On the face of it, West Bromwich Albion have fared rather remarkably in the latest round of Premier League musical chairs. The jingle has stopped and there they find Roy Hodgson in the hotseat. The man who just last May was voted the LMA Manager of the Year by a record margin.
How did West Brom, little West Brom, manage to entice such a gargantua of gafferdom? They are but one place off the bottom three (on goal difference), have lost 13 of 19 matches and last kept a clean sheet in August – against Leyton Orient. As offers go, it can't quite have been of the "I couldn't turn down" variety.
Except to Hodgson it plainly was, and to understand why is to reflect on nine months in which a new perception of the greying 63-year-old has gestated and is slowly emerging into the blinking world.
In this time, Hodgson has gone from genius to pragmatist; from master tactician to long-ball merchant; from everyone's favourite uncle to a grumpy old man in the corner who cannot connect; from the beloved who turned a sow's ear into a silk purse into the accused who turned a silk purse into a sow's ear. He had his chance and wasn't up to it. With West Bromwich he has found his level.
Of course, none of that is fair to either manager or club. Hodgson is one of those "fine servants" to the game who should never come in for personal criticism. His credentials are his track record and that is indisputable. He took Fulham to a European final, for goodness sake.
All very true, yet it's a mystery to me why it is deemed allowable for the media to target his Liverpool predecessor so readily. After all, Rafael Benitez's track record isn't too shabby; having won the Champions' League, having reached the final on another occasion, the semi-final on another occasion and having helped Liverpool to their finest League finish in 19 years. But there we go. One should not argue with the accepted perception, and the accepted perception for so long was that Hodgson's Anfield failure could be laid at the door of the departed Spaniard. "This is Rafa's mess," went the cry. "Poor old Roy had no chance."
Yet a different reality suddenly dawned. In the four weeks that led to the – albeit disappointing – home draw with Wigan, Kenny Dalglish, a manager who has been out of the dug-out more than a decade, has taken a team in 12th, four points off the drop zone, into sixth, five points off a European place. A case of same team, different results; so the transformation requires some explanation even with yesterday's minor setback. Although perhaps not the explanation being offered by those clinging on to the Liverpool myth. That goes as follows.
Dalglish has turned it all around by the power of his own legend. The players who wouldn't play for Uncle Roy are playing for King Kenny. With the wretched American owners no more and with the blessed American owner now in place, the club is filled with the positive where before only the negative ruined the roost. It has not been a managerial change so much as a culture change. It was merely Hodgson's bad luck that he was the last custodian of the evil empire.
As part of this theory, the fans were complicit in his sacking, too. They never chanted his name, they never supported him. The manner in which supposedly the most loyal set of fans in footballing civilisation turned on him made his task impossible. Again, Hodgson suffered largely because of the stench of a decayed ownership.
But look at it another way. Look at it through the eyes of Daniel Agger, an accomplished player who saw the Hodgson regime through his own depressed eyes. The centre-half found out about Hodgson's belief in "positive brainwashing", in his irrefutable mantra of "shape, shape, shape". Agger was told to get rid of the ball, not play with it, not cultivate it; and he could not understand why. The rumblings emerging from the dressing room now indicate that neither did so many of his team-mates. Each and every interview with a Liverpool player features their enjoyment of training. They are off the leash. Their talents are no longer shackled.
That is the truth of Hodgson's demise at Anfield. The players looked like they weren't trying because they didn't believe in what they were trying. If a manager is not there to enthuse and inspire, then why is he there? Not to moan to journalists about needing everyone's support.
And if you still insist on putting the cart before the horse, Dalglish probably did have a head start in hearing his name being chanted from the off. But the Kop admired him for his previous achievements, just like they only sang out for Gérard Houllier and Benitez after they had achieved. With Dalglish, the players, like the fans, know what they are about to receive and that's what put a smile on their faces. They were right all along but only now does anyone acknowledge their footballing understanding and accede that maybe it wasn't all about their blind, arrogant faith in a saviour. Hodgson's limited ideals may work in the lesser clubs, with lesser players, but at the better clubs, with the better players, they plainly fell short.
So should West Brom weep or cheer? Depends on what they want. Roberto Di Matteo could have taken them higher than Hodgson, but he could have taken them lower as well. That's the problem with a safe pair of hands. Particularly ones handcuffed in a rigid "system". Funny how a gain can so quickly become a loss.
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