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2 August 2019

Roy Hodgson: English football’s internationalist

The Crystal Palace manager on travelling, transfer economics and why technology can never take over scouting.  

By Rohan Banerjee

At 71, Roy Hodgson is still learning. The oldest manager in Premier League history has travelled all over the world and concluded that “no one has a monopoly on knowledge.” Now manager of Crystal Palace, the club he grew up supporting, it isn’t clear whether Hodgson views this as the twilight of his career, or another learning experience. At Palace’s training ground in Beckenham, he speaks with verve and enthusiasm that do not suggest this is a man ready to bow out of football anytime soon. “I’m always looking for ways to improve as a manager and a coach.”

Although Croydon-born, Hodgson’s route to the Palace dugout was far from straightforward. After a playing career spent predominantly in non-league, supplemented by work as a PE teacher in south London, he progressed to full-time coaching at the age of 29, taking charge at Swedish side Halmstads.

“A life in football,” Hodgson explains, “is hard to plan.” In such a competitive industry, it would be naïve to assume that opportunities would just present themselves locally. “If you are serious about pursuing a coaching career,” Hodgson says, “maybe it helps to be open-minded. I got offered a job in Sweden which was very attractive in my eyes. I uprooted the family and that [openness to travelling] has fashioned the rest of my career.”

Hodgson accepts that his willingness to move abroad and embrace a “new language and culture of life, not just a new style of football” is “not typical” of his generation. “But I was anxious to make my mark as a coach and if I had to travel to do that, then I was prepared to.”

The sportswriter Michael Henderson, Hodgon’s friend and a fellow member of The Garrick Club, a private members’ club in the heart of London’s West End, describes him as a great listener. “It doesn’t matter how well-travelled or well-read he might be,” Henderson says, “Roy is always prepared to hear someone out and make his judgment based on what they’ve said, after they’ve said it. It’s a very good quality to have as a person and as a coach.” Hodgson, a keen theatre goer, was put up for membership at The Garrick Club by the actor Tom Courtenay.

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Hodgson spent the majority of his early managerial career on the continent. In Sweden, he led Halmstads, a team usually embroiled in relegation battles, to two Allsvenskan titles in 1976 and 1979; before winning five consecutive Allsvenskan crowns and two Swedish cups with Malmö between 1985 and 1989.

Hodgson with the Swiss national team in 1994. Credit Getty.

In 1990, he moved to Neuchatel Xamax, leading the club to third in the top flight in Switzerland and qualification for the UEFA Cup. Then there was the Swiss national team from 1992 to 1995, during which they qualified for the 1994 World Cup – the country’s first appearance at a major tournament in nearly 30 years – from a group that included Italy and Portugal. And at Inter Milan, where Hodgson worked between 1995 and 1997, he led the Italian giants to seventh and third in Serie A, as well as the UEFA Cup final. 

Hodgson’s internationalism, though, does not belie his status as a proud Englishman. Henderson describes him as “patriotic without being nationalistic… he’s not the type to wave flags or assume superiority. He would never deny his being a south London boy, but wherever he goes, he takes the trouble to learn the language of the place that he’s in.”

“For too long,” Hodgson says with a wag of his finger, “people have denigrated the quality of work, the quality of coaching, and the breadth and depth of expertise in English football. Very often nowadays, you see top [European] sides looking at the English academies for players. Bayern Munich, or so I’ve read, were willing to pay £45m for a Chelsea youngster [Callum Hudson-Odoi] but he’s barely kicked a ball for their first team.”

When it comes to politics, perhaps understandably for a football manager in work, Hodgson is guarded. At the training ground, I’m advised that questions about Brexit are off-limits, at the risk of alienating any particular school of thought. Henderson would speculate that his friend “probably votes Labour… and I can’t imagine that he would vote to leave [the European Union].”

Football, Hodgson stresses, does not lend itself to a one-size-fits-all philosophy. “People are too quick to jump on bandwagons to talk about what we can learn from the Germans or the Italians and what they do better. But the point is that everyone knows about football. The Albanians know about football. So it’s important to take what you can from different styles and put them together. No one nation has cracked an exact science of how to win football matches, because there isn’t one. Remember that there isn’t only one way of doing things… and I’ve seen very little evidence to suggest the English way is necessarily the wrong way of doing things.”

Hodgson’s first Premier League job was with Blackburn Rovers. He led the Lancashire side to a sixth-place finish and qualification for the UEFA Cup in his only full season in charge, 1997-98, but was dismissed the following November after a bad run of form. After Blackburn, Hodgson did not return to management in English football for nearly a decade. During this time, he won the Danish Superliga with FC Copenhagen, and also managed Grasshoppers in Switzerland, Italian side Udinese, Viking in Norway and the national teams of the United Arab Emirates and Finland.

Hodgson came back to England in 2007, taking a previously relegation-threatened Fulham to a seventh-place finish in the top flight as well as the 2010 Europa League final, before also leading West Bromwich Albion into the top half in 2011-12. But for all the success Hodgson has had exceeding expectations at smaller clubs, his tenure at Liverpool in 2010-11, was disappointing; and his four-year stint as England manager ended in an ignominious exit from Euro 2016 at the hands of Iceland. 

