Experience counts and nobody in English football can count on more of it than the two managers in opposition at Old Trafford this afternoon. Manchester United's Sir Alex Ferguson and West Bromwich Albion's Roy Hodgson have clocked up 74 years between them in one of the most insecure of professions. Both began in the mid-Seventies and won their first title within a year of each other; the Glaswegian with St Mirren in 1977, the Londoner a year earlier with the supposed no-hopers of Halmstad in Sweden – an achievement he still ranks as his best.
Since then their career paths have been very different. Ferguson moved smartly through the ranks in Scotland and earned the right to one of the top jobs south of the border after breaking the Old Firm monopoly and winning a European title with Aberdeen of all people. Since then he has remained in the same position for an extraordinary 26 years. Hodgson, if he ever had such a clear plan, soon veered away from it.
A hero in Sweden, he remained a prophet without honour in his own land throughout the time that Ferguson was being lauded in his, ending up in the wrong job at the wrong time when his friend Bob Houghton handed Bristol City over to him (in 1982), then being perceived as a failure at Blackburn after taking a team that was two points off relegation into Europe.
Being in another place at the wrong time – Anfield between Rafael Benitez and Kenny Dalglish – tendedfor some to obscure his good work at Fulham. Three national teams, half- a-dozen other countries; it was all experience, which could be the title of the autobiography he has yet to write had Martin Amis not beaten him to it. Now he is in the frame for the England manager's job should Harry Redknapp prove no more than flavour of the month.
Hodgson does believe strongly, however, that the bad times can be the making of a man and that one reason the precocious Andre Villas-Boas was drummed out of his job after Chelsea lost to Albion last weekend was his unfamiliarity with the dark side of football management.
"I'm sure when he came to Chelsea his confidence must have been sky-high with everybody singing his praises," Hodgson said on Friday. "But it doesn't prepare you for the bad times you may have to go through. There's no doubt he'll be stronger for it. Talking very generally, when things are going well you can become too relaxed, get a bit cocky about your abilities. The flip side is that when things are going badly you start doubting things you have done. Take Sir Alex as the prime example because he has experienced both sides of the coin and might be able to look back and think, 'I've been here before'. You can't do that as a young coach. I started when I was 29 so I can relate back to many of those occasions but you can't put the 65-year-old head – or in Alex's case the 70-year-old's – on the 35-year-old's shoulders. Experience has to be earned, there's no short cut."
Hodgson, six years younger than Ferguson, has an even greater air of worldly wisdom about him, possibly through having endured more troughs than the knight in the opposite dug-out today. It particularly annoys him when a manager is judged on just his past few results, although in Albion's case that would reflect well currently,three successive victories having pushed them into the top half of the table ahead of the weekend games. To be effectively out of any danger of relegation so early is especially impressive after losing the first three games of the season, starting with a last-minute loss at home to United by an own goal.
So they travel in good heart, although not because today's opponents are coming off a defeat of their own. "It would be a tough ask for me to ask my players to play like Bilbao!" Hodgson said. "They were very, very good. What I've said to the boys is that we're going to find it harder to have that real underdog epithet, which can be quite handy sometimes when you go to the bigger clubs. We've lost that now: I don't think Alex's team will be expecting an easy game against us."
Correct, as the man himself confirmed a few hours earlier, recalling that Albion were the only team to leave Old Trafford with a point last season, and after being two-down at half-time as well.
"They are in their best form of the season," Ferguson said. "They beat Chelsea and scored five at Wolves and it's not easy to do that." Of Hodgson he added: "He's got that experience and that helps. The career he has had has been fantastic. He's enjoying himself after Liverpool, which was a bad experience for him. A bit unfair, but he can handle it."
Manchester United v West Bromwich Albion kicks off today at 2pm
Brits in Europe...
Chelsea (1) v Napoli (3) (7.45pm, ITV1)
Originally billed as the match that Andre Villas-Boas had to win to save his job, this has now become an opportunity for Roberto Di Matteo to earn some plaudits and for Chelsea's players to show genuine remorse at having let down another manager. But they must defend much better as a unit than in Naples, where Edinson Cavani and Co overwhelmed them after Juan Mata's early goal.
Athletic Bilbao (3) v Manchester United (2) (6pm, Five)
The Manchester clubs were grateful to their goalkeepers for not suffering a heavier defeat in the double loss last Thursday. Now United's outfield players must make amends but against a highly impressive Basques under Marcelo "El Loco" Bielsa the feeling is they may be left to focus on chasing the more important Premier League title.
Manchester City (0) v Sporting Lisbon (1) (8.05pm, ITV4)
City were as indebted to Joe Hart between the sticks in the first leg in Portugal as United were to David de Gea. He will still have work to do in preserving a clean sheet, and if he can't do that the home side will have to score at least three times against opposition who are supposedly weaker than Porto, a side they overcame more comfortably in the previous round.
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