When explaining what still motivates him to stay in football management at the age of 73, Roy Hodgson recalls a conversation with Swedish football icon Orvar Bergmark.
“I’d gone to Orebro [in 1983] to get them back into the Swedish first division, but after seven games, we were in the bottom three,” he began. “I was bewildered, upset and at the end of my tether. [Orvar and I] used to go for lunch on a Wednesday. We’d walk through the streets of Orebro and people would be virtually bowing to him.
“One Wednesday, I’m watching the adulation he’s getting in the street and when we sit down in the restaurant, he says: ‘Do you know what? I envy you.’ I thought he was joking. ‘You’re Orvar Bergmark, a Swedish legend. How can you envy me?’
“He said: ‘You’ve always got something to look forward to. In my job now [he’d become a leader of the sports council] I get up every day, I go to work, I go home, I’ve got nothing to look forward to. But you? You’ve always got the next game. Even if you’ve lost some, you’ve always got the thought that ‘I’m going to win the next one.”
“It’s something that really stayed with me all of my life really, because I think you can sometimes forget that. In the moments of despair and disappointment, you can forget that you are lucky because you’ve got something to look forward to. And you can win it, it can be a joyous occasion.”
It is this mindset that helps explains Hodgson’s remarkable longevity, a managerial career spanning 46 seasons working with 20 different teams in eight countries.
He is a nomad who has come full circle, taking charge at Crystal Palace in September 2017 having grown up a mile from Selhurst Park in Sydenham Road — he recalls walking to the ground as a child to attend matches with his bus-driving father, Bill.
Despite the opening anecdote, Hodgson is a reluctant visitor to memory lane. Many his age would have bought property there by now. But Hodgson is only indulging for this exclusive interview with ESPN after last week’s announcement he will be honoured with the Outstanding Contribution prize at next month’s London Football Awards.
“I think looking back is a dangerous thing to do anyway, because things always look better from a distance,” he explained. “You think back to those early years, and anything that you’re not liking about your job today, you will say, well, 46 years ago, or 35 years ago, or 23 years ago, it wasn’t like this. The answer is probably it was, you’ve just forgotten and you’ve just chosen to remember the good bits.
“I’m very pleased that people have thought me worthy, but it’s something that I don’t allow to occupy too much of my time. I prefer to live very much in the present.”
Hodgson’s life in football has not been without difficult moments, but there is a serenity around him these days. Palace are safely ensconced in mid-table, 11 points above the relegation zone in 11th place with nine games remaining. His contract expires at the end of the season and sources have told ESPN that talks are yet to begin over a new deal, but that desire to stay in the present helps Hodgson override any personal uncertainty.
The average age of a Premier League manager is currently 52.5 years and four of them, Mikel Arteta, Scott Parker, Graham Potter and Paul Heckingbottom, were not even born when Hodgson first sat in the dugout. At a time when the prevailing trend in football is towards younger, more overtly progressive managers, Hodgson has proved himself an effective communicator and motivator of men 50 years younger.
His coaching skills have been particularly effective at Palace. Winger Wilfried Zaha was deemed too much of a liability at Manchester United and has tried to leave Palace at least once, but has played some of his best football under Hodgson. Andros Townsend has revived his career in Croydon after a failed move to Newcastle United. Hodgson has also been an astute mentor: he oversaw Aaron Wan-Bissaka‘s progression from youth team prospect to a £50 million-rated right-back, who ended up joining Man United last summer.
“It was brought home to me quite strongly [a few years ago] when I suddenly realised the players didn’t know who [former Newcastle, Arsenal and England striker] Malcolm MacDonald was,” said Hodgson. “It’s one of those moments that feels like an epiphany in some ways, because you suddenly realise, well, why should they know who Malcolm MacDonald was? He stopped playing before most of them were born. And it’s foolish for me to be surprised they don’t know who he is. It just reminds you that you have to be very careful these days with your analogies and the people you refer to.
“I think that man-management is an art in itself. And it doesn’t necessarily change that much. Generations change, the culture of generations change. The only way we’re going to get success, if we work together, we understand that there is no success without work. And so therefore the cultural aspects, that would just be a question of being able to pick up on clues or cues and not to make too many really bad mistakes where you might cut across people’s culture to the extent that they don’t like it.”
