Roy Hodgson has said a couple of things in his time that made me want to give him a great big bear hug. The first goes back some 14 years when he was in charge of Blackburn Rovers. The word had gone around that he spoke several languages and actually read proper books. I believe it is for this reason that one of my BBC colleagues at the time asked him in a post-match interview whether Blackburn’s defence had been sufficiently obdurate that day.
Roy looked at him evenly and said, “I’m afraid you’ll have to tell me what obdurate means first.” Toe-curling though the moment was, I thought it spoke volumes. Roy knows his stuff, but isn’t shy of admitting what he doesn’t know. Above all though, it was evidence of his passion for clarity. Everyone I’ve spoken to who has worked with him makes the same point: you always understand exactly what it is he wants from you.
Fast forward 13 years and nine clubs later and Roy was pulling up trees managing my team, West Bromwich Albion. From strong relegation candidates when he took over in February 2011, he’d turned us round. With several games left we were safe from relegation, having, for the first time in donkey’s years, just beaten Aston Villa. In the press conference, with a nod to the dismal spell he’d had managing Liverpool before he came to us, a journalist asked him if it was nice to hear the crowd singing his name. Roy smiled and said, “Oh, they sang my name at Liverpool too, don’t worry about that.” Excellent. Gallows humour. Another good sign.
The following season Liverpool came to West Brom. On my way to the ground a white van pulled up and half a dozen scousers piled out of the back clutching a load of empty beer bottles. They all looked a bit like James Corden. As if by some hidden signal, they broke into a chant. It was too expletive-ridden to quote here and I can’t remember most of it anyway, but one line that does stick in my mind went as follows: “Roy Hodgson, he’s got a saggy chin. And we never, ever win.” Or something like that.
So how did the man saggy of chin whose team couldn’t win transform West Brom and so earn himself a shot at greatness (or, let’s be honest, possible humiliation) managing England?
Dan Ashworth, West Brom’s widely respected sporting and technical director, recruited Roy and is absolutely clear that his biggest attribute is his brilliance at making it, well, absolutely clear what he expects of every member of the team: “He’s very precise on roles and responsibilities; everyone knows what is expected of them. He keeps hammering it home, over and over again in training. Just repeating the same messages until they’ve become second nature.”
And this didn’t just apply to the players; it went for everyone at the club. Jonas Olsson, a key defender for West Brom under Roy, is now with the Sweden squad ahead of the European Championships. He spoke to me from their training camp on an island in the Baltic. “I don’t think I’ve come across anyone so engaged with every aspect of the organisation. He was out there on the training pitch for as long as we were; he worked closely with the medical staff; he was involved in the scouting, too. He connected with everyone and had an interest in everyone’s role.”
Chris Brunt, who captained West Brom under Roy, is similarly effusive: “He just sees everything going on in training and leaves nothing out in the build-up to a game. England will be the best-prepared team going into this tournament. I learnt more in 15 months with him than I probably did in my whole career.”
Everyone agrees that as a coach Roy is exceptional. “He’s one of the very best,” says Ashworth. “He gets out there and gets his boots dirty; he’s right in the thick of it.” And, importantly, it seems he strives to make the coaching as similar as possible to what players will face in a game. Ashworth told me once that Roy’s no fan of five-a-side sessions, wondering what the point of them is, as the game, he’d noticed, is 11-a-side and played on a great big pitch.
“Game-like” is how Olsson describes training with Roy, “and it’s all about shape and working as a team. Always focusing on the collective. It was repetitive, the same things, all week, every day, but it transformed us as a team.”
The word repetition is significant. It’s the key, apparently, to the success of Roy’s coaching methods, but it’s also used as a stick to beat him with. A former coach at West Brom, who worked there under Roy, told me that, while he was a great admire of Roy’s methods, he could understand why they might not have worked at Liverpool. What he was getting at was the suspicion that this repetitious, learning-by-rote means of coaching is not to the taste of those who consider themselves “top” players.
He may have had a point, but Ashworth has an interesting take on the problem, if it is one. “I don’t think players consider it boring and I certainly don’t think they’ve got any business to moan if it’s working. But in any case at international level it could suit everyone down to the ground. Over a whole season it may get monotonous day in day out, but they’re not together for that long with England. And if it’s seen to be working, no one’s going to complain.”
So, he’s driven and focused and tactically brilliant. But that much you’d expect from a top coach. The extra ingredient is what you might call the personal touch. A friend of mine who works at West Brom told me he’s yet to come across a manager so often to be found engrossed in conversation with a player on the training ground, in the dressing room, the canteen, the car park or wherever.
“He’s just so good with the players,” Ashworth says. “He knows how to deal with them as individuals. He manages to keep his distance, but be approachable at the same time. He’d pick and choose his time to talk to them instead of making a big deal of it. It wouldn’t be a case of asking for a meeting in his office straight after training, or that sort of thing. He’d just talk to them when the opportunity presented itself. Even the ones who weren’t in the team respected him. And that’s always a good sign.”
Olsson who, remember, will be in a position with Sweden at the Euros to help throw a spanner in his former manager’s works puts it best: “He’s just a good man who takes time with people on a personal level, who really tries to connect with players. And for me that was the key. It made me, and all of us, really want to go out and play for him. I enjoyed working with him as a player and knowing him as a man; he got the best out of me.”
All of which is nice to hear, but what troubles me is that it all seems so obvious: know your football and treat your footballers well. Surely every manager does that? Brunt, the skipper, laughs and says, “if it was that easy, we’d all be England managers, wouldn’t we? Trust me: tactically he’s brilliant and, vitally, he never panics.”
Never panics? I think Chris is right. I played golf with Roy the other day. Needless to say he was charm itself, though I can’t imagine he’ll afford his players quite as much tender loving care as I got every time I blasted a wayward shot into trouble. And, my word, did he demonstrate ice-cool composure under fire. Attempting a lofted chip onto the 8th green I managed instead to fire it at terrifying speed straight at the new England manager’s head. He deftly dodged my bullet and enquired: “Are you trying to kill me for leaving West Brom?” Clever, funny, kind and calm under fire; I think he’s a seriously good thing.
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