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Doing the Rounds

17 September 2012

Russell Kempson goes to Northampton for Round 2

Northampton Town manager Aidy Boothroyd sits at a table in a deserted restaurant next to the kitchen at Sixfields Stadium. He tucks into his lunch - swordfish, rice and salad - and talks. And talks. And talks. It is what Boothroyd, as a player, manager, television pundit, close friend, husband and father, does best. And probably always will.

At Northampton, the npower League 2 club, he feels comfortable. He is thoughtful, jovial and witty. As ever. He may have tasted the high life with Watford, winning promotion to the top flight and reaching an FA Cup semi-final, yet he has retained a refreshingly bubbly spirit on a roller-coaster ride via Colchester United and Coventry City, to Sixfields.

When Boothroyd first looked down from the hill - on which is housed the food-and-film delights of KFC, TGI Friday's and Cineworld - above the stadium, he knew it was for him. Not even the club's stark welcoming sign which reads, "Home of the Cobblers" could put him off. It is, after all, not a self-mocking summary of their football, just their long-established nickname.

Mind you, at the time when Boothroyd gazed down from on high, in November last year, Northampton were three points off the bottom of League 2 and staring into the non-league abyss. From Boxing Day to March they occupied 24th place. Oblivion beckoned - cobblers, indeed. Yet a stirring late revival secured them safety with two matches to spare.

Now, hope springs eternal. "Northampton is absolutely perfect for me," 41-year-old Boothroyd, in between mouthfuls of succulent swordfish, says. 
"You walk to the top of the hill and you see the stadium and you think 'OK, it's not Barcelona, it's not Real Madrid', but it has the potential to be so much better than what it is.

"Sure, the expectation levels weren't particularly high initially, because of where the club was. But I'm very happy here, I'm glad I came. I really do get the feeling that we are at the beginning of something. I've got a real energy and buzz again. And I think we can do well this season, I really do."

It is two days before Northampton's Capital One Cup Second Round tie at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers, the recent Premier League club now settling in the npower Championship. And Wolves had won 4-0 at the same venue and same stage of the competition last season. Yet Aidy and co have already despatched Cardiff City, last season's runners-up, in the First Round. Northampton were buoyant, not least because of the £100,000 windfall, including television revenue, that was about to come their way.

"For us, that's massive," Boothroyd says. 

"100k? That's a player paid for. When, as a manager, you can have more or less everything you want, like when I was at Watford, when you go down the pyramid to a club like this, you really appreciate every little thing. Which before, you'd taken for granted. Some things always remain the same - that feel-good factor, maybe now that Olympic factor. We're getting that here now, a momentum that you can really feel."

You can, a quiet efficiency surrounding Sixfields 48 hours before the big game. A woman of a certain age enquires as to whether you have to pay for the car park on the hill. She has to attend a speed awareness course in the West Stand, organised by the local police, and to have to fork out a substantial amount for that privilege and, then, also incur a parking fine might be too much to bear.

Carrs Bar - named after Graham Carr, the former Town player and manager - is shut but the club shop is doing brisk business, selling tickets for the Wolves match, £10.99 NTFC slippers and £9.99 cushions and 'It's (Still) All Cobblers To Me!', a photographic review of the seasons from 1999 to 2009.

Stickers proclaiming "The Football League Family Excellence Award 2012" proudly adorn the windows, as they do all around the stadium, and I am taken by a Sixfields Travel Club poster offering a weekend break in Weston-super-Mare in March next year for £146. The free bar, from 6pm-10pm both nights, seems especially appealing.

Paul Knowles and Jason Hawthorn, the groundsmen, lovingly tend to the pitch - a lush surface that has clearly flourished over the summer and needs to be ready for a glut of early-season fixtures - and injured players work out in the newly-refurbished weights room and gym under the East Stand, next to the Rugby and Northampton Athletic Club running track. The budding Olympians, preparing for Rio 2016 perhaps, train on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays.

"Two happy customers," Boothroyd remarks to Paul, the chef, as the boss takes the empty plates back to the kitchen. No waiters or waitresses here. To be fair, the swordfish had just melted on to the fork - utterly delicious. 
Aidy returns with a couple of cappuccinos and, again, talks for England. About Andy King, his assistant, Tim Flowers, the goalkeeping coach, Stuart Barker, the physio, and Craig Smith, the recently appointed head of sports science.

Allied with David Cardoza, the generous and visionary chairman, the combined effort off the field is huge.

“Everyone works as a team, we gel very well," Boothroyd says. "Tim is a fantastic goalkeeping coach, real cutting edge, but he's like a first-team coach as well. He's got a great sense of humour and the sort of person you need in a club if things aren't going too well.

"Andy knows players inside out, all their tricks and scams, and he also knows what it's like to be a manager, which is very important. Stuart's been here 11 years and probably seen more bad than good. He's invaluable. And Craig has taken us to a new level. We're able to screen all the players so, rather than rehabilitation, we have prehabilitation. We're very proactive now."

Lunch over, Boothroyd leads the way to a small, cluttered second-floor Portakabin in the corner of the West and South stands. It is his nerve centre in which tactics are plotted, injury updates provided and potential signings identified. From 8.30 every morning. 

"It's so that everyone knows what everyone else is doing," Aidy explains. "Sometimes it takes 15 minutes, sometimes an hour. It depends on how much needs doing."

Phones ring, people stroll in and out. A bottle of South African red wine - 'Cobblers Hill 2007', a present from a fan - sits on Boothroyd's desk. Nathan, his 12-year-old son, sits in his chair. 

"He's been coming in, cleaning the boots, mopping the floor," says dad.

"He comes to training, picks the balls up, gets the cones in. He's terrific, he absolutely loves it. But he now tells me I have to pay him. Which, of course, I do."

