The Ballad of Roy Hodgson

Poor old Roy Hodgson. In May his stock was high. He’d restored his image in English football and was named LMA Manager of the Year. Now he’s jobless after 8 months at Liverpool.

When Roy joined Fulham at the end of 2007, the team was in deep trouble. Lawrie Sanchez had led them to the relegation zone, and they seemed destined to fail. It took Hodgson some weeks to get the team to put in consistent results, and they faced weekly ‘must win’ games right up to the last at Portsmouth. In itself, the ‘Great Escape’ did a lot to banish memories of Hodgson’s last job in England, at Blackburn. Despite his successes at Malmo, Switzerland and Inter Milan, the awful 1998-9 season at Ewood Park meant he was seen as not fitting in to English football at the top level.

Following the 2008 heroics, the team that Hodgson had largely inherited completely turned things around the following season, leading to Fulham’s highest ever league position (7th). Many of the players who remained from before his time flourished under his tenure, having been regarded as mediocre under other managers.

The 2009-10 season was arguably a greater success than the previous one, for despite ending the season in 12th place, Fulham also managed to get to the final of the Europa Cup. On the way they beat the holders Shaktar Donetsk, three-time winners Juventus and German champions Wolfsburg. Atletico Madrid won the final, but only after a late extra-time winner from Diego Forlan. There were amazing individual and team performances from the players, but it was certainly the manager who was held responsible for taking a fairly small club all the way against some of the best teams in Europe.

All through the late part of that season, Liverpool had been angling to get rid of their manager, Rafa Benitez. In 2008-9 the Reds had come second in the Premiership, and they were expected to be competing for the title again. Instead, Liverpool ended up out of the top-four positions for most of the season. They were knocked out of the Champions League at the group stage and ended up in the Europa League, and despite getting to the semi-final (losing to Atletico after a late Forlan goal) this was also seen to be an underachievement. For some reason, Hodgson was seen as a replacement for Benitez, someone who could turn things around.

It always puzzled me at the time that Liverpool were interested in Hodgson. I can certainly see the attraction the other way around – he wanted to prove his ability at the very top level in England, Liverpool are up there as one of the very best teams historically, and after last season there would be a limit to how much further Fulham could go. I don’t doubt that Hodgson saw Liverpool as a challenge as well, one that would take considerable effort to master.

For Liverpool though, it was not really a good fit. They clearly wanted a quick fix – Hodgson seems to take his time to build teams and tactical systems. They had, and have, a lot of highly paid primadonnas – big egos do not cut much ice with Roy (as Jimmy Bullard discovered), and he demands hard work and loyalty from his players. They have traditionally been a ‘skill’ team, aiming to win games through attacking flair – Hodgson tends to be more conservative, building tactics from the defence and first aiming not to lose.

To be honest, these differences should have given both Liverpool and Hodgson pause. I’m not saying this from hindsight, as a bitter Fulham supporter who can’t get over the ‘betrayal’ of a manager leaving. I was not happy to see him go, but at the same time recognised that his abilities and ambition meant he could move up to a more prominent job. I fully believe that he only waited until July to sign up because there was a possibility that a bad World Cup campaign would see Capello sacked by England (when it seems that a bad campaign only served to keep him in place). The England job would be far more suited to Hodgson’s abilities, but it may be now that he will never get the chance.

It is sad for Hodgson that his big chance ended in such failure. He should have been given more time, but modern football doesn’t allow managers any room to fail, there is no patience for a period of ‘rebuilding’. Managers are expected to take a team from a predecessor who’s been sacked, and transform them within weeks. Players who don’t like the change may leave or be indisciplined, while others might not take to new methods. Fans will boo after a single loss, and offer lots of ‘advice’. Owners who have banked on Champions League football the following season, and the boost of a championship challenge will worry about their financial returns.

And I do have sympathy for Hodgson, far more than I do for Liverpool. He made the mistake of taking on a poisoned chalice, they used their prestige to coax a manager from a ‘lesser’ team and then chewed him up and spat him out.

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