Football: English custodian of tartan keepers
PLAY-OFF SHOWDOWN: Scotland secure between posts as Hodgkinson transforms reputation for butter-fingered goalkeepers
Saturday 13 November 1999
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."
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