Football: English custodian of tartan keepers

PLAY-OFF SHOWDOWN: Scotland secure between posts as Hodgkinson transforms reputation for butter-fingered goalkeepers

IMAGINE THE following scenario before today's first leg of the Euro 2000 play-off at a heaving Hampden Park. Not only does Kevin Keegan dispense with the experience of David Seaman, but he also overlooks the in-form Nigel Martyn. Instead he opts to play a 20-year-old goalkeeper from the lower divisions, who stands 5ft 9in and has fewer than 30 senior games to his name, barely half of them in the Premiership.

It sounds like a fanciful plot from sporting fiction. Yet when he was plucked from Sheffield United's promotion push to represent England against Scotland at Wembley in 1957, Alan Hodgkinson fitted the above profile exactly.

Hodgkinson won a further four caps and went to the 1962 World Cup in Chile as the back-up to another Sheffield custodian, Wednesday's Ron Springett. He was born in Rotherham - as was Seaman, whose story intersects with his own - but in the impending battles his loyalties are with the Scots.

To be precise, they will be with the player between the posts for Scotland. Confusing matters further, that man will be the Surrey-born Neil Sullivan, with a native of Paddington, Jonathan Gould, on the bench. The man both know as "Hodgy" has been goalkeeping coach to the Scottish squad for 13 years. During that time this maligned breed has, with the occasional blip, done much to banish the stigma created by a handful of hapless Caledonian custodians beneath the twin towers.

Now 63 and dividing his time between the national team and Rangers, Hodgkinson has never subscribed to the stereotype of the butter-fingered "Jocko" buffoon pedalled by his old England colleague Jimmy Greaves. For one thing, he has worked with some fine Scottish goalkeepers, notably Andy Goram. For another, his experience of the oldest international rivalry provided an early lesson in humility.

Hodgkinson, who had been a gymnast as a boy, made 15 top-flight appearances in his late teens. However, United were in the old Second Division when he was called up from the reserves for the Christmas Day fixture in 1956. Ten weeks and as many games later, arriving to play at Port Vale, a reporter told him he had been chosen to face Scotland.

"We went out and beat Vale 6-0 and it was only later that it sank in and the nerves started jangling," he recalls. "I'd never met Stanley Matthews or Tom Finney, or even played against them, but suddenly they were going to be my team-mates. Stan was 42 by then and didn't train with us at Highbury. He just loosened up so I met him for the first time in the bath."

His impression of Matthews as a "smashing bloke" has endured in spite of the master winger's part in his ill-starred introduction to the international scene. With 100,000 inside Wembley (most of them, he remembers, wearing tartan), Hodgkinson's proudest day swiftly turned sour.

"The very first time I touched the ball was to pick it out of the net. Inside a minute, Matthews lost the ball and John Hewie, a South African who played for Scotland, fed it to Tommy Ring. He hit it well and I had no chance. I was thinking: `Oh my goodness.' My nerves started going and I missed a few crosses. But we came back to win 2-1 and it was a great day."

Hodgkinson never had a specialist coach in his 20 years at Bramall Lane, which the Blades shared with Yorkshire's cricketers. To improve his agility he spent hours hurling balls at their giant roller and springing to catch them as they rebounded at varying angles. The word which is central to his professional ethos today was already burned into his mind.

"It's technique," he explains. "I went with the school when Hungary beat England 6-3 at Wembley in 1953. [Guyula] Grosics was in goal for them, all in black, and when he made a save he seemed to handle the ball better than our keepers did. He was more supple, too. I thought then: `That's what I want to be.'

"The reports next day were all about their superior technique. They still say that every time a European team beats a British one. I find that ridiculous, so the emphasis in my work is on the technical side - handling, getting the angles right, distribution - and on achieving consistency. I like to think I've been reasonably successful."

Sir Alex Ferguson is one of numerous leading managers who could confirm as much. Hodgkinson advised him that a little-known Danish goalkeeper "will help you win the championship" and later worked hard to iron out Peter Schmeichel's idiosyncrasies.

Bobby Robson is another. When Hodgkinson was assisting England's Under- 21s, both keepers withdrew before a semi-final with Italy. One of the replacements he nominated was "this promising kid" he had noticed at Peterborough in the Fourth Division.

"Dave Sexton [the England Under-21s manager] rang Bobby and he wasn't too keen to bring someone from that level into the national set-up. He took a bit of convincing, but we got him in." When the kid met Hodgkinson again at a Buckingham Palace reception for the England and Scotland World Cup squads last December, they chuckled about how hard he had worked him. His name was Seaman.

It was Craig Brown's predecessor, Andy Roxburgh, who invited Hodgkinson to become a tartan Tyke, allowing him to test his methods at the highest level and enabling the Scots to become acquainted with the concept of clean sheets.

For most of his time with Scotland, Goram and Jim Leighton vied for the No 1 jersey. He worked with the former at Oldham and cites him as a player who has top-class skills and a "presence" which does not depend on stature.

Sullivan is a strapping six-footer with "good hands", not to mention a kick, befitting a Crazy Gang stalwart, that could drop the ball deep in English territory. "The time was right for Neil," Hodgkinson asserts. "He has conceded a lot of goals for Wimbledon but, with respect, they're not a great team and they're coming to terms with a new system. All that concerns me is what he does when I'm working with him, and he's a beast for work.

"He didn't give up a goal in his last two games for Scotland or in Germany [a 1-0 win], and he played well in the Czech Republic even though he finished on the losing side. So the consistency's coming. And Neil won't be fazed by facing England. He's a strong character, totally unflappable, who comes up against the Shearers and Owens every week."

One of the sights of France 98 was of Sullivan and his fellow Anglos strolling round the stadium in kilts before Scotland met Brazil. They were joined in their sartorial stance by Hodgkinson, whose allegiance has not wavered simply because the opposition wear the three lions to which he once aspired.

"Though I'm proud of my caps, my only feelings now are to beat England," says Hodgkinson, laughing off the possibility of being labelled a traitor. "But my real loyalty is to my keepers. That's my industry. No matter where they are, at home or abroad, my job is to get the best out of the guys I work with."

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

AIFMD Business Analyst / Consultant - Investment Management

£450 - £600 per day: Harrington Starr: AIFMD Business Analyst / Consultant - I...

Business Analyst Solvency II SME (Pillar 1, 2 & 3) Insurance

£450 - £600 per day: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Solvency II SME (Pilla...

Manager - SAS - Data Warehouse - Banking

£350 - £365 per day: Orgtel: Manager, SAS, Data Warehouse, Banking, Bristol - ...

Web Analyst – Permanent – West Sussex – Up to £43k

£35000 - £43000 Per Annum plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

Day In a Page

Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?
Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

Young at hort

Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

Beyond a joke

Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

A wild night out

Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

Besiktas vs Arsenal

Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment