A small group of children is gathered in a hospitality suite at The Hawthorns. In front of them sits Roy Hodgson and they are eagerly questioning the manager of their team.
Will West Bromwich Albion ever win the Premier League? Which one player would you buy? What sort of car do you drive?
Hodgson listens to each, asks the questioner's name and then after a pause delivers a considered response. He does not rush the session and, after the questions are done happily, extends it to pose for photographs. Hodgson is followed into the room by Peter Odemwingie, the ball with which two days earlier he scored a hat-trick against Wolves tucked under his arm.
In the morning's newspapers the Nigerian striker, whose dramatic return to form shone through a 5-1 victory that will be long remembered in these parts, had denied suggestions of a rift with his manager. "He is an elderly person and in my country we always respect our elders," says Odemwingie.
For all the good impressions made by Swansea manager Brendan Rodgers and Norwich's Paul Lambert, this season the elders have frequently proved the betters, from Sir Alex Ferguson to Harry Redknapp to Martin O'Neill, who is Hodgson's opponent this afternoon, two weeks short of his 60th birthday.
Hodgson turns 65 in August, five months after Redknapp. July will mark 36 years as a football manager, during which, he points out, the longest he has been out of work is around three months. He was polishing his first trophy before Ferguson (winning the Swedish title in 1976, a year before Ferguson took the Scottish First Division with St Mirren) and, uniquely for a British manager, has plied his trade in seven different countries amassing more than 1,000 games for clubs and countries. As the children discovered, he is not into cars but he is into football and will remain so for some time to come.
For Hodgson it matters as much as it did on the day he took his first training session at Halmstads on Sweden's west coast. "Absolutely. That's the biggest fear because in an ideal world you would taper down," says Hodgson, stirring a cup of coffee as he looks down on The Hawthorns pitch.
"You start off brimming full of enthusiasm, you can't wait to get on the training ground, butterflies in the stomach before the match, then you can't wait for the next game to come around. In all that time I was rather hoping that the 1,050th game won't matter to me as much. But that hasn't come about, and that bothers me a little because this is a job that is very demanding and takes a lot out of you. I don't know if I want to die with my boots on either. In an ideal world you would see your retirement approaching – I don't."
This afternoon when he sends his side on to the pitch below us to take on Sunderland, what unfolds will bring him as much joy/frustration/stress as he has felt in dugouts from Anfield to San Siro to Craven Cottage and beyond.
"The level of anxiety you feel going into the game and during the game, that doesn't change," says Hodgson. "And that's the other disturbing factor. You would like to think you become more philosophical about victories and defeats. You would deal with them better with age, but I haven't found that and I'm only comforted with discussion I sometimes have with people of the same level of experience and at the same age. I'm comforted to find they're not able to do it either. So maybe it's just the nature of the job. If you're in it as much as I am in it – up to my neck, committing every fibre of my body to get the result – while that remains you are never going to get the peace that perhaps years and years of football should give you. I don't feel particularly old. I don't feel any different to 15 years ago."
Fifteen years ago he was beginning his first spell as a Premier League manager, at Blackburn, and a first real experience of his carefully laid coaching plans not producing results. He had his ups and downs during two years with Internazionale but Blackburn led to a first sacking – he was asked to resign by Jack Walker, refused and so was dismissed. It was at Ewood Park too, some 13 years later, that his most troubled managerial tenure was played out. Liverpool lost his 31st game as manager to Blackburn and three days afterwards he lost his job.
Hodgson's time at Anfield spanned the change of ownership that saw the detested Tom Hicks and George Gillett depart and John W Henry arrive. He was not given the funding to reshape the squad as he wished – when he arrived at Fulham he ushered out 17 players and welcomed 13 – and had a core of supporters against him from the day he walked in the door, despite bringing with him the title of manager of the year for his achievements in west London. Liverpool is not a subject he is keen to discuss.
"I don't reflect on it – I don't think much of it at all," he says abruptly when asked how he looks back on it a year on. But later, while considering whether his approach to handling players has changed over the decades, he briefly returns to the topic. "The [Liverpool] players were fine, they worked hard, we tried hard to get our game going," he says. "It was the turmoil at the club that was problematic for me because of the change of management." That the 191-day experience bruised Hodgson is suggested by him deciding – this remember is someone who had never been more than a few months out of football in over three decades – that he wanted breathing space post-Anfield. It didn't happen and a matter of weeks later he was back in the game.
"I wasn't searching at all," says Hodgson about taking a lead role with an 11th club. "Quite the reverse. I was preparing to take a sabbatical to see how I felt about things. This came up quickly and I had to make a decision. For some reason that I can't explain too logically I decided I'll do it."
As when he arrived at Fulham, West Bromwich were embroiled in a relegation struggle. Hodgson got them out of it, a flurry of wins, including over Liverpool, elevating them to 11th, their best finish since 1983. The plan, one that fits with an equally pragmatically anchored club ownership, is to end the yo-yo years and establish West Bromwich among the Premier League fixtures and fittings. This morning they lie 14th, after a curate's egg of a campaign. Their home form, last season's strength, has deserted them, but away wins such as the triumph at Molineux keeps a distance from what Hodgson describes as the "living hell" of the bottom three.
"There is so much money for teams in the Premier League," he suggests, "that it is almost a tragedy for them when they set themselves up to be a Premier League club and can't be there any more. So every year, those three bottom places, that is really as close to living hell for those teams that you can get because we can't have that perspective, that it is only a football match.
"There are no quiet periods. There's always got to be a crisis somewhere, otherwise you can't keep the 24-hour news channels going. You are better off trying not to get too affected by it because if you start rejoicing too much over victories or going into a slough of despond every time you lose then all you are doing is playing into the hands of this hype we have today, where there has always got to be a hero and a villain.
"I don't like it or dislike it – it's a fact of life. It's foolish to start railing against things you can't alter. This is what football is and a lot of the very good things that have happened to us who work in football are thanks to this hype."
There is no greater hype than that surrounding the national job. Hodgson has eclectic international experience in managing Switzerland, Finland and, briefly, the UAE. He took Switzerland – after what he labels "30 years of no hope" – to the 1994 World Cup, a tournament that was beyond England, and qualified them for Euro 96. Finland enjoyed their best-ever campaign under his instruction. Combine the 30 qualifying games with the two countries and there are just four defeats.
Twice before, when Sven Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello were appointed, Hodgson has been suggested as manager of England, and his name will come up again in discussions by Club England, the FA quartet responsible for Capello's successor. Would he be interested?
"It's such a hypothetical question," he says. "As far as I'm concerned I like to live in the present. I've had an interesting and successful career and I'm very happy with it. I don't need ambition per se, so basically I get on with my life. I don't speculate or think about it, I just get on with the job I'm doing at the moment and try and get as much enjoyment out of life and that job as possible."
Roy Hodgson was speaking on behalf of Barclays Ticket Office. Every 90 minutes throughout the season Barclays is offering fans the chance to win free tickets to Barclays Premier League matches by going to a Barclays ATM and requesting a receipt, or by visiting www.barclaysticketoffice.comReuse content