Roy Hodgson is not one for sentimental reflection. Looking back has never really been his thing. If it were, as he admits, he might linger on his life going full circle in restoring him to the club he supported as a boy, “walking with my dad to watch the reserves one week, the first team the next” from their regular vantage point on the bleak concrete of the Holmesdale Road terrace. Or hoarding programs, a youngster craving an audience with Johnny Byrne or Terry Long “and waiting to collect autographs by the changing rooms”.
It had been a sense of Crystal Palace’s underlying ambition, and a desire to fling himself back into work 14 months after leaving his role with England, that convinced him to return to the club where a career spanning more than half a century had begun with evening sessions in the youth team. Yet, when Hodgson allows himself a second to contemplate, he can acknowledge some would spy romance in last autumn’s return.
His father, Bill, was a geordie who had moved to the capital before the second world war, then returned from the fighting to marry and settle as a bus driver in the suburbs south of the river. “He regarded himself as a Londoner but he had two teams: Newcastle from his youth and then, when he came down to Croydon, he was Crystal Palace all the way,” Hodgson says. “He watched the game. Just before he died, we knocked Internazionale out of the European Cup with Malmö [in 1989] and I was really happy he lived at least to see that moment. But to see me at Palace? I’m sure he’d have been very proud. He’d have loved it.”
A little over four months into an appointment that had underwhelmed many outside this corner of south London, the doubters blinded by memories of England’s failures at recent tournaments and assuming this was a broken man, it is hard not to admire the rejuvenation instigated by the country’s most worldly wise manager. At 70, Hodgson is on his 20th coaching assignment, yet his appetite for hands-on coaching is as fierce as ever, his enthusiasm and energy infectious. It has rubbed off on his players, from Wilfried Zaha to James Tomkins, Bakary Sako to Martin Kelly. They are revived.
The job he has overseen is far from complete but feels remarkable. Palace had endured the worst start to a top-flight campaign, losing seven games without scoring, a sequence that included Frank de Boer’s four-match tenure. Hodgson had arrived as a firefighter to stumble almost from the off into brutal batterings at the two Manchester clubs. The situation was grim. But, in 16 games since and despite a lengthening injury list, Palace have earned 25 points. Arsenal are the only side to have beaten them in the last 12 league matches.
There must have been times – as the wheels came off at the Etihad Stadium or when stoppage-time penalties were saved against Bournemouth and at home to Manchester City – when he contemplated the logic in resuming his career.
“I’d have laughed if someone had told me, in 1976, I’d still be doing this at 70. I assisted Bobby Houghton at Halmstads and we were both just under 30. We’d say: ‘Wouldn’t it be great to do this for maybe 10 years, save a little money, then perhaps start a little business together.’ Some sort of travel agency. We had no football thoughts beyond that, other than maybe combining it with a bit of sport, getting a few tours going. It was a very loose plan and the wheels fell off it many years ago.
“It is a sadistic pleasure. The suffering never stops – that’s the problem. A lot of young coaches who respect the fact I have been doing it a long time … that is often their question. Does it get any easier? Can you relax more during the games? Can you take it all a little bit more philosophically and put it in perspective? The tragedy is I have to tell them: ‘No. If anything it gets worse.’ Getting that first foot on the rung of the ladder, that’s where you find it easier to shrug off those times when your foot slips off and you have to get yourself going again. When you have been lucky enough to move up, all you see is the slide back down. You don’t see the further steps upwards.
“You learn to harden yourself towards it but, the longer you are in, it isn’t something you can give up lightly. It’s not something you can walk away from and, even if you’re not winning, it’s possible to derive some satisfaction from the fact you are working properly. But I suffer during games. We follow the action, kicking every ball, wondering if our center-backs can stop the cross … In some ways you enjoy it but your heart is always thumping.” The sight of Pep Guardiola joining him in the dugout in stoppage time in the goalless draw with City on New Year’s Eve summed up the respect in which Hodgson is held by his peers. The pair spoke about the seasons their sides are enjoying. “A nice conversation,” says the Englishman.
Hodgson will have admired City’s style and panache, as well as their feverish work rate. “I like the artistry of the game. I still get a lot of pleasure watching the good quality teams play, where the movements of the players are coordinated. It’s almost balletic. There is so much interaction in a football match: between you and your team-mates and how you support each other, work for each other, make runs. But I also enjoy the other aspect: the pressing and how people work so hard to recover the ball.”
He inherited a squad whose confidence was fragile but who were eager to follow his lead. The structured nature of training has been embraced, sessions replicating game-play to encourage familiarity, clarity and a recognition of each player’s role. It worked at Fulham and West Bromwich Albion, Malmö and Copenhagen. “We didn’t hear anyone saying: ‘What the hell are we doing this for?’ In fact, quite the reverse. Quite a few came up to us and said: ‘We like this. We need more of this. Please keep it going.’ They take their lead from you: your energy, your enthusiasm. It does transmit. I’m anxious as I get older to make sure that doesn’t drop.”
In a congested bottom half, he has hoisted Palace to 12th and should be rewarded with forays into the transfer market. Everything about his appointment seems to fit. “I’m working at a club which has really good potential, with owners with the right ideas,” he says. “The only thing we are lacking is making certain we have the 11 players who can deliver total stability in the Premier League, where you are not looking over your shoulder every year wondering: ‘Are we in or are we out?’”
There lies his target. Over at Malmö’s stadium the fans refer to the upper corner of the eastern stand as “Roys Hörna” (Roy’s Corner). Maintain Palace’s progress and Hodgson, back where it all began, will find adulation far closer to home.
The Guardian Sport