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Hodgson struggles to play along with the England circus

Like prisoners in a bad marriage, Roy Hodgson and the English media just about kept things civil in the Hertfordshire countryside.

But they were 21 minutes and, perhaps, 30 questions into a comically strident exploration of tonight's captaincy role for Ashley Cole before there was the first mention of Ireland in the St Alban Suite of Sopwell House. It came from a Dublin voice and proved embarrassingly fleeting as not one English journalist made even the flimsiest reference to Giovanni Trapattoni and his team.

Hearing an explosion of gaiety as he entered the room, Hodgson had joked thinly that he was more accustomed to hearing such laughter after he spoke than before. To his left, Frank Lampard sat with the glazed expression of a man for whom all this was just part of the compulsory madness to life with England.

There is a vaguely cartoonish quality to Hodgson, with his lugubrious facial expressions and tendency to speak like a stenographer who can't quite read his own notes. He is a palpably decent man who knows that the English media would have preferred Harry Redknapp's fairground chatter to the clipped formality that is his style.

BUBBLE

So they course him like a felon they'd quite like to frisk and Hodgson, with a gentle, world-weary air, politely plays along. He has interesting things to say, but England press conferences roll along in such a strange bubble of self-absorption, Roy spends an inordinate amount of time answering questions about nothing.

To be good at that, you need a gift for spin. And Roy doesn't have that.

The last time these countries played, England's destiny was in the hands of Terry Venables, a slippery Cockney who always sounded like he'd just come from a morning at Billingsgate Market. Terry could work a room of journalists like a veteran comedian playing the Palladium. He was a bottomless font of yarns and little street wisdoms that created the illusion of friendship.

Terry would arrive all tan and laughter, sustaining that convivial air until someone made a remotely priggish enquiry. Then the change in El Tel would invoke paralysis from the floor. He could shut down his cabaret in an eye-blink, so the media quickly settled for laughter above disclosure.

Yesterday, Hodgson sat with elbows on the table, a hand to his face, forehead creased with indifference. He painstakingly indulged questions about arm-bands, coin-tossing protocol and the clearly dubious leadership qualities of tonight's captain.

The Chelsea full-back leads England out to mark a century of caps (this will be his 102nd), but still avoids contact with media for fear of acquiring an unpleasant infection.

Hodgson's eyes came alive just briefly at the conclusion when asked a few questions about Ireland, tonight's... em... mystery opponents.

Had he ever previously been courted by the FAI to be manager of Ireland?

"I wouldn't answer that," he said with a pretty transparent grin, "because I don't think it's right for managers to talk about being courted or not."

And his view of Trapattoni?

"Giovanni and I go back a long way," he smiled. "Even before I moved to Italy, it goes back to the Malmo-Inter matches in 1988 and 1989. I regard him as a man whom I've got enormous admiration and respect for. His CV is probably the best of any active manager working today. That sometimes gets forgotten. He's not a man who shouts from the rooftops about the wonderful job he's done and the number of countries he's worked in.

"He's an outstanding coach, an outstanding manager and perhaps even more than that, he's a very good person. If I was a footballer, I'd love to have played for Giovanni Trapattoni. Not just because what he would have taught me, but because I'd have enjoyed being in his company."

And Shane Long, a man he brought to West Brom for £5m and who plays for Ireland tonight? "Shane Long is a very, very good player" said Hodgson.

"I was delighted we signed him at West Brom, from stiff competition. He did very well there last year and I think he's a player who's getting better and better. He came into the professional game relatively late. He's had a meteoric rise, but I think there's big, big margin of progression in Shane Long.

"I hope tomorrow night he's not going to produce the form I know he's capable of because, if he does, he's going to give our centre-backs a good test. But we need a good test, so perhaps it would be good if he does play well."

Hodgson declined to name his starting line-up, but is expected to pick a 4-2-3-1 formation with Lampard and Michael Carrick as holding midfielders and Liverpool's Daniel Sturridge leading the attack.

Lampard spoke with impressive eloquence when asked his view of the Irish team.

"I've watched the Republic of Ireland play since I was a kid, watching them go to World Cups and the Euros and play every game they played," he said.

"They amaze you with their work ethic, their organisation, their desire to win playing for their country. I don't think it matters whether their players play in the Championship or the Premier League, we're all very aware of them.

"As I've known it, they've fostered this sort of spirit since the Jack Charlton days. It hasn't quite left, whatever manager's come in. So, it'll be a tough game."

Hodgson has put his name to a letter imploring all England fans to respect the anthems tonight in an effort to avoid any echoes of the '95 game, abandoned because of English supporters rioting at Lansdowne Road.

"There have been problems between the countries in the past," he said. "We can't rewrite history. But it's not about politics, it's about a football match."

If only life with England was that simple, Roy...

Irish Independent