In May 2008, Bob Booker was taking a break from football on holiday in Menorca. He was out of the game and his football career was uncertain. It was only to his avail when he received an unexpected phone call from an old friend: Micky Adams. The former Brighton manager had a surprise for him.
A Brighton reunion was on the horizon and that meant Booker’s casting was essential. Booker had enjoyed six roller-coaster seasons between 2000 and 2006 and now he had the opportunity to return. He did not hesitate to agree to the offer. Booker took the next flight back, left the dazzling Balearic island and headed home.
For him, home was the Withdean Stadium. Brighton chairman Dick Knight originally sold Booker on the new stadium the club was building when he first arrived. Nevertheless, delay after delay and the unlikelihood Booker would be there to see the Amex Stadium, Brighton’s temporary rental became an ever-lasting love for their former assistant manager. “It was a bit of a dump, but it was our dump,” he told The Football Pink. “No one was going to take that off us”.
It was small, the athletics track surrounding the pitch made the view unbearable to many fans and some believed it was the worst stadium in the Football League. Even when he speaks to people at Brighton today, they show their apprehension towards the Withdean. Though Booker is different. He loved the challenges the Withdean presented.
“The Withdean was a lovely tight, homely community,” he said. “We didn’t have a lot of staff and we had a standard 6,000 fans. They were passionate. They sat in the rain. We were together in it: friends, staff and directors. We were all together. Nothing was going to stop us doing what we were trying to achieve.”
“Withdean meant everything to me because it was a massive part of my life. From 2000 to when I left, that was the only coaching role I had at that level. For me, Withdean will always be very high up in my favourite times in football.”
One of those moments was what Booker experienced that season when he received Adams’ phone call. However, it did not seem like it at first. Adams departed after only nine months back and Brighton lingering towards the bottom of League One. “His heart and my heart told us we wanted to come back to the football club because we had so much success,” he said pointedly.
“That doesn’t mean it was going to be the same when we were first there. It was a different group of players and the club had moved on. Those things came into play and it didn’t work out. In hindsight, we probably shouldn’t have come back but I couldn’t say I didn’t want the job.”
Adams later admitted he regretted going back to Brighton, but Booker never went that far. His Withdean home meant too much to him. The Brighton assistant stayed on for the season and worked with Russell Slade to produce the 09’ Great Escape.
Brighton recorded four wins from six matches. The final hurdle was a final day showdown against relegation rivals Stockport at the Withdean. Albion needed a win to survive. Nicky Forster came off the bench and completed the unlikely escape. More than ten years on, Slade’s old number two is still in admiration of how they accomplished it.
“It was his personality that he put on the team. We connected very quickly as a working two. He put things into shape and got the players believing. They won a couple of games and started to enjoy his presence. He had a nice demeanour. He was a bubbly character.”
“The crowd liked him when he ran up and down the line, throwing his hat off. You could see the passion and feel it when you are onto a winning run. It started and rolled on from there. Once players begin to win and they get their confidence up, winning becomes a habit as much as losing.”
“You get a player who wins three or four games and starts doing it week-in week-out, you don’t have to do a lot of coaching. They are doing it without you telling them. It flows. If you have a setback along the way, you tweak it and go again.”
Brighton’s Great Escape and his partnership with Slade marked the final great moment Booker experienced in the dugout at the Withdean Stadium. He left his role in the summer and moved on, though not very far. Today he merges driving instructing with a hospitality role at the Amex.
Booker’s post-playing career has been dominated by Albion. His first role was as Brentford youth coach when his continuous knee injuries forced him to retire in 1993. Former Brighton chairman Dick Knight and Micky Adams gave Booker a chance and he seized it, despite the distracting off-the-field issues.
The picture on the south coast was completely different to the multimillion standard facilities Booker sees today. Albion didn’t have a training ground or a big squad, they couldn’t attract players on loan and Booker sometimes wasn’t paid. These issues branched off from the symbolic Withdean issue.
Booker recognised that players probably didn’t want to play there and there was little point in selling a new stadium to a player when it was uncertain for when it would be finished. Instead, Booker, with Adams, focused on changing the perception of the Withdean. It meant transforming the stadium’s presumed weaknesses, into their strengths.
“We were down the bottom of the ladder. That helped us. Adams first [in 2000] put a squad together with the likes of Richard Carpenter, Danny Cullip, Charlie Oatway, Bobby Zamora, Michael Kuipers, Nathan Jones, Gary Hart and Kerry Mayo. We were proud of that.”
“We had a strong group of players who did what we were asking them to do. They were very tight as a team. They played hard. They trained hard. They partied hard. It was a special group.”
“That reminded me of when I was at Sheffield United with Vinnie Jones, Brian Deane and Dave Bassett as manager. We made it our stadium.”
“People didn’t like coming down there to play against us. It was an advantage. We used to roll teams over. It was a great time. It was a great bunch of players to work with. A good crowd.”
Adams’ and Booker produced a formula which worked perfectly in the conditions that were presented. They saw team bonding days just as important as the work on the training pitch.
“The players would go out, have a drink and socialise. There was a lot of banter. It was a tough dressing room to be in. If you didn’t have the right mentality to cope with it then you wouldn’t last. It was ruthless. That is what made it special.”
“Sometimes you didn’t need to do a team talk at half-time because they would sort it out themselves. They would square-up to one another and point the finger. Players told each other what they are not doing or praise them if they are. We went off the back of that and set the scene.”
His partnership with Adams that year and then Peter Taylor the following season resulted in back-to-back promotions from the Third Division to the First Division. It was also the first time Brighton had won a trophy in 36 years.
