The Nick Townsend column: Hodgson to calm choppy waters of wild west London

He may have been away for almost a decade but Fulham's new manager is just the man to restore some order down by the river
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The Independent Football

As you survey the cynical, sometimes brutal, world of Premier League managerial-go-rounds, you can't help but smile at the manner of Roy Hodgson's summons to Fulham. "My wife found an ad advertising a Christmas break in Torquay," explains this perennial nomad. "We'd not had an English Christmas for the last 10, 15 years. We planned that, then two days before getting on the plane from Milan to go, I got a phone call asking to meet with Fulham.

" 'And are you in England?' they said. 'Sunday morning,' I told them. 'On the way down to Torquay.' That's how it happened."

Inevitably, of course, there will be many who will scoff that this elderly resident has achieved the equivalent of checking in at a footballing Fawlty Towers, complete with an irascible, ill-tempered proprietor, in the form of the owner of Harrods, and suggest that it will all end in a good old laugh for the rest of the Premier League by season's end.

If the appointment of Lawrie Sanchez at the back end of last season and the subsequent decision to retain the former Northern Ireland manager this term could be said to be somewhat perverse, particularly in view of chairman Mohamed al-Fayed's recent observation that he hoped Fulham would now return "to its tradition of playing attractive passing football" (so what had he and his advisers actually expected from Sanchez?), Hodgson's coming has provoked many quizzical looks.

Not least because he is 60. That is bus-pass age. Even in football, where experience is still seen as an invaluable commodity, there is considerable trepidation about employing a "veteran" coach, as Hodgson has been described; a man who surely cannot relate to players who may be a third of his years unless, of course, your name is Sir Alex Ferguson or you happen to be a much-vaunted Italian and whose last experience of domestic football was approaching a decade ago.

It is an appropriate moment to state this is actually a rather astute move by a character who normally fails to engender significant love, respect or admiration. It is somehow reassuring to discover that when Fayed considered the selection of Fulham's eighth manager in 11 seasons he and his acolytes eschewed the usual suspects. Another club may have merely utilised Hodgson's knowledge, like a visiting professor just as the Football Association's chief executive, Brian Barwick, consulted him about the England job. Yet Fulham, remarkably, went the whole Hodgson.

Over the years I've had several encounters with him, and I can attest to the fact that when he speaks of "long talks" with the chairman and board, that is what he means. He is a thoughtful, serious, precise man; not given to verbal laziness, or liable to offer false promises. Despite reports of a 1 million bonus if Fulham stay up, this natural wanderer would not have grasped this opportunity impetuously.

He could have taken the role of head of international relations at Internazionale, and combined that with coaching the Republic of Ireland team. He admits there had been contact regarding the latter. "I don't want to lie about it," he said. "The contact came at the same time as the contact with Fulham happened. But I was not offered the job. I had a meeting with the people who were given the task, a good meeting that I was very happy with, but I don't know if that would have led to me being offered it."

Instead he confronts a decidedly uncertain few months. He is a proud man and would not want to end his career regarded as a failure in his homeland. Fulham have secured three points from 27. They are serially unable to win away, and even at home scarcely boast a 12th man in terms of the support within this haven of gentility. Second bottom of the Premier League, they prop up the decibel table for crowd noise according to arecent study. On New Year's Day, as their followers witnessed their side ultimately capitulate to what one may describe as a spineless Chelsea no Petr Cech, John Terry, Frank Lampard or Didier Drogba, all injured an air of resignation permeated this monument to a more glorious past.

Can Roy, once of the Rovers, now of the Cottagers, convert his feats abroad into domestic prowess, sufficient to maintain Fulham's status? That is where the doubts lie. He has not only been that rarity, an English manager abroad. His success as a club and international manager adds to his scarcity value. The Blackburn experience, which lasted a mere 18 months, neither proved his domestic credentials nor condemned him. Blackburn were second at Christmas in 1997 but ended sixth. The following season, Hodgson was fired and Rovers were relegated.

For all that he has kept up with the game here, nine years away from the Premier League is a long absence. But thus far he has spoken much sense. Attempt to draw him on tactics and technique and he retorts: "I think it's very dangerous talking about styles of play. They'll be days when we're fighting and scrapping, and there'll be days when I hope we'll be playing"

Hodgson also speaks of the "dangers" of the January transfer window. "It is a hectic time and teams have the tendency to panic-buy. So I think we've got to be wise. I wouldn't like to be bringing players in on a short-term basis."

Wisdom. That is what Fulham have acquired. If there is a place for Hodgson, it is here by the Thames. Old Man River may just keep Fulham rolling along.

For once the players are not making a spectacle of themselves

Fergie's really got them in a lather, hasn't he? Manchester United supporters, that is or, as we must call them nowadays, spectators who are simmering with indignation over his observation that, during the 1-0 home defeat of Birmingham, "the crowd was dead. It's the quietest I've heard the crowd here. It was like a funeral."

As he followed up with his pro-Glazer remarks, one detecteda generous serving of Ferguson mischief here. But there is a serious point, and it concerns football clubs' relationships with those who were once vital to their prosperity, but who have become not much more important than providers of a backdrop for the TV cameras. The fans.

Television money has become the all-consuming force, and to hell with those who actually turn up and pay many of the Premier League clubs' inflationary prices. But further cynicism on the part of clubs and there will be one of two consequences. Supporters of the leading teams will become even further disenchanted, by prices, by timings of fixtures, by mediocre performances from among the nation's most highly rewarded players as at Old Trafford on New Years' Day and by the threat of ejection if they stand, albeit briefly. (That is not, incidentally, a plea for standing areas. No football authority here could countenance such a return to the old order.)

In short, they will react accordingly, as United's clearly did, with a marked lack of fervour. Perhaps worse, those who follow the less fashionable clubs will simply not bother turning up at all. Hence the many empty seats already in evidence at certain grounds. Football spectators are reasserting themselves, in their different ways.

The days have long gone when they considered it their duty to exhort their teams of well-paid, but not that well-paid, players to greater things. Today the paying customers are entitled to expect that they will be entertained by, and stirred by, these multi-million-pound-a-year performers.

Sir Alex Ferguson may whinge about a funereal atmosphere. His players have only themselves to blame. Meanwhile, the "best league in the world", which once arrogantly oversaw a sellers' market, should view what is taking place with grave concern.

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