Roy the Rover
Roy Hodgson explains how his travels have shaped his coaching philosophy
Roy Hodgson is very good company. He, unusually in English football, is a man with a hinterland, having worked in Sweden, Switzerland, Italy, Denmark, the United Arab Emirates, Norway and Finland as well as England. He speaks five languages and will discuss modern American literature as happily as he will football. On May 1 this year, he was named England manager. This interview — which dates from before then — offers an insight into Hodgson’s methods and core beliefs about the game.
Do you feel you’re underappreciated in England, having worked abroad for so long?
There aren’t many English managers, I suppose, who’ve had the sort of career that I’ve had, outside the country. With the amount of money that is going around in the Premier League, not many people are tempted to move abroad. But I’m quite happy with my reputation in England. I don’t feel in any way underprivileged. I’ve now been a manager for 36 years, and only eight of those – not even that, actually, more like six and a half – have been spent in England. So I can’t really expect to be as well-known as people who’ve done nothing but coach in England. It doesn’t concern me. And I’m quite pleased that, outside of the country, I managed to forge a reputation which still lives on.
Do you think more coaches should coach abroad?
People who start a coaching career are frightened to leave their country for fear of being forgotten. Secondly, of course, the type of money they can earn in Scandinavian clubs, for example, or Cyprus, that type of country that could provide a market, is going to be a major disadvantage. But the main disadvantage is that, if they don’t succeed abroad, they’ll miss out completely and come back to nothing. And thirdly, it takes a bit of an effort to move abroad with your family, to perhaps learn a foreign language so that you can coach in that language and come to terms with a different culture… all of these place an extra burden on a young coach.
Languages don’t seem to have been a problem for you?
I speak five languages: English, Swedish, French, Italian and German. I learnt French at school — and even taught it at a minor level, when we played in South Africa, back in 1973. We had a morning job and in the afternoon, I’d coach for the Northern Transvaal Football Association. When a teaching vacancy came up in that academy, the headmaster came to me and asked me to fill it. I’d just qualified as a Physical Education teacher, but he needed someone to teach French and I got thrown in at the deep end! [laughs] Having said that, when I went to Neuchâtel, in January 1990, it was quite a shock to have to speak French again… but it was French or nothing!
To be honest, I learnt Swedish mainly out of courtesy. It wasn’t asine qua nonof coaching, as the players were so good at English. In fact, they somewhat preferred the coaching and team talk to be in English – it was a bonus for them. When I spoke in Swedish, it helped one person: myself. When I spoke in English: 25 or 30! What you’ve got to do in any coaching job, whether it is moving to Sweden as a young man, where being English gave you a slight advantage, or something else, you’ve got to win the players’ respect. They might be prepared to give you an extra chance because you happen to be English. But if you can’t convince them that what you’re going to do with them is going to be worthwhile, then the advantage of Englishness will soon pass over; just like the advantage of being a former fantastic international player. It might give you the benefit of the doubt for a while longer. But nothing more.
How different was Swedish football from English football when you arrived at Halmstad in 1976?
People have got preconceived ideas about ‘English football is this’, ‘German football is that’. Our idea of German football, for example, is based on what we remember from the very successful German sides of the 1970s — the national team and Bayern Munich. To me, these are cock-eyed ideas. What Bobby [Houghton, who was working at Malmö] and myself introduced to Sweden was not so much ‘English football’, the long ball game and so on, than a different style of defending. Instead of playing with a team that was very spread out from one end of the field to the other, with a libero who stays in his penalty area and a centre-forward who never tracks back, we set up a system of zonal defence, a back four, people pushing up and, of course, getting the ball forward into the final area much more quickly. Interestingly, in my first year at Halmstad, we not only won the League, but scored 57 goals in 26 games. I don’t think this has been achieved since. And the Swedes didn’t like the idea that their game was dominated by two English guys. Bobby had won it in 1974 and 1975, I won it in 1976, he won it in 1977, I won it in 1979! It was obviously not with a ‘Swedish style’ and it’s only when Eriksson appeared in the 1980s with Gothenburg that, all of a sudden, it was possible to talk of a ‘Swedish style’. In actual fact, I don’t know what Eriksson did to ‘swedify’ the game, except copying everything we’d done.
Have your ideas on the game changed much since then?
If someone showed a video of myself coaching in 1976, I would be horrified, as I hope that, in 36 years, there has been some kind of progression. But in terms of the larger vision of the game, there hasn’t been much change in my philosophy, wherever I’ve done my job: putting the players first, making sure the team is organised, making certain all the players in the team know their roles, supporting them every which way you can, making sure that every training session was thoroughly organised and that everything you want to happen on the Saturday has been rehearsed and practised — all of those things remained the same in Sweden, Switzerland, Finland, Italy, Denmark or England. Of course, to a certain extent, styles of play do depend on the players you have at your disposal. If you take Inter, the main challenge was to change a team that had been playing mostly man-for-man and turn it into a zonal team. That we did in the first season I was there, and quite successfully. What’s more, with players who were not huge stars: Bergomi, Paganin, Festa, Fontalan, Carboni, Ganz, Zanetti… we’re not talking about the type of players people associate with stardom. In the second year, bigger names joined in: Zamorano, Djorkaeff, Winter… And when the ‘bigger names’ came in, they forced us to change our style, because a player like Djorkaeff is a difficult player to fit into a system. He didn’t want to do some of the things we wanted him to do, because it wasn’t his game and he didn’t want to do some of the things Sacchi wanted him to do, because that wasn’t his game either! My point is: you might have your philosophy, your ideas, your concepts, but there’s always going to be players in that team who’re going to be too good to leave out and whom you’ll have to organise your team around. You can’t afford to be too inflexible. In an ideal team, you’ve got 11 players who are up to the job, each of them suited to his role, each balancing the other. In an even more ideal situation — if you’re Manchester United or Milan — you’ll have 22, not 11. And you have to keep them happy, which is not easy.
