Hodgkinson saves the best until last

Oxford United's goalkeeping coach is nearly 70. An unsung revolutionary, he played with Duncan Edwards and recommended Peter Schmeichel. He talks to Phil Shaw
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The Independent Football

They say life begins at 40. Make it 60 in the case of Alan Hodgkinson. Just before reaching that landmark, Britain's first and foremost goalkeeping coach underwent a quadruple heart bypass. "The surgeon told me he'd give me another 25 years to work," the former England keeper says. "That was 10 years ago, so I've still got 15 to go!

He may not be joking. A month after going under the scalpel, Hodgkinson was back on the training ground, in freezing Moscow, helping Scotland's keepers prepare for what proved a clean sheet against Russia in a Euro '96 qualifier.

Today, five months before his 70th birthday, Hodgkinson is working for the League Two club Oxford United, where he was this week reunited with Jim Smith. "Jim used to clean my boots when he was a kid at Sheffield United and I was a big shot," he says impishly of his new boss. "I've coached at three clubs where he was manager. We get on well - he calls a spade a spade - and he knows what I can do."

Hodgkinson is the unsung revolutionary who introduced the "Continental" concept of technique to the development of British keepers. A Yorkshireman who missed just 14 games in 19 years for Sheffield United, he is also a walking, talking history of post-war football. He played with Stanley Matthews, Duncan Edwards and Tom Finney, against John Charles, Denis Law and George Best; helped launch David Seaman's career with England and Peter Schmeichel's at Manchester United.

He was also the schoolboy who kept a promise to his parents that he would play for England at Wembley; the players' union activist who stood alongside Jimmy Hill during the threatened strike of 1961; and later, the specialist coach who rehabilitated the reputation of Scotland's custodians. "It's been one long dream for more than half a century," he grins, "with just the odd nightmare along the way."

Goalkeepers are crazy, conventional wisdom claims. Hodgkinson's mission has been to replace individualism and eccentricity with discipline and dedication, especially now, in the age of the back-pass rule, that they are "a full part of the team". His hands reveal an absence of the bent or bulbous fingers which are traits of those who rely on punching rather than catching and daring rather than technique.

His father, who came from a mining family, hoped those fingers would see a different use, sending him for piano lessons as a boy. "I did it religiously and took exams. But suddenly football took hold of me. I remember walking past the local rec with money for my lesson, thinking: 'I'd rather play with the guys'. My dad wasn't happy but he did let me stop the piano."

Sheffield United took him on at 16. Soon he travelled with the club's other young hopefuls to see Hungary trounce England 6-3 at Wembley. "That was the birth of modern football. It was all about fitness, flexibility and, above all, technique - the goalie [Gyula Grosics] included."

There were no goalkeeping coaches then. "We were self-taught. Being a small-stature goalie, 5ft 10in, I'd already worked out I needed super agility and did gymnastics at school. I learnt a lot about angles and diving by cutting action pictures from the papers and studying them. And at a game, I'd focus on the goalie. I played truant to go to Bramall Lane to watch Bert Williams, the Wolves and England goalie."

At 18, Hodgkinson made a winning debut at Newcastle, Jackie Milburn et al. When he was 20, he was met off the bus at Port Vale by a reporter. "He asked how I felt about being picked to play for England against Scotland. I knew nothing about it. We celebrated by winning 6-0."

He can picture Stan Matthews taking his vitamin pills out of a black bag the day before the game. At Wembley, a pass intended for the great man was intercepted and Hodgkinson's first touch was to fish the ball from the net. "I thought, 'Oh my goodness' but couldn't let it get me down. We won 2-1 and Stan set up Duncan Edwards for a 25-yard winner. Duncan was a lovely guy and a fabulous player. I had a lump in my throat when I watched the recent TV dramatisation of the Munich disaster."

Hodgkinson went to the 1962 World Cup, in Chile, as back-up to Sheffield Wednesday's Ron Springett. Throughout this time, and to the end of his playing days, he stayed with Sheffield United. "I felt a loyalty to them because they gave me the chance to fulfil my dream and I'm really hoping Neil Warnock can take them up.

