Roy Hodgson: A civilised man tries to make sense of the hatred
It's high noon for the Black Country derby and the darker side of human nature will be on display, but Albion's manager Roy Hodgson has seen it all before, writes Michael Henderson
Michael McCarthy, formerly the Independent’s longstanding Environment Editor, now its Environment Columnist, is one of Britain’s leading writers on the environment and the natural world. He has won a string of awards for his work, including Environment Journalist of the Year (three times) and Specialist Writer of the Year in the British Press Awards in 2001. In 2007 he was awarded the Medal of the RSPB for “Outstanding Services to Conservation,” in 2010 he was awarded the Silver Medal of the Zoological Society of London, and in 2011 the Dilys Breeze Medal of the British Trust for Ornithology. In 2009 McCarthy published Say Goodbye To The Cuckoo (John Murray), a study of Britain’s declining migrant birds.
Sunday 16 October 2011
A singular man, Roy Hodgson. Last week, as other Premier League managers took an international weekend off, he went to see Broken Glass, Arthur Miller's drama about kristallnacht seen through the filter of a Jewish family in Brooklyn. At midday today, when he sends out his West Bromwich Albion players against Wolves in a derby that means more to both sets of fans than any other fixture, there will also be a whiff of cordite in the air.
"The narcissism of small differences," Dr Freud called it, and doesn't football continue to prove him right? Already this season there has been vile behaviour at games involving Leeds and Manchester United, Tottenham and Arsenal, and – with the difference no wider than a park – Everton and Liverpool. The Black Country derby will be just as nasty. These people – not every one, but thousands of zealots who will make sure they are heard – detest "the other" and don't care who knows.
As one might expect of a man who has spent most of the past three decades working abroad, Hodgson, 64, takes a broader view. "The peculiar thing about hatred," he says, "is how it gets passed on. You would have thought it was good for this region to have two clubs in the Premier League. Rivalry, yes. Fierce competition, of course.
"I suppose you have to be born and bred here, to have it instilled in you. We don't have any players from the area, and neither do Wolves. Mick McCarthy isn't from round here, nor am I. We didn't grow up with the taunts and the teasing.
"The really worrying thing is seeing young children making obscene gestures when they don't know what they are doing. When I was growing up, watching Crystal Palace, you supported your club and cheered them on, but I'm not sure in those days that people even booed. The opposition were not there to be hated.
"Let's face it, without opponents there isn't a game," he adds. "Yet recently, when Liverpool played at Everton, a Liverpool player went to take a corner and you could see the hatred on the faces of Everton fans. You got the impression that some of them would willingly have jumped over the fence to get at him.
"Human nature should not astonish us, but what engenders that degree of hatred? I don't know whether we do enough to educate people to be more tolerant of the opposition, or whether society has changed to such a degree that it is impossible. Teachers are there to be hated, police officers are there to be hated. We don't seem to have many public figures any more who command respect.
"The people we look up to, it seems, are sporting idols, and even then we hate them if they are not ours."
Pick that one out of the net. Yet Hodgson is not an angry man. Old-fashioned (in the best sense) in manner and appearance, he looks as if he has wandered out of The Lavender Hill Mob. Despite his experience of life on the Continent, which clearly shaped him, and his fluency in four languages other than his own, he could not pass for anything other than an Englishman; more specifically, an Englishman from south London, who happens to be supremely well-versed in English and European literature.
It was the London background that helped do for him at Liverpool, where he spent an unhappy seven-month period that ended earlier this year. He doesn't dwell on that interlude, nor does he need to. The club were in a mess, the locals regarded him as an outsider (shades of the Old South and barely coded talk of "those New York lawyers"), and the press proved biddable. Liverpool are a great club in a parochial provincial city. A modest, well-rounded man was never likely to prosper there.
Instead Hodgson finds himself, as he did with Fulham, at a friendly club where expectations are more modest. He performed wonders at Craven Cottage, first by keeping Fulham up when they had one foot in the Championship, then by taking them into the Europa League, where they reached a final they lost by the odd goal in three. Named manager of the year by his peers, his work by the Thames ensured that he will be considered for the national coach's job when Fabio Capello stands down next summer.
"It would be hypocritical of somebody like myself, who has managed three national teams, to say that only an Englishman should do the job, but the mood of the country seems to be that the job should come back into native hands. I am not prepared to say that managing England is the be-all and end-all. But I would like to think that English managers will be among the leading candidates. Some of the smaller countries, if you like, may not have the coaching knowledge. But it is hard to fathom why that should be the case in countries like England, Germany, Italy or Spain."
With the post, he knows, come expectations that cannot possibly be met – or, rather, have been met only once, 45 years ago, when this country staged the tournament. "All the soul-searching about English football is baffling. Wayne Rooney was sent off for kicking an opponent in Montenegro. We all know he shouldn't have done it, but on the basis of a small episode in a game of 90 minutes people call into question the state of the game.
"Is it time to kick out the players? Is it time to boot out the manager? I heard that put forward on the radio. But I can tell you that if, for instance, John Terry became available tomorrow there would be plenty of clubs here and in Germany who would be happy to take him. If you were putting together a 'best eleven' from the European countries, there would be a few candidates from the England team. I don't think that powerful reactions to minor incidents get us very far."
In the meantime he tends his garden in the Midlands, content in the knowledge that the experience gathered over 35 years offers protection. "What matters is this: do I still have the passion? Yes, I do. I don't think being a football coach leads to equilibrium. It is a constant fight you have with yourself to maintain it, or restore it, but I have a greater sense of perspective now. I do this work because I really enjoy it, and I still think I have a lot to offer.
"I get as much fun working with the players here as I did when I started in 1976. You might think I would have got a bit cynical but that is not the case. Almost the opposite, in fact. It's easier to have the conversations and sometimes the intimacy, if that is the right word, with players now precisely because they do not belong to my peer group. I can adopt an avuncular approach at times, or I can say, 'We're all in this together'."
A football man to his fingertips, not easily deceived by the whims of a fickle world, Hodgson's race has a few more laps to run. Perhaps the Football Association should make a start by charging him with bringing the game into repute.
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