Football: Hodgson accepts the accolades

Blackburn Rovers' ebullient manager is proud of his roots in football's twilight zone yet remains eager to learn new skills

AS ROY HODGSON took the stage, a wave of applause swept Birmingham's International Conference Centre. Loud and prolonged, it was not simply a polite expression of welcome, nor a result of his fame as manager of Blackburn Rovers. For the delegates to Thursday's Football Association Coaches Association annual conference, it was an opportunity to pay their respects to one of their own, a coach who had shown you do not need to have been a leading footballer to mix it with the Viallis, the O'Learys and the Robsons.

While the audience included the likes of David Platt and Sammy Lee, the bulk of the 900 listeners had been, like Hodgson, journeymen footballers.

Some had made a living from the game, some supplemented incomes from more prosaic jobs, some had never got beyond paying to play. All were now trying to make a mark teaching rather than playing.

For them Hodgson, a reserve player at Crystal Palace and a part-timer with clubs like Gravesend, Maidstone and Carshalton, had shown what could be achieved. A coaching career in four countries has featured seven Swedish league titles, a World Cup campaign with Switzerland, a Uefa Cup final with Internazionale of Milan and, now, a leading role in the Premiership soap opera - including being the bookies' choice as England coach-in-waiting.

Hodgson, whose Blackburn team host Arsenal at Ewood Park tomorrow, gave a stimulating and thoughtful lecture on "effective teamwork". He began, with reference to Blackburn's early-season struggles, by suggesting that he was "glad it was not about `the winning way' as I'd have to leave the stage immediately." He then added that the last time he gave the speech was in Swedish.

This contradictory mixture of self-depreciation and mild showing-off is indicative of someone who has raised himself to a more elevated level than he and his contemporaries might have thought possible. However, Hodgson, a bus-drivers' son from Croydon, does not appear to be much troubled by the concomitant feelings of self-doubt and arrogance. He has a sense of self-worth, but not to the extent that he feels he has all the answers. His mere presence at the conference underlined his belief in the value of learning and he is clearly widely read. His speech quoted sources from Churchill to Vince Lombardi, the legendary American football coach, and also included saying from US basketball and Swedish ice hockey coaches.

"It is all about exchanging views and, more importantly, hearing views," he said of the learning process when we met in a small room off the main hall. "I began by attending meetings of the Surrey Coaches Association and doing the FA courses. Then, if you can get a start, you learn on the job.

"It was my love of the game that led me into coaching. I wanted to stay involved. It was more that than the pedagogic reasons of wanting to teach people.

"There is this `show us your caps' mentality in the game, but it would have been more of a problem to me if I had started in England rather than in Sweden. When I first came back to Bristol City [for an ill-fated spell at the then-bankrupt club around 1980] my reputation was established. If I had gone straight into a league job as soon as I had my first bad spell it would have been a case of `who has he ever played for?' As it is, my reputation as a coach has preceded me at each step and, after 23 years of coaching, I think I can forget the `caps' argument.

Hodgson has a touch of the lecturer about him, especially with his wide vocabulary which is indicative of both an autodidact and a man who has spent much of his working life in other languages. There is also an essential decency, which has sometimes appeared at odds with the more earthy atmosphere of an English football club.

But the recent televised encounter between Hodgson's foot and a bucket, during the home defeat with Chelsea, revealed a more passionate nature and he stressed that it was `the hothouse of the dug-out' which appealed to him, not the calmer world of football academia as enjoyed by another speaker, the former Scotland coach Andy Roxburgh, now the technical director of Uefa.

This is borne out in practice. Whichever job he has been in, Hodgson has been careful not to get sidetracked into administration. "I never miss a coaching session. I could sit in the office, talk to players, or go on scouting trips. I choose not to. I do as many sessions now as I've always done, 260-290 sessions a year. The most was probably in Italy, the least when I was manager of Switzerland, as you do not get the players so often."

His record there - he led the Swiss to the 1994 World Cup and Euro 96 - is one reason why Hodgson, who was introduced by the FA headhunter Jimmy Armfield as "one of the most experienced coaches in the world", has been linked with the England job. While he would almost certainly relish the task, he has been careful not to make any public comment and professes not even to have read the press speculation.

For now, he is more concerned with a Rovers team who could be one from bottom, with eight points from nine league games, by the time they kick- off tomorrow. A terrible run of injuries, with 13 players missing training this week, has been a major factor. So is a collective loss of confidence which has been exacerbated by several late defeats. Having been second at the turn of the year, with 41 points from 21 games, Rovers have taken just 25 points from 26 matches in 1998, losing 15 and winning seven. The departure of Colin Hendry, and speculation about Tim Sherwood and Chris Sutton, has not helped.

Blackburn, champions four years ago, are in danger of being left behind as the Premiership continues to evolve. "Jack Walker [the club's owner] has money but," said Hodgson, "the `size is important' argument must come into it. We have a catchment area of 120,000 and do well to have 25,000 crowds.

"Salaries are going through the roof and to justify them you must have money coming in through merchandising and the gate, you can't just do it on TV income. That is obviously limiting for clubs like us. But with, good management and husbandry, it is possible for teams like us and Wimbledon to do well in the Premiership. Our aim this season is still to finish in the top six, and we do not have to abandon that after nine games. The league is tight enough to get there, as Aston Villa showed last season."

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