Does the weather affect styles of play? How much of a problem was that in Sweden?
The influence of the climate is particularly felt in the pre-season, in the actual season less so. In Sweden, the pre-season is inordinately long. You finish in November. In December, the players are given free time. But then you’ve got January, February, March and half of April before you start playing football. That’s a long time to occupy. In England, it’s five to six weeks; in Italy, eight weeks. But I must stress that things don’t change as much as you’d think. Of course, it’s nicer to train on beautiful pitches in England or at the Appiano Gentile than on a gravel pitch in the middle of January in Sweden. Of course, there’s no comparison in those terms. But when it comes down to what you’re trying to do as a coach, how you plan your sessions, and so on, I don’t think that changes a great deal. Coming from Sweden first, then Sweden to Switzerland, then Inter, I don’t think there was great deal of change in my ideas of what should happen on the field; but of course, the atmospheric conditions, the quality of the training fields, the help you get and finally, and most importantly, the quality of the players you’re working with, that’s what changes — not the underlying principles of your vision of the game.
And how different was Sweden culturally?
When I went to Halmstad, the players were part-timers; they earned money, but had jobs on the side too. I was on my own, in a little office, where I used to sit for a couple of hours because it was in my contract and I would be there from 10 to 12 every day, preparing the training session, of course, then staring at the wall with nothing else to do. But if you go there now, there’s probably a staff of 25. And at Premier League clubs far, far more. At Halmstad, I fulfilled all the functions — and don’t forget that in 1976, foreign players were not allowed to play in Sweden, otherwise I would’ve been player-coach. That rule was only changed in the late 1970s. But going there wasn’t a difficult decision. I was so active on the training field that I still had my ‘playing time’ as it were…
Was it a big leap to move into international football with Switzerland?
What impressed me with the Swiss managerial job was how I was chosen. I’d had a difficult time at Neuchâtel, working there after Gilbert Gress, who turned a lot of people against me — I’d been told to come because he wanted to leave, which wasn’t true, and you can imagine his reaction… I got on very well with the players, but my reputation wasn’t that high outside of the club. Then we were in the European Cup, when we beat Celtic 5-1 and went on to beat Real Madrid. So all of a sudden, from being virtually not spoken about, my name became flavour of the month. I got a phone call. “Do you want to become the manager of the national team?” I thought, here we go, it’s just like in England, you win two games, and you’re a fantastic coach. But I went to see them, and said, “I have a question to ask you: why are you interviewing me? I’m not Swiss!” “That’s a good question,” he answered, talking two pieces of paper. “Here are the names, of which you’re one,” he said. “And there, on the other piece of paper, are the qualities we’re looking for. I’m interviewing three or four people, and the job will go to the one who scores the highest, is that ok?” It was.
How do you think your qualities fit with a checklist the English game might draw up?
The media use terms like ‘sexy’ in relation to football and that doesn’t fit my description too well…[laughs]. When I was at Blackburn, the German national team contacted me with a view of my becoming their manager. But Franz Beckenbauer, who had a huge influence in the German game, to his great credit, put a block on me, saying it’d be a terrible admission of incompetence if it weren’t possible to find a coach who was German. And I find myself on coaching seminars having to defend the opinion that English coaches are not intrinsically better or worse than their foreign counterparts. We see France, Italy and Spain as glamorous and exotic, because we know what we’ve got here.
You seem in some ways quite cautious, particularly as regards the finances of the clubs you work for...
It’s important to run a club on sound business lines. I don’t understand how clubs can consistently claim that they’re working properly when they’re working at such an enormous loss. How can it be a success to be in hundreds of millions in debt every year? The only year Inter made a profit since Massimo Moratti took over was my second season there. I’m proud of that.
Wenger works that way. In some ways, it’s a naive way to work. We’re in a league where two successive defeats mean someone’s knocking on the door. The sensible way for a manager to work is to have no sort of recognition whatsoever of the business side of things. ‘I want this player, I’ll get him and I don’t care if we’re going to pay him twice what he should be getting, because it’s going to get me two more points…’ knowing full well that the team will win a couple more games, and he’ll move on, and someone else will be left with the mess. That’s not my philosophy. Everywhere I’ve managed, I’ve left a platform for my successor to build on and this is a great satisfaction for me, even if I don’t necessarily get the recognition for it.