Aidy Boothroyd and his dad were in the main stand at Valley Parade when the fire began that would claim 56 lives. It was 11 May, 1985. Boothroyd was 13 years old. "We were in E-block, close to where it started," he recalls. Ian, the Watford media relations man who is sitting with us at a table in Starbucks, in a retail park just off the M25, leans forward. He has never heard Boothroyd talking about the Bradford City fire before, didn't even know he was there.
"We went to the inquest," Boothroyd continues. "But none of it traumatised me. I've never really sat down and thought about it, but I suppose it may have contributed to how I am now. In a deep way, it maybe made me seize the day. I do live every day as if it might be my last, and I like everyone around me to do the same. We have a sign at our training ground, 'Carpe diem' ['Seize the day']. Be the best you can be every day."
It's a philosophy that explains how Boothroyd came to be the youngest manager in the Premiership. There seems to be electricity coursing through him, through his mind as well as his body. He asks Ian to get him a decaffeinated latte - a caffeine hit is the last thing he needs - and a blueberry muffin. I note that when they arrive, he says a polite thank you.
I sometimes think that his dress sense, the black shirts and bright ties, make him look a bit like a mafia hit man. When he stood glowering in the dug-out watching his players squander a 2-0 lead against Fulham the other week, I thought some of them might leave the dressing-room in concrete overcoats. But he has nice West Yorkshire manners.
Tomorrow, he takes his players to The Valley for what has already been dubbed a six-pointer with Iain Dowie's beleaguered Charlton Athletic. Charlton are bottom, Watford one place better. It's a must-win for both teams. "But on current form, both teams will probably lose," says Boothroyd, who also has a wry West Yorkshire wit. He won't countenance the idea that it's a relegation battle, though. How can it be, this side of Hallowe'en?
"I came into the Premiership expecting us to do well and I'm still confident," he says. "People have always said the wheels will come off for us. They said it last year, they're saying it now. But I've seen enough to know that there are three worse teams in this league than us. And we've drawn four games, which shows we've competed. It's not like we've won one and then lost a load. Nobody has psychologically given us a pounding. On a few occasions we've shot ourselves in the foot, that's all. And I believe you should never play the occasion rather than the game. Against Arsenal last week we played the occasion a little bit."
Boothroyd's preparations for the Arsenal game would not have disgraced a military strategist. Arsène Wenger was able to field a full team of internationals, but instead of seeing that as a disadvantage for Watford, Boothroyd tried to turn it into an advantage. Most of the Arsenal players had been on midweek duty for their countries, so he prepared a dossier on each man: how far had he travelled; when did he arrive home; how had he performed in the past in the first match after an international break, with a Champions' League match to come? In other words, who might be plain knackered, who might be saving himself for Europe?
Of course, the very word "dossier" has been discredited in football ever since the days of Boothroyd's fellow Yorkshireman Don Revie, and indeed the Arsenal players didn't look remotely jaded, romping home 3-0. But the exercise shows how Boothroyd thinks, and the military analogy is not altogether fanciful, for he tells me that he quite often comes to this very Starbucks having first trawled the adjoining Borders bookstore for biographies of old soldiers.
"I gain inspiration from whoever, whether it's Abraham Lincoln or Norman Schwarzkopf. At the moment I'm on a book called Blink, about decision-making, and why it's sometimes good to go with your gut instinct. I read a book by the same guy, Malcolm Gladwell, called The Tipping Point, about the little things that together tip into a big thing, whether it be crimewaves, flu epidemics, whatever. It's the same with a football team. You want the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts."
If there were an adjective for this kind of thinking, it might be Sir-Clive-Woodwardian, and it is no coincidence that the two are friends. "I met Clive at a dinner. We got talking, and after that we had a few chats. He's a world champion, I wanted to know more about him. We also had Matthew Pinsent in at the end of last season. I wanted to know what he did in a week, how he excelled. There must be common denominators in sport. I want to find that one per cent edge to make us better. With Clive I talked about penalties. I said that we practise, but that's it difficult to recreate a match situation. He said, 'Why don't you do it in front of the crowd after a game?' I thought that was a great idea, and it worked really well [following the 2-1 home win over Ipswich at the end of last season]. It bonded the players and the fans. When it came to the play-off final [against Leeds United] we were prepared in every way. We'd gone to Cardiff before, stayed overnight, just to get a taste of it. On the day a lot of the Leeds players froze, but we didn't."