"But when I was a young player we were on just £12 a week in winter and £8 in summer. I was one of the leaders in the Professional Footballers' Association's move to end the maximum wage. Our action improved the footballer's lot. Over the years I've worked with people who have made fortunes out of the game. Millionaires.

"But I don't look back in anger, or envy. I'm just glad I played when I did. There was a camaraderie. It was a sport. After training we sat in the tea shop and talked about the game. Now they shoot off in Porsches. Jimmy Greaves reckons it's a funny old game. That's a myth: it's an industry, like car-making or coal mining, where people get made redundant, get sacked."

Having finally hung up his gloves in 1971, Hodgkinson endured just such a downside after six years as assistant manager of Gillingham. He had been previously been invited to train keepers on Football Association courses. With a family to feed and bills to pay, he wrote to every senior club offering his services as a goalkeeping coach. He was inundated - "there wasn't enough time to satisfy the demand" - and had to move to the Midlands to get to his clients without spending half a day driving.

He worked for "anybody and everybody". Regular employers included Everton, Rangers, Aston Villa, Watford ("from Fourth Division to First") and Manchester United, where Alex Ferguson asked him to assess a player in Denmark. "In my report I said, 'He will win you the championship'. Peter Schmeichel wasn't the finished article - very impetuous at first - but he took on board everything I suggested. He was at Bury on Tuesday when I was there with Oxford. His son, Kasper, is on loan to them. Peter gave me a hug and we had a laugh."

While Hodgkinson was helping Dave Sexton with England's Under-21s, both squad keepers withdrew. He nominated a player Birmingham City had sent him to scout at Peterborough.

"We were in Dave's room and he rang Bobby Robson [then England manager]. Bobby was saying, - I'm not having Third Division players in the England set-up'. Dave said I'd recommended him and finally convinced him. Although he was extremely laid-back, he was excellent. Birmingham soon bought him. That's how David Seaman got his break."

He was with the England youth team when the then manager of Scotland, Andy Roxburgh, approached him to run a summer course for 18 keepers. It led to more than a decade as an honorary Scot, honing the skills of Andy Goram, Jim Leighton and Neil Sullivan. During that stint, which continued under Craig Brown, took in two World Cups and two European Championships, the nation's best keepers shook off the "joke" tag.

Before the opening match at France '98, against Brazil in Paris, the man the Scots called "Hodgy" joined the squad and back-room staff in donning a kilt. "After the tournament we were invited to Buckingham Palace. The Queen said, 'Oh, you're not a Scotchman". I explained that I was English. She asked who I supported when Scotland played England. I replied, 'Whoever pays me the money!' She said she agreed with that."

He stayed only one match after Berti Vogts took over and was "sad and angry" about how it ended. "But again, that's football," he shrugs, "and I didn't sit around waiting for calls." After spells at Coventry and Rushden & Diamonds he now trains "two nice goalies" at Oxford, Chris Tardif and Billy Turley, with a third, a towering Italian from Parma called Andrea Guatelli, joining on loan from Portsmouth on Thursday.

"I love seeing players improve when you work on technique. You need different programmes for different-sized goalies. They're not all 6ft 5in. The big ones need sharpness, mobility. The smaller ones need spring and to learn how to give themselves presence. Goram was smallish, but hard to beat. There's an art in that."

Several keepers he has coached, like Tony Coton and Jim McDonagh, are now coaching contemporaries. So what keeps him going at nearly three score years and 10?

"As long as I can beat the lads I train from 25 yards, my legs are fine. I don't go throwing myself around like I did, but I can still move well. It's a desire, a hunger. I don't get up in the morning and think, 'Oh no, I've got to go to Oxford'. I draw the curtains and say '- wonderful - I haven't died in my sleep!'

"I've crammed a lot in. I've got great memories. I can tell you what Matthews was like; or Law, who was probably the best I played against; about Best jinking round me to score; or saving a Bobby Charlton penalty that would have been a last-minute equaliser at Old Trafford.

"But I also live for the modern era. Football is a drug, and like Jim Smith, I'm still hooked. I'll decide when the feeling that drives me isn't there any more. Then maybe I'll stop."