Back in his native south London, Roy Hodgson hopes to save Fulham from relegation – and restore a reputation he feels has been unjustly sullied.
Confident and engaging, the Roy Hodgson who chatted to a coterie of scribes at Fulham’s training ground last Friday bore little resemblance to the distraught soul who was helped out of Ewood Park in tears back in November 1998, so shattered by his sacking by Blackburn that he couldn’t drive his own car home.
In fact, Hodgson now looks a lot like a highly decorated football technician who’s fluent in five languages, given to quoting Voltaire and Churchill and happy to count luminaries such as Arsène Wenger and Carlos Alberto Parreira among his friends. Which is what he is. Which is why Fulham should be confident that the 60-year-old can rescue them from relegation.
Then again, we had similar thoughts 10 years ago when he was hired by Blackburn on the back of a string of titles in Sweden, two years’ steady service at the notoriously unstable Internazionale and a three-year stint as the most successful Switzerland manager ever. Surely this world-wise son of a Croydon bus driver would haul Blackburn back to the heights they’d occupied all too briefly and then, perhaps, become the next manager of England?
The notion seemed natural, particularly after the start he made at Blackburn – he inherited a team that had missed relegation by just two points the previous season and immediately guided them to a sixth-place in the league and qualification for the Uefa Cup. That fact, however, masked a sorry drop-off in the second half of the season, during which Blackburn amassed just 19 points from 19 games – they carried that form into the following campaign, hindered by a savage spate of injuries, the departure of the inspirational Colin Hendry and several misguided signings by Hodgson (£7.5m striker Kevin Davies, for example, didn’t manage a single goal for the club during his tenure).
In November, 16 months after taking charge, Hodgson was fired, Jack Walker ignoring his pleas for more time and seemingly sealing the view that, after all, Hodgson couldn’t hack it in his homeland. That suggestion is one of the few things that visibly annoys Hodgson.
“I’ve always thought Blackburn were a little harsh, to be perfectly honest,” he says, a spiky resentment piercing his composure. “The season before I came they spent the whole second half trying to avoid relegation, which they narrowly managed. And with that same team – without one new player – I finished sixth in the league and got into the Uefa Cup. We then lost something like seven players through injury and had a poor start to the season. I probably didn’t deal with it as well as I should have done – I’ll hold my hands up to that – but I think I could have turned it around. But I suppose that if my star waned over here, it’s possibly because I don’t keep in touch with English journalists, I don’t have an agent contacting you every day to tell you what I’m up to. In several other countries, some might say my star has been pretty high …”
He’s not wrong. There was certainly no shortage of offers when he was shown the door at Blackburn. Even Bristol City, the only other English club he’s managed and, funnily enough, the only other club where success has eluded him – albeit in 1982, when the Robins were bankrupt – invited him back. So too did Inter – unsurprisingly, theirs was the offer he accepted.
Stung by Inter’s defeat on penalties to Schalke in the 1997 Uefa Cup final, owner Massimo Moratti had decided not to extend Hodgson’s contract – which is why his first spell in Italy had ended and he’d been free to join Blackburn. But though Moratti had doubts about Hodgson’s ability to handle the really big occasion, he invited him back because he recognised that the Englishman was a gifted man-manager and an excellent coach – the ideal person to restore shape and harmony to disjointed under-achievers. Even Tim Sherwood, the former captain who agitated for a move from Hodgson’s Blackburn when it became apparent that they weren’t going to challenge for honours again any time soon, says today that Hodgson is the best trainer and tactician he’s ever worked with.
Hodgson’s most recent charges were similarly impressed. Finland have just completed their most successful qualifying campaign in history, amassing 24 points before finishing fourth in a Euro 2008 qualifying group containing Poland, Portugal, Serbia and Belgium. “Normally our campaigns are over after the first two games but this time we were in contention right to the final match – that’s success for us,” gushed journalist Heikki Miettinen of Helsingin Sanomat. “He’s a tough guy who didn’t listen to players too much but the experienced ones, such as Sami Hyypia, Jari Litmanen and Hannu Tihinen, particularly enjoyed working with him because they could see that he really knew what he was doing.”
So what does he do? Is there a Hodgson style? Not really. Finland were very defensive, recording five 0-0 draws during the Euro 2008 qualifiers and scoring just 13 goals in 14 games – but that didn’t reflect a deep Hodgson conviction so much as the profile of the players available. “The defensive style wasn’t his fault,” says Miettinen. “We have three decent forwards – Mikael Forsell, Jonatan Johansson and Shefki Kuqi – but they were never fit at the same time. Hodgson started playing defensively and it worked so the players liked it – he had the sense not to change it and the courage to then regularly omit Alexei Eremenko, an attacking midfielder who gets quite a lot of goals but doesn’t do anything defensively.”
By contrast, the Switzerland team Hodgson took to the 1994 World Cup, equipped with canny attackers such as Stéphane Chapuisat and Alain Sutter, were top scorers in a qualifying group featuring Italy, Portugal and Scotland.
Hodgson, who has made just one change to Fulham’s backroom staff (introducing coach and long-time associate Mike Kelly to replace the departed Dave Beasant), insists he doesn’t subscribe to any particular dogma, saying his style is determined by the players available and prevailing circumstances. “It’s dangerous to talk about styles of play,” he warns. “I’ll never forget [Rinus] Michels talking at a Uefa conference many years ago. He was being lauded for being the first man to play this wonderful total football and he said, ‘listen, I wanted to play winning football – if my team were losing 1-0 with 15 minutes to go and the opponents were camped in their own half, I wasn’t at all adverse to putting my big centre-forward on and crashing the ball up to him to play the knock-downs’.”
What does this mean for Fulham? “All I can say is that if Fulham are to get out of trouble and keep our Premier League status, then we have to play like a Premier League team. There’ll be days for fighting and scrapping and days, I hope, for playing.”
There may also be days, he no doubt hopes, when the Cottagers don’t fall apart after taking the lead, late goals being a major cause of their current predicament. But what is the cause of the late goals? Fulham centre-back Dejan Stefanovic dismisses the common suggestion that this affliction betrays a lack of fitness. “I don’t think it’s anything to do with that, this team is as fit as any other I’ve been in,” says the Serb who has been captain under Hodgson. “Maybe it was because we lost our shape a lot late on, especially after substitutions.” If that sounds like a criticism of previous Fulham boss Lawrie Sanchez, that’s because it is, albeit one delivered reluctantly. “I don’t want to criticise anyone; every manager has his own way of doing things … but it’s true some of the players were frustrated with the long-ball style of the previous manager. And maybe the shape and tactics weren’t so …” And on that note, Stefanovic trails off.
He perks up, however, when asked about Hodgson, and confirms the opinion that has been a constant throughout the manager’s career. “We’ve only had three sessions under him but the first thing you notice is that he’s very organised – he knows exactly what he’s doing.”
Fulham fans can be confident their team will now at least have cohesion. That will entail organising a defence that became too bedraggled under Sanchez, notably at set-pieces; instructing David Healy to loiter around the box rather than negating his influence by scurrying hither and yon; possibly using the January transfer window to bring in a midfield anchorman to provide a platform on which the likes of Clint Dempsey, Simon Davies and Danny Murphy can perform; and perhaps buying a burly targetman in case Brian McBride fails to rediscover his best following his harrowing injury. Just don’t recommend Kevin Davies.