Hodgson’s early experiences of different cultures took him first to Halmstad, Sweden, in 1976 before spells at Oddevold, Orebro and Malmo with later stops including Switzerland — where he managed the national team — Inter Milan, Udinese and the United Arab Emirates. By the time he arrived at Fulham in 2007, Hodgson had been away from English football for 12 years, dating back to a disappointing stint with Blackburn Rovers. However, he almost turned his back on management, with an offer on the table from then-Inter chairman Massimo Moratti to become technical director.
Why did he turn it down?
“It was probably an awakening to who I am,” he said. “I realised my strength really has been the coaching, being very much hands on involved with the players, on the front lines. It was an awakening to the fact also that I am being seduced by the fact that, you know, Italy is a fantastic country to live in, and interviews are a massive team to be associated with, are you actually confusing this with what you really want to do, which is, basically to be involved still in football.”
The London Football Awards, organised by Willow, a London-based charity helping raise money to fund special days for seriously ill young adults aged 16 to 40, recognises his work in the capital and Hodgson’s three-year stint with Fulham took them to unimaginable heights. [Editor’s Note: James Olley will be on the voting panel for the 2021 London Football Awards.] After surviving relegation on the final day of the 2007-08 season, the Cottagers finished seventh the following year to qualify for the Europa League, where they embarked on a stunning run, losing the final in extra-time to an Atletico Madrid side that included Sergio Aguero, Jose Antonio Reyes, Diego Forlan and David de Gea.
“What the players did deserves the term ‘legendary’ if anything is going do that, because it was so far and away above the odds of what could really be expected of us,” said Hodgson. “Low budget, no expensive players, a lot of players in actual fact quite late on in their careers — like Danny Murphy, Damian Duff, Simon Davies and Aaron Hughes. They showed they knew how to play the game against teams that on paper were far ahead of us in terms of what they should be producing.”
Hodgson’s success at Fulham took him to Liverpool, but an underwhelming spell at Anfield — winning just seven of 20 Premier League games against a wider backdrop of fan unrest at then-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett — did not prevent him landing the England job in 2012 after just over a year at West Brom. With England, he was ultimately judged on tournament results, achieving a respectable quarterfinal showing at Euro 2012 before being knocked out of the 2014 World Cup in eight days, with two defeats to Italy and Uruguay, and then suffering the humiliation of a Euro 2016 last-16 exit to minnows, Iceland.
But the work Gareth Southgate has done in recent years has its foundations in Hodgson’s tenure, not least the culture of bringing through younger players, but also in providing an infrastructure delivering continuity in tandem with the national base at St George’s Park.
“I definitely think that that that period between 2014 and 2016 was a turning point for England,” he explained. “It was a conscious effort that everyone decided needed to be made, that although we might be throwing a few people into matches that they weren’t quite ready for because it was a bit early in their career, it was decided it was the right thing to do for the long-term good of the nation. So I am satisfied that we did the right thing in that respect.
In 2010, under Hodgson’s predecessor Fabio Capello, England named their oldest World Cup squad in history, with an average age of almost 29. At Euro 2016, Hodgson selected England’s youngest-ever squad for a European Championships, with an average age under 26.
“There’s never been a question of any credit being taken. It was a job, really, that’s how I thought the job needed to be done at the time. What we really started with were two things which I think the FA has continued exceptionally well. I think we looked carefully into our meetings and involving players more in a rugby style than the previous management style which is basically the players come in the room, they sit and listen to what you’ve got to say, and then they walk out and you don’t have a great idea where they’ve taken it on board or not.
“I think we did leave at least some sort of legacy in that respect.”
Hodgson’s longest spell out of management came after leaving the England job, taking 15 months before signing for Palace. They had lost their first four games of the 2017/18 season under Frank de Boer and then Hodgson was beaten in his first three matches.
No team has ever avoiding relegation from the Premier League after losing their first seven games but the moment he convinced the players of his methods came with a 2-1 win over then-champions Chelsea.
They went on to record their best ever Premier League points total in 2018-19 and have safely avoided being drawn into a relegation scrap since. Hodgson traces it all back to that Chelsea win.
“The players were able to perhaps understand what they were being asked to do and what we were suggesting could help us get out of their situation,” he said.
“Perhaps it wasn’t so stupid and was worth persevering with. That fateful day, we played we played Chelsea was the catalyst and we could say ‘we believed this could get us a win and look, it has.'”
That belief in the next win, again. For Hodgson, it runs through everything he does.