Roy Hodgson is a national treasure. The Crystal Palace manager is regularly lauded for his intelligence, urbanity and longevity. Want to spend an evening with a Premier League manager? Then the 72-year-old is your man. Literature, film, music – the conversation will flow. Just don’t talk about football.
So let’s talk about football. The visit of Liverpool to Selhurst Park tomorrow brings into the debate the section of fandom who almost universally loathe Hodgson. It’s not unusual for the people of Merseyside to be out of step with mainstream thought processes and it is easy to write off Liverpudlian antipathy to the former England manager as bitterness over his short spell at Anfield that ended almost nine years ago. But what if they are right?
Hodgson has done very little to earn his sainted reputation. He is projected like a kindly grandfather but, make no mistake, he is often as sour and prickly as Jose Mourinho. Like the Portuguese, he can be charming. When it suits him.
As for his sophistication, even the most obsessive managers have other interests. They are frequently at their most fascinating when discussing topics outside the game. The majority are excellent company in the right circumstances. Sir Alex Ferguson is compelling on horse racing and politics. Martin O’Neill is engrossing when talking about criminology and serial killers. Kenny Dalglish is remarkably funny in private and far from his dour image. Most managers are similar. When the subject of football comes up, a switch flicks and their inner sociopath comes to the fore. All their biases and resentments flow out. Hodgson is no different.
Why do people like him? Well, he speaks a lot of languages. This has been given as evidence of his genius for more than 20 years, since his time at Blackburn Rovers. That’s hardly a surprise. He has managed across Scandinavia, in Switzerland, Italy and the Middle East. There’s a peculiar British stupidity in lauding the language skills of people who work abroad – it’s the flip side of shouting in English at uncomprehending foreigners. What’s surprising about learning to communicate in the places you work? Rafa Benitez speaks with players in his native Spanish, English, Italian and French. Benitez has been in Dalian for the past six months and has already picked up phrases in Chinese. That is what international managers do.
Hodgson is also praised as a trailblazer for his nation-hopping career, but as a rather mediocre player he merely followed the money abroad. One of his early stops was South Africa during the apartheid era. He broke the sporting boycott because he was “desperate to play football on a regular basis.” He “didn’t give the political system much thought.”
It was, as Hodgson has pointed out, almost half a century ago and much has changed. Some things haven’t. Like right and wrong.
While Hodgson honed his management skills scuffling about Scandinavia in the 1980s, other British coaches took foreign jobs at higher levels, learning languages and skills and developing their style in more competitive environments. Few of them receive the praise directed at Hodgson. Gordon Milne, for example, spent six seasons at Besiktas in Turkey and a year in Japan with Grampus Eight. To hear some of the hagiography of Hodgson, he was a lone adventurer in alien lands during his early career instead of being one of many Englishmen abroad.
His durability is praiseworthy, especially in the face of limited success. At Inter Milan he reached the Uefa Cup final and was pelted with missiles and abuse after his team lost to Schalke on penalties. A decade ago, Hodgson recalled: “We lacked stars, apart from Paul Ince. It wasn’t the Inter we see today of household names.”
The side contained Javier Zanetti and Youri Djorkaeff. It could have featured Roberto Carlos but the Brazilian left the San Siro because the manager played him out of position.
Hodgson is a good organiser and has a fine grasp of tactics. While at Fulham he worked out more quickly than most that Patrice Evra was Manchester United’s outlet ball and the key to putting pressure on Ferguson’s side was squeezing the left back. Yet his teams, even at their most coherent, lack thrust. They underperform slightly. He is loved most at Craven Cottage but Fulham never rose above their expected level in the league. Their famous cup run, to the Europa League final in 2010, was uplifting and the 4-1 victory over Juventus in the quarter-final was memorable but it was against a forgettable Juve side who finished seventh in Serie A that year. Injuries hurt them in the final against Atletico Madrid but there was a lack of conviction about Fulham in Hamburg.
The Juventus result went a long way to securing the role at Anfield. There is little to say about his tenure on Merseyside except it was an impossible job. The conditions at the club were so bad that almost any manager would have failed. Hodgson did not help himself, though, with his attitude to the players, the fans and the local media. He could not understand what it took to be successful at a place like Liverpool.
His time at England encapsulated his career. He failed to use talented players in the correct role, the team punched below their weight and when he left after the humiliating Euro 2016 defeat by Iceland, it was with breathtaking bad grace. “I really don’t know what I’m doing here,” was his spiteful opening gambit in the press conference, conducted the day after the embarrassing result and his resignation.
It’s hard to know what he is still doing in the affections of so many people. If he keeps Palace up it will be seen as another feather in his cap. Once again the bare minimum will be regarded as a triumph.
A faux sophistication has been projected on to Hodgson and it has created a myth. His reputation is greater than his achievements. He may be excellent after-dinner company but he is a very ordinary manager.