To the surprise of most onlookers, the England football team have made it through to the quarter-finals of Euro 2012 – they play Italy in Kiev tomorrow night – and as low expectations give way to mounting excitement, there is a nagging question that gnaws away at every supporter of the Three Lions.
Why didn't the Football Association appoint Roy Hodgson before? There is a realisation that this cultured and worldly man has always possessed the qualities that the FA was looking for.
When Fabio Capello was given the role in 2008, much was made of the Italian's art collection and his love of opera. Similar compliments were paid to the well-travelled and multilingual Swede Sven-Goran Eriksson, who had achieved success across Europe before taking the England post in 2001. At Euro 96, when England reached the semi-finals, the interpersonal skills of the coach Terry Venables were widely praised as a key element in the team's success.
Yet throughout those times, Roy Hodgson was there; a man who enjoys listening to Turandot at the Royal Opera House and appreciates the expressionist art of Wassily Kandinsky; a coach who has enjoyed success throughout Europe; is fluent in Norwegian, Swedish and Italian; and can more than get by in German, Danish, French and Finnish.
He comes from that same vintage of dressing-room-friendly managers as Venables and Harry Redknapp, the man who so nearly denied him his last chance at the top job. Like El Tel and 'Arry, Hodgson has a distinct London accent and a good sense of humour but – in contrast to those two chirpy Cockneys – these are not his defining features.
Unlike Redknapp, who boasts of his computer illiteracy, Hodgson takes his education seriously. His love of literature is his "escape route", he says. Milan Kundera, John Updike and Philip Roth are his antidote to the crazy world of Planet Football. He has learned to cope with an environment where "crises" emerge from all angles of the 24/7 football media of fan blogs and angry radio phone-ins by turning the pages of a novel like Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong. "The world of football, it takes up all of our time, but it's still a relatively minor subject in terms of world importance," Hodgson once told the BBC.
It's not that he is detached from football. Those who have worked with Hodgson say they have never encountered a coach so engaged with the game at every level, from the medical staff to the scouting system. Unlike some national coaches, he likes nothing more than getting his boots dirty, spending long hours on the training field, drilling his players again and again until they are playing instinctively in the Hodgson way. Chris Brunt, his captain at West Bromwich Albion, said Hodgson taught him more in 15 months than he had learned in his entire career. "[He] leaves nothing out in the build-up to a game. England will be the best-prepared team going into this tournament."
And so it appears to have transpired. Arriving in Poland and Ukraine without the frenzy of expectation that usually accompanies an England side at a major tournament, Hodgson's team have confounded the gloomy predictions by topping a group that included the long-unbeaten French. "If someone said we'd win the group I don't think they'd have many takers," said Hodgson.
He has always performed best when success has been least expected. Hodgson's greatest managerial triumph, by his own estimation, was when he not only saved the struggling Swedish side Halmstads BK from a probable relegation but also turned them into national champions. But that 1976 moment happened too far away to put him on the radar of the English sports press.
In the race to the England management bench, Roy Hodgson, now 64, has always been coming from a long way back. Born in Croydon, his father was a factory worker and his mother a baker. He signed for Crystal Palace but never made the first team and was forced into a career in non-league football, playing for Gravesend & Northfleet while doing his coaching badges and considering a possible life as a PE teacher. He was not out of his twenties when he headed to Halmstads and the success led to a brief opportunity at Bristol City which, largely because of the club's financial problems, was "nothing short of a disaster". Sacked after four months, Hodgson went back to Sweden, eventually taking leading club Malmo to five titles.
Rather than go home to Britain, Hodgson headed next to Switzerland, where he was so successful that he was put in charge of the national team, which he took to the 1994 World Cup and Euro 96, before being invited to Milan to take charge of the famous Internazionale. Expectations were greater at Inter, and when Hodgson took his team to the final of the Uefa Cup, he found himself being pelted by missiles thrown by his own supporters after his side lost on penalties.
The prestige of the Inter job brought Hodgson to Blackburn Rovers in 1997. Once again, the bar was placed high, with the club in the ownership of the wealthy Jack Walker and anxious to repeat its Premier League triumph of 1995. After overachieving in Hodgson's opening season by qualifying for Europe, Rovers had a disastrous start to their next campaign and the manager was fired. The Blackburn experience, he believes, tainted his reputation and wrecked his chances of becoming England manager when Glenn Hoddle lost the job in 1999. Wounded, he headed back to Inter – something he admitted was "an arrogant thing to do" – and later wheeled his barrow to Denmark, the United Arab Emirates and Finland, where he took the national team to their highest world ranking.
The nomadic life has caused him no regrets. "I don't know if I go desperately seeking challenges, but it's been quite nice to have the opportunity to work in different countries and to experience different cultures," he has said. "I am one of those people who could quite frankly say that, after 36 years of doing it non-stop, I have been very fortunate." After a decade away from England, he returned in 2007 to take charge of Fulham, one of the lesser lights of the Premier League. After masterminding an extraordinary escape from relegation he took the club to the final of Europa League, beating the mighty Italian side Juventus in the process. Again, the success defied expectation and it opened the door to another world – Liverpool. On a much bigger stage Hodgson suffered another setback, his task made almost impossible by the desire of so many Reds fans that his job be given to the Anfield legend Kenny Dalglish.
Departing after 31 games, the shortest managerial reign in Liverpool's history, Hodgson no doubt sought support from his books. A favourite of his is Stefan Zweig's Beware of Pity, and he was soon back at work, re-establishing his coaching pedigree by getting West Brom to punch above their weight, just as Redknapp's star was falling at Spurs.
When the FA came to appoint the England manager for Euro 2012, it was finally Hodgson's time. Speaking three years earlier, he had expressed confidence in his ability in the role: "If the day ever came and I was asked, I would be very happy to accept."
It has become an English tradition to fall at the quarter-final stage, but Roy Hodgson has done nothing to suggest the FA chose the wrong man. He has won friends by leading the players to applaud the travelling fans and encouraging his side to sing the national anthem with gusto. The unity in the dressing room is unrecognisable from the schisms that tore apart Capello's World Cup squad. Hodgson's tactical approach is based on unremitting teamwork, something he underlined by telling the squad the fable of the scorpion and the frog, a tale which also offered the players some moral guidance and a little humour besides. This is the Hodgson way.
Planet Football being what it is, he knows that tomorrow's result will be judged as either an incomparable success or an unqualified disaster. The bookish England boss will know that the truth will lie somewhere in between.
A life in brief
Born: Roy Hodgson, 9 August 1947, Croydon, south London.
Family: His mother was a baker; his father worked in a chemical factory. Married to Sheila, two sons.
Education: John Ruskin Grammar School in Surrey, up to sixth form.
Career: After brief playing career, coaching career began in the mid-1970s and took him all over Europe. His run to the England post can be traced to his successful 2007-10 time at Fulham. Failed at Liverpool before moving to West Bromwich Albion and becoming England manager in May.
He says: "Look into the mirror rather than look for excuses elsewhere."
They say: "One important thing that he does, 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." Martin Dahlin, former Sweden international