Interview: Roy Hodgson - Game finds an unlikely man of passion

The respected manager of Blackburn is flattered to be linked with England. By Nick Townsend
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Friday evening at Brockhall Village, Blackburn Rovers' training ground, and Roy Hodgson decides to forgo travelling in the team coach to the overnight hotel for yesterday's game with Everton.

Perhaps it was the company - though it was rather more likely that he wanted to drive instead and visit en route his striker Kevin Davies, stricken with a serious throat ailment in hospital - that made him dwell and debate standards in football life.

It was an appropriate subject in the week when the loyalty of managers has been examined, as has their attitude to referees, including Hodgson's own tirade against the official Peter Jones after Monday night's defeat by Chelsea, together with continued conjecture over the future of the England coach, Glenn Hoddle. But Hodgson, that Michael Palin of football managers, was in a rather more cerebral and, one could say, abstract mood than that.

"I don't like the way I see society going," he reflected. "Hearing people abused like that, it appals me the world we're living in."

The Blackburn Rovers manager had been referring to David Beckham and his watching fiancee Posh Spice, and in particular their alleged sexual proclivities, at least those aired by Liverpool supporters on Thursday night at Old Trafford.

Surely, you suggest, it is merely a crude tactic to rile the boy David, a player of suspect temperament. "Then why don't they just go out and shoot him in the leg? That would definitely f... him up, wouldn't it?

Excuse me?

He retorts: "Well, it depends how far you want to take it if we accept the principle that it's a bit of a war out there, and we can use any weapons at our disposal to gain an advantage, fair or unfair, over our opponents, how far do we go? At the moment it's songs, but that's not working. He is still playing pretty well. The next stage might be getting a baseball bat and whacking his f...... head as he walks by; then the next would be getting a shot gun and blasting his knees off."

Isn't that rather taking matters to extremes?

"I'm taking it to an extreme, but others will argue that it's not an extreme, that people's personal lives are so abused that we've gone a long way down that path already."

It must be stressed that his remarks were not exactly apropos of nothing. Indeed, we had arrived there via a question on the issue of his name being thrust into the candidacy for a vacancy that doesn't even exist yet, though doubts will linger until Glenn Hoddle agrees a new contract and Bulgaria are clinically dispatched at Wembley next month - that of England coach.

There was nothing coy about his response, nor the inference that it will definitely not be a case of Hodgson's Choice should the England opportunity ever arise, but there is an inevitable ambivalence to his answers. "It's very flattering that those who have assessed my work over the years think that I have the qualities to be an England manager," reflects the man who arrived from Internazionale in July last year. "I'd much rather people were writing about me saying 'This man's got a chance of being manager of his country because he's good' rather than 'He's got no chance' and I'm never even mentioned because I'm so far away from the frame."

He added: "However, I just feel concerned for Glenn Hoddle. I wouldn't like it myself, to pick up the paper and find that it says this is the man tipped to take over your job. It's certainly none of my making and in an ideal world it wouldn't happen."

His idyll, as had been emphasised, will not include obscene chants directed against a football star's nearest. Which is why Hodgson, who yearns for "the attitudes that applied in the pre-War and immediately post-War years", perhaps finds it difficult to assimilate into contemporary football culture, one in which straightforward dealing could be considered something of an impediment to progress.

No wonder Tim Sherwood's agent, Eric Hall, master of the wheeler dealers, felt his wrath when a deal with Tottenham was contrived.

You have to question whether on the bigger stage it would be his candour, if anything, that would undo him, because few would quibble over a CV that includes taking Switzerland to the World Cup in 1994 and guiding Internazionale, who also finished third in Serie A, to the Uefa Cup final in 1997. At least, compared with the present incumbent, the thinking man's manager won't be struggling with the English language should he ever get the call from FA chief executive Graham Kelly. Indeed, Hodgson the cosmopolitan won't be struggling with French, Italian or German, either.

Yet football can be a capricious master and it is already being mooted that his star, which rose in the North-west last season, is already losing its luminescence because of a start contrary to the expectation engendered by that success. One win at home, one point away after yesterday's visit to Goodison and a home defeat in Europe to Lyons, albeit one which he is confident Rovers can redeem themselves in the away leg on Tuesday, are scarcely portents for a glorious season.

"There is a belief that getting any particular job may depend on who has just had five consecutive victories," he said with a wry smile. "If that's the way it is, I've got a healthy attitude. But I've worked for a long time and hope people have developed enough confidence in me that it will remain even in a period when we're not winning many games."

There are also voices claiming that his England suitability has been tainted because of an uncharacteristic display of emotion at Ewood Park on Monday. "Calm down Hodgson, or FA might go off you" was one such headline, after the 4-3 defeat by Chelsea in which the manager was almost head-banging all and sundry in his rage.

Four days later in the tranquillity of his office, Hodgson explained why he had departed, worryingly so, in some critics' opinion, from his normal dignified stature. "It was all provoked by three decisions that went against us. When that happens the adrenalin flows, you follow your nature and not necessarily your head," he argued. "It's part of the game. If they took all the passion out of the game we would just be robotic. If I sat there calmly with my arms folded, nodding sagely, people would think I didn't care, which is the opposite of the truth."

Nevertheless, there has to be a certain irony in a man touted so loudly as Glenn Hoddle's successor being unable to hoist Rovers from their present ignominy to at least respectability. It may not be an issue at present yet more successful men than Hodgson have had to observe the twitching trigger-finger of a less supportive chairman than Jack Walker with a start like Rovers have had. Fireproof one season doesn't make you sack-proof the next.

In his 23 years' coaching career, which began at Halmstad in Sweden, the start of an exciting journey that has taken him through Malmo, Neuchatel Xamax and the national team in Switzerland, and Milan before Blackburn, Hodgson has never suffered that fate - although he recognises that it is omnipresent.

"I fear it, because it is an insult. But the sack is not something that would really matter, unless I thought I deserved it, that would really hurt. But if it was because results were not going quite as people wanted, well is part of the business."

That is why, for all his high principles, he will not censure his Leeds counterpart, George Graham, whom he insists has acted "with dignity" over the Tottenham affair. "When managers know contracts will be honoured 100 per cent, then they will say 'No' to better offers, but Kenny Dalglish did not receive a lot of loyalty from Newcastle, and Christian Gross did not get an awful lot of loyalty out of Tottenham."

Fortunately, Walker, the club's owner, does not come into the category of an impulsive employer. "He suffers with the team, rather than taking the view that 'I'm paying them plenty of money. Why aren't we winning?'" said Hodgson.

If the prospect of foraging for points without Davies and the injured Chris Sutton and Kevin Gallacher - while already deprived of their transferred talisman Colin Hendry - is overwhelming him, he doesn't betray it. Hodgson finds distraction in his literature - he produced his current reading Bringing Up Girls In Bohemia by the Czech writer Michel Viewegh - and maintained: "To do the job properly I need to free my mind from it, otherwise it can occupy all your waking moments. I've been in this situation quite a few times, and luckily there's no God-given decree that you're going to lose your next match. It's there for you. It's important that I keep control and a calm head, which I certainly didn't the other night. But I felt that, rightly or wrongly, our passion and enthusiasm needed to be transmitted."

Nobody could accuse him of having an old-fashioned attitude to that.