Hodgson will take loss on the chin: Will the nation?
New man says he is prepared for difficulties in Norway, a country where previous England managers have come very publicly to grief, as he gears up for his first match at the helm
This is no place for an England manager trying to make his way. At the Ullevaal Stadium, to which the national side return tonight, Ron Greenwood hit the bottom in a defeat to Norway remembered less for the 2-1 scoreline, 31 years ago, than Norwegian broadcaster Bjorge Lillelien's ecstatic audit of the spirits who had been vanquished: Lord Nelson, Lord Beaverbrook, Sir Winston Churchill, Sir Anthony Eden, Clement Attlee, Henry Cooper and Lady Diana. “Maggie Thatcher, your boys took one helluva beating.”
Graham Taylor's hapless failure beneath the same floodlights 12 years later – The Sun's eviscerating "Norse manure" headline captured the mood – almost pales by comparison but both games capture that perennial, unedifying spectacle of the failing England manager. The venue is a deeply unfortunate one for Roy Hodgson's first game, as the realities of how brief a honeymoon spell he will be allowed become clear. Pictures of him carrying "the sack" of footballs already make headlines.
Hodgson won't go down craving Harry Redknapp's popularity though. That much was very clear last night in his first pre-match address as an England manager which was most remarkable for his refusal to agree with the notion put to him that he "wouldn't want to lose". "I'm entitled, as a football person, to take preparation games for what they are: preparation games," he said. "It would disappoint me if the mood of the nation was lowered if we happened to lose against Norway. I have to gainsay you. I can't concur with that."
Hodgson's language is archaic from time to time and his sentiments are not what many want to hear these days. We are in the age of the new; when an incoming football manager is supposed to be something shiny, undiscovered, attractive, mysterious, immediately thrilling. Hodgson is none of those. Yet, though not a man for the grand entrance, he is already deeply focused on a date in Donetsk on 11 June. Hodgson is understood to have been attracted for several weeks to the idea of playing two strikers against Laurent Blanc's French side and the two front men in possession of the shirts, as things stand, are tonight's: Liverpool's Andy Carroll and, behind him, Manchester United's Ashley Young. Scott Parker and Steven Gerrard will play 45 minutes each as Hodgson tests how Frank Lampard fits in. Robert Green gets his first international time since his World Cup error against the United States in Rustenburg. Significantly. Hodgson said he was "expecting performances from the players because it's an opportunity for them to prove they should be involved." The New Ullevaal is very much a testbed for Donetsk's Donbass Arena.
As he lays these plans, the manager is already bedevilled by the tortures of his forebears. It is quite possible, we now know, that the next field Danny Welbeck trains on will be the Hutnik Stadium in Krakow and the risk of taking him feels like one of those issues with potential to wrap us up in the same miasma of angst that Wayne Rooney, David Beckham and Gareth Barry and various metatarsals have before.
And even though there was good news on Parker, whose Achilles has surpassed expectations at both this week's training sessions, Hodgson seems irritated by Liverpool's failure to tell him that only injections have kept Glen Johnson going in recent weeks, with a toe infection. He is deeply reluctant to take Daniel Sturridge to Poland instead of Welbeck, considering him untested as a central striker.
As the logic, the calculations and permutations poured out relentlessly from Hodgson, the disconnected, baffling utterances sprang to mind of Fabio Capello. The Italian may have been shiny, attractive and mysterious. But he ran out of ideas when asked to name members of the next generation, after defeat to Germany in Bloemfontein.
In the end, there were attempts to prod a little sentimentality out of Hodgson, befitting the moment which represents the pinnacle of a 36-year managerial journey, tramping through some fairly remote places to take him here. Little of it was forthcoming. "What does the word 'circuitous' mean?" he said, deflecting the question. He rather liked his new red England jacket, he would admit. That circuitous journey now allows him to discuss the merits of Total Football and its more direct equivalent with authority and yesterday he described a conversation with Rinus Michels, proponent of the former, at one of the many technical panels they have sat on.
"People were very respectful of him, regarding him as a top man in the group, and someone [asked] about his Total Football," Hodgson related. "He said:'No'. He [just] had a big striker in his team and when we were losing with 15 minutes to go 'I'd stick him on and ask the team to kick it up to him quickly and rush after him. I always wanted to win.... So if he can say that..."
It was a very fitting anecdote for this manager, confirming his convictions that the tried and tested can work. He may preach with the same conviction as Michels if England prosper. If they lose tonight, everyone will learn that no England manager has gone down in his first game since a 5-2 caning by the French in 1963. Jimmy Armfield slumped in the dressing room that day and asked: "What sort of football do you call that?" The manager? Alf Ramsey.
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