Fulham’s modest headquarters at Motspur Park are barely a goal-kick from Roy Hodgson’s south London youth. Most of what he knows of the game was learnt here in post-war suburban austerity.
That is maybe why his teams view the ball like a treat, something to be treasured, not given away or wasted. When he was growing up the son of a Croydon bus driver you never knew when the next good thing would come along.
The visit of Manchester United in the FA Cup is a good and bad thing. Good for the opportunity it brings, bad for the prospect of executing it. As Hodgson remarked: “If you want to win football matches there is never a great time to be facing United. It is not a question of belief. We believe we can get a result. It is a question of being good enough.
“There are no words that are going to make a difference. The suggestion of the motivational thing, where someone gets up and gives a ‘once more into the breach dear friend’ type speech is a wonderful myth. People believe that managers exist with these magical powers, but I’m sorry to say that in my 33 years in football I’ve never seen one. Our fans trust us enough to know we will give our best, but this is hardly a gimme.”
Trust is a big word in this game. Hodgson’s work at Fulham demands it. A year ago he did not have the luxury of disappointment. For that sentiment to enter the equation hope has to be dashed. Fulham appeared beyond that when he took over in the final days of 2007. The club were in the Premier League’s dead zone waiting for a knock from the coroner after two wins from 19 matches.
The Lawrie Sanchez regime had brought misery as well as poverty, with an arcane brand of football that threatened to bring the traffic to a halt along the Heathrow flight path. Hodgson binned the aerial stuff and introduced a detox programme built around the careful rehabilitation of footballers such as Danny Murphy and Simon Davies.
The experiment was 12 minutes from doom. Murphy’s goal at Portsmouth in the final game of last season changed Fulham’s world. Charlton, not so long ago Premier League vets, are staring into football’s abyss, the Premier League parachute helpless in the face of fiscal gravity dragging them towards the third tier of the professional game. Who is to say that would not have been Fulham’s fate?
The reprieve earned Hodgson time to shape a future around the quick feet and intelligent movement of Murphy and Davies. Andrew Johnson’s brisk agitation coupled with Bobby Zamora’s muscular presence up front requires constant vigilance to contain at the Cottage. At the back Hodgson likes a big man to gorge on long balls and full-backs with forward thrust.
The progress made in trying circumstances must rank among Hodgson’s finest achievements. The credit crunch clobbered Fulham’s owner, Mohamed Fayed, before the economic cancer spread across the globe. Hodgson is having to mould a team, not buy one.
“It’s been great satisfaction working here. The players have responded so well to the type of work we have tried to introduce. they have accepted the methods and the ideas then gone on to the field and tried to reproduce. People with trained eyes can see that.
“The things we do are very different [to previous regimes] and I’m pleased the players have got their reward. If you can compare this with other jobs then I’m pleased with the way this one has gone. But it’s always the next game, the next month. You know that around the corner it can go badly, and without you doing too much wrong. I’d like to think we have built a platform to carry a period where it doesn’t go quite so well.”
Hodgson has never led a team out at Wembley. He’s up against an adversary who was there only last week. Life isn’t fair. Hodgson is not complaining. He’s managed across Europe and speaks five languages. He took Swedish club Malmo to the European Cup final against Nottingham Forest, coached Inter Milan and managed the Swiss and Finnish national teams. His only ‘failure’ was at Blackburn, a short stay that ended with the sack. “I took that badly because I’d never been sacked before.”
There was a sacking of sorts on Wednesday, when Hull fashioned a winner that surprised even them. Ominously, the goal was scored by Manucho, a United loan player unlikely to trouble the kit man at Old Trafford. Manucho’s theft left Fulham in 10th spot, seven points above the drop zone.
The talk turned inevitably to Cristiano Ronaldo, the topic of the day in the football village. Arsene Wenger thinks he is arrogant. What do you think Roy? At 61, Hodgson is too old to fall for that.
“Ronaldo is player I respect enormously. His player of the year title is merited. He has wonderful ability. Arrogant? He’s confident. But then they used to tell me that Len Shackleton would beat his opponent then sit on the ball and wait for his opponent to come back. I haven’t seen Ronaldo do that.”
Hodgson is walking on virgin turf. Beyond the fifth round of the FA Cup he has never been. Fulham boast one final appearance 34 years ago. Last year Harry Redknapp prevailed against the odds at Old Trafford en route to his first major domestic success. Is Hodgson up to Harry’s game?
“We had Portsmouth last year and saw Barnsley knock out Liverpool at Liverpool. Perhaps it can be our day.”