Hodgson’s homecoming Former England coach goes back to his roots
The former Croydon PE teacher and Crystal Palace youth player goes back to his roots tomorrow when he takes charge of the club for the first time. Jeremy Wilson meets the locals who remember the young Hodgson growing up down the road from Selhurst Park
It was when Ramzi Musallam and his school friends at the Monks Hill Comprehensive in Croydon were gathering around the latest edition of Shoot magazine in the winter of 1976 that they got the shock of their lives. “They would have a team photo across the centre spread and that week was of the Swedish team Halmstads,” recalls Musallam. “One of my mates saw one of the faces in the middle and just said, ‘That looks like Mr Hodgson’. We all just laughed, not thinking it was possible. He had just been our English and PE teacher. But then we worked our way through and, in among this list of Swedish names, there it was: Roy Hodgson. We were stunned. We had no idea.
“He lived around the corner from me in Farnborough Crescent and we would sometimes walk home together. I was a Palace fan and the substitute in the school team that Mr Hodgson would coach. We would always just talk about football.
“He was still playing for Carshalton Athletic as well as teaching at the school. I remember that he was always in a tracksuit, even when he was taking English lessons, but he was one of the teachers you could talk to. He was liked and respected by the pupils.”
Monks Hill (now named Quest Academy) was also Wilfried Zaha’s old school and is just down the road from Selhurst Park where, at the age now of 70, English football’s most travelled manager has returned to what he calls “my boyhood club”.
After a coaching career spanning five decades, eight countries and 19 teams, Hodgson’s new place of work is just a mile from the Sydenham Road garden where he first kicked a football.
It is not just the hairstyles that have changed. Hodgson was born only two years after the Second World War ended and large parts of Croydon, which was once home to London’s main airport, had been obliterated. Hodgson’s father, Bill, worked as a bus driver and, living beneath them in the same terrace maisonette, was another young family. A bus conductor colleague also had a young boy who was fanatical about football and their dominant childhood memory was of endless football games on the shared patch of grass.
“All the local kids used to come virtually every day and we’d have a match,” recalls Steve Kember. “There were a couple of trees at the back we’d use as goalposts.”
They both attended the John Ruskin Grammar School in Croydon, which also counted two other prominent future managers – Lennie Lawrence and Bob Houghton – among its cohort.
Kember says was
“one of the chaps”, apparently had an unusually sophisticated taste in music and literature. According to another school friend, he saw himself as “a bid of a mod”.
Lawrence all trained with
Palace but there was never any doubt who would be the star player.
“pretty useful” but Kember, who would become
Chelsea’s club record signing, was the outstanding talent. Hodgson was duly released by Palace without playing a senior match but his globetrotting would wait and the next decade of his life was spent teaching and playing non-league football for a variety of clubs around Kent and South London. Hodgson’s first match for Tonbridge Angels was in front of
‘Down to earth, honest, modest; there was nothing flash about him but he would do everything to the very best of his abilities’
only 75 supporters. It was, says current Angels chairman Steve Churcher, a fairly “dire time” and the club finished bottom of the Southern League in Hodgson’s first season.
One of the club’s fans, Tom Spence, actually wrote to Hodgson when he was managing Switzerland and received a personal reply saying that “he had fond memories of meeting with his team-mates after training in Fortes Cafe in Tonbridge High Street”.
Hodgson’s team-mates included the current Arsenal kit manager Vic Akers, Houghton, Colin Toal and Ray Brady, the brother of Liam.
He was versatile if limited and, playing predominantly as a midfielder or full-back, soon moved to local rivals Gravesend and Northfleet where he became team-mates with Tony Sitford.
“Roy was not the greatest player in the world but he was a good player and, more important, a very nice person,” says Sitford, who continues to work locally both as groundsman and director of football at Corinthian FC.
“I look at him now, 40-odd years on, and you still see the same person. What you see is what you get. It was what he was like as a player, too. Down to earth, honest, modest; there was nothing flash about him but he would do everything to the very best of his abilities. He was not a player who was aggressive and would go sliding into tackles or kick people but he was comfortable on the ball and had good vision. He was definitely a player who would be more appreciated by his team-mates and his manager than the
crowd.” That was especially evident during an away match at Cheltenham in the Southern League. Charles Webster, who has been covering non-league football for BBC Radio Kent for more than 40 years, was at the game.
“He was getting stick from his own fans while waiting for a throw-in,” he recalls. “He had the ball on his hip and one of the comics shouted, ‘You ------, Hodgson’. I just remember him turning around, looking at the fan, and very deliberately saying, ‘You are not here as well are you?’ He was used to getting a bit of stick at home and would have recognised all the faces but, in that moment, you could see he had a certain strength of character and a good sense of humour.”
It was, says Webster, his main memory of an otherwise easily forgettable playing spell.
“I remember he had a hunchedover demeanour that made him look like he was really concentrating,” says Webster. “I don’t think it came naturally to him. I don’t mean that unkindly, but he just looked like he had really worked at it. At that level, he was a journeyman, but the sort of player that every club needs; a grafter, although not someone in whom you obviously saw leadership qualities.”
So, a sort of non-league James Milner then? “Precisely,” says Webster. “He was a team player who would do what the manager asked. I would love to say I knew that Roy would go on to be a top manager, but I didn’t. No one did. Until he emerged again as a coach, he was largely forgotten about.”
After Gravesend, spells at Maidstone United with Houghton and Ashford Town followed before his playing days ended in a Carshalton Athletic team that was being coached by Lawrence.
“It was Lennie and Bob Houghton who encouraged him into coaching,” says Chris Blanchard, who is now club chairman. “He was a good nonleague player; he scored a few goals and would sometimes take the penalties. It was a decent period in our history.”
Hodgson, himself, speaks of his “pride” at his Croydon roots and, while he returns to Palace at a moment of some crisis, the local desire to see him also re-establish his own career clearly runs deep.
“I’ve always followed his career since he left the school,” says Musallam, who remains a huge Palace fan.
“I still speak to a lot of the old pupils and they are wishing him well. We would love to see him succeed. Saturday will be a homecoming.”
Launch pad: Roy Hodgson (left) was teaching while playing for Carshalton Athletic in 1975-76 with Lennie Lawrence (right)
Bitter end: Roy Hodgson, with assistant Gary Neville, while in charge of England