The Van Basten of Hartlepool
Adam Boyd and the glory of a talent that flickers without ever catching light
During the 2004-05 season, Adam Boyd mesmerised League One defences so thoroughly you’d think he had only to click his fingers to make them strip naked and quack like ducks. As the striker’s goal tally mounted, his Hartlepool United teammates started to call him Dennis Bergkamp.
Up in the seats of the Mill House Paddock, my mate Ed cackled with delight as Boyd sashayed past defenders, hips wiggling like some old-school gigolo. “Boydy,”he laughed madly, as the forward smacked a volley into the stanchion of goal, “Boydy is what Van Basten would be like, if he’d been a Poolie.”
Like many English people, Ed sees the Dutch as cultured, sophisticated and restrained. These are not traits always associated with the North-East of England. And even within the North-East, Hartlepool is viewed as a place apart. You know your town is rough when people from Middlesbrough look down their noses at it, and we do.
Adam Boyd was born and raised in Hartlepool. He watched Pools from the terraces. When – or so we imagined – Marco van Basten was visiting art galleries, eating steamed greens and discussing the boundaries of freedom, Boydy was downing pints and going to grab-a-granny nights in clubs with two-for-one offers on blue Bacardi Breezers and fights in the car park.
Boyd made his Hartlepool debut as a teenager, coming off the bench to score against Shrewsbury. He was hailed as a prodigy, then struggled to make an impact – fifteen goals in four seasons, a loan spell at Boston United that added little to his value and several inches to his waistband.
The Pools boss Neale Cooper told the local press that Boyd was overly fond of pies. The Poolies laughed and said that, oh aye, sometimes on Saturday nights Boydy had so many pies he could barely stand up from the weight of all the gravy. It was not the sort of thing the Milanese said of Marco.
Adam Boyd was six foot two, with long, black hair, a sunbed tan and a twinkle in his eye. I didn’t think he was a League One Bergkamp or an East Durham Van Basten, I knew he was the Frank Worthington of the 21st century – a view that was re-enforced when the tabloids reported the Pools forward fled semi-naked across a “posh estate” after the ex-boyfriend of the woman he was in bed with turned up drunk from a stag night and attacked him.
I’d seen Worthington play for Huddersfield Town when I was eight – a night match at Ayresome Park, the Terriers on their way to claiming the Division Two title. In the Bob End behind the goal, my grandfather and his coevals, incensed by all modernity, railed against the visitors’ number nine: “Get your bloody haircut, you big pansy, you look like a ruddy girl.” I did not hear them, nor did I care when Worthington tucked away the penalty that won the match and, smiling broadly, waved in our direction. I was wide-eyed, smitten. It was a rare encounter with charisma.
In the summer of 2004 Boyd shed nine pounds, linked up with Joel Porter, and started to find the net with regularity. Pools ascended. Word spread. Middlesbrough and Sunderland sent scouts to the Victoria Ground, Newcastle and Liverpool too. There was talk of a £1 million price tag. Boyd was 23. He had Worthington’s small-town lothario swagger, his flicks and tricks and his bravado. They shared something else too. Or rather they shared a lack of it: pace. In the 1970s that didn’t matter quite so much as it did in this millennium. There was little doubt in my mind that had Boyd been able to cover 10 yards even a split-second faster than a fully laden brewery dray, he’d become very famous indeed. In possession Boyd was elegant, devastating, but he ran as if his knees were welded, leaning backwards like a nervous child on a skateboard. The big clubs looked. They shook their heads.
Boyd was unlucky. He hit 29 goals in 2004-05. Pools made the play-offs but lost in the final in front of nearly 60,000. Boyd had offers but, “sucked in by the excitement” of Pools’ promotion push, determined to stay. Early the next season he injured a knee in a collision with the Yeovil keeper. The knee joint became infected, the blood poisoning so bad he nearly died. He missed five months. He lost confidence. A spark went out of him.
A £500,000 move to Luton Town, then in the Championship, ended with a single goal, relegation and release. He joined Leyton Orient, scored on his debut, and stayed for two listless seasons. He drifted back to Victoria Park where the occasional flash of brilliance served only to remind watchers of what had gone, and the impatient old men who fill the terraces of lower league grounds bellowing, “Show some passion, you lazy get,” at any player who does not literally bleed for the team, were driven to frothing fury by his languid grace.
Hartlepool released him without ceremony at the end of the 2011-12 season. I thought then of a Friday night seven years before. Ed and I drove through pouring rain from Tynedale to Victoria Park in his vintage camper van. Buffeted by the wind, we aquaplaned on the A19 and nearly died by Easington services. The game was against Sheffield Wednesday, a key moment in Pools’ promotion battle. We arrived 10 minutes before the start, hysterical from cold, terror and anticipation; dizzy from the sugar rush of all the Haribo Tangfastics we’d chewed.
The pitch was waterlogged. Great puddles lay across it, shimmering beneath the floodlights. The rain kept on falling, remorseless as if Hemingway himself had written it. Twenty-one footballers struggled to stay upright. The other one was Adam Boyd. He not only kept his footing, he waltzed across the sodden surface. He struck a hat-trick, each goal better than the last. For the third, Boyd collected a pass on the edge of the Owls’ penalty area, drifted to the right, stopped dead to send the pursuing Wednesday full-back splashing. He faked to shoot and watched another opponent slide past engulfed in spray. He looked up then, and seeing David Lucas marginally off his line, toe-ended a chip so delicate it ran down the back netting of the goal soundlessly, soft as a playboy’s fingers along a showgirl’s spine.
There was collective release of breath. The man beside us in the Mill House Paddock tilted back his head and bayed in incoherent joy, his Burberry baseball cap blown off by the force of it. The Poolies yelled and sang and smashed their fists against the corrugated iron at the back of the stand until it rocked your fillings loose.
I have watched the goal twice since on YouTube and never will again. To replay the video highlights of our lives over and over, each time another drop of the joy and surprise drained from them, is a besetting vice of our age. To see a thing like that unfold before your eyes is a thrill you never can recapture.
Adam Boyd is now 32 years old. He turns out sporadically in the Northern League and, though he appears unnaturally pale and just a little jowly, can still bring smiles with a volley, a back-heel, a drop-shouldered shimmy – a little bit of wonder in the fading winter light.