Football: Hodgson's love of the brain game

Andrew Longmore meets the cultured mastermind behind a Rovers renaissance
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A Telegram lay on the desk. Roy Hodgson read it: "Extremely pleased with your great success. All my very best friendly regards, Massimo Moratti." The name of Internazionale's president was pronounced with a true Latin flourish and induced the hint of a smile. The news of Blackburn's startling opening to the new season has clearly not gone unnoticed in the Inter offices in the Piazza Duze. But the message of support came too late. Had he enjoyed it six months ago, Hodgson might still be at Inter, not plotting Blackburn's revival from a spruce new training ground in the Ribble Valley.

Hodgson turned down the initial offer from Blackburn, wooed by honeyed talk from Moratti. But a couple of defeats and a couple of back-stabbings later, he realised his mistake. By February, Hodgson had signed his contract with Blackburn and presented Moratti with a fait accomplit, the only way to do business in the Byzantine world of Italian football. Jump before you're pushed. Furbo, cunning, as the Italians say.

"There was no bitterness," Hodgson said. "I like the Italian way of life, I like the people and I enjoyed the football. I will always be grateful for my two years at Inter, it was just that I wasn't going to be able to work in the way I wanted to work, so it was better to leave it. I was just bitterly disappointed not to be able to bring them a title."

Hodgson will be a valuable addition to the managerial ranks of the Premiership, bringing with him a fusion of footballing styles, a love of opera and obscure Czech writers and irrefutable proof that continental football can be preached with a Croydon accent. At a time when big business demands high- profile names, Hodgson has bucked the trend, has been doing so since growing up the son of a bus driver with a passion for football but no discernible pedigree or talent.

His playing credentials read like a Connex South Central timetable: Maidstone, Ashford, Carshalton. At the age of 28, he decided, wisely, that coaching was his future and, clutching his Football Association coaching badge, disappeared to Halmstads where he took the Swedish equivalent of Wimbledon to two titles in four years. Five successive titles with Malmo, and a successful spell in Switzerland in which he guided the national side into the uncharted waters of the last 16 of the World Cup and into the finals of Euro 96, led to the call from Inter and back to his homeland for the first time since a brief flirtation with Bristol City 17 years ago.

A sentimental journey perhaps, a burning desire to answer the question Roy Who? "No, afraid not. I came to Blackburn because they made me a good offer. This is a famous club with potential, giving me the chance to do the job I want to do. Had it been Bayern or Paris, I'd have gone there. I don't see it as returning from exile. Sometimes, I feel I'm in exile here," he said.

Not much opera in Clitheroe nor much requirement for his fluent Swedish, German and French apart from persuading a few more imports to follow the golden fleece to the Premiership. Itinerant folk, he calls football managers, though the short journey from his rented home in Waddington to the training quarters in Brockhall Village will not boost his air miles. After the maelstrom of Milan, he is relishing the anonymity, the peace of the countryside, the camaraderie.

"It was a lonely life in Italy," he said. "Here you bump into old acquaintances, you feel part of a fraternity. In Italy, you were put on a pedestal and knew that 60 million people wanted to be in your place, so you had to watch out." Never more so in the week of a Milanese derby where defeat meant ignominy and victory temporary ordination. Hodgson was unbeaten in his four. It should stand him in good stead. Blackburn v Bolton will not be quite as intense.

"I've been barricaded in the dressing room by the Inter Ultras," he said. "I've been hit on the head by a coin in Perugia, and playing in Napoli was a hair-raising experience, yet those local derbies were a great experience. But there are high-profile games in the Premiership. Whether it's 40,000 or 80,000, it doesn't make a lot of difference when you're out there on the bench."

Not even Hodgson could have predicted such a spectacular honeymoon on his homecoming. Old Blackburn were past their sell-by date and the swift departure of Graeme Le Saux and Henning Berg pleased the bank more than the fans. A few weeks later, Stuart Ripley is back in the England side, Chris Sutton is scoring goals, Jason Wilcox and Colin Hendry are new men, new Blackburn are top of the league and their manager is feted as Roy of the Rovers.

"A dream start, very pleasant," he says without conviction. "The club needed a new face, a bit of a new approach and I like to think the players here are good enough characters and professionals to tune in to the new regime. We've not made many changes; we're just trying to work in sensible ways." Sensible, Italianate ways? "My approach is more brain than brawn, but the ratio of brain to brawn is not much different in the Premiership from Serie A. There are plenty of coaches in Italy who just want to get the marking done, keep it tight, break the rhythm with fouls, that sort of thing. It's more a battle of wits in the European ties. Technically, I can do the same drills with these players as the Inter players. There's no difference on average."

The difference is in the physique and the culture, he says, the laddish drinking culture which stops English football from growing up. The sensible ways seem to be working wonders anyway. Blackburn have repatriated a managerial gypsy and, come springtime, Inter's regrets might be strewn all over the road from San Siro to Ewood Park.