, preparation. It is something he has been stressing all season." In King's opinion, the Cardiff trip was "a good experience because the gaffer wants us to play the game instead of the occasion. This is just an example of how he has been two steps ahead on most things."

Another example was Booth-royd's organising special training for the semi-final against Palace to include penalty shoot-outs. This was an idea he got from Sir Clive Woodward, and he is proud of the variety of sources for his plans. "I have read books on war leaders, explorers, politicians, as well as football managers," he said. "There are all different kinds of things you can pick up."

He was impressed by a recent biography of Abraham Lincoln. "When he was president there was a war going on, and there are wars going on every Saturday and Wednesday in football against an enemy who wants to beat you. It's a question of how you cope with that and deal with adversity. We will definitely be attacking in the final. We don't play any other way. Fast attacking football is how I describe it."

Even for the well-matured Mackay, it will be the biggest game of his career. "We will get a chance for 90 minutes of playing in the best League in the world next year. I don't see too many bigger days than that. We were the outsiders of the four play-off teams and that's still the case. But the fact Leeds are favourites makes no difference to us."

"Leeds are Goliath, we are David," is King's opinion. "Leeds get crowds of 30,000 - they've got money and backing. Everyone has written us off. But this is the biggest game ever for most of us, so you can imagine how up for it we are."

Even Boothroyd, who needs no geeing up, has an extra motive. His playing career was ended ("a black day for English football," he quips) at the age of 26 when he broke his leg playing for Peterborough against Notts County in 1996. The man whose tackle caused that injury was Shaun Derry. And Derry will be playing for Leeds this afternoon. Another incentive to climb that mountain.

Play-off winners: Was it the start of something big?

2003 SHEFFIELD UTD 0 WOLVES 3

Wolves had been pipped to an automatic promotion place under Dave Jones the previous season, losing a play-off semi-final to Norwich. Always seen as a big club who massively underachieve, they finally made it back into the top flight for the first time since 1984, but came bottom of the Premiership on goal difference as the three relegated sides all ended up on 33 points. They beat Manchester United 1-0 but failed to win a single away game. Jones was sacked after a disastrous start to the season following relegation.

1998 CHARLTON 4 SUNDERLAND 4 (AET; CHARLTON WIN 7-6 ON PENS)

The see-saw years under Alan Curbishley. Charlton lost a play-off semi-final to Crystal Palace in 1996, then came 15th. But they were promoted after a thrilling final the following year. Sunderland fan Clive Mendonca scored a hat-trick after the Addicks had gone behind three times. They went straight back down after coming 18th in the Premiership, but then secured the Division One title in 2000. They have secured six seasons of mid-table respectability since then.

1992 BLACKBURN 1 LEICESTER 0

In 1989 Rovers reached the Second Division play-off final but lost to Crystal Palace. Next season they lost in the semi-finals. But after finishing a dispiriting 19th in 1991, along came local steel magnate Jack Walker, a lifelong fan who pumped millions into the club. Kenny Dalglish was courted as manager, they sneaked into the play-offs in sixth place, and Mike Newell returned after a broken leg to score the penalty that won the final, restoring Rovers to the top flight for the first time since 1966. Walker then bankrolled British record transfer fees for first Alan Shearer, then Chris Sutton; in 1994 they were Premiership runners-up, in '95 they won the title.

1988 CHELSEA 1 MIDDLESBROUGH 2

Talking of sugar daddies... Chelsea became the first top-division club in 90 years to lose their status in a promotion-and-relegation play-off, while Boro were promoted for the second year running. Chelsea then topped Division Two with 99 points, and after six seasons of mediocrity they have never been outside the top six for the last 10 years. Boro went down straightaway, then came 21st in Division Two. In a decade, they went up four times, and down three.

Andrew Tong

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