Tuesday, May 01, 2012

In praise of The Quiet Man

“Do not underestimate the determination of the quiet man,” is the oft-quoted protestation of former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith who, during his time running the blue faction of British politics, rarely demonstrated any form of impactful oratorial qualities, and was ritually "shushed" ironically by Opposition MPs whenever he stood at the dispatch box.

With an acronymic name like IDS he didn't stand a chance. It sounds too much like "IBS" to survive in an environment of formerly playground-bullied bed-wetters like the House of Commons. Not that Ed Balls exactly comes off any better in the realm of tauntably-named politicians.

Anyway, I have no interest at all in former Tory leaders but, instead, today, I concern myself with the fortunes of Roy Hodgson, the softly-spoken Croydon lad who took the silent route to seniority in his football management career by pursuing that unlikely of English sporting paths - moving abroad. And he has now been unveiled as the next England manager.

When Woy, sorry, Roy, pitched up at the newly-minted Blackburn Wo...er...Rovers in 1997 he had already managed four Swedish clubs - Halmstad, Oddevold, Örebro and Malmö - along with Swiss outfit Neuchâtel and the Swiss national side itself. Not to mention a little club in Italy by the name of Internazionale.

Only Kate Moss has since eclipsed Hodgson in making good of a Croydon upbringing on the global stage. Actually, Hodgson may have reclaimed that crown by the time he accepted Mohammed Al Fayed's pieces of silver in 2007 to manage Fulham, having added a second spell at Inter, the Zurich club Grasshopper, FC Copenhagen, Udinese, the United Arab Emirates,Viking in Norway and the Finnish national team to his CV. And since then a sorry spell at a politically fractious Liverpool and, until the end of this season, a solid but unspectacular stint at the Hawthorns running West Bromwich Albion.

On paper, this collective expertise makes him an obvious choice for the vacant England manager's position. So why is it that, until Sunday evening when the FA took the unprecedented step of pre-announcing Hodgson as the only candidate to be interviewed for the job, the nation had collectively installed Harry Redknapp in the role - almost as soon as Fabio Capello flounced out of the Wembley in a huff over John Terry's sacking?

Indeed, it wouldn't be unfair to say that news on Sunday evening of Hodgson being invited in to meet the FA's four-man selection panel - David Bernstein, Alex Horne, Sir Trevor Brooking and Adrian Bevington - came as a surprise to Hodgson himself.

Hodgson is in stark contrast to "Flash" Harry, whose wheeler-dealer history and bright orange wife has made him as much a character form Minder as one of the most prolific club managers in England. And yet, we all thought the England job was his.

Even his February residency at Southwark Crown Court on tax evasion charges didn't swerve our opinion that he was a shoe-in at the end of the season to take over England and take them into Euro 2012 in Ukraine and Poland. In fact it may even have, in our twisted football-supporter logic, galvanised our view that he'd be ideal. This is the same twisted logic that regarded the Krays as folk heroes, not that I'm lumping Redknapp in the same company, but you know what I mean - we love a lovable rogue.

By all accounts, it didn't necessarily swerve the FA, either. So why did they, all of a sudden, go exclusively for a manager who'd hitherto been mentioned as a "possible" also-ran in the betting, along with Newcastle's Alan Pardew, Glen Hoddle (again), Jose Mourinho (no chance) and current caretaker Stuart Pearce?

Redknapp's fiscal challenges and residual reputational issues may have warded off the Football Association. If there is one thing we know about the FA, they are as adept at avoiding scandal as a Parisian is at dodging street-strewn dog poo. Just ask Glenn Hoddle and his, erm, beliefs.

Then there is talk that Redknapp had a very different view to the FA's longer-term vision. What, then, makes Hodgson more appropriate? He has held 19 managerial positions - some barely a single season long - and not in that time picked up any silverware. Granted, he took the Swiss national side to Number 3 in the world rankings, and he has demonstrated an ability to man-manage average-looking sides to mid-table mediocrity. That's no criticism. The facts speak for themselves.

Hodgson may be no more than a middle-management civil servant being given his chance - at 64 - to step up to run the one department not on his CV. His journeyman resumé suggests average managerial talent, and his reputation for a somewhat old-fashioned - some might even say stale - style of training does not necessarily indicate a new broom about to breathe new life into England's jaded, over-pampered, overpaid superstars, whose hubris has been repeatedly lanced by excess expectation turning to disappointment.

However: "He is probably the best man-manager I worked with," former Swedish international Stefan Schwarz told the Daily Telegraph. "He had the knack of knowing when to give a player a kick up the backside and when to build them up." To that, Schwarz cites Hodgson's skills in dealing with problems  and, countering rumblings from one or two of Liverpool's malcontnents, a professional approach on the training pitch. Swiss international Ramon Vega echoed this sentiment, who claims Hodgson has a good tactical approach. We shall see.

Hodgson will have to win over the current crop of England stars. Today's Sun helpfully noted that, with Twitter the unofficial channel of record for just about every professional footballer these days, there was absolutely no reaction at all when news emerged from Wembley on Sunday that Hodgson was to be interviewed. In contrast, when Capello quit, England players couldn't wait to install Redknapp (“Harry Redknapp would be my choice by a distance,” tweeted Rio Ferdinand while Wayne Rooney posted: “Gutted Capello has quit. Got to be English to replace him. Harry Redknapp for me.”).

Perhaps Hodgson is ideal for England. For too long we have regarded ourselves as world champions-in waiting, whereas in reality anyone else around the world sees England as anything but. We may well have invented the modern game, but in the almost 46 years since we last won a trophy, our footballing prowess has been determined more by the wheelbarrows of cash being lugged around the Premier League rather than any on-pitch ability with which we could be truly compared to the likes of Spain, Brazil, the Dutch, Italy or even the United States.

Bringing in an experienced but unspectacular manager like Hogdson, with his subtle urbanity and suburban newsagent's demeanour, may be the best decision the FA could make. We're not going to win anything anytime soon, so we might as well bring in a manager who'll ensure we won't lose too badly either.

This is the key to judging England. I was recently admonished by a Dutchman of some considerable wisdom who said: "You English think too highly of yourselves, and that's why you'll never win anything. You go into every tournament thinking you are supposed to win it, when in reality there are better sides, like Spain. They win without expectation, England lose because of it." Well, true. What was it that gave us the right to believe we were the best in the world? 1966? The Premier League?

The England job, we all know, is football's most tainted poisoned chalice. Your time in the job is spent like James Bond in Live And Let Die, stepping stone-leaping across the open mouths of snapping media alligators. No one is safe, no one is immune. Even Stuart Pearce has suffered all the usual slings and arrows and he's only been in temporary charge. Will Hodgson be able to handle this any better? Redknapp certainly would have done. During his lengthy tenure of West Ham and time in charge of Portsmouth, Southampton and Spurs he has been able to deftly balance egos and modest budgets, giving him at least one vital skill for managing England.

However, since Redknapp was first pre-installed as England boss by the unofficial selection committee on Twitter the wheels have started to loosen at Tottenham. The suggestion is that the England job turned Redknapp's head and, in the process his focus. Today, even with Spurs still, in theory, in with a shout of Champions League football next season, you could hardly say that the north London club is poised to challenge the Manchesters for the top spot any time soon.

And given that Redknapp's trophy cabinet isn't any more full than Hodgson, is he really - today at least - any better a candidate for the job than Hodgson? Harry Redknapp might be a more colourful character, but this may be the time for the Quiet Man to step in and take over an impossible job.

Stop press: Owls that look like Roy Hodgson - here!

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