Will the dotage of Roy Hodgson, English football’s tourist, be haunted by regret?

Jonathan Wilson
·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Getty Images

The whole dynamic of the game was Brighton attacking. Everything was about whether they could find the goal they so clearly deserved. When Christian Benteke then volleyed a winner for Crystal Palace, it felt so implausible it was impossible not to pause. It didn’t feel right: was that allowed? Had the whistle already gone? On the touchline, a huge grin broke across Roy Hodgson’s face, he gave a little skip, and he turned instinctively to hug Ray Lewington.

These are the best wins, particularly in a derby: stolen against all odds, against all justice. Analysis and fretting about midfield shape can wait: first you just have to enjoy the euphoric implausibility of it all. “It’s a wonderful feeling,” Hodgson beamed afterwards, and you could see that it was. He may be 73, he may have been coaching for 44 years, but he still feels an ignition of glee at a moment of the most preposterous larceny.

Related: Roy Hodgson warns Crystal Palace fans about the dangers of overambition

This is Hodgson’s fourth season at Crystal Palace, and possibly his last. His contract expires in the summer and that awkward point has been reached at which fans begin to tire of often bland solidity, to look beyond mere survival. Hodgson warned last week of the dangers of wanting more, using Charlton Athletic after the departure of Alan Curbishley as his case study, which seemed entirely apt: over-ambition, frustration with familiarity, can destroy a club – but nobody dreams of being Curbishley’s Charlton.

Hodgson is undeniably old: he was born before 22 of his predecessors as Palace manager. He is slightly older than his former schoolmate Steve Kember, who first became manager at Selhurst Park in 1981. Managing Palace, the club where he had failed to make the grade as a player more than half a century ago, felt an appropriate homecoming to end a lifetime of wandering: Croydon as his Ithaca. Last year’s shutdown gave him a taste of retirement and he seemed to enjoy it, reading on his balcony with his wife each morning before taking some exercise.

Roy Hodgson, aged 47, on the San Siro pitch before his first game in charge of Inter in October 1995.
Roy Hodgson, aged 47, on the San Siro pitch before his first game in charge of Inter in October 1995. Photograph: Allsport UK

Perhaps Hodgson still has the energy and the drive to keep going but, given how many footballing lives end in failure, you hope he has the self-awareness to know when to slip off into retirement. Last season ended in collapse for Palace, and the 3-0 home defeat by Burnley two weekends ago must have raised fears something similar might be coming this year. He deserves better than to be shuffled ignominiously into the shadows, his dotage haunted by regret at one last year.

Hodgson is not just a manager of extraordinary longevity – 16 clubs across eight countries and four national teams – but he is a symbol of a past age of English football, perhaps of Englishness. The son of a baker and a bus driver, he was a grammar school boy, committed to self-improvement. There is an obvious contrast between the monomania of many modern coaches and his inquisitiveness about life beyond football.

That’s how he has picked up so many languages, and why he undertook the notorious boat trip down the Seine during Euro 2016. Perhaps it did offer an easy attack line when England lost to Iceland but Hodgson has never cared much for PR – as his weird refusal to pay the requisite homage to Bill Shankly when he was introduced as Liverpool manager made clear. He was in Paris and wanted to make the most of it, to see the sights: this was Englishman as determined tourist, all smiles and sunglasses and awkwardness in the heat.

Researching his novel A Week in September, Sebastian Faulks spent a day with Hodgson as he coached Fulham. “He was keen to talk about books,” Faulks said. “He’d read a lot of contemporary fiction. His interest in it was not pretentious. He was simply enthusiastic and keen for recommendations. We texted a bit afterwards.”

The outlook is characteristic. Having failed to break into Palace’s first team in his late teens, Hodgson’s response was to take his coaching badges.

Roy Hodgson takes England training before the shock defeat against Iceland at Euro 2016.
Roy Hodgson (centre) takes England training before the shock defeat against Iceland at Euro 2016. He also took a boat trip on the Seine. Photograph: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

Given England’s failures to qualify for the 1974 and 1978 World Cups and the prevalence of the reductive theories of Charles Hughes in the 1980s, it’s easy to forget how radical English football was in the 1960s. Hodgson had just turned 16 when Harold Wilson gave his speech about “the white heat of technology”. He was emerging into a Britain predicated on scientific advancement, ready to cast off restrictive traditions.

That was especially true of English football, rattled by the hammerings by Hungary in 1953 and 1954, and persuaded by Brazil’s successful deployment of a back four at the 1958 World Cup that the W-M had had its day. That new spirit brought wingless victory for Alf Ramsey at the 1966 World Cup but also inspired the coaching course established by Allen Wade, who became the FA’s technical director in 1964.

Related: Christian Benteke volleys Crystal Palace to smash-and-grab victory at Brighton

Wade believed coaching drills should be specifically related to match situations and was obsessed by the importance of shape and how individual players related to each other as part of the collective. In that, he was at the forefront of the systemisation that transformed football in the 60s, that in effect serves as the demarcation between old football and new.

Hodgson was one of the first graduates of Wade’s course, which laid the foundations for much of the more thoughtful English coaching of the following three decades and shaped people such as Bobby Robson, Don Howe and Dave Sexton. Hodgson has adapted, of course – nobody survives four and a half decades as manager without the capacity to evolve – but he endures as a reminder of an era when English football belatedly embarked on a process of self-discovery and for a time stood at the forefront of tactical thought.

The question now is for how much longer. Do Palace want to take the Curbishley Speculation? And for Hodgson are those flashes of joy such as Monday’s still enough to justify the effort, to make it worth the protests of those who regard his football as boring – or would he prefer to step off the treadmill, retire to his balcony and read some more?