“It was absolutely massive. No one gave us a chance to win matches with the facilities and players we had. It showed you the team’s strength. Dick Knight kept the club going in difficult circumstances. It was a massive achievement.”
The next two managers, Martin Hinshelwood and Steve Coppell could not stop the club from relegation in 2003. However, expectations were defied again when Brighton was promoted through the playoffs – this time under Mark McGee.
“Then to get to the Millennium final…. You had 62,000 people there and 40,000 were Brighton supporters. We could only get 6,000 at Withdean. It showed you the backbone of the club.”
“The Amex is now sold out every week with 30,000. The potential was always there, but we had to get up the ladder so we could expose the number of fans we have and move into a new stadium.”
These successes may not have happened without Booker facing his personal challenge head-on. The managerial revolving door meant the assistant manager was often made caretaker manager, a position he did not aspire to be. He also had to continuously adapt and change his methods.
While Dick Knight guaranteed Booker would remain as assistant manager, the former Brentford midfielder was always aware of the consequences.
“I had to prove myself manager by manager that I could work with them and they could work with me. If they couldn’t work with me, then I would have been on my way.”
“It was a test every time. I was under scrutiny. The manager was looking at how I was working, how I produced, how I coached, how I man-managed and what he wanted done. It is so it is done at the right time and the right place. From that perspective, it was a difficult job. It was one I thrived on. It was great I kept my job, but it was daunting producing for a new manager each time.”
“I never wanted to be a manager. When I was left in charge of a couple of games, it was a difficult role. As an assistant, the players are looking at you as that. For a few games, you then must become the boss. The boss has more authority than the assistant if he wants to do things.”
“Because I was going to go back to the assistant manager role when a manager came in, I didn’t want to lose the players’ trust and respect. You have to make them believe in what you are asking them to do and it is the right philosophy. If you don’t want to believe it is working, they won’t do it.”
“I had to be careful. I wanted to get the club a couple of good results before the manager came in. I wanted to be the assistant manager. I didn’t want that to go on for too long. I might have lost the players. If you lose them, you will lose games.”
In Booker’s football career, he had always accepted the task that was presented in front of him. Before he was a footballer, Booker was just working as upholstery in a furniture factory and playing local football for Bedmond.
In 1978, his manager, Dave Bromley, secured a Brentford trial for him, coincidentally, against Brighton. He scored a brace and signed a professional contract two weeks later. Brentford “snowballed” Booker with contracts for a decade. Injuries began to pile up and his career looked in doubt. A planned £10,000 investment into a window cleaning business with his friend was lined-up before another challenge appeared.
Sheffield United manager Dave Bassett wanted Booker and he was signed within a week. The fresh test was a major turning point for the versatile midfielder. He was given the captaincy and led his team to back-to-back promotions. Bassett has had a lasting impact on his former captain.
“Dave Bassett was my saving grace. He took me to the next level. We got into the First Division and the rest is history. I ended up having cult hero status. I had a box and a brick in the wall named after me. It is fairy-tale stuff. It was all down to Dave Bassett for getting me up there and believing in me at the age of 31-32.”
“You knew what you got with Dave. He could absolutely slaughter you in the dressing room…. But you would still run through a brick wall for him. His man-management skills were brilliant. You knew he was the boss, but you knew he was your mate and you trust him.”
“I would have done anything for that manager. I did as much as I could. I repaid him for him getting me into that football club. It worked both ways. He was great to work with. I idolised him. He was my mentor and I cannot thank him enough for what he did for me.”
His final repayment was made in April 1991. Booker’s team had gone without a win up until the 22nd December and were comfortably bottom. However, a run of 10 victories in 16 matches meant Sheffield could clinch a position in the new Premier League with a win against Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road. The game was deadlocked at 1-1 when Booker scored the winning goal.
“That was one of my top moments in my career. We needed to win with three games to go. My family were sitting above the scoreboard. To a lot of Blade fans, I am remembered for that. I won’t forget that. That was a special moment.”
“I still have clips of it on my phone that I watch. It still pulls the hairs on my back up my neck. Everyone had written us off because we were bottom of the league at Christmas. Another unbelievable story and an unbelievable job by Dave Bassett and Geoff Taylor.”
Bassett convinced Booker to return to Brentford after the season. It was one last contract before his knees gave way. His playing and coaching career engraved Booker’s name into three clubs’ history.
Project Restart allowed him to revisit each of those teams. Brentford were fighting for Premier League status, Sheffield United were looking to end an incredible season on a high note and Brighton had the opportunity to secure their top division position and build for a promising 2020/21 season. As it turned out, they all had their successes and misfortunes.
The greatest obstacles these clubs will face go far beyond what happens on the pitch. The Coronavirus pandemic will have irreparable consequences on the sport. It is another challenge Booker will have to encounter. Football’s predicament fills him with the most distress, but he hopes the sporting community is united.
“It is worrying when you are listening to TalkSport and you are hearing things like a £108 million deal and £70,000-a-week for certain players. I find it disturbing in the present market with what is going on.”
“You have to start thinking further down the ladder. The small clubs are going to struggle as we have seen already. I fear for a lot of them because they don’t have that revenue. The gate money, the programme sells and hospitality.”
“This even relates to the bigger clubs and Brighton. The amount of hospitality that goes on in a Premier League football club now is massive. It is all about corporate and selling tickets.”
“It will get worse for the smaller clubs because they don’t have such a big revenue of people coming through the turnstiles. It is very worrying, especially for the lower league and non-league. There are going to be clubs going out of the football league and enter administration.”
“There is a lot of history that has been there for hundreds of years. To find ourselves in the position we are now, it is going to be very difficult. Whatever we can all do – including the government, the Premier League and the Football League – to help to keep these clubs going, is going to be a massive task.”