Progress in Perugia: The story of Jay Bothroyd’s short but important Serie A spell

“He’s a phenomenon. When an attacker at age 21 is so strong and so prolific it means he is a great one.”

Luciano Gaucci wasn’t one for subtlety. Perugia’s chairman had broken a number of Serie A taboos during his inimitable tenure, bringing Hidestoshi Nakata to Serie A before scheming to sign USWNT superstar Mia Hamm. But it was the capture of former Arsenal academy product Jay Bothroyd in 2003 that, more than any of his colourful escapades, caught the attention of a stunned English media. “It was love at first sight,” the young striker admitted upon touching down in Umbria.

You can understand his elation. Bothroyd had endured a tortuous three year spell in Coventry, which had only come about after he’d thrown away his Arsenal career in a moment of youthful petulance. Incensed at being substituted during an Under-19 Cup Final against West Ham, he had thrown his shirt at coach Don Howe in disgust. Liam Brady, the head of Arsenal Youth Development, reacted with surgical pragmatism. “Although Jay Bothroyd is a highly promising young talent, we will not tolerate this behaviour,” he noted. “He is not wanted at this club anymore.”

One million pounds later, the cocky teenager had swapped Ashely Cole and Jermaine Pennant for Lee Carsley and Carlton Palmer. Bothroyd joined just in time to see his new club relegated, and with the Sky Blues enduring severe financial hardship, he was given a starting berth alongside the limited Lee Hughes.

Despite being Coventry’s top goalscorer that season, the striker was undercut by a nagging perception that he didn’t care enough. Gary McAllister regularly kept him on the bench, with both coach and fans reluctant to admire his undoubted talent. As the club scraped its way to survival in 20th place, a separation seemed inevitable.

Bothroyd’s performances had piqued the interest of Perugia manager and Fred Durst lookalike Serse Cosmi, with the Italan visiting the player in England to thrash out a potential move. Cosmi invited the 20-year-old to take part in a trial match that summer and, after just 90 minutes, he was convinced.  “He moves like a gazelle and looks like Adriano,” he fawned, before tying the forward down to a three-year contract. Signing on the dotted line, a straight-faced Bothroyd admitted: “It’s much better than Coventry here.”

The Englishman wasn’t the only left-field signing in Perugia that summer, with the capture of Al Saadi Gadaffi making news headlines throughout the world. Son of the Libyan autocrat Muammar, Saadi had banged in the goals in his country’s domestic league, yet few believed Gaucci’s claims that his transfer was based “on merit”. Rumours even suggested that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had greased the wheels, believing a deal would improve relations between the two countries.

Bothroyd and Gaddafi would strike up a firm friendship in Umbria. “Obviously he used to have parties and stuff and he would invite me to Cannes to watch the Grand Prix,” admitted the former Arsenal man, who even had his honeymoon paid for by his new acquaintance.

Their off-field friendship couldn’t translate on the pitch, however. Not even Diego Maradona and Ben Johnson, who had been employed as Gaddafi’s personal technical and fitness consultants for the season respectively, could help his performances. One substitute appearance and a failed drug test later, he was gone.

In the beginning at least, Bothroyd was having better luck. After scoring a hat-trick in a pre-season friendly, it was his two strikes which sealed the Intertoto Cup for his new club and thus automatic entry into the now-Europa League. A goal against Siena on his Serie A debut followed, but it would quickly prove to be a false dawn.

The year before, Il Grifoni had surprised everyone with a 10th-place finish in the league, the goals of Fabrizio Miccoli and the engine of Manuele Blasi helping them to summit just seven points behind Roma. However, with both players departing in the close-season, the odds of a repeat performance had decreased. Indeed, Perugia would have to wait until Matchday 22 for their first league win of the season: a 4-2 trouncing of Bologna doing little to stave off the threat of relegation.

By that point much of the lustre around Bothroyd’s transfer had already dissipated, with a meagre return of three league goals doing little to justify the hype. It had been a difficult adaptation. The homesick forward would accrue a £5,000 phone bill in his first month in Italy as he struggled to adjust to a new lifestyle, language and culture. The watertight Italian defences had, perhaps understandably, proven too much for a man who had scored 11 goals in England’s second tier the year before. Despite earning praise from Paolo Maldini, he looked a class below his counterparts.

Bothroyd’s last goal in Serie A would arrive on the final day of the season. Perugia entertained fellow bottom dwellers Ancona at the Renato Curi, with the first half a stunning exhibition of the home side’s attacking prowess. Too stunning, it would turn out, for the visitors’ goalkeeper Magnus Hedman, who would later suggest that his teammates may have thrown the result.

When Bothroyd popped up on 64 minutes to score the winner, it felt like vindication for Gaucci, who had accused the referees of attempting to undermine Perugia’s stay in the league all season. But the triumphalism would be short lived, with Fiorentina winning the subsequent relegation playoff. After six years in Seria A, Perugia were gone.

With the club adjusting to life in the second tier, the squad needed urgent rationalisation. Bothroyd was one of the first to go, dispatched on loan to Blackburn Rovers. One solitary goal in Lancashire was somehow enough to convince Charlton Athletic into a permanent transfer. He would never set foot in Italy again, but he remains circumspect about his time on the peninsula.

“I went to Italy and came back a more mature person,” he admitted to The Guardian in 2010. “I was more focussed on getting what I want from my career.” The admission was made before his first international cap for England. His form for new club Cardiff had been so good that Fabio Capello saw fit to give him a debut in a friendly game against France. Despite a second-half appearance as a substitute, however, he wouldn’t add to his solitary cap.

These days, Bothroyd can be found lurking around opposition boxes in the J League. His 14 goals helped promote Jubilo Iwata last year, before Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo poached the 35-year-old in the off-season. “I love scoring goals, but more than that I want to help the team win,” he admitted upon his transfer. He may have done neither in Italy, but at least he was brave enough to take the leap. And with the shirts of Gigi Buffon, Roberto Baggio and Andriy Shevchenko added to his collection, he’ll at least be able to look back on some beautiful memories.

Words by Christopher Weir: @chrisw45