Roy Hodgson cuts an avuncular figure. With his courtesy, his considered, slightly old-fashioned mode of speech, he appears a gentle soul. Do not be fooled. The 61-year-old is as ambitious, as competitive, as any Premier League manager. Don't believe it? Ask him about the titles he won at Malmo.
"I am only credited with two championships when we won five," he said when the subject arose as we chatted in his neat office at Fulham's south-west London training base. The Swedish league had a play-off system, much like our rugby codes and the NFL do now. Malmo won five regular season titles, but lost in the play-offs three times.
"The play-offs always came when we were playing in Europe which meant we played three matches a week and the opposition had two weeks to prepare," said an indignant Hodgson. "It was ridiculous really, and what's more one year we lost on away goals, the following year we would have won on away goals but they had changed the rule and we lost on penalties. That's how ridiculous they were." It could be Sir Alex Ferguson speaking. And Hodgson was reprising events a quarter-century ago.
Since then Hodgson has rarely been out of work. He has managed in seven countries, won another league title, reached a European final and taken Switzerland to their first World Cup finals in 28 years and first European Championships ever, a feat he nearly matched in Finland. He has twice been considered for the post of England manager. Yet, due to ill-fated spells at Bristol City, in 1982, when they were heading for bankruptcy, and Blackburn, 15 years' later, when he raised expectations before being undone by injuries, his achievements have to an extent been overlooked in his native country. Until that is, he saved Fulham from relegation on the final day of last season, and steered them to the fringe of a place in the Europa League – the revamped Uefa Cup – defeating Arsenal and Manchester United en route. Suddenly Hodgson is regarded as a management guru. Does he finally feel recognised in his own land?
"No. I've never felt I needed to show people in England because I've always felt that most of the people who matter in England, the top football brass and the top managers, have been sufficiently impressed with what I have done abroad."
Hodgson has been in coaching for more than three decades, starting at the age of 28 at Halmstads, a Swedish provincial team he turned from relegation fodder to champions in his first season. During this period he has seen a lot of change but the fundamentals remain: "Can you coach? Can you earn the players' respect?" He adds: "The other things, they are bonuses: the scouting reports, fitness details et cetera. You could do away with a lot of that and be successful as long as you are able to use your time on the pitch wisely, and convince players this is what you have to do."
Fulham's training ground has frequent visitors, Hodgson recently hosted coaches from a Polish second division club even he had never heard of, but they do not come to see innovation. "I don't believe in innovation. There are those people who think that training sessions is having lots of different practices that change every five or 10 minutes. This is the last place to come for that. All of our work is done pretty much 11 v 11. They come because within the game there are people that recognise there is an element of organisation which is not obvious to everybody, and they think, 'hold on I wonder what they are doing to get that?'"
Fulham players testify to the repetitive nature of much of the session work, but have come to appreciate it works, the club punching so far above their weight Hodgson takes them to Chelsea today as the highest-placed English manager in the Premier League.
In some respects, he is "old school". "You have to be a benevolent dictator. You have to differentiate between areas of minor importance, such as when we travel and eat, and those of major importance such as: how we are going to play and practise? Who is taking the free-kicks? If you have democracy you get nowhere.
"There are areas, such as: do we travel in suits or track-suits, where I ask. That's not going to change the result, and I'm only democratic with the senior players. I don't want everyone's opinion. I might have one or two people I've identified as having no opinion worth listening to so I dismiss what they say out of hand.
"In areas where there is a bearing on the result of the game people expect the leader to lead. Initially they will respect the status you have been given but you have to get to a situation where they say, at least in their sane moments, 'well we don't like him, but he does lead us'".
Over the years he has also learnt about himself. At Malmo, he admits, he became carried away by the trappings of success, and credits his wife for restoring his humility and focus. He still radiates a confidence that he is good at what he does, but the ego is in check. Not that he suffers fools gladly, or time-wasting agents.
"That's [chief executive] Alistair Mackintosh's zone," he says happily. "My role is to try and identify the type of players we need and come up with some ideas on names. Alistair deals with the agent. He is much more diplomatic than I would be. We get all these agents saying their man would 'love to play for you, he's always loved Fulham football club'. What they are really saying is his wife wants to do a bit of shopping in Harrods. Once you've seen past that bullshit the next question is what sort of wages do you want. They um and ar, until you press them. Then you just say 'don't bother ringing Alistair, don't waste our time or yours'."
Hodgson worked the transfer market so wisely last summer that a European place is in prospect, but while tempted by the thought, he knows Fulham's squad, which has depended heavily on a core of 13 players this season, will be stretched.
It has also revived the possibility of his becoming England manager. "Being an international manager has a lot of advantages, not least you can live like a normal human being, and it would be nice to be mentioned again in connection with England" he notes. "But," he adds, "I think the real chance was either pre-Keegan or pre-Eriksson, if Fabio [Capello] continues to do as well as he is doing and fulfils his contract it will be three years down the line and the FA may well want a younger man."
You sense, though, that the fire that burns within Hodgson, as fiercely if not as obviously as it does within Ferguson, would relish such a chance to cap a remarkable career.
Jealousies, graveyards and burgers: What Hodgson learnt around the world
Sweden (Halmstads 1980-82; Orebro 1982-84; Malmo 1984-1990), Denmark (Copenhagen 2000-01), Norway (Viking Stavanger 2004-06), Finland (national team 2006-07).
"There's a good work ethic in the Nordic countries. The teams respond to being organised. Like the Americans, they think, 'This man is now our coach, he is going improve us. I'll listen to what he has to say.' I had no great problems with ego. There is a much greater acceptance of team-play."
Xamax Neuchatel (1990-92), national side (1992-95), Grasshoppers Zurich (1999-2000).
"The major problem was dealing with the internecine jealousies that exist between the French, German and Italian speakers. The German majority considered themselves No 1. The French thought themselves culturally superior. The Italians felt they knew football best. Bringing them together was not easy and being foreign was a clear advantage."
Internazionale (1995-97, 1999), Udinese (2001-02).
"Players need more mental strength in Italy than anywhere. Inter was all about success but every defeat was a funeral. I remember losing a pre-season friendly, Ronaldo's debut, to Barcelona. In England people would say, 'We played well and lost to a dodgy goal'. There it was, 'How can we lose? What does this mean for the season?' Inter was a graveyard for players."
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
National side (2002-2004).
"A lot of what we were trying to do was not just new, it was earth-shattering. We ran it on quasi-military basis. We told them 'to succeed we have to be organised. If we are going to train at 10.30 we want you there at 10.30; if we say dinner at five, we want you down at five.' You might get everyone there, but at three minutes past, two were across the road to McDonald's. You can put a big fence around the hotel but half the poor bastards will starve to death."
My other life
With a lot of activities your thoughts still drift back to football, but literature can occupy your mind. I've read most books by Milan Kundera, John Updike, Philip Roth, some of them many times. I'm now reading Homecoming (right) by Bernard Schlink.
I also like travelling. I'm lucky in that my job has taken me places and I always try to get out of the hotel and see the churches and sights.
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