The year is 2020, and Regan Booty is at a crossroads.
The Notts County midfielder has found himself in limbo in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic after suffering a second injury setback in a matter of months, this time ruling him out for six months as his team-mates prepare for the National League play-offs.
His contract at Meadow Lane will expire in the summer and cast him into the wilderness of free agency, while his injury prevents him from finding a new club.
“I was out injured for two-and-a-half months, then COVID was another three-month break, and then a week before going back in for the play-offs I did the same injury again – only this time it was worse,” he recalls.
“I was ready to be involved [in the play-offs], and then football just stopped – in 18 months I think I played eight games.”
The then-23-year-old fought his way back to full fitness that December, before joining National League North side Bradford (Park Avenue) during the infamous behind-closed-doors campaign.
His chance to prove himself had finally arrived – only for it to be taken away again only a month later when National League North and South clubs voted to void the season.
“I ended up having a conversation with my Dad where I was saying ‘what am I going to do?’”, he said.
“I knew I might have to look at getting a different job – which at one point was genuinely serious – because I hadn’t had any income for a year.
“I wasn’t contracted at Notts, just doing my rehab, and then Bradford was only a pay as you play kind of thing.
“It wasn’t a case of fully changing my career, but I was maybe going to have to do something for three or four months.
“You’re trying to find your way in the men’s game and build a reputation for yourself, then suddenly you’ve missed a year of football and what you had built is gone.”
Though serious conversations were had with his father, Martyn, the idea of a second source of income sharing focus with Booty’s footballing career never materialised.
The sport has played a pivotal role throughout the midfielder’s life, starting at just a few weeks old when he was first taken to watch Martyn ply his trade in the Football League.
His father made over 300 appearances in the professional game, mostly with Crewe Alexandra before Regan’s birth, before turning out for Reading, Southend United and Chesterfield.
“I don’t remember it obviously, but we were constantly going to football and moving around through football,” he said.
“We moved to Southend from Leicester because my dad was at Southend, then back to Leicester when he joined Chesterfield, then to Huddersfield because he was at Huddersfield.
“It was all our lives consisted of on the weekends – we’d be going to watch wherever my Dad was playing.”
It didn’t take long for Regan to catch the bug, joining Leicester City’s pre-academy as a youngster before Martyn took him along to Huddersfield Town after re-locating, who his son would spend the next 13 years with.
“My Dad knew some of the academy staff from working there and just said my son is going to come in,” said Booty.
“We were playing against teams like Manchester United, Liverpool and Leeds who were some of the best teams in the country – It was the best ever when you were going to Carrington on a Sunday to play Man United’s under-10s or whoever.
“It helped having my Dad who had played. I wouldn’t say he was on to me all the time, but I used to hate when he spoke to me after games.
“I’d sometimes hate the car journeys home knowing I had to talk about football for the whole journey – even now if I’m home for the weekend, all he wants to talk about is football!
“Sometimes I’m like, ‘Mum, tell him to leave it out and put the ball away for a bit’!
“I appreciate it more looking back because he actually knew what he was talking about, but when I was 10 or 11 years old I was thinking ‘Dad, just shut up!’
“It was just that young mindset, he was trying to help me and do the best for me, which I appreciate now.”
Booty’s talent – along with some words of wisdom from his Dad – saw him quickly rise through the ranks at Huddersfield Town.
He went on to captain The Terriers’ second-string side before being made a fully-fledged senior squad member in January 2017, moving into the first team’s dressing room while still turning out for the under 23s to maintain his fitness.
The midfielder was named on the bench for their FA Cup fifth round tie at home to Manchester City and the penultimate game of the Championship season at Birmingham City, before watching on as Huddersfield won the play-off final at Wembley Stadium exactly a month later.
He was all set to fight for a place in their squad for the 2017/18 Premier League season – or so it seemed.
“The worst thing that happened for me is when they got promoted to the Premier League,” he admitted.
“I was on the bench a few times that year but never ended up making my debut, but lads were turning round to me and saying they couldn’t believe I wasn’t involved or getting a chance.
