A spectator at Watford's home game with Sheffield United last Tuesday remarked that the Vicarage Road pitch looked in surprisingly good condition despite being used by Saracens rugby union team. To which the obvious retort was that there is not much football played on it.
All the old jibes are resurfacing from almost 25 years ago, when Graham Taylor astonishingly took a little Hertfordshire club into the runners-up position in their first season in the top division by playing what was politely called direct football; and the butt of them this time is a remarkably similar figure.
The equally articulate and media-friendly Adrian Boothroyd also took to coaching after premature injury ended a modest playing career in his late 20s, becoming a League manager at the age of 34. Like Taylor at Lincoln City, he endured a bad start, losing his first three games in charge before pulling things round to avoid relegation by two points; and the following season leading a promotion charge.
Comparisons of the respective managers' fortunes fizzle out at that point. Instead of sitting second from top, Watford go to Manchester City tomorrow night second from bottom. Marlon King, the latter-day Luther Blissett, is out for the rest of the season; Ashley Young is an England Under-21 international of potential but is not yet John Barnes; the Ross Jenkins figure up front, Darius Henderson, has not scored in 16 games; Sir Elton John is these days no more than an honorary life-president.
But where Boothroyd stands very much in the tradition of his revered predecessor is his belief in getting the ball forward and into the opposition's penalty area with a minimum of fuss.
While accepting that the wretched performance in defeat by Sheffield United on live television was hardly an advertisement for that way of playing, he still defends his methods with vigorous conviction.
"We're in a results business. The players you've got decide the style and system, not the other way round. When I came to the club I brought in players of good character, physically capable of doing what I wanted them to, and those players excelled in a way that took a team fifth from bottom to be promoted. The stats are there to show we're a very attack-minded team. We've created a lot of chances and not taken them."
So although he loves watching Arsenal's passing game, Boothroyd is sticking to what his team are best at, while acknowledging that - like the girl with a curl - when they are bad they are horrid: "If we ever play the way we did on Tuesday again, I'd probably give the money back to Sky. We were appalling, I nearly went home myself.
"When direct play is not working, it looks absolutely awful. The brutal truth is we've got one win and nine points. But if we throw all this direct play out of the window, play off the cuff, try to be better passers and dribblers and crossers than the opposition, we might stay on nine points for the rest of the season. We play a way that I think suits us, and it's more a matter of tinkering with the car than getting a new engine."
Some new parts will nevertheless be added when the sales are on next month, even though his current chairman, Graham Simpson, is not a rock billionaire. "The lack of depth is hampering us and we've lost key players," says Boothroyd. "We know it's an unfair League, but we take responsibility for where we are. I'll get players that can add to what I've got, that will evolve into a winning style quicker rather than later."
Newcomers should be prepared to expect the unexpected, like last week's trip to an outdoor pursuits centre in Oxford-shire, which involved climbing 40ft telegraph poles (good practice, some might say, for Watford's set-pieces). Simpson calls his manager "a man ahead of his time"; Dr Sue Bridgwater, who runs the applied management course at Warwick University that Boothroyd took (as did tomorrow's opposing manager, Stuart Pearce), praises "a very positive person, so enthusiastic and with a great thirst for knowledge".
That positive outlook has not been diminished by achieving a solitary victory in 14 Premiership games. Immediately after beating his former club Leeds United in the play-off final last May, Boothroyd announced that Watford would not go straight back down. Does he still believe it? "Very much so. A top 10 club is where we aspire to be. You aim for the stars and you might hit the ceiling. I've never doubted myself. I get angry but I don't ever get low, and I tend to bounce back quickly."
His team need to do the same, starting at the City of Manchester Stadium tomorrow.Reuse content