Pitchside Europe

Roy Hodgson's morbid defeatism is selling England short


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Back when Roy Hodgson was boss of Liverpool - one of the nine clubs outside the Nordic Countries he managed in a 30-year league career, winning a major trophy at precisely none of them - an image was leaked of a flipchart upon which one of his pre-match team-talks was rendered in bullet points. At the bottom was a less than Churchillian pay-off: "Maintain a consistent and reliable performance."

In and of itself, there's nothing wrong with asking people to maintain a consistent and reliable performance. But it's the dreary language of the middle-management office drone. Talk to footballers like you're addressing salesmen at a productivity seminar, and there's a fair chance they'll play with all the passion of men going door to door in the hope of meeting their monthly targets for mops, air fresheners and multi-use dusters.


It was never ascertained whether the tactical flipchart ("Front players stay together - give us an outlet for longer passes") was genuine or not. It doesn't really matter. Like all the best satire, it contained a kernel of truth: Hodgson is a deeply uninspiring figure.

Before this week's game against Norway - a team below Armenia, Sierra Leone, Uzbekistan and Scotland in the world rankings - Hodgson rallied his troops thus: "They'll go out against Norway and no matter how well prepared we get them and however keen they are to do well, they won't find it easy ... if you ask me now 'will you go out and thrash Norway?', I'd have to say, 'no I don't think we will'."

In the strictest terms, Hodgson was speaking calm, rational sense. England used to regularly put at least four goals past Norway, but they haven't thrashed the Norwegians since the dynamic between the two countries shifed at Oslo's Ullevaal Stadion back in 1981 when, rather deliciously, Lord Beaverbrook and Maggie Thatcher's boys "took a hell of a beating".

Since then, Norway have had the upper hand: two 1-0 losses and two goalless draws in four friendlies, but after the competitive matches that mattered, a draw at Wembley in 1992 and a win in Oslo a year later, they knocked England out of the 1994 World Cup.

However, nobody wants calm, rational sense from a football manager. Footballers, a suggestible, pliable breed, have a habit of picking up on negative mindsets and acting accordingly. David Moyes last season promised that his Manchester United side would "make life difficult" for Newcastle United at home, with predictable, disastrous consequences.

Sir Alex Ferguson, by way of comparison, spent his 26 years at Old Trafford talking his men up, sometimes to absurd degrees, and everyone else in world football down: it sent United out onto the pitch a few inches taller, walking with a dip in their hip and a glide in their stride. Jose Mourinho and Louis van Gaal have spent their entire gilded careers doing exactly the same. It's a winning formula.


Hodgson, however, a morbid defeatist who during his time at Anfield described Northampton Town as "formidable", sent his lads out to face Norway having told everyone that "they won't find it easy". Sure enough, England didn't find it easy, and a 1-0 victory flattered the hosts. Northampton, lest ye forget, knocked Roy's Liverpool out of the League Cup.

England went into this summer's World Cup with expectations expressly managed, hope dampened. A bit of perspective never hurts, of course, but just as David St Hubbins observed at Elvis Presley's graveside, it's possible to have too much of the f*****g stuff.

England may have harboured unrealistic expectations at World Cups in the past, but getting to the stage where fans are asked to celebrate a goalless draw with Costa Rica is a step too far. England went into the 2014 tournament shaking with fear, and came away having put in their worst shift at a finals since 1958. What came first, the chicken or the egg? In this case, plainly the chicken.

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So what to expect on Monday, when England will be desperate to start their Euro 2016 qualification campaign with a positive result in Switzerland? "We might be Norway on Monday," Hodgson has promised. "We might be pushed back and won’t be able to attack and dominate for long periods." Roll up, roll up and buy your tickets, folks!

There are a couple of things Hodgson could do to engender an upturn in England's performances. Quit the old-school obsession with getting down the flanks, given England have enough technically bright players - Raheem Sterling, Daniel Sturridge, Danny Welbeck, Jack Wilshere - capable of opening up teams from all angles. (England's squad is not quite as threadbare as Hodgson's self-serving analysis would have you believe.)

Or drop the increasingly ponderous Wayne Rooney, who has flattered to deceive for too long in an England shirt, and whose form has for a couple of seasons been causing concern to increasingly large sections of the Manchester United support.

But those are arguments for another day. For now, a blast of defiant bluster might be worth a punt. An unfashionable suggestion in these tactics-obsessed times, perhaps, but passion is underrated, and needs must, especially when Hodgson's sullen jam-tomorrow mindset increasingly appears to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Scott Murray, published author and highly-respected writer for the The Guardian and The Blizzard, has joined Eurosport-Yahoo and will be covering Liverpool's Premier League campaign and anything and everything else during the 2014-15 season.

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