“It was good to hear, but I understand it was hard because they were sat second or third in the Championship and pushing for promotion.
“They were kind of like my boyhood club because I’d been there for so long, but after they went up I was straight back with the 23s and they wouldn’t let me go on loan.
“I’d felt like I was close only to go back to square one again – I hated football for a year.
“It was a bit of a stale period in a sense. I was meant to go on loan in the summer [of 2017], then again in January, and I didn’t go out to Aldershot until the summer after.”
After a year in limbo, Booty enjoyed a full season of senior football in the National League with The Shots, playing over 40 times in all competitions.
His performances attracted attention from fellow fifth tier side Barnet, who offered Booty a two-and-a-half-year contract in January 2019.
“We spoke to Huddersfield and they had the option of another year on my contract and they told me they were going to give me my option year,” he said.
“They were rock bottom of the Premier League at the time and likely getting relegated, I’d been in and around it before in the Championship and now had a year of senior football behind me so you never know what could happen.
“I turned down that two-and-a-half-year deal with Barnet, and then around April-time I remember getting a phone call off my agent.
“They said they’d had meetings and that Huddersfield weren’t going to give me the option year anymore.
“From then on it was a bit of a nightmare situation.”
Booty had gone from being on the verge of securing 18 months of senior football and guaranteed income to having the rug pulled from under him.
The midfielder entered the wilderness of free agency, training with various clubs during pre-season in an effort to get back on track.
“I went to Bradford [City] for three weeks,” he added.
“I thought I’d done well and the lads were telling me they thought I’d sign, but they said they couldn’t guarantee me getting game time week in, week out.
“Then when I was training with Halifax I got a call from Neal Ardley, who was Notts’ manager at the time, asking what my situation was as they had a few injuries and I ended up going there three games into the season.”
He played over 20 times during the 2019/20 season, before the aforementioned double-injury and COVID-19 pandemic halted his progress.
His lack of football over the following 18 months meant he was seen as a risk to clubs, many of whom couldn’t afford anything less than a sure-fire thing after spending a season with no fans through the gates and little income.
It looks anything but in hindsight, but Maidstone United manager Hakan Hayrettin took that risk on Booty – and it paid off better than likely even the pair of them could have imagined.
He went on to become a key figure on and off the pitch for The Stones, making 32 league appearances as they won the 2021/22 National League South title while also coaching some of the club’s academy sides.
“The Maidstone gaffer took a risk on me and I’m thankful to him for that,” said Booty.
“We were expected to get into the play-offs – we were maybe predicted to be fifth or sixth.
“That was one of the best days I’ve ever had in football, especially based off how the two or three years before that had gone.
“It’s very rare to win a league in football, not many people get to achieve that in their career, even players who’ve played at the highest level.
“Experienced players at the club were saying to enjoy it, because it doesn’t happen often and you might take it for granted.”
Unfortunately, good times don’t last forever, and Maidstone’s re-introduction to the National League didn’t go as planned.
The club were relegated after ending the season 25 points adrift at the bottom of the division, though they had sat in 10th place after winning three and drawing one from their opening six fixtures.
A 4-1 defeat at Gateshead International Stadium in September 2022 – after which Maidstone would win just two more league games – still sticks in Booty’s memory.
“We came into it having actually started well,” he recalled.
“Gateshead hadn’t won yet and we were coming up thinking right, go up there and have another good performance.
“I just remember being in the car with my Mum and Dad who had come to the game, feeling as humiliated as I’ve ever felt on a football pitch.
“It was 4-1, but it genuinely could have been 10, and afterwards I had a conversation with a few of the boys asking how we’d gone so wrong.
“We’d come to Gateshead who had been promoted the same year as us, but they had a serious style to the way they played, and I couldn’t tell you how we played or what our philosophy was.
“That’s why it stuck out in my mind so much, the way Gateshead played, they just played us off the park.
“With it being an away game, it was one of my first chances to go home, but we got dragged in on the Monday.
“I was on the train back down on the Sunday night thinking ‘oh god, we’re in for a roasting tomorrow’, and then we ended up having a three-hour meeting.
