The football team opens its Euro 2012 campaign against France tomorrow in Donetsk, yet its cerebral new manager has inherited a squad shorn of talent and tainted by controversy
The football team that will face France on Monday evening in Donetsk in the opening Group D game of Euro 2012 is perhaps the most unfancied English side ever to take part in an international tournament.
Wayne Rooney, the team’s one true star, is suspended and several other first-choice players are nursing injuries at home. The remainder of the squad is said to be lacking in technique, confidence and cohesion, and the presence of John Terry and absence of Rio Ferdinand continues to provide an unpleasant subplot in a setting – Ukraine – that has already generated plenty of racial tension.
Given that hysterical optimism is the traditional prelude to an early England exit, the current downbeat national mood surely amounts to a long overdue engagement with reality. But there remains one positive omen amid the bleak forecasts: in Roy Hodgson, England have a manager who thrives under circumstances of low expectation.
Indeed, it could be said that Hodgson’s almost 50 years in football have been one long battle to turn modest beginnings to winning ends. A Voltaire-quoting fan of Milan Kundera and Stefan Zweig who speaks five languages, Hodgson has gained a reputation as a deep thinker in a game in which wearing rimless glasses is normally all that’s required to be thought of as an intellectual.
As much as he has been characterised as suspiciously cerebral, Hodgson did not emerge from some bookish bourgeois upbringing. Like most British football managers, he was born into a working-class family. He grew up in Croydon, where his father was a bus driver and his mother worked in a bakery. Passing the 11-plus, he attended John Ruskin grammar school. One former student recently recalled Hodgson as a “diligent, fairly quiet, decent steady Eddie”, with a passion for little-known soul and R’n'B music, who was always in the school team “but not a great footballer”.
By his own admission, Hodgson’s career as a footballer was an essay in the “inglorious”. He was rejected by Crystal Palace and made his way through a forgettable series of non-league clubs: Tonbridge Angels, Gravesend & Northfleet, Maidstone United, Ashford Town, Carshalton Athletic.
That’s a hardly a CV that sparkles with international promise, but Hodgson realised his limitations as a player and studied to be a coach, gaining his full badge at the precocious age of 23. He became assistant manager at Maidstone to his former schoolmate, Bob Houghton. Moving on to Ashford, he combined his duties with a job as a PE teacher at Alleyn’s school in Dulwich.
Once more following Houghton, he then journeyed to apartheid South Africa in 1973 to play for a team called Berea Park in the country’s white-only league. Hodgson recently stated that he went “purely for football reasons”. That phrase, in an unfortunate echo, has also been used to explain his rancorous decision to select Terry – who is to stand trial for allegedly racially abusing Anton Ferdinand – and not Ferdinand’s brother, Rio. Whatever the truth of the Terry-Ferdinand drama, Hodgson is a manager who places maximum emphasis on team unity. His philosophy of the game is based on organising a team that operates not as a springboard for individual creative talents but as a well-drilled single unit.
Simon Davies, who played for Hodgson at Fulham, once said that “every day in training is geared towards team shape on the match day coming up”. Zoltan Gera, another former charge, was even more telling: “Put it this way, when I wake up in the middle of the night, I know what I need to do in the game, I know everything about how we play.”
For all the talk of Hodgson’s literary abstraction, he has little time for dossiers and diagrams, preferring to impose his ideas on the training pitch with repetitive practice exercises. It was this approach that he first employed in the Swedish backwater of Halmstad. Hodgson’s mentor, Houghton, had already galvanised Swedish football in winning two championships in a row at Malmo by instituting a long-ball English game with a high line of defence.
Still only 28, Hodgson repeated the formula at Halmstad, who were rated favourites for relegation in 1976. Not only did he save the team, he managed to win the league in his first year and again the following season. With only a smidgen of irony, he has referred to that feat as his “water-into-wine job”.
In Sweden, he and Houghton were seen as heretical revolutionaries. Lars Arnesson was an influential Swedish coach who was opposed to the new English style. “I thought it was a very basic way of playing,” he says. “They got the ball forward by hitting it upfield and then winning possession rather than playing through the team. But I found Roy an easy man to talk to. He was very clever, with an open mind.”
Not for the last time, Hodgson would find that his exploits abroad meant little at home. His reward for the Halmstad miracle was to be made assistant manager of Second Division Bristol City. If his message had shaken Sweden, he was far from a prophet in his own land. Although he was made manager after a season, Hodgson was sacked after just four months in charge.
Returning to Sweden, he took Malmo to five successive championships. He was offered a job for life but, continuing one of the most peripatetic coaching careers in Europe, he chose instead to relocate to Switzerland. Following a stint of club football, he became national manager and took Switzerland to their first World Cup finals in 28 years in 1994. At one stage under Hodgson’s reign, Fifa ranked the perennial Swiss minnows the third best team in the world.
Some years later, when manager of unfashionable Fulham, whom he led from the brink of relegation in 2008 to the Europa Cup final in 2010, Hodgson explained his ability to reverse the fortunes of struggling sides. “Of course it’s nice for people to believe some managers are born with a magical quality that will transform bad into good, but I don’t,” he said. “It’s about leadership skills, practice, repetition and bloody hard work.”
Hodgson’s impact on Switzerland was a prime example of him doing what he does best: making the whole much greater than the sum of its mediocre parts. This time, the achievement was noticed – not in England, of course, but in Italy, where in 1995 he was appointed coach of the sleeping Milan giants, Internazionale.
Here, though, was the other side of the Hodgson story, a coach who has never excelled under the high-pressure conditions of the media spotlight, big-money players and executive power struggles. He was rattled by the Italian press, often blowing up at conferences.
Nevertheless, among his various jobs in Finland, Denmark, the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere, Hodgson has landed three major club appointments, as manager of Inter, Blackburn (during its financial heyday) and Liverpool, and in none of them has he been considered an unqualified success. In fact, at Blackburn and Liverpool, he was seen as a failure and was duly sacked.
In both cases, he suffered from bad timing and a lack of rapport with the fans. But it may also be true that Hodgson’s rigid operating system is not ideally suited to players who perceive themselves as gifted individuals. Although he has adapted the long-ball game that first brought him success in Sweden, he has yet to produce a team admired for its creativity and skill.
The question is, does the England team conform to the Liverpool or Fulham model? Is it a collection of underperforming stars or a unified group of willing but not exceptional players? In the last few international tournaments they’ve taken part in, England have conducted themselves as Liverpool-like celebrity losers. The degree to which Hodgson manages to shape and motivate the squad may well depend on whether it is prepared to knuckle down to play like a national version of Fulham.
Either way, the result is unlikely to be pretty. Yet it’s worth remembering the response of Hugh Grant, Fulham’s most famous fan, to Hodgson’s inspirational effect on the Cottagers. “I want to sleep with Roy Hodgson,” said the star of Love Actually.
England fans probably won’t stretch to that kind of ardour, but if Hodgson can avoid the lacklustre performances of recent years, they may finally give him the respect that he has travelled so far and wide to earn.