Long Reads

Jay Bothroyd – The enigmatic striker who so often fell short

Image: The Scotsman

On an Autumn night in London, Jay Bothroyd made his international debut for England, coming on as a substitute in a friendly against France. At the time he was 28-years-old, and playing for Cardiff City in the Championship. It was his seventh club in an iterant career spanning 11 years. Some fans thought the call had come too early, others thought it was too late. A number of others thought it should never have come at all. As well as being his debut, it was also his one and only cap for the national team, so was the latter of those opinions correct?

A player who has delighted and confounded over his career, although perhaps not in equal measure, there’s surely little doubt that here was a footballer with potential. He had pace, power and natural talent. There was however something that consistently seemed to prevent him from delivering on that potential. Currently, in his 38th year, and still playing professionally, it’s difficult to assert that a career encompassing almost two decades is anything remotely akin to being a failure, but to many, perhaps it has been a failure to deliver on what might have been.

A product of Islington North London, unsurprisingly, Bothroyd began his career with the Arsenal Academy squad, but blotted his copybook in an altercation with youth coach Don Howe, after being substituted in the Youth Cup Final. It brought an end to his time with the Gunners as he was moved out to Coventry City. Beginning a career that would take him not only across England and Wales but also to Italy, Thailand and Japan.

The reportedly £1 million fee that the Sky Blues laid out for the forward hardly looked like a sound investment when he left the club in 2003. After three years with Coventry, he had netted a mere 17 goals in more than 80 appearances, many of them coming after the club were compelled to sell off some of their leading players to ease debts. With his contract expired, Bothroyd then took the track that is becoming more of an established route for younger domestic talent looking for first-team football. He moved to the continent, signing a deal with Serie A club, Perugia.

Somewhat echoing his return with Coventry, despite playing regularly for I Grifoni, appearing 39 times in the term, his return of seven goals, only four of which were in the league, left him bereft of the ultimate currency of a striker, goals. Perugia were relegated and Bothroyd headed back to England, joining Blackburn Rovers on loan for the 2004-05 season. It brought only a single goal though, and with Perugia’s financial problems mounting and Bothroyd’s value to the club being debatable at best, he was released.

Perhaps surprisingly to some, given the lacklustre goal return of the previous few seasons, he was signed by Premier League club Charlton Athletic. Being a free agent, and still in so many pundits’ eyes, a player with vast reservoirs of untapped talent, the club clearly thought it was worth a gamble. The end of the season brought the realisation that the wager had failed. Bothroyd was again released. Reports suggest an unsuccessful trial at Crystal Palace, but when he resurfaced for the new season, it wasn’t in London, but the West Midlands, becoming Mick McCarthy’s first signing for Championship club Wolverhampton Wanderers.

Fans in gold and black would debate long and hard about Bothroyd and his time at Molineux. The cold facts and figures do little to impress. Thirteen goals in 60 outings for the club is hardly the sort to raise fans’ pulses, but there was dynamism about his early play there that suggested there was much more to come. Sadly, for all concerned, it didn’t materialise after he netted nine goals in 33 league games in his first season. The club brought in other strikers, and Bothroyd’s chances to turn things around were greatly diminished. A mere four goals in 25 games during the second season saw him shipped out to Stoke City on a short-term loan, but he failed to find the net for The Potteries.

Another club seemed the obvious next move, and in August 2008 Cardiff City took a similar gamble to Charlton’s a few seasons earlier, signing the forward on a three-year contract for a fee of £350,000. Whereas the Addicks missed out, however, Cardiff collected on their bet as the striker found a home in the valleys. Forty-five goals in 133 appearances represented the best returns of his career to date. Some explosive performances for the Bluebirds enriched his reputation, leading to an England call up, despite an annoying run of injuries interrupting the flow of his game. His play was a major factor in getting the club to the Championship play-off final in 2010, but an early injury forced him from the field and Cardiff fell at the final hurdle.  Despite the following season being his most prolific to date, with 20 goals in just 41 games, it would be his last with the club. After again falling at the play-offs, the parties could not agree on a new deal, and Bothroyd moved instead to newly-promoted Premier League side QPR.

Should he have taken the deal that Cardiff had offered? He had enjoyed the best period of his career in Wales, but perhaps the ambition and a desire to play again in the Premier League took priority. Two seasons, and just five goals later, the answer may have seemed a little clearer, but it was too late. A short period on loan at Sheffield Wednesday followed before Jay Bothroyd left the British football scene for the second, and surely final, time, joining Thai Premier League club, Muangthong United for 2014.

Two seasons followed in Japan’s J League with Júbilo Iwata. Initially, in the league’s second-tier, Bothroyd’s 20 goals drove the club to automatic promotion, albeit by the slenderest of margins – a three-goal advantage in goal difference ahead of Avispa Fukuoka. The following term, another 15 goals saw the club secured in the top tier and earned a move to present club, Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo.

Judging the worth of a career in the abstract is inevitably wracked with folly. Was the career of Jay Bothroyd a success? It’s been long and, by the measure of so many other professional players, on the whole, successful. Are, however, such things acceptable as criteria when judging at the highest level? Talent and ability are gifts given to so few, and when one falls short, there will always be laments as to what might have been. The measure of such opinions may well weigh the career of Jay Bothroyd as an enigmatic striker who so often fell short.