Wednesday 17 January 2018

No great expectations from the man who wrote the book

Dion Fanning

The way people talked about Roy Hodgson's literary tastes last week, I thought he must have been named as a controversial judge of the Booker Prize.

Hodgson appears to be better read than some of the judges parachuted in to book awards in pursuit of headlines and his time as a Booker judge will surely come. He is, after all, a man who knows his way around a committee.

The intellectual wing of English football became quite excited that a man who enjoys Milan Kundera and Saul Bellow and has wasted many nights at the theatre was now taking over England. He is, an editorial in The Guardian stated, "probably the only football manager in England to have once drawn parallels between his career and a Kandinsky painting". Whatever about Kandinsky, he is also the man who signed Paul Konchesky for Liverpool.

In a world as anti-intellectual as English football, Hodgson was hailed as a good thing because he likes some excellent books and the music of Jackson Browne. His ideal dinner party guests, he said once, were JP Donleavy, Philip Roth and John Updike. As a fan of the Rabbit books and Roth, I have never once thought I'd like to meet them for dinner, especially with the danger that Updike would start droning on about golf.

Hodgson was, they said repeatedly, 'a broadsheet man in a tabloid world'. Here, they were able to say, is a man who proves that what we do is important and profound. He was not a spiv like Harry. Hodgson was the desk sergeant to whom you might report a stolen bike; Redknapp was The Sweeney.

The desperately unfunny jokes about Hodgson's speech impediment were rightly condemned while some forgot how they had mocked Harry's illiteracy in the past.

"You won't find the books I like on the bestseller list," Hodgson said once. This was not a dismantling of the anti-intellectualism of English football, but its flipside, the pulling up of a drawbridge with the repeated distinction between high and low culture.

It is hard to imagine Hodgson agreeing with Kingsley Amis's view of Beverly Hills Cop as a "flawless masterpiece". Hodgson enjoys foreign films which he watches without subtitles, it was said, making England feel good and bad about itself simultaneously.

When Capello arrived, they marvelled at his CV, his art collection and revealed that he was an 'adventurous eater'. He left bewildered by the strange cultural nuances and the corporate obligations of the job. Hodgson understands the corporate world. Trevor Brooking told how they ask for him on committees across Europe and Hodgson referred to David Bernstein as 'chairman' throughout the day of media obligations.

He did well in his first meeting with the press, impressing them with his credentials and addressing many by their first names, a credential that always impresses us.

The media treatment has already provided Hodgson's supporters with a number of convenient excuses. He is too clever for them and they wanted Harry Redknapp to begin with, just as they wanted Kenny Dalglish at Liverpool.

Late last Tuesday, he was asked if he had a thick skin; he was honest and said no he doesn't.

"I don't think so, but maybe I should develop one . . . I'm a football coach first and foremost . . . I can't deny what really is both my forté and what I really want to do is to coach football players, to prepare football teams, to build football teams and to try and improve football teams. That's basically what the England manager's job is."

If the former manager hadn't resigned in protest at the stripping of the captaincy from a player who was facing a civil race charge but whom he had previously sacked as captain on the grounds that sleeping with a team-mate's ex-girlfriend wasn't on, then you could say that the England job was all about working on team shape on the training ground. If Glenn Hoddle hadn't been sacked because of his views on the transmigration of souls, you could argue that an England manager will be judged on his success in adopting a fluid 4-2-3-1

If Sven hadn't been forced out because he was indiscreet to a newspaper journalist who was pretending to be a sheikh then you could make a case that the England coach was all about adopting a unified coaching structure. The manager's job at West Brom or Fulham is about working methodically on the training ground without too much outside distraction. The England job -- or the Liverpool job -- is about convincing people, the players, often through the filter of the media, that you can inhabit the role of England or Liverpool manager.

Hodgson did say he understood that the media was a huge factor but in many ways it is the only factor. If an England manager could succeed in removing some of the pressure England's players feel then maybe he could hope to be a success.

One player told Henry Winter that as he stood in the tunnel before England played USA at the last World Cup, all he could think about was what rating he'd get in the papers. I suspect that many England players would pack in international football if they could but they would be vilified for that too, just as they are vilified if they are caught laughing after a defeat. It is endless and suffocating misery.

England are keen to lower expectations. Hodgson's presence alone helps that but if he seized this opportunity and took a young squad to the European Championships, he could begin to change the way the media engage with their team.

You can argue about Hodgson's cv as much as you like and there are plenty of ways of looking at it. His Dr Strangelove moment on Tuesday when he complained that the question about his time in apartheid South Africa was "unfair" was the old Hodgson slipping out.

His time at Liverpool is the only thing to judge him on. His melting under the pressure indicates what will happen with England. This has nothing to do with press conferences getting the blood pumping but the link, crude and unfortunate maybe, between headlines and the dressing room.

Roy Hodgson didn't fail at Liverpool because he wasn't Kenny Dalglish. Kenny Dalglish, you could argue, has not been sacked because he is Kenny Dalglish. Roy Hodgson failed on his own terms, he failed because he was Roy Hodgson.

He benefited, not suffered as he stated last week, from a change in ownership at the club and yet he couldn't shake his testiness at being questioned and couldn't comprehend the expectations of supporters.

Instead he tried to do what he always does. "When you raise expectations and have high hopes, fear of failure is always going to be a factor," he said last week, sounding fearful, not only of failure, but of expectation.

These are the relevant factors for Hodgson and England. Yet his reading has not been wasted. Through Roth and Bellow and the Jewish canon, he will have understood thwarted hope. He will know that lives, as Michael Chabon wrote, have been "ruined again and again by hope". But he has his own experience too. When it comes to lowering expectation, well, Roy Hodgson wrote the book.

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