Seeing Roy Hodgson in a Liverpool tracksuit is going to take some getting used to. It certainly stirs the emotions. My first instinct was to turn off the television, but then I’d have missed Jason McAteer’s penetrating insight, namely: ‘He’ll find it hard to deliver at Anfield’. Hodgson’s departure, which may or may not have been a little more acrimonious then the media are suggesting (it’s clear Fulham fought tooth and nail to hold onto him), is like the seeing girl you fell for parading her engagement ring around your local just a few months after she told you she wasn’t ready for a serious relationship. It hurts.
The trouble with football becoming a business is that it ended any concept of loyalty at a stroke. Players, liberated by the Bosman ruling, seeing their current clubs as stepping stones and agents delight in using contracts as bargaining chips. Managers, constantly in fear of the sack, have suddenly become much the same. Knowing that staying too long at a club could curse their chances of landing a plum jub, they too have to be adept at playing the field. Chairman – and brazen benefactors – come and go too. The only constant in the game these days are the supporters and too often they are treated with disdain by the clubs, whose marketing consultants are forever dreaming up new strategies to increase revenue with craven disregard for the long-term security of the football club.
Two and a half years isn’t that long in the history of London’s oldest professionsal side. But Hodgson, so much of a left-field choice to succeed Lawrie Sanchez that he didn’t appear on the media’s radar, utterly transformed Fulham’s fortunes in that space of time. He inherited a side that seemed to be broken, not just in spirit but also in pure footballing terms, and destined for relegation. He quickly identified the need for a tall, imposing centre back and set about restoring some defensive stability. The great escape was one ridiculous rollercoaster ride (think how that elusive away win at Reading seemed to have been wasted with an abject display against Sunderland) and, yes we rode our luck on ocassions, but it a remarkable rise to redemption.
Whilst Fulham fans walked away smiling at preserving their Premier League status, Hodgson worked hard to improve on what he had during the close season. Shrewd signings like Mark Schwarzer, Zoltan Gera, John Pantsil and Bobby Zamora added honest endeavour to the spine of the side – and he kept faith with the likes of Gera and Zamora when others might have benched them after indifferent starts. Simultaneously, Hodgson challenged those who were struggling to get in the side, like Clint Dempsey, to work harder and prove themselves worthy of a place. None of us who were there will forget the look of utter convinction on the Texan’s face when he celebrated an unlikely equaliser at Fratton Park by screaming ‘I’m back’ over and over again to the travelling supporters.
Seventh place, with some memorable afternoons at the Cottage, was achieved even after Hodgson jettisoned Jimmy Bullard and replaced the cheeky chappie with the disciplined Dickson Etuhu. Bullard was the definition of a luxury player, keen to roam from his midfield role and drift around the pitch in search of the ball. Some loved his dafter than Gazza persona, but it grated not just with his club manager and Chris Baird – but Fabio Capello too apparently. Etuhu, derided as useless and limited, grew into his role as the enforcer alongside Danny Murphy, and added greater stability to Fulham’s spine.
Last season was simply glorious. A European run that began at the end of July, much as Liverpool’s will soon do under Hodgson’s tuteledge, lasted all the way to the dying embers of extra time in Madrid in May, when Diego Forlan cruelly snatched parity away from a gallant Fulham side. Many voices told us that the Europa League would wreck our league campaign, but the beauty of Roy’s early rotation was that the Whites were comfortably in mid-table before the demands of the knockout stages took their toll. Fulham reached the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, too, and Hodgson’s tactical tinkering, prompted by a lack of forwards, suddenly liberated Zoltan Gera. The Hungarian looked every inch the classy performer Hodgson had identified at West Brom when played just behind Bobby Zamora, who, had he not been restricted by a niggling Achilles injury, might have made a real impact in South Africa this summer.
Hodgson may have traded in his cosy life at the Cottage for a shot at what looks (from afar at least) an impossible job on Merseyside, but Fulham fans have had to get used to being the bridesmaid rather than then the bride. They’ll be those who wish to slate Hodgson for his supposed betrayal, but even a cursory glance at his managerial career reveals he doesn’t stay in one place too long. Rather than being bitter, we should simply thank Roy for the memories and move on. The priority should be ensuring that his departure doesn’t lead to a summer exodus of the players we’ll need to avoid another undignified relegation scrap.