“It’s easy when you’ve had success with the way you’re playing to think it’s just going to keep happening.
“We had success partly because we were a fitter team than everyone and pressed like mad, but I don’t think we adjusted to the fact that some teams were going to be fitter and better than us.
“We just thought things would flow as they had done the year before, but obviously they didn’t.”
Once the curtain closed on a season Maidstone wished to forget, Booty had a decision to make with a contract offer to stay with the club for the 2023/24 season sat in front of him.
He ultimately made the difficult decision to leave, severing a strong bond with a club with whom he had become deeply entwined.
“It wasn’t easy – I’d built a real connection with the people there,” he said.
“When I was coaching, the kids would be Maidstone fans and would ask what I was doing next year, but I just couldn’t say anything.
“I had to be selfish for once in my career and do what was best for me – it was a purely footballing decision.
“I loved the coaching side of things and all of that, but at my age I wanted to go somewhere and dedicate everything I can to playing.
“Some days I was out at eight in the morning and wouldn’t come back until 10 or 11pm because I’d have training, then coaching, and then my under-18s would have a game.
“With the age I’m at, I believe I can kick on again, and at the minute I think I made the right decision.”
Potential suitors had put the feelers out starting from January, but nothing was done from Booty’s side until his departure from Maidstone was made official on social media following the end of the season.
He knew he, at minimum, wanted to stay in the National League, and when he picked up the phone to Rob Elliot he knew that Gateshead suited him best.
“My agent and I had probably eight or nine clubs approach me from January until the end of the season since it flagged up on systems that I’d be out of contract,” he said.
“I wanted to do things right, so I hadn’t told anyone outside of Maidstone until the season finished.
“Once we’d said on social media that I was actually leaving, I then had contact with Rob here and came up at the start of June to sign before I went on holiday.
“That game from last year lived in my memory a bit, and with my decision wanting to be purely football-based I instantly told my agent Gateshead was going to be somewhere that suited me perfectly.
“I spoke to another couple of managers, but the big deciding factor for me in coming up here was the whole style and the way the club ended last season.
“The only time I actually came up here was to sign – I’d already made the decision before I even came up.
“I just said to my agent that this was going to suit me best and he completely agreed, then I spoke to my family and everyone was happy.”
Fast forward to the present day and Booty is playing an integral role either in central midfield or as part of a back three in Gateshead’s system.
Off the pitch he is settling into North-East life alongside a number of summer arrivals and familiar faces, namely Archie Mair, Jordan Hunter and Ed Francis, whom Booty house-shares with.
“Having the social side of things is a big thing for me, even if it’s just going for a coffee for two or three hours,” he added.
“I’m not someone who will sit in the house on my own, I like to get energy from other people.
“I’ll have my downtime but I don’t think I’ll ever have interest in living on my own, it just doesn’t appeal to me.
“When you live with other people you have the opportunity to go and be on your own but also to be around the boys, and we’ve got a really good house so it’s the perfect situation really.
“We do a lot of things outside of football – there’s a lot of us who play golf – but we spend a lot of time together, so it’s been good.”
Booty and his team-mates have started the season promisingly, and in defiance of the club’s comparative stature and resources are frequently touted as ‘dark horses’ by National League pundits for their unique style of play.
The 25-year-old has even played his part on the right side of a memorable result already, recording two assists as Eastleigh wilted under a 6-0 scoreline beneath the Hampshire sun in early September.
He isn’t one for personal reflection – by his own admission – but those closest to him have recognised how far he has come in the last three years.
“The first time I ever really thought about it was after winning the league at Maidstone,” he said.
“All of our families did messages for us, so they showed us the morning after since they were quite emotional.
“My Mum and Dad’s message was to think where you were two years ago to now, and that’s probably the only real time I’ve looked back and realised how far I have come.
“I was saying to my mate the other day that if I play 40 games this year I’ll have hit 200 games – I would have snapped your hand off if you’d offered me that three years ago.
“There are times where you think, ‘as if was in that position and considering doing something else’, but I think I made the right decision.”