THE MONDAY INTERVIEW: A rover returns

Ken Jones talks to Roy Hodgson, the new manager of Blackburn, who has forsaken the Italian League and Internazionale for the lure of Lancashire and is impressed by what he sees
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Italy has its charms but there is a lot to be said for the comparative peacefulness Roy Hodgson is enjoying in the Lancashire countryside. "In Milan it would be impossible to work like this," he said recalling two years spent with Internazionale before taking over this summer as manager of Blackburn Rovers.

Fewer distractions may have something to do with the fact that Blackburn are not a fashionable big city club, but Hodgson appreciates the contrast with his last place of employment. "I couldn't go to Inter's training ground without coming across reporters, photographers and supporters," he said. "Here I hardly see anyone but the players and the staff."

Since Blackburn's smart training quarters alongside Brockhall Village in the Ribble Valley can be reached only through the manned security barriers of a rural development, this is hardly surprising. But Hodgson thinks that the absence of intruders indicates a big difference between Italian and English football. "Italian supporters refuse to accept that anything to do with the running of their clubs is sacred," he said. "They'll come up to you in the street or in a restaurant and tell you where they think you are going wrong, the team to pick, who the club should be after. They can behave badly one day, well the next and expect all to be forgiven. They are marvellous in many ways, passionate about the game and knowledgeable, but their enthusiasm can be wearing. As we've seen many times, English fans can be extremely hard on managers who are not successful but, in the main, I think they are more respectful."

It was about two o'clock in the afternoon on a very hot day and we were sitting in Hodgson's office at Brockhall. He had on black shorts, a black shirt, dark socks and training shoes, and was sipping coffee.

"So what else is different?" I asked.

"I'll tell you one thing I'm not going to miss," he replied, "and that's the politics. It was never enough to speak the language. To be aware of everything that might be going on, the plots and intrigues, you had to try and think in Italian. Since leaving Inter I've discovered that people who were on my side are now out of the picture, so it wasn't just my imagination."

Despite those anxieties Hodgson was close to staying with Internazionale for a further two years when he was approached a second time by Blackburn's chairman, Jack Walker. "I'd sorted out the playing side and I may have been able to get on top of the other thing but it made sense to move on. Some people might think I felt a need to prove myself in English football but that wasn't the case at all. A coach cannot go on climbing ladders in football. Inter are among the world's most powerful clubs but I've only taken a step sideways."

When Hodgson brought the Swiss national team to play against England at Wembley almost three years ago, we spoke about the impressive progress he had made in coaching since his days as a journeyman professional with non-League clubs in Kent and Surrey. He recalled Don Howe saying that the only advantage a coach gets from an outstanding career on the field is 10 more games.

What people sense immediately about Hodgson is his confidence. It stood out when after following his friend, Bobby Houghton to Sweden, he took Halmstad to five divisional and three overall championships.

Hodgson's only mistake was made when he accepted an offer to work alongside Houghton at Bristol City, who were in deep financial trouble after relegation from the old First Division, unable to meet the wages of players who were given eight and nine-year contracts on gaining promotion.

Within 18 months Hodgson was back in Sweden where he won five more championships with Houghton's old club, Malmo, before moving on to Neuchatel Xamax in Switzerland, later becoming coach to the national team there. He took Switzerland to the 1994 World Cup finals in the United States and to ninth in the world ratings, more than 10 places higher than England were at the time.

Hodgson's approach to football is unlikely to startle Blackburn's supporters. He is a practical coach seeking intelligent application in defence and attack. Shortly before joining Inter he spoke about the importance of profiting from accurate centres. "Because of the modern obsession with formations and tactics, it isn't what reporters want to hear from coaches," he said, "but that is what the game is all about."

Nobody is more intrigued by the scale of developments in English football. "So much has happened so quickly that in some respects the game here is almost unrecognisable," he said. "Of course, I've kept in touch but it's only when you get into the swim of things here that you realise how much has changed. Clubs who were on top when I left England are now in what used to be the Second Division and in some cases lower. Wimbledon have come from non-League football to be a force in the Premier League."

As part of his preparation for the coming season Hodgson recently watched a match at West Bromwich Albion. "It seemed as though I had never been there before," he said. It wasn't just a new stadium that impressed him. "There was a good atmosphere and I liked the attitude of both teams. It probably has something to do with the influx of foreign players but people abroad now think differently about English football. Our energy and spirit has always been held in respect but the vision has altered."

An awareness of technical improvements influences they way Hodgson is going about things at Blackburn. "There is absolutely no need to think differently," he said. "We've got some very good players and I'm putting forward the same ideas I worked on with Inter. So far it's gone well and I've seen enough to justify my optimism."

In the dining room, shortly before our conversation, I was sitting there listening to the sounds and small talk of pre-season training when Hodgson had a brief encounter with Graeme Le Saux, whose request for a transfer had been granted that morning. Le Saux smiled, Hodgson nodded.

Confirming that the England full-back is available at what may prove to be a prohibitive fee of pounds 7.5m, Hodgson was more inclined to speak about the player signings he has made; a centre-back, Stephane Henchoz from Hamburg, a full-back, Patrick Valery from Bastia, Anders Andersson from Malmo and Martin Dahlin (considered to be among the game's leading players when he represented Sweden in the 1994 World Cup finals) from Roma.

There can be little doubt that Hodgson's experiences abroad provide him with an edge in the foreign market. "I've built up a lot of good contacts," he said, "and seen enough to ensure that I'm not shooting in the dark."

It is also clear that Hodgson would like to be still working with Paul Ince who has joined Liverpool from Internazionale. "I can only take Paul's word for it but he has said that my move influenced his decision to leave Inter and I find that flattering. When I arrived there, Paul was very unhappy but he knuckled down and I was very impressed with him. There is a lot more to Paul than people think. He's an outstanding footballer and once given a role that suited him proved to be one of the most important players in Italy. He got on fine with the language so I never had to repeat in English what I'd said to the others in Italian."

Nomadic by nature, Hodgson cannot be sure that he has reached the end of his travels. "Who knows what the future will bring," he said. "Football is changing all the time. It isn't very long ago since foreign coaches would have thought twice about working here and English clubs were reluctant to employ them. Now Ruud Gullit is at Chelsea and Arsene Wenger at Arsenal. A great deal of money has come into the game and a lot of influence is wielded by major shareholders. Things are no longer as clear cut as they used to be."

Hodgson, now in his 50th year, has never failed to convey the impression that he knows where is is going. No perceivable doubts and plenty of self- assurance.

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