2014 World Cup: First-class Roy Hodgson, who could have been a travel agent, deserves his trip to Brazil
Modest and affable manager, who nearly started travel agency aged 40, is delighted to be packing his bags for the World Cup
The last thing Roy Hodgson did before he turned out the light on Tuesday night, he said, was to read a few pages of the book he currently has on the go, the novel Stoner by John Williams, written in the 1960s, which has been rediscovered lately as a modern classic.
The title makes it sound ripe for a Seth Rogen movie adaptation but before anyone gets excited, Stoner bares no relevance to the modern meaning of the term. It is about the life, the New Yorker review says, of an "ordinary, almost an invisible, man" who works quietly in academia. Put it this way, it is about as far away as one could imagine from the book least likely to grace Hodgson's bedside table; the recently released Always Managing, by one Harry Redknapp.
It is tempting to imagine the novel's central character, William Stoner, as a parallel to Hodgson – the quiet man conscientiously getting on with life. Invited to respond to Redknapp's criticism that he would not trust the Football Association "to show me a good manager if their lives depended on it", Hodgson declined. Having reached the World Cup finals with England, a key part of the job he was employed to do, he would have been forgiven for settling a few scores.
It would be a mistake to file Hodgson away with the quiet men of English football, not with the ambitious, stubborn streak in his character that has taken him to where he is now having endured a fair few disappointments in the past. It is 36 years since he left South Africa for Switzerland to take his first job in management at Halmstads, who he led to an improbable league title that first season, knowing that failure might not bring him another chance.
Even when Hodgson told a story about how he and his former friend and mentor Bobby Houghton once planned to quit football management at the age of 40 to run a travel agency, it was hard to believe that the current England manager would ever walk away. He is 66 now and in qualifying for a World Cup finals for the second time in his varied career shows no sign of stopping, for all the self-deprecation.
Hodgson said: "We had some success early on [in Sweden]. Bob had already won the league twice, then I won it, then he won it again and then I won it again. So things were going quite well for us. We were young and our vision I suppose was to get to 40. 'Let's keep doing this until we are 40, hopefully we will have made a little bit of money and then maybe we could set up a business together.'
"It was one of those silly little ideas that sometimes you have when you are young but I occasionally think of it now, 26 years after my 40th birthday, and wonder what would have become of me if we had decided to fulfil what was then, if not a dream, an idea. If we had actually retired at 40. If we put a little bit of money together and started a business, I wonder where we would be today."
The chances are that in his parallel life Hodgson would have been, like just about every other travel agent in the country, trying to find a reasonably priced hotel room in Brazil during the World Cup finals. Instead, at 40, Hodgson was leading Malmo to five straight league championships, still a record in Sweden, and no doubt realising that he was better suited to management than he had ever given himself credit.
He has developed a patient, thoughtful style, making, for example, the decision to include Andros Townsend in the last two qualifiers in consultation with Ray Lewington and Gary Neville. He said that he will meet with Andy Flower, the England cricket coach, when their diaries allow it; just as he has spoken to Clive Woodward and Stuart Lancaster in the past. Unprompted, he named one of his major concerns as how he would fill the players' long hours between games and training at a World Cup.
That was never a concern of Fabio Capello who, at the joyless Royal Bafokeng base in South Africa in 2010, expected players to retreat to their rooms. The 2014 World Cup finals could be a six-week expedition if England get beyond the groups stages, once you consider the two pre-tournament friendlies in the United States and the training camp in Miami, which, luckily, is already regarded as a Premier League footballers' paradise.
"It's an unbelievably delicate balance and furthermore there's no correct answers," Hodgson said. "It's not quite trial and error but the fact is there is no answer, that you're going to be away for four or five weeks and you've got to learn to live away from your family and friends and your normal life. That's not a normal thing to do. These players are very young and I found that very hard in America with the Swiss boys to get that right."
The "Swiss boys" are the Switzerland team that he took to the 1994 World Cup finals in the USA, the country's first appearance at the tournament in seven editions. Hodgson quite readily admitted that it was a case then "of the blind leading the blind", with neither he nor the Swiss Football Association having much idea what to expect.
That was regarded as a great achievement, but then on Tuesday night it was special achieving the same with England. "When you manage your own country, you have the weight of your memories, the weight of your upbringing, all the people that you would be very anxious not to disappoint," Hodgson said. "The thoughts are about your immediate family. Of course, at my age, my parents are dead but you still give them a thought from time to time. There's a lot of areas there that weigh more heavily when you are working in your own country."
It was a rare glimpse into the private life of the modest, affable man who has led England to a World Cup finals in often unpromising circumstances. It will be intriguing to see how he handles a challenge that has confounded so many of his predecessors.
15 or 16 November Friendly v Chile, Colombia or Ecuador (Wembley)
19 November Friendly v Germany (Wembley)
5 March 2014 Friendly v Denmark (Wembley)
27 or 28 May 'Send-off' friendly (Wembley)
June Friendly v USA (East coast city) and Friendly v tbc (Miami). Fly to Rio de Janeiro. Based at Royal Tulip hotel. Training at Urca military base
12 June World Cup finals start
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