Under pressure? Not Roy of the leftovers

Massive test awaits veteran coach at Liverpool but he needs striker to help
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The Independent Online

It is the 18th managerial position of his globe-trotting career, yet Roy Hodgson admits he will feel more than a frisson of both nerves and excitement when he walks up the Anfield tunnel to take his position opposite Arsène Wenger for Liverpool's first League game of the season at home to Arsenal this afternoon. It would perhaps be as well not to dwell for too long on the fact that 39 years after starting out as assistant manager of Maidstone United, he has finally achieved a position at one of the acknowledged top half-dozen clubs in his own country, with all the pressure that involves.

"You're never too old for excitement," Hodgson suggested at Liverpool's Melwood training ground on Friday, four days after celebrating his 63rd birthday. "Yes, I'm excited, of course, but it's very important that you weigh up your words very carefully at this level of football and I just try to make certain that we keep our feet on the ground. I was excited when I had the opportunity to come here and I've been delighted with the reception I received."

All those clubs, all those games and the stomach will still flutter as well. "Of course, like everyone else I'll be nervous before the game but I'm in good company because I'm pretty sure that even Arsène or Sir Alex [Ferguson] won't ridicule me if I say that's how it is for us managers or coaches. It might be worse if this was your first-ever game but it doesn't get a lot better through the years. You think that it won't matter when you've got a thousand or so games behind you, but it does."

Doubtless some statistician somewhere has a note of precisely how many matches there have been, though the figure is less easy to compute than for a more geographically condensed career. It has been an extraordinary journey, requiring much self-belief initially, then some humility that he admits not always having possessed, and later trying to avoid resentment at a lack of recognition in his own land.

Carshalton in Surrey to Halmstad in Sweden was quite a leap to begin with, facilitated by his great friend and accomplice-turned-rival Bob Houghton, who would take Malmo to a European Cup final against Nottingham Forest before Hodgson became one of his successors. The two of them introduced a British style based on zonal marking to Sweden, which was enthusiastically taken up by a young coach called Sven Goran Eriksson.

In winning national titles with the unfashionable Halmstad and then Malmo (who won four in a row), Hodgson paved the way to becoming an international manager, for Switzerland, and then landing a plum position at Internazionale, his biggest club job until now.

The disappointment was his experience in England, when Bristol City ran out of money and Jack Walker's Blackburn Rovers ran out of patience. Being shortlisted twice by the Football Association, before Kevin Keegan and then Eriksson were appointed, was only a minor consolation.

Who knows, the FA, publicly committed to appointing an Englishman as their next manager (whether Martin O'Neill would count is unclear), may yet be writing Hodgson's name on another list at some stage, which makes his performance at Liverpool of even greater interest.

He has replaced Rafa Benitez at a turbulent time, last season's seventh place in the Premier League representing the club's worst finish in a decade. In one sense, it ought to mean that an improvement is not difficult, the added complication being the off-field turmoil which has produced premature front-page headlines like "China Buys Liverpool".

In May, the parent company revealed record losses of more than £50m, most of it being wasted in interest payments to the banks as debts staggered up to £472m. If it all makes Bristol City circa 1982 look like a thriving concern, Hodgson is sensibly concentrating on football matters.

He is certainly not mentally spending a supposed £150m transfer budget that may or may not materialise following any takeover, although he is prepared to discuss the possibility of tinkering with the squad before finalising his 25, as all Premier League clubs must do in the next fortnight. "If the right player comes along it would be good if we could bring another striker in. I don't make any apologies for saying that but I would want it to be the right man and I don't think that we should necessarily go out and just sign someone because we can sign him. We've got [David] Ngog and [Ryan] Babel at the moment who have not been embraced by the fans or the club over the years but maybe they've got more potential than people think.

"It's important for me that if we bring someone in, he really fits the profile that I've sketched out and he fits in with our transfer policy in [how much] we've got to buy him and what we've got to pay him."

Joe Cole on a Bosman transfer from Chelsea fits that bill and has already made the right impression in a sparkling debut during the Europa League qualifying round (oh, the indignity of it) against Rabotnicki, both legs of which were won 2-0. "Joe is very talented on the ball, can dribble, can pass, and that is what we like," said Hodgson. "But we haven't played a League game yet. I understand people have to make judgements after watching a game against a team from Macedonia, saying this is Liverpool's best signing ever. But I am not going to fall into that trap. I won't start to judge Joe Cole until we are well into the season and then I will be prepared to either sing his praises or deflect criticism. But before the first ball is kicked, I am happy he is here and ready to be picked. The proof of the pudding is producing on the field."

Which goes for the manager too, of course. How far can he take Liverpool this season? "There will be seven or eight clubs who think that realistically they can finish in the top four and will be disappointed if they don't. We're one of them and I think also that we have the squad and the ability to get there. With the challenges ahead I think it's going to be a very exciting and interesting season for me."

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