Assistant King, 57, the former Everton midfielder and Swindon Town manager, survived a heart attack three years ago but remains upbeat, personally and professionally. 

"This Cup is a nice sideshow," he says, "but the reality here is to win the league or get promotion. The manager is very ambitious and so am I. 

“I haven't come here to have a holiday. It's about enjoyment but you want to enjoy it with success. I like winning at golf, at anything. There's plenty of life in the old dog yet."

Boothroyd, attending to his admin, has been sent a Watford shirt to sign. He lets out a whoop. 

"Hey, look I'm still getting them," he says. "They're still coming through, the mighty Hornets." Flowers ignores him. The former Southampton, Blackburn Rovers and England custodian is in an even smaller office next door and is closely studying his laptop and notebook.

Although primarily the goalkeeping coach, Flowers, 45, mucks in whenever and wherever - coaching the first team, scouting, watching games, whatever is needed. "It's not like I'm a goalie coach, I do the goalies and I go home," he says. "I don't. We're always out and about looking at players. We divi it all up, you have to. I also write match reports, not a problem.

"Aidy has had to turn things round here pretty quickly. We got out of trouble late last season, we were right in it, and the transformation has continued over the summer. The squad has been trimmed [from a bloated 32 players to a manageable 19], others have come in and we've had a decent start. I've been here a while and the relationships in this room are massive. If you've got a happy staff, you've got a cohesive staff."

At last the game, on Thursday, arrives. The frantic build-up, the hype, is over. Could Wolves be added to the impressive list of Northampton's League Cup scalps over the years - Cardiff, Ipswich Town, Reading, Brighton and Hove Albion and Liverpool? 

More often than not, Town are recognised only for their remarkable record in the 1960s, probably never to be surpassed, of rising from the League's basement tier to the first division, and back down again, in just nine years. Now that is a roller-coaster of emotions.

The large fleet of television trucks and vans, including a state-of-the-art mobile diner to feed the hard-working troops, has taken up most of the North Stand car park. When Sky Sports are in town, beaming the action to the nation, sacrifices have to be made. Andy Hinchcliffe, the ever-amiable and knowledgeable match analyst, has already compiled his pre-match stats - he is obsessive to the last detail - and he chats with Rob Hawthorne, his commentator, in the home dug-out.

For the 7.45 kick off, Hinchcliffe, the former Manchester City, Everton and England defender, had arrived at Sixfields at 3.15pm. "I know, I know," he sighs. "It's a standing joke with the lads. I'm just dead scared of getting stuck in traffic. I left my home in Manchester at 1.30, which is ridiculously early, but I'd rather be early at a game than late. Four hours before the start? That's fine by me.

"And it's amazing how time flies. I wandered around, spoke with Rob and the cameramen, had a bite to eat on the food bus, a walk around the ground, a chat with Aidy Boothroyd about his line-up, just getting a feel for the place. It's my first time here. The pitch is fantastic."

The club shop is busy, I decide to pass on a 'Frank's Original New York Streetdog' stomach-filler in the West Stand and ascend to the lofty press seats, which afford a picturesque distant view towards Franklin's Gardens - the home of Northampton Saints, a frequently used training base for Boothroyd's boys - and Northamptonshire CCC. Northampton is the only town in England that features first-class football, rugby union and cricket. The rest that boast such a spicy triumvirate are all cities.

Home and away fans mingle without rancour in Carrs Bar, a cosy establishment. It is pleasant to behold, a throwback to the good old days before tribal intolerance occasionally took hold. John Parrott and Horace Evans, his uncle, both life-long Northampton die hards, take stock outside.

"I've been supporting them since 1930," Horace, 87, says. "I've seen good times, bad times, good managers, bad managers, good players, bad players. 

“Boothroyd? Not bad. I think the bloke's got the right set-up here. Had we gone into the Conference last season, that would have been the finish for me. It's so difficult to get out of. Look at Luton."

Parrott, a 48-year-old estate agent, concurs. "Horace first brought me down here in 1972," he says. "We could have gone out of the League last season and, staying up, it was just a relief really. No great euphoria. 

“It's been a better start this season, we haven't lost yet, we're still in the Cup and, at about 10 o'clock, we'll see where we are."

At about 10 o'clock, Northampton had lost and were out of the Cup, defeated 3-1 by a Wolves side blessed with a touch of good fortune in front of their 671 travelling fans. A smart-suited Boothroyd had defiantly stalked his technical area, drinking copiously from water bottles and constantly barking instructions, but to no avail. I still couldn't get my head around the urgent chants of the home fans; 'come on, Cobblers'. It just sounds so derogatory.

Boothroyd goes through his post-match press briefings. "If we can keep growing as a team, that's fine," Aidy says. "The performance was good, the result disappointing." 

The next morning, the players will enter a cryotherapy chamber - like a huge ice box, which speeds up their recovery process - at another of the club's training venues, Moulton College, before the long haul to face Plymouth Argyle at Home Park on the Saturday.

Boothroyd cannot escape it. For him, Sixfields is but a step back to the big-time. And Northampton perhaps accept the inevitable. "I'm now in a position where I'm not extremely experienced but I'm experienced," he says. "I'm not naive and I'm not a rookie. I've got that energy, willingness and motivation and I've got a bit of nous now. I'm more streetwise, without a doubt.

"It's about longevity, about proving you can do the job, proving that you're not only driven but also good to work with. That's what we're all striving for. And, of course, you need that little bit of luck. Right place, right time. You can go from golden boy to 'who?' in a very short space of time. That's football. It's not about just reinventing yourself, I just want to get back to the top, like all players and managers and chairmen. We all want to be the best we can be."

Total Cobblers? Yes, Boothroyd is fully committed to Northampton and the club to him. For the moment, they are thoroughly enjoying each other's company.

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