Interestingly enough, Roy Hodgson existed prior to his appointment as manager of Liverpool Football Club in 2010. Perhaps even more extraordinary is that he walked the earth before he took Fulham to Basel, Donetsk, Turin, Wolfsburg and Hamburg on their way to the Europa League final.
Indeed, Hodgson has had a life before the newspaper editors decided he was worthy of one. His story is fascinating, and that he has never seriously been considered for the England job before is almost inconceivable. The approach from the FA last week marked the pinnacle of a curious career for the man from Surrey, which began 36 years ago on the Swedish west coast, in Halmstad. He was 29; six years after he had qualified for his full coaching badge, and at the end of a moderately successful playing career. From Crystal Palace to Carshalton Athletic, Hodgson spent several years playing non-league football, before turning to management.
He recalls his first season in Sweden. Halmstads struggled to survival in the previous season, and were expected, with Hodgson’s leadership, to fall spectacularly out of the division. “I was recommended to Halmstads by my close friend Bob Houghton [who played alongside Hodgson at Maidstone, and coached Malmö to a European Cup final].
“I’d qualified for my full coaching badge at 23 but that was my first season coaching adults. Halmstads had played a very different type of football to what I wanted, man-to-man across the field, with a libero. From the start it was: ‘Okay, you lads know nothing, this is what we’re going to do’. I remember the turning point.
“We had mixed results pre-season, understandably, because we were changing to a back four, attempting to push up and pressure the ball and were getting caught out. For the players, the jury was out.”
The media weren’t so certain either. “On the first day of the season, twenty newspapers said we would go down,” Hodgson admits. “It was a water-into-wine job. We won the championship in style.”
He spent five years with Halmstad, winning the league in 1976 and 1979, before joining Houghton at Bristol City in 1980. It was a mistake from the beginning. On the decline, Bristol fell back into the Second Division in what would be the first of three relegations, with spiraling debt and heavy financial losses contributing directly to the club’s bankruptcy in 1982. Wisely, Hodgson returned to Sweden, this time with Oddevold and later Örebro. In 1985, he moved on to Malmö, where he enjoyed arguably the most successful period of his career, leading the side to five successive league titles.
“It’s never easy to do it every year, even if your players are better, because people lose appetite,” Hodgson said, reflecting on his time with the club. “The Swedes always talk about the self-playing piano, and with that team I definitely got to the stage of the self-playing piano. Not a lot needed to be said or done.”
Hodgson’s impact on Swedish football, and later Scandinavian football, is laudable. Arriving as a young man with strong new concepts, he was immediately successful. He, along with Houghton, revolutionised the Swedish game.
Indeed, the style he imposed has marked historical similarities to that of the club where he would come to experience his most public misfortune: Liverpool. A relatively simple style in concept, Hodgson admits that “simplicity is the hardest thing to achieve”. Look no further than the Camp Nou – Barcelona play football stripped back to its rawest form, yet it is the most effective (if not flexible) approach to the game seen in the last twenty years.
“Pass and move, always move it quickly and once you lose it get back in to position. That was the mantra which took Liverpool through their great years,” says Hodgson. “I was influenced by the Liverpool team which dominated the 70s with all its great players and playing the football they played.”
Swedish football reached new heights with Hodgson, as Halmstad, and later Malmö, played fast, efficient football unlike that which had dominated Scandinavian leagues in the past. The nation fell for it too; the quality of passing, the quality of movement, the way that players were always available for each other. Emulating the Liverpool of Toshack, Keegan, Dalglish and Rush, Hodgson’s system was never going to be quite as exceptional as that seen at Anfield, but his impact on Swedish football still has him held in high regard.
“Suddenly they were playing very aggressive attacking football in a 4-4-2,” remembers Sven-Göran Eriksson. “He introduced zonal marking in place of man-to-man marking, and played a high line of defence. I was very influenced by this ‘English style’ and when I took over at Gothenburg in 1979 I also played my team this way.
“The Swedish FA criticised us heavily. They wanted everyone to play the same way as the national team, with a libero. But we were the three most successful coaches [including Houghton] in Swedish football. The influence of Hodgson on our game was very important. Absolutely.”
He was offered a lifetime contract at Malmö, which would have seen him work wonders with a young Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but he declined, later saying that “moving to another place seemed exciting. The decision was also financial. Swedish taxes were so high that even if you were being paid reasonable money, after losing 65% in tax there wasn’t a lot left.”
Hodgson would move on to Switzerland, where he would coach the national side to the 1994 World Cup, in which he reached the second round. At one point during his tenure, Switzerland were ranked third in the world. Having clinched qualification for Euro 1996, he resigned to join Inter Milan, although he had been performing both jobs for at least two months beforehand. He remains highly respected at the San Siro, despite not winning a trophy during his time at the club.
A short stay at Blackburn Rovers turned sour when he failed to repeat relative success in his second season at Ewood Park, and he briefly returned to Milan. Before he arrived at Fulham in 2007, Hodgson managed Grasshooper in Switzerland, won the league with FC Copenhagen, had an ill-fated spell with Udinese, and coached the United Arab Emirates for two years.
He does not reflect on his time on the Arabian Peninsula with much attachment: That was a period where I didn’t know where my career was going. But all these experiences enrich you and it was good to know I could get my message to players who many say are uncoachable. It’s hard work; they’re basically lazy. But I had them drilled and pressuring opponents almost like an English team. Most coaches who go there are just fannying around, but it’s not my nature.”
He returned to England; to Craven Cottage, then to Anfield, before finding himself at the Hawthorns. With West Brom, he has gone back to his tendency to defy expectations with an unfashionable side. Last week, Wembley came knocking, and he will likely be confirmed as manager of England until Brazil 2014 in the coming days. Should England underperform at Euro 2012, which is entirely possible, and entirely probable, it would be unfair to vilify Hodgson as happened with Liverpool. He deserves the position, such has been his career, but he would never deserve the derision of a nation. Not until England fail to qualify for the World Cup, anyway.
In 2001, Hodgson was asked if he harboured an ambition to one day manage his country. “Of course it would be a big honour to manage a national team. But I don’t harbour ambitions as such; my ambition is always to win the next game. That’s how I’ve spent a lifetime, preparing and working hard to win the next game.”
For Hodgson, the weight of a nation’s inflated expectations rests on his ability to achieve such noble intentions.