Hodgson keen to look to the future as he lands at Palace
Roy Hodgson was as polite as ever and even offered his response through a chuckle but, as his first media conference back in club management stretched beyond the half-hour, it was easy to pinpoint the moment his patience snapped. The drip-feed of references to Nice, Iceland and a night he would rather forget had been incessant. He had already admitted that “careers are defined by small moments and nothing I can say or do will change that”. He had even conceded that he had dared to re-watch the panic gripping in the Allianz Riviera “but not for about 14 months, and I certainly don’t intend to watch it back again now”.
It was only when he was asked what his impressions had been as he re-viewed that ignominious departure from Euro 2016 unfurl on his television screen, his audience pushing for one last glimpse of colour or lingering reflection, that the shutters came down. Enough was enough. “Look, I’m not interested in Iceland,” said Hodgson through a smile that betrayed a hint of underlying exasperation. “We’re going back down a route which I’ve said, reasonably politely, is a past chapter. Who cares? You might. There might be people up in Carlisle who’d like to know that. But at the moment I’m south London. I’m here in Beckenham. A lot of the Crystal Palace fans who will be reading this, the ones who interest me most of all, will want to know what Roy Hodgson is saying about Crystal Palace. What is he saying about the job? About our team? That Iceland game has gone and has no relevance to my work now.”
England’s most well-travelled coach returns to the dug-out today back at the club where, in his youth, he had peered out as a teenager from the Holmesdale End terrace. Where he had marvelled at Johnny Byrne’s scoring exploits in the old Division Four or, under floodlights for the first time, in April 1962, drooled as Alfredo di Stéfano, Francisco Gento, Ferenc Puskas and Isidro Díaz González scored for the mighty Real Madrid in a 4-3 friendly victory at Selhurst Park. He has returned to the club where he once aspired to make his name as a player only for his career, still in its infancy in the mid-1960s, to lurch instead into Kentish non-league football with Tonbridge Angels, Gravesend & Northfleet, Maidstone United and Ashford Town.
The son of a Croydon bus driver returns at 70 with his reputation preceding him, a 40-year coaching career that has claimed eight league titles at three clubs in Sweden and Denmark and included the top job at Internazionale and four national associations. There were 56 games in charge of England and a fine qualifying record but intense frustration at three major tournaments. The memory of Hodgson in the wake of the Iceland defeat is of a man greyed by the whole experience, a figure diminished and wearied. He had spluttered through that desperately uncomfortable press conference back in Chantilly on the day after the night before, wondering publicly why he was being made to endure this last humiliation.
“It would have been unusual if I had not felt [shattered] that day,” he said. “Myself, my coaching staff and the players cared very deeply. We’d had high hopes because we thought we were a good team capable of going a good way into the competition. To lose as we did against a team that, on many occasions, we would have beaten … what can one do other than look shattered? That was a bad day.
“The press conference came after a sleepless night. But it’s well over a year ago now. I’ve had lots of time to get my mind back on track and it didn’t take me a year to do that. It took a lot less than that.”
The period since has been taken up with consultancy work with City Football Group, spending time at Melbourne City “as a mentor for the young coaches there”. He declined the chance to appear on Strictly Come Dancing, as well as some tentative approaches to return to management, but busied himself instead with media commitments in Qatar or lecturing on the game. He hit the gym and believes he is four or five kilograms off his weight from his playing days. He looks leaner, even younger, certainly less world-weary – and revitalised. “I’ve not had many periods away from football in the last 40 years, so I’m hoping this year will have really recharged my batteries and recharged the enthusiasm and desire to do the job.
“Words like redemption mean nothing to me. I’m just really pleased that [the Palace owners] Steve Parish, Josh Harris and David Blitzer decided I can be the man that Crystal Palace need. When the call came [from Parish] my thoughts were what a great opportunity, what a great chance, back in Croydon, back in the Premier League.
“There couldn’t have been a better offer for me really: going back to my roots, at a club I’ve supported from afar, although I’ve supported other clubs when I’ve been working for them. What I’ve found in the last couple of days is how much I’ve missed the day-to-day contact with the players. I always felt I could do a good job, can still contribute, so if a position came along at the right level, I wanted to take it. This is it.”
He returns to a Premier League even more money-flushed than when he had flourished with Fulham, floundered at Liverpool and excelled with West Bromwich Albion before his four-year tenure with the national side. The implications of tumbling out of the top-flight are even more disastrous, the environment even more brutal than it ever was. Palace had undertaken a month-long recruitment process over the summer as they sought a successor for Sam Allardyce, sifting through 37 applicants – Hodgson was one, and the manager of today’s opponent, Mauricio Pellegrino of Southampton, another – before settling on Frank de Boer. And still the Dutchman lasted 77 days and four top-flight games in charge before Parish and the American major shareholders felt compelled to wield the axe.
The team are pointless and goalless at the foot of the division, yet there has been widespread outrage at the brevity of De Boer’s reign – those who had witnessed the plod of his two home games in charge
‘When the call came my thoughts were what a great chance, back in Croydon, back in the Premier League’
might be slightly less sympathetic – citing it as evidence as much as the lunacy of the Premier League as the board’s flawed due diligence. “I tend to see it as something which reflects the pressures on owners to keep satisfying the fans and to keep their teams in the league,” said Hodgson. “It’s something which is, quite simply, a fact of life.
“Nothing has changed in the sense that football is a results-based business. That was the case many years ago. But with the amount of money in the Premier League, that side of it is exacerbated. My job is to come here, do a good job every day on that training field and make certain this team recovers the confidence it’s lost after four straight defeats. To get themselves back on the track they were on at the end of last year and the year before that.
“It’s the same group of players. It might even be a slightly improved group given certain signings. So I’m confident they won’t let the fans down and I’m also confident, strangely enough, albeit I have no right to say this, that the fans will stay with us, back the team, suffer and share our plight. But they won’t abandon us.”
Hodgson’s own first four games are daunting. Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea await after the visit of Southampton. The club’s most potent attacking player, Wilfried Zaha, remains in rehabilitation from a knee injury while the major summer signing, Mamadou Sakho, still lacks match fitness and is unlikely to feature.
Hodgson and his coaches, Ray Lewington and Steven Reid, have had two full training sessions to stamp some early ideas on the set-up but, after the attempt at revolution instigated by De Boer, at least the team will be sent out comfortable with everything being asked of them.
As Hodgson suggested – “It’s very difficult to impose a style if you don’t have the players who are comfortable with that style” – a level of common sense has returned. “We’ve only begun our work here. But I believe the team will stay up. Absolutely.
“I’m feeling as good as I’ve ever felt. You can’t tear up your birth certificate but it’s how you feel. There were times in my 40s when I felt a lot less physically and mentally adept doing this job than I do today.
“I’ve signed a two-year contract. I want to keep Palace up and develop them, along with the chairman and the owners, to make us an even better Premier League team going forward. It’s Crystal Palace, Crystal Palace, Crystal Palace from now on in.”
And, he might have added, it would be nice to leave Nice behind.
‘What I’ve found in the last couple of days is how I’ve missed the day-to-day contact with the players’
New man on a mission Roy Hodgson has had two full training sessions to bring his ideas to a Crystal Palace side that have lost all four of their Premier League games Crystal Palace FC