England v Italy: Roy Hodgson up against fiercest challenge of his colourful career
England’s eloquent coach explains why he has confidence in his team
Asked as a final shot by the interviewer from ITV whether this was the moment that England had to reach for the stars, Roy Hodgson replied as only Roy Hodgson can. “Per Ardua Ad Astra [through adversity to the stars], that’s the Royal Air Force motto, isn’t it?”
England have never had a manager given to quoting Latin, and Fabio Capello was Italian. But Hodgson’s mind is given to spark in these moments, an eloquent man who never troubled England’s great seats of learning but can be found with his nose in a book at every spare moment. As with his literary interest, so too his management career. Both paths have been unorthodox. He is self-educated, a Jude the Obscure for 21st-century English football.
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Through adversity to the stars. It is a beguiling image for this England team on a journey that starts in the heat of the Amazon in a city which the RAF would surely appreciate – there are no roads in, you have to fly. Twenty years ago, Hodgson was the anomaly at the 1994 World Cup finals, an Englishman in the tournament while the nation’s best players languished at home (he took Switzerland to the last 16). Even to this day, no one is quite certain what a Hodgson World Cup England team will look like.
The regulation Fifa press conference with Hodgson and his captain, Steven Gerrard, at the Arena Amazonia took place at 10.15pm UK time last night, much too late for the early editions of the British newspapers. Instead, his interviews with the BBC and ITV were made available and from them we can deduce a man who, unlike many 66-year-olds, cherishing retirement and grandchildren, is approaching the fiercest challenge of his life.
The modern England manager must be an impact coach, capable of getting the best from a disparate group of players in a short period of time. He must be a diplomat with the clubs and a glad-hander with the sponsors. He must put on a performance for the media. He must manage an extensive staff. He must accept that the big logistical calls rest with him. Like his predecessors throughout time he has to deal with the Football Association, and its complex network of allegiances and enmities. Then he has to go to the World Cup and win matches.
What would that young coach who took over at Halmstads in Sweden in 1976, and led them to a remarkable league championship a year later, make of the Hodgson of today? “I think he’d be quite proud,” Hodgson said. “He’d certainly be happy that things have gone so well. But I understand where you are coming from. It’s humble beginnings, that’s for sure, but it’s nice to know that it is possible from humble beginnings to reach good positions. Hopefully, positions you are justified in having.”
What of the team he will select against Italy? Hodgson said Danny Welbeck’s right thigh injury was “a niggle”, nothing more than a “slight groin strain” that would not prevent him from playing tonight. As for whether Raheem Sterling or Ross Barkley could feature from the start, he expressed caution. They are “exciting talents with fantastic potential but you have to be careful that we don’t throw them into the lions’ den too early,” he said.
“We have to be aware that the World Cup is a little bit special. There is no doubt that experience does play a part. Quite a few of the teams that are really fancied to do well at this World Cup are quite old in terms of age and the number of caps. So I hope that I’ll be able to keep the balance going roughly as I’ve had it at.”
A beetle volkswagen, locally known as "fusca", painted in the green-yellow Brazilian national colours, is parked at the Praca 14 de Janeiro neighborhood in Manaus
What makes the modern game different, certainly the modern World Cup finals played in tropical heat, is that this is a 14-man game. Hodgson’s substitutions will be only slightly less a crucial part of his match plan than his first XI. He will be judged on the whole ensemble. He is not afraid of picking the youngsters – he could have selected a much older squad – and he made the point that a lack of World Cup experience need not be an impediment. “Pele went into 1958 World Cup as a total unknown – a 17-year-old who was unknown in Brazil, let alone Europe. At the end of that World Cup he became one of the most famous 17-year-olds the world has ever known.
“Maradona was very young when he first started playing for Argentina. Johan Cryuff was another one when he was dominating European football for Holland. And Beckenbauer was a young man when England won in 1966. I’m not afraid to give youth a chance, but youth will have to prove to me that it’s better than experience. If someone wants to take Gerrard’s position on the field, that’s fine by me just as long as someone proves to me he’s better than Gerrard.”
In his ill-fated time at Liverpool, Hodgson was often accused of underselling the history and ambition of the club, of talking in terms that failed to fire the imagination. As an England manager, he has proved the most outspoken in the modern era.
There is a conflict in Hodgson between the old and the new. He admits he looks at the GPS data from training sessions but in the end his judgements are based “on the old-fashioned days of seeing lots of games, having lots of reports, lots of discussions and then trying to back judgement on what you have seen”. He has a team that “does not give the ball away willy-nilly” but he is more interested in strong defending and goalscoring chances than possession stats.
Hodgson is convinced that this is a different England team from the one that drew with Italy at Euro 2012 and went out on penalties. He says there is more “energy, pace and mobility” in this squad than the group he picked up on the hop at the end of the season two years ago.
“I’ve got every confidence in the team and really do believe we will play well. There are always those moments you just can’t control: the refereeing decisions, the unlucky bounce of the ball, the ball hits the crossbar and goes in and comes out. They are really the only things I’m nervous about.”
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