Members of Hodgson’s England team after crashing out to Iceland at Euro 2016. Credit: Getty

The struggles at Liverpool – his was the shortest managerial reign in the club’s history – stemmed, some have suggested, from a failure to buy into the Anfield club’s identity and to cope with the pressure associated with competing at the upper end of the table.  “Maybe it was simply that Liverpool was too Scouse for Hodgson,” wrote Simon Hughes in the Independent. In the same piece, Hughes claimed Hodgson “would lose the confidence of many, not only because of his results but also because of his manner and his messages”, over-egging achievements that Liverpool fans might view as routine while also underestimating the gravitas of certain defeats.

Historically, Hodgson has tended to do more with less. Martin Dahlin, who played under him during his time at Malmö, praised Hodgson for his humility. “One important thing that he did, which no other coach ever did, was to make us understand how lucky we were to be football players, to understand that we had the best job in the world, and to have perspective on this,” the Swede told the Guardian in 2012. But reminding elite footballers how lucky they are to be footballers, it seems, has not always gone down well with more high-profile players, and, conversely, aspersions relating to Hodgson’s capacity to temper egos have been cast. “If there was a question mark,” former Blackburn forward Chris Sutton told the BBC in February, “it was the way he handled big players. If I am going to be totally, totally honest, I think Roy’s strongest suit is his coaching. I say that with the greatest respect, but I don’t think he really likes confrontation at all.”

Well within his rights to retire after Euro 2016, Hodgson’s decision to take “what at the time seemed like a poisoned chalice” at Selhurst Park signposts him as a football purist. The Eagles had lost all four of their opening league fixtures in 2017-18 under his ill-fated predecessor Frank de Boer, conceding six goals and scoring none. Still, Hodgson had “no hesitation” in accepting the chance to save his boyhood team, leading them to respectable 11th and 12th-place finishes over the past two seasons. 

Hodgson credits the foreign influence on the Premier League with contributing to its position as a “premium product”. It is natural for the best managers and players, he suggests, to “gravitate towards the best league in the world… I don’t think English football has ever sought to isolate itself – quite the opposite, in fact. We haven’t said that we don’t want foreign managers or coaches, or even owners.”

Former Bolton Wanderers and West Ham manager Sam Allardyce may disagree. Hodgson shrugs. “Everyone is entitled to their opinion. I think as the new influence has come in, the result is that the standard of football that we play in the Premier League gets higher. And credit to the Premier League’s marketing team for taking the product to the far corners of the world.”  

A premium product commands premium pricing. Yet Hodgson, speaking shortly after Palace’s £50m sale of Aaron Wan-Bisaka to Manchester United, despite the right-back having only having played one full season of senior football, is not jaded by the amount of money involved in the sport.“I remember when Trevor Francis was sold to Nottingham Forest [in 1979] for £1m. Everyone thought that was scandalous. Transfer fees will always get higher and wages will get higher, so long as there is money being pumped into football and people are still interested.”

Hodgson during Crystal Palace’s game against his old team Fulham in February this year. Credit: Getty

Where “closed shops” may exist elsewhere, Hodgson says, English football should be praised for ensuring that its top flight “remains competitive” in comparison. “In Spain,” Hodgson notes, “you’ve got Real Madrid and Barcelona dominating. Occasionally, Atletico Madrid might get a look in. In Germany, Bayern Munich are dominating. If they don’t win [the Bundesliga], it’s Borussia Dortmund. In France, it’s a one-team league more or less, with Paris Saint-Germain winning every year.”

While Hodgson admits the Premier League’s “big six” might have an edge over smaller clubs in terms of their “additional sponsorship opportunities”, he says the top flight has done “a wonderful thing” in ensuring that the money generated through broadcasting deals is redistributed reasonably evenly. “Even the clubs at the bottom of the league have got a chance of putting a good team together.”

For Hodgson it is “a bit disingenuous to talk about glass ceilings.” On a conceptual level, he points out, “all sport is about grading teams and individuals. There will always be good players or teams that are better than the rest. In tennis, the players ranked 15 to 20 don’t just stop playing because Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic are at the top of the game.” That it would be “very difficult” for Palace to break into the top six does not mean the club can’t strive to “improve within its means… you’ve also got the cups which will excite people.”

Over the course of a 43-year managerial odyssey, Hodgson says the greatest change he has observed in football is the “evolution of sport science”. Technology and the prevalence of data analytics have provided “better insights” into fitness and nutrition. “But data has to be interpreted sensibly,” he warns. “Scouting in person and someone’s eye for a player will remain vital ingredients in modern football. Statistics about who has run the furthest in a game or a training session shouldn’t be taken at face value. You don’t train 11 players to do the same job. Statistics might make for a good graphic on Sky Sports, but I’ll always want to watch the player and get a sense for him myself.”

At 71, Hodgson is a progressive. He encourages players and managers “to explore all the markets available to them” and says it’s “unlikely that clubs will find all of the personnel they want living in the same post code.” Roy Hodgson, the local lad who went on to manage his local team, via Scandinavia and the Middle East, is proud to finally have the job, but meeting him, it’s clear that he’s equally proud of the route he took to get it.

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