Seven years ago this month Aidy Boothroyd and Phil Parkinson were regarded as two of the brightest talents in management. Boothroyd, then 35, had steered Watford into the Premier League; Parkinson, then 38, had taken Colchester to the Championship.
On Saturday they will face each other at Wembley in the League Two play-off final, with Boothroyd’s Northampton Town regarded as slight underdogs against Parkinson’s Carling Cup finalists Bradford City.
It was not supposed to be like this, but both men are looking forward, not back. They are still only 42 and 45 respectively. Both, though they have taken wrong turns, have obviously still got management ability. Each inherited a relegation battle last season, achieved safety, then mounted promotion challenges this term.
“We decided that we wanted to run with a smaller squad, but with better quality players,” said Parkinson. “I felt last year that through the sheer number of players at the club there wasn’t the spirit required to get the club to where it needs to be.”
A memorable season has ensued but, while Parkinson won admirers during the Bantams’ cup run, the Cobblers’ turnaround under Boothroyd has been equally impressive. Northampton were three points from the drop when he became their 10th manager in 11 years in December 2011. Six weeks later, after one win in nine, they were adrift. They finally climbed off the bottom in March, finished 20th, and began planning for this season.
“I made a decision with the chairman that we would go for a tighter squad with quality rather than depth,” said Boothroyd in an echo of Parkinson. The drawback, he added, is “it leaves you vulnerable to injuries”. The worst has been a broken leg suffered by his then leading scorer Alex Nicholls in October. Not much can be done about contact injuries but to reduce the risk of muscular problems Boothroyd hired a sports scientist, moved training and, with sponsors’ help, had the use of a gym. “That helps when there’s snow on the ground,” he said.
Cobblers now train at Northampton Saints, who contest rugby union’s Premiership final at Twickenham next Saturday. “Northants cricket team have started well too and the whole town is buzzing,” said Boothroyd.
Northampton will take around 25,000 to Wembley. While Bradford were there earlier this season few Northampton players have experience of the venue. Clarke Carlisle, the PFA chairman, won a play-off final with Burnley, captain Kevin Langmead lost two with Shrewsbury Town, and Chris Hackett won and lost with Millwall. Then there is 20-year-old goalkeeper Lee Nicholls, who saved a penalty in the play-off semi-final at Cheltenham, after which Boothroyd compared him to England’s Ben Foster, whom Boothroyd worked with at Watford. Nicholls is on loan from Wigan Athletic and made his first visit to Wembley to watch his parent club win the FA Cup last Saturday.
As for Boothroyd: “I’ve only been there professionally as a radio pundit. Wembley was being rebuilt when I was at Watford so we had the play-off final [won v Leeds United] at Cardiff and the FA Cup semi-final [lost v Manchester United] at Villa Park. So I’m excited, but there’s still work to do. Everyone is looking forward to the final, but we want to go there and win.”
In 2006 Boothroyd took the players to Cardiff in the build-up, walked the stadium, and stayed in the same hotel. Unusual then, common now, and he has done the same with Wembley. “A lot of teams are overwhelmed by the occasion. It is important that the players are relatively familiar when they go there, that there are no surprises.
“It’s been quite a transformation – 28 players have gone, a lot have come in. It has involved a lot of hard work and a lot of tough decisions. We’ve had highs and lows, now we’re hoping to end on the biggest high of all.”
Brentford v Yeovil (Wembley) Sunday, 1.30. TV: Sky Sports 2
Bradford v Northampton (Wembley) Saturday 1.30pm. TV: Sky Sports 1