'Art of being a good manager doesn't just disappear'

The Roy Hodgson interview: Nomad of a football coach was as big an influence on the game as Eriksson. Nick Townsend meets a man between jobs with a world of experience
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The Independent Football

When you've had breakfast with him in Milan when his Internazionale side were flourishing, and a last supper when his days were numbered at Blackburn Rovers, it appears incongruous to bump into Roy Hodgson again at Upton Park and find him summarising on the Hammers' 5-3 defeat by Manchester United, for Radio 5 Live. Certainly, the coach comes equipped with highly informed views based on vast international experience, but it's rather like a talented cabinet minister filling in time by appearing on Have I got News For You? He is an eloquent analyst, but his contemplative, and just occasionally irate, visage should be viewed on the touchline, not behind the microphone.

But Hodgson, one of European football's nomads, accepts his current position philosophically. His dismissal from Udinese in Italy last December has been followed by three months out of work, the Croydon-born coach's longest absence from the pressures of the game apart from the six months he gave himself to take stock after being sacked by Blackburn at the end of 1998.

He concedes he was not entirely blameless in majority shareholder Giampaolo Pozzo's decision to terminate his service with the Serie A club. "I was quoted in a newspaper article as saying that it was a mistake to go there, that Inter was a much easier club to work at," he explains. "But I wanted to leave, so I was quite happy."

Hence the punditry with Radio 5 Live and Sky TV, and some unpaid work for Uefa. When we met up again later in the week in Richmond, Surrey, where he lives with his wife Sheila, Hodgson had just arrived back from Turin in this week of Anglo-Italian encounters. He had been compiling a report on the Arsenal-Juventus Champions' League fixture as part of Uefa technical director Andy Roxburgh's panel of experts. Hodgson has been the manager or coach of nine clubs in five countries, and the national manager of Switzerland. The irony is that, as much as his reputation abroad has on two occasions made him a serious contender for the England job, his principal foray into club management here (he also spent a year at Bristol City in the early Eighties) ended with the late Jack Walker handing him his P45 after an inauspicious start.

"Of course, my track record, if people bothered to study it, would put me in the same category as [Sir Alex] Ferguson enjoys today, but people don't talk about what I've done outside England," he says. "Here, they just talk about Blackburn Rovers, but that's just a very small part of a 26-year career. To most English journalists it's the only part. I've got an excellent track record in Sweden, Switzerland, Italy and in Denmark, where FC Copenhagen was my last job before I went to Udinese. We won the league there by seven points. Admittedly, the fact that I walked out and went to Italy to some extent tarnished that reputation..."

It was in his first season at Ewood Park – a job he was offered when his long-time friend, one Sven Goran Eriksson, back-tracked on an agreement to become their manager – that his star was truly in the ascendancy. Coach of Internazionale is a badge that will always draw admiring glances in this country. Two Manager of the Month awards ensued as Rovers led the Premiership before finishing sixth. This, the sages confidently predicted, was the next England manager. Before Christmas the following year, he was out.

For a time, his stock inevitably declined. "That's always the way it will be," he says. "You can be touted for future glories, then maybe a manager's fortunes change and the whole attitude towards him changes. Of course, it's wrong. If you've got the ability to be a good manager one minute, then unless people's judgements are totally wrong, that ability doesn't just disappear a few months later."

He adds: "In my case, I don't think it has. I went abroad again after that, and still I saw that my name was being strongly linked with England. To be fair to the England camp, they obviously saw beyond temporary success or temporary failure to qualities they thought I could bring to the job and all credit to them for that. They looked at my record overall."

Hodgson's begins at Halmstads in Sweden as a 28-year-old, after failing to make the grade as a player at Crystal Palace. In tandem initially with Bobby Houghton, he won the championship in his first season at a club apparently destined for relegation. It was around the same time that Eriksson began his coaching career.

"The football that Bob Houghton and I brought to Sweden between 1974 and 1979 fashioned the whole of Swedish success ever since," says Hodgson who coached seven players who played in a national team that finished third in the 1994 World Cup. "In six years we won five championships between us. When we arrived Swedish clubs were playing man-for-man football all over the field, very Germanic, following the West Germany and Bayern Munich model.

"Then suddenly, from about 1977, a new breed of coaches, with Eriksson probably in the forefront, came along on the back of this and, ever since, the Swedes have played English football really, so much so that in the last 20 years and the last eight games they've not been beaten by England. They've achieved it by playing the archetypal English football that Bob Houghton and I introduced."

Hodgson first met Eriksson when the current England coach arrived at Gothenburg. "We met as rivals and, of course, friends because he became the third man, if you like, to really embrace the Bob Houghton-Roy Hodgson style of football. And he went out on a limb to do so, because at that time this type of football still wasn't generally accepted in Sweden."

Since then, the Eriksson graph has been one of steady progress to what, in this country, we might consider the summit. Not so, according to Hodgson. "Sven's career has been on a high-level plateau for many years, since Benfica, since Sampdoria, Fiorentina, Roma, Lazio," he insists. "It's arrogant for us to say that he's reached the pinnacle by becoming coach of England."

He adds: "It's a wonderful career. And he's playing the kind of football with England today as he has for the past 20 years, the way he did when my teams played against his in Sweden and in Italy. He believes in zonal defence, in compact play, pressurising, getting the ball forward quickly to the front players and supporting them, all the good English principles that Manchester United and Arsenal, Leeds and Liverpool show.

