Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

Last Saturday, Portsmouth beat Manchester United 2-1. On Monday, Watford beat Portsmouth 4-2. On Tuesday, Manchester United hammered Roma 7-1 with a performance that reverberated through history.

Try to apply logic to that – never a great idea in football – and you would come to the conclusion that the present Watford are one of the greatest sides ever and that they head into Saturday afternoon’s FA Cup semi-final against United as firm favourites.

Their manager Adrian Boothroyd, though, is certainly not playing up their chances. “It would be a major shock beyond belief,” he said, “up there with a man landing on the moon.”

That’s another statement to which the application of logic is best avoided: after all, it wasn’t as though Nasa just packed Neil Armstrong in a box and fired him vaguely upwards. It was an achievement rather than a fluke, and those surely are the terms by which a possible Watford victory at Villa Park should be considered.

Boothroyd, after all, is nothing if not meticulous. Monday’s victory over Portsmouth will almost certainly mean nothing in terms of avoiding relegation, but it did show that Watford are still fighting despite propping up the Premiership.

Sunderland’s embarrassments last season and in 2003 show how easy it is for a side rooted at the bottom to lose heart and drift away, accumulating defeat after defeat until they become a laughing stock. Watford are certainly not that, and the FA Cup semi-final is due reward for Boothroyd’s relentless positivism.

This has not, generally, been a good season for those managers who have espoused the science of management. Although Bolton Wanderers’ Sam Allardyce has continued to prosper with his Bluetooth earpiece, Ian Dowie’s brief reign at Charlton Athletic was dismal, and Stuart Pearce seems to have spent most of 2007 being one game from the sack at Manchester City.

When Boothroyd galloped on to the pitch to punch the air in front of Watford’s travelling fans after a defeat at Bolton in September – celebrate the performance not the result, he explained – there were those who feared for his sanity, never mind his methods.

In retrospect, it was that defeat and a draw at Wigan a fortnight later that sealed Watford’s fate. In both they were the better side – albeit in circumstances of attrition – and the fact they won neither game summed up their most serious problem; a lack of ruthlessness in front of goal that was only exacerbated when Marlon King suffered a serious knee injury and Ashley Young was sold to Aston Villa.

The question then is whether you blame Boothroyd for not having better used his meagre resources to bolster his squad, or whether you praise him for having got into the Premiership in the first place. With some others – most notably Mick McCarthy at Sunderland – there has been a sense that the manager has ended up being sacked almost because he got the club promoted above its station.

Boothroyd, however, has managed to avoid the shoulder-shrugging helplessness that defined McCarthy’s final days and has somehow managed to instil the sense that, for all the defeats, he is still moving the club forwards.

When promotion was achieved last season, Graham Simpson, the Watford chairman, spoke of how impressed he had been by Boothroyd’s “ideas on training, diet, how he would develop the academy, how he would work with the scouting network”, and suggested European qualification was a possibility. That seemed implausible, but if they beat United on Saturday and Chelsea overcome Blackburn Rovers on Sunday, it will have been attained.

“A lot of teams would be down and out with the white flag up, but we aren’t,” Boothroyd said. “It’s going to be hellish at times, but you’ve always got a chance.”

■ Cristiano Ronaldo committed his long-term future to Manchester United by signing a five-year contract that will keep him at Old Trafford until 2012. The move should end speculation about a move to Spain after Real Madrid repeatedly aired their determination to sign him.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

Comments have not been enabled for this article.