Hodgson faces journey into unknown
Just six weeks after he was announced as the surprise replacement for Fabio Capello, the England manager must place his trust in an injury-ravaged squad
Roy Hodgson finally arrived at the pinnacle of a fine career last night amid the frescos and the arched ceilings of Krakow's oldest hotel – the Pod Rosa, which can list Honoré de Balzac and Franz Liszt among its former guests. But even having attempted to put out the fire of Rio Ferdinand's non-selection, and having proclaimed that his players say they can beat the French, he was left with the nagging doubt of a manager who cannot really know, deep down, whether this group of individuals will fail him when he needs them.
His tautological line of argument went along the lines that a torrid three weeks of football failure – which he can do something about – is preferable to a torrid three weeks of headlines condemning his team selection. It revealed that this is a journey into the unknown for the new England manager.
"If it's torrid, then I hope that it's [torrid] for the right reasons," Hodgson said. "And by that I mean because the players have let myself and the team down very badly; we have played very badly and that fair-minded people watching us are thinking, 'My God, what are they doing?'
"And if that does happen I will learn an awful lot about what I need to do in the coming couple of years to make sure it doesn't happen in Brazil in 2014. I can honestly say that's the thing that could make it really torrid for me if what I get is totally different in the games from what I am expecting to see from these players. If they have conned me into thinking I am working with a good bunch here and this is a bunch who won't let me or the team or the nation down.
"Then, suddenly, in three games they really do then that for me would be the real painful blow. Much more painful than if I have to read that I got the team wrong or I should have picked this player or done that or the penalty spot wasn't bright enough."
The FA representatives at his side winced at the word "conned", wondering where on earth this Hodgson candour, which always makes them twitchy, was leading. There are some across the nation today who will feel that another disastrous tournament is the dose of salts needed to shake up a club system which leaves England, home of the best league in the world, so pitifully short of international players.
For now, Hodgson has done the best he can and perhaps there are grounds to hope that the lack of expectation will help against a nation undefeated in 21 games.
"It may be quite nice for them to go into a game where people are saying 'It'll be tough' and 'France are a better team than you,'" he reflected. "Quite often they go into games and people say, 'You've got to beat these. You only beat them 2-0? You should have beaten them four...' That's the kind of pressure a lot of our players are under. I would think they'll probably quite enjoy the fact that the 'favourite' position is now being taken from us and given to France. We know we can give them a good game. No question."
Hodgson will probably set Danny Welbeck against the rather immobile Philippe Mexes, despite his interesting revelation yesterday that Andy Carroll is a player he thought about signing for Liverpool. He bridled against a questioner who suggested he was a defensive manager, though left little doubt that he is looking for rigour, not lustre tomorrow.
"The higher the quality team you play, in terms of the attacking threat, the better defensively you have to be," Hodgson said. "But you know sometimes against those teams that, if you can be good defensively, they'll also be a bit more vulnerable on the counter-attack than a team that sits in and says, 'Come on then, show us what you've got.' Swings and roundabouts."
There were some more irrelevances to dismiss before he left, like Joey Barton's suggestion that he would walk into this England team and that Jordan Henderson's selection should leave anyone not selected "aggrieved". Hodgson reflected that "maybe if Joey Barton had a bigger following, we'd be debating that one next week. I'm not 100 per cent convinced his following will give me the same degree of [grief as Rio Ferdinand]... I'm surprised players do that to each other. I shouldn't really be surprised at this stage. It certainly doesn't bother me."
He has seen most things now in his 36 years coaching. Donetsk's heat, for example, won't reach the 35C of the Pontiac Silverdome in Michigan, where his Swiss side drew with the USA in the 1994 World Cup. Yet he has never taken a side into combat when just four weeks into a job.
"Absolutely. Absolutely. Absolutely," he said to the notion that this was his pinnacle. "I'm very excited. I've been excited from the day the chairman called me. But so many targets are set for you, why bother to set them yourself?
"You're quoted to be shot down: 'Hodgson says this', 'We can do that'... I just want to get the team in its best possible shape."
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