t is tricky, once you have had a chat with Roy Hodgson, to argue that Barclays Premier League clubs should give young managers a chance. Hodgson, 61, has zigzagged around Europe for more than 30 years, learning a skill here, a moral there. The Fulham manager admits to all manner of fleeting flaws — lack of humility, naivety, sulkiness and even, to impress his future wife, lying about his nationality. But he acknowledged them all and learnt the lessons.
Then Hodgson was 29 he made a pact to give up coaching and open a travel agency. He had no idea the job would take him into his sixties, that he would manage three national sides and be very close to managing two more in the shape of England and Germany. Tomorrow he faces Manchester United in the FA Cup sixth round, but he is not overawed by the club aiming for a quadruple. Why would he be? When he was manager of Malmö, he was as all-conquering as Sir Alex Ferguson is now.
“Humility is a very useful quality but I didn’t have it at Malmö, that’s for sure,” he said. “I was pretty unbearable. What I did in those five years is what Alex has done here.”
Hodgson says he reacquired humility but that that did not dent his assertiveness. He has a track record of taking over teams and throwing out the system he inherited. He did this at Fulham, ditching the long-ball game deployed by Lawrie Sanchez, his predecessor. He did it at Neuchâtel in Switzerland, imposing organised, direct football “on a public used to 25 passes before even thinking of playing it forward”. But he also did it, remarkably, at Inter Milan, when he was appointed coach in 1995.
Inter were using a man-for-man system with a libero and Hodgson announced that he wanted to go with a back four and zonal marking. There were puzzled frowns and vocal cynics, including players, but he won them over with his first game. Inter drew 0-0 with Lazio while playing Hodgson’s new system. “My wife always claims that when I met her, I told her I had Italian origins,” he said. “I can’t believe I was clever enough to do that, but there was obviously something that attracted me to the country.”
Hodgson, born in Croydon, South London, must have pinched himself upon being offered a top job in Italy. “When I went there I thought, ‘This is fantastic’, but I had turned down some quite high-profile offers so I didn’t think, ‘What am I doing here?’ ” he said. He admits, though, that he did from time to time “think, ‘Blimey, this is a big club’. But they were turbulent times. I used to joke I’d never been to as many funerals in my life because every defeat was a funeral.”
His early career is less majestic and has the ring of an Ealing comedy about it. He and his friend, Steve Kember, who went on to manage Crystal Palace, passed their 11-plus and attended grammar school together. Hodgson’s father was a bus driver and Kember’s father was his conductor. Hodgson should have gone to the rugby-playing school down the road, but “I was very small and very slight so rugby would probably have been the death of me”.
He was also bright — he speaks five languages, three fluently — and had completed his full coaching badge by the age of 23. He says he is not so unusual, that there are plenty of English coaches dotted all over the world, but that there are not many highprofile ones because the next division down in England will always provide a job for an experienced manager and few English managers can be bothered to learn a new language.
However, which overseas club would want an English manager given that the FA has twice appointed a foreign coach for the national team?
“We have devalued the English coaching system by making it clear we don’t think it is good enough,” Hodgson said. “It’s not doing the global opinion about English football any good when you say we haven’t got anyone who’s any good. But I must emphasise we want the best man, so we can’t say it must not be anyone outside of England. Just don’t say we’ve given it to [Fabio] Capello because no one in England is any good. Don’t decry the English system.”
Germany, though, very nearly made a similar leap of faith with Hodgson. “They wanted to offer it to me,” he said. “But the German FA decided it wouldn’t be a good thing. It would make it seem the German coaching licence is no good.”
Hodgson was informed by Graham Kelly, the former FA chief executive, that he had been on a three-man shortlist for the job of England manager when he was in charge of Blackburn Rovers, but he was not interviewed, formally or informally. He says the job ought to be the pinnacle of any English manager’s career. “If they ever want to interview me I’d be very happy to speak to them, but I’m not sitting here with bated breath,” he said.
He admits to handling his sacking from Blackburn poorly. “I took it badly because I’d not been sacked before,” he said. “I wouldn’t talk to anybody. I didn’t do any interviews, wouldn’t go on the telly. I was still lamenting the fact I could have stayed at Inter.”
Fulham’s tie with United is in many ways an unequal struggle, but if it was purely a battle in terms of managerial experience, Hodgson the traveller would edge it.