The remarkable rise of one of football's brightest young managers looks like continuing as far as the Championship play-off final in a fortnight's time, if not the Premiership next season. Adrian Boothroyd is a studious, besuited 35-year-old bursting with ideas, which included simulating a penalty shoot-out at Vicarage Road after a recent home game. It would now be a surprise if this tie required one on Tuesday, following victory secured here with three second-half goals.
Crystal Palace, relegated a little unluckily 12 months ago, were made favourites to go straight back but the pressure has not sat well with them. A run of two wins in the final seven League games seems to have contributed to a certain disenchantment among supporters, and for long periods the atmosphere was as flat as the home team's performance. The PA announcer's defiance at the final whistle - "It's not over yet" - sounded more like a definition of optimism than a realistic appraisal.
Boothroyd is a graduate of the managers' course at Warwick University Business School who worked as assistant to Kevin Blackwell at Leeds and could yet meet up with him in the final. Blackwell, spying at Selhurst Park yesterday after his own side were held 1-1 at home by Preston in Friday night's first leg, must admire the work done by his protégé since joining Watford last March. In danger of relegation at the time, they survived by two points, whereupon Boothroyd caused a smile or two among his directors by announcing that his intention this season was automatic promotion.
Finishing third, nine points ahead of Palace despite losing to them twice, they were still regarded in many quarters as underdogs going into this tie and might have been a couple of goals behind at half-time. But the manager switched from 4-4-2 to 4-5-1 at the interval and when his side immediately scored they were in the perfect position to play on the break and collect a resounding victory.
The media training Boothroyd undertook on his course (on which other students have included Mark Hughes and Stuart Pearce) obviously warned against offering hostages to fortune. He should, perhaps, have been told that "It's only half-time" is the cliché of all clichés, but trotted it out all the same, followed by a more lucid analysis. "Palace played really well in the first half and gave us the run-around at times. They were playing the ball into feet and we knew we had to do something tactically and defend a bit deeper. But I'm one of those who think anything's possible: 13 months ago I was picking up balls and bibs for Kevin Blackwell. So we're taking nothing for granted."
Iain Dowie was a model of positive thinking until finally admitting of his side's deficit, "if it was a poker hand, you wouldn't be betting too heavily on it, would you?
"We need to go there with plenty of heart and desire, but also go there and pass the ball. The response of the players will tell me a lot about them."
He could have had few complaints in the first half. Palace made all but one of the chances, Andy Johnson pulling the best of them just wide of the far post after a quick free-kick. Watford's one opportunity followed a long kick downfield by the goalkeeper Ben Foster, from which Marlon King almost scored, and one minute into the second half they pulled off the same trick.
King, the former Gillingham and Nottingham Forest striker who spent five months in prison for involvement in a car theft, knows the value of a second chance; he took this one with aplomb, swivelling to turn his marker and shoot past Gabor Kiraly. The classiest moment of an often scruffy game brought the next goal after 67 minutes.
The youthful Ashley Young was fouled 30 yards out and hit the free-kick beautifully with his right foot. Even then a Palace goal would have offered some hope for Tuesday, but Foster saved well from Emmerson Boyce and with five minutes left Matthew Spring finished off a neat move and almost certainly finished off Dowie's men too.Reuse content