But promotion brought its own headaches, and not just in the form of a post-celebration hangover. While Boothroyd was signing Danny Shittu and Damien Francis, Jose Mourinho was buying Michael Ballack and Andrei Shevchenko. Was that not a mite dispiriting?
"I think it's funny," he says. "I have to see the funny side, I have to. It's ridiculous, isn't it, playing a team that might have a back four worth £100m. But I think it's superb that this little David can play this Goliath and have a chance of winning. I relish going into every game as underdogs, but as time goes on we'll change that. At the minute we go after the same players as Birmingham, West Brom, Leeds, that's where we're at. But if we can consolidate as a Premiership club then with the right systems, the right processes, there's no reason why we can't do what Norwich, Charlton and Bolton have done over the years and get into Europe.
"Next year, we can maybe go after a £5m player, and the year after that maybe a £10m or £12m player. At the minute it's £3m tops, and we can't have too many of them, either. So it would be nice to have £100m to spend but you've still got to be able to use it. It's still a fantastic achievement by Jose Mourinho to get all those players and turn them into a winning force. Others have tried and failed."
Whether or not Boothroyd manages to turn his lesser lights into a winning Premiership force, his achievement in getting them there has marked him out as a young man destined for great things. And he is refreshingly unequivocal about what he considers the greatest thing of all.
"I want to get to the very top, and for me, managing at international level in the World Cup, nothing could be bigger than that. Managing England in the World Cup and winning it, that's what I aspire to."
He must have looked on as gloomily as the rest of us, I venture, as England were outplayed by Croatia. "Well, I think Steve McClaren is the right choice, for sure. He's proved he's his own man with what he's done with David Beckham, whether you agree or not, and he has the courage to change tactics. Again, that was maybe not right, but if you're your own man and you've got courage, there are some pretty good pluses to start with. We should give him a fair crack at it."
Boothroyd takes a sip of decaffeinated latte. He's saving the muffin for later. I suggest to him that English football has deeper problems than the state of the national team. He tells me he watched the Panorama programme alleging corruption in the game and found it troubling, not so much because of what it did say, as what it didn't.
"I thought it was mostly hot air. Where's the evidence? If people have got evidence, then let's get it all out in the open. If they haven't, then shut up. They're discrediting people who've worked very hard to get where they are, and they're discrediting the game."
Where does he stand on agents? Their testicles, is the answer I'm hoping for, but he does not oblige. "If my players needed to go through a third party to speak to me, then I would feel as if I'd failed," he says.
Boothroyd's path to management began when he was still a teenager. A contemporary was forced out of the game by injury, and he decided then that he would get his coaching qualifications. It was a prescient decision: injury ended his career too, at 26, and he resolved to be a better coach than he had been a player.
"At 15, 16, you think you're going to be captain of England. But I realised it wasn't going to happen for me on a windy November night in Darlington, coming to my peak at the age of 23 but still playing for Mansfield Town. Technically, I was not good enough; tactically, I didn't know enough. But I'd run all day, I was a real team player, I enjoyed the camaraderie. Andy King was the manager and we had a great time. I was social secretary, taking a pound a week for the Lottery when that first started up.
"I played for Mansfield, Peterborough, Bristol Rovers, Heart of Midlothian and Huddersfield, and I always coached the schoolboy teams wherever I played. Barry Fry at Peterborough gave me my first real opportunity. I took the Under-17s, and before I knew it I was in charge of getting the food, the sponsorship. I was being a social worker, the lot. I moved up and took the Under-19s, then the reserves."
He later coached at Leeds, West Bromwich and Norwich, making an impression everywhere, yet his appointment by Watford 18 months ago surprised everyone in football, himself included. Much bigger names were considered by a club which, after all, had recently been managed by Gianluca Vialli. But Boothroyd turned up at his interview with charts, graphs, and gave a characteristically dynamic account of himself. In the words of one who was there, "he blew the board away".
Stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf would have been proud of him.Reuse content