"I thought it was a good choice on behalf of the FA. I was sure he'd do a good job, as has been proven the case. But if you've been a candidate for the job, and you'd be happy to take it and somebody else gets it, then obviously any feelings you have for them are going to be mitigated by the fact that you wish it had been you.

"It [not being selected] didn't bother me. I didn't put myself up as a candidate. I was just pleased to hear that I was being considered. That was an honour in itself. It would have been an even greater honour if they'd said, 'You're the man'. But I understood that I was in competition with some other very strong candidates, names like Sven, [Terry] Venables, [Arsène] Wenger, all the top people in the game and you can't always expect to come out on top. I'm pleased they went for a good man and that it's working out because I would have been disappointed if they'd passed me over and given it to someone who wasn't very good and the team had done badly."

So, how great would be his confidence if Eriksson, say, fell ill and the FA asked him to step in during the summer? "With the quality of football and players we've produced and are continuing to produce, there's no doubt in my mind that England will do themselves justice," he says. "I'm convinced we'll see a good England performance in all three games. Given just a reasonable amount of good fortune that their football will merit, we'll see the team progress and do extremely well. It's well managed and it's got good players. But the group they find themselves in is unfortunate. It really is extremely strong."

While Eriksson moved on to Italy, Hodgson's choice was Switzerland, coaching the club side Neuchâtel Xamax and then the national team, with whom he qualified for the 1994 World Cup and reached the second round. Two years later, his Swiss team secured a place in Euro '96 and held Terry Venables' England 1-1 at Wembley before being eliminated. Internazionale beckoned and optimism was high when he led them to the 1997 Uefa Cup final, losing on penalties to Schalke 04, but failure to win the scudetto made the sack inevitable. And so to Blackburn.

With uncanny timing, a Rovers fan (there's not too many of them in Richmond) approaches him in the street, shakes hands, and announces that Hodgson should never have departed. "We suddenly found ourselves near the bottom and that persuaded Jack [Walker], who feared for their Premiership status, to panic. But I remain convinced that if I'd stayed at the club Blackburn wouldn't have been relegated. The players were every bit behind me as they ever were. We would have turned it around."

It was back to the scenic tour. To Inter again, briefly, as technical director, followed by Grasshoppers of Switzerland, FC Copenhagen and Udinese. Now, the wait. During the hiatus, Hodgson, 54, who speaks four foreign languages fluently – including Swedish for heaven's sake – and is an insatiable reader of contemporary as well as classic literature ("I've just finished John Banville's Eclipse") attempts to be patient. "I'm worried that I'll get bored and take a job when I should have waited for some other better opportunity to come along," he says. "I'm sufficiently arrogant to think that I don't have to put myself around. At the same time, if I just disappear, it might be hard for people to find me. But I probably err on the side of being too discreet."

During this interval, Hodgson is ideally placed to gauge the relative merits of Italian and English football, particularly with recent Champions' League fortunes and Wednesday's international at Elland Road in mind. But, radical thinker that he is, he doesn't follow the predictable line of reasoning on Italian club football.

"It's too simplistic to say, 'They didn't qualify. Therefore they're crap'," he says. "Looking at it from a very technical football viewpoint as I do, I'd say that Roma could just as easily qualified from that group as Liverpool or Barcelona. Technically, against Liverpool the other night they looked quite good. But really it's about the star performers. Roma will suffer badly without a Totti just as Manchester United will suffer from the absence of Beckham or Giggs. Take Zidane or Roberto Carlos out of Real Madrid and replace them with McManaman and Salgado and it's not the same. Likewise with Juventus. I'm not convinced that Leverkusen or Deportivo La Coruña are better football teams than Juventus or Arsenal. It could just have easily been that pair."

However, he does concede: "The Italian league will have a lot of soul-searching to do, just as we would in England if we didn't have any qualifiers next season, which could easily happen. If I was an Italian club chairman or an administrator I would be very concerned."

Chances are that by the summer he may study that apparent malaise from close quarters as manager of one of their clubs. Though he insists that it is not "a burning ambition", you suspect that, in truth, Roy Hodgson would relish another stab at the Premiership. Either that or begin his memoirs. They could call it: The Rough Guide to World Football Management.

Biography: Roy Hodgson

Born: 9 August 1947, Croydon.

Family: Married to Sheila, one son.

Background: Trained as PE teacher, speaks five languages.

Playing career: Midfielder, on Crystal Palace books as youngster, moved to Maidstone Utd, then Berea Park in South Africa.

Managerial/coaching career: 1976: Coach, Halmstads in Sweden, won championship. 1980: Assisted Bobby Houghton at Bristol City. 1981: Coach, Orebro, Sweden. 1982: Manager, Bristol City. 1983: Coach, Malmo, Sweden, won five successive championships and two cups. 1990: Coach, Neuchatel Xamax. 1992: Coach, Switzerland, inc 1994 World Cup, 1996 European Championship. 1996: Coach, Internazionale of Milan, reached 1997 Uefa Cup final. 1997: Manager, Blackburn Rovers, 6th in first season. 1998: Technical director, Internazionale. 1999: Coach, Grasshoppers, Switzerland. 2000: Coach, FC Copenhagen. 2001: Coach Udinese, dismissed in December.