The Evening Standard

In his two years as manager at Craven Cottage his success has been such that one fan, Hugh Grant, gushed last week: “I want to sleep with Roy Hodgson”.

Hodgson laughed at the thought when I reminded him of the quote the 49-year-old actor gave at last week’s premiere of his new film, Did You Hear About The Morgans? at the Odeon in Leicester Square.

“I don’t think there is any doubt about Hugh Grant’s sexuality nor about mine,” said Hodgson as we talked at the club’s Motspur Park training ground in leafy Surrey.

There is mutual love going on here, though. Hodgson sees the archetypal Englishman “as our sort of Cary Grant” and admires his films – his favourite being Four Weddings and a Funeral, having watched it several times.

And, in the extremely unlikely event of the two getting into bed there would be much to talk about beyond Fulham. For Hodgson, 62, Monday nights are not just football nights. At 10 o’clock he likes to switch over to Sky Indie and watch foreign films. The other night it was “the outstanding” French film The Singer starring Gerard Depardieu, and linguist Hodgson did not need the subtitles.

Cinema is one outlet Hodgson uses to get away from football, but fiction is his favourite escape. He is currently reading Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel although his favourite authors are JP Donleavy, John Updike, Milan Kundera and Richard Yates. Hodgson also loves his opera and has just seen Turandot, which he describes as “fantastic”. If this makes him unusual then it reflects a life which has defied English football stereotypes, particularly in going abroad to manage aged just 29, when such a thought would not have been entertained by his contemporaries. Yet, Hodgson admits he decided to manage Halmstads BK in Sweden in 1976 because he had no other option.

“Sometimes choice can be a dangerous thing,” he said. “No choice can be very good. Quite simply I was not well enough known as a player and I did not have contacts. It wasn’t a question of coaching the Arsenal or Birmingham reserves, it was continue playing non-league football or go to Halmstads.”

Hodgson has a point. His playing career did not amount to much. While on the books of Crystal Palace, he never made it into the first team and finished his days in the back waters of Tonbridge, Gravesend and Northfleet and Maidstone United.

He had an instant impact on Halmstads, turning them from perennial relegation candidates into Swedish champions in 1976 and again in 1979. In fact, all three of his managerial forays in this country – once every decade since the 80s – have all been rescue acts; 1982 at financially-doomed Bristol City, 1997 at relegation-threatened Blackburn and 10 years later at struggling Fulham. For all his success, it is the brief time he had at Blackburn that has left its scars.

He was managing Inter Milan after taking the Swiss national team to USA 94 followed by qualification for the European Championships in England two years later, when Blackburn came calling. Jack Walker’s millions had won the Lancashire club the Premier League title in 1995 but Hodgson was approached with Rovers now in trouble two years later following the sacking of Ray Harford in October 1996.

“My misfortune was Jack being diagnosed with terminal cancer. He was worried the team would go down. While I was at Inter I was getting panicky phone calls saying, ‘Are you still coming if we are relegated?’

“Luckily caretaker boss Tony Parkes kept them up. And then I was the victim of my own success. In my first year, I started with the same team that had just stayed up, didn’t sign anybody and we finished sixth and got into Europe. It cranked up their expectations.”

But in the 1998 season Blackburn lost three crucial players Colin Hendry (transferred to Rangers), Chris Sutton and Kevin Gallagher (both injured). The result, said Hodgson, was that “we found ourselves at the bottom of the league and they pressed the panic button and got rid of the manager”.

The sacking hurt his pride and he still wonders what would have happened had he stayed in this country rather than seeking his solace in Europe.

“I went back to Inter, worked with them for three months, very foolish thing to do, a bit of an arrogant thing to do,” he admitted. “Had I stayed on the English radar and accepted six months or a year out of work, it might have led to a so-called bigger club.”

It was nearly another decade, December 2007, before an English club called again, this time Mohamed Al Fayed, who had just got rid of his seventh manager, Lawrie Sanchez. Fulham were in the relegation zone and it was time for the football doctor.

Hodgson laughed as he recalled that first meeting with Al Fayed at Harrods. “I was fully aware of the chairman’s reputation but I was quite taken by him,” he said. “Mohamed Al Fayed wanted to know whether ‘You are going to have a good go at it or enjoy six months at our expense’. I told him I never wanted to do that.”

With Fulham seven points away from safety and matches against Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool looming, the future did not look bright when Fulham lost them all. Hodgson had to persuade Al Fayed to spend more money in the January 2008 transfer window, having handed nearly £15million to Sanchez in the summer.

Hodgson was allowed to spend just under £10m but he went shopping for bargains mostly from abroad and brought in Brede Hangeland (from Copenhagen), Erik Nevland (Groningen), Leon Andreasen (Werder Bremen), Eddie Johnson (Kansas City Wizards), supplemented by loan signings of Spurs’ Paul Stalteri and Toni Kallio from Swiss side Young Boys.

The season still went to the wire and it was with only 12 minutes left that a Danny Murphy header gave Fulham victory at Portsmouth taking them to 35 points and safety on goal difference. For Hodgson this great escape remains a “surreal” experience.

The manager then showed that he had learned his Blackburn lesson. He did not rest on his laurels and the summer of 2008 was characterised by big-money arrivals in south-west London including Andy Johnson (£7.5m from Everton) and Bobby Zamora (£3.3m from West Ham). The recipe worked and the resulting seventh-place finish was enough for Fulham to qualify for the newly-formed Europa League.

Hodgson is eager to dampen any hopes the fans have of bringing trophies to Craven Cottage and insisted that Europe is not a priority. “The chairman made it very clear: give it your best shot but for Christ’s sake don’t let it impact on the Premier League,” he added. This has dictated Hodgson’s policy in Europe. “I told the chairman I might jiggle about with the team, use different players, give a guy like Chris Smalling some games.”

Even to get out of their group, Fulham need a win in Basle tomorrow and Hodgson said: “Of course we will work our balls off but, if it doesn’t work, it will not be like Liverpool, a crisis, everything has come to an end.”

In many ways this shows how Al Fayed’s strategy has changed. The club no longer talks of becoming the Manchester United of the south or developing grandiose stadium plans for Craven Cottage. Al Fayed has funded the near £30m Hodgson has spent – he has also recouped £10m in the transfer market – so far but Hodgson knows he will never sign a superstar.

“The chairman is looking to support me but there is no point saying ‘chairman I want you to go and buy Kaka’, that would be stupid.”

Hodgson is far too shrewd to make such demands and his years abroad have made him appreciate how English football has changed.

He added: “Teams in the Premier League can no longer be accused of playing an English style of football. We are educating the crowd to appreciate good football. Some teams will pass the ball quite brilliantly with wonderful patterns like the Arsenal.” And talk of Arsenal makes him go into raptures about Arsene Wenger, dismissing criticism of some Gooners that Wenger has won nothing since 2005.

Hodgson says: “He wins in two ways, he wins because his team are always in the Champions League and because every year he puts out an Arsenal team which plays very good football.”

And while Hodgson missed out managing Arsenal or one of the other big clubs he would not change a thing.

He insisted: “I’ve had such a varied life, never been out of work for more than a month or two since January 1976. I have been very lucky.”

There is now only one job that would tempt Roy Hodgson from Fulham, Fabio Capello’s. “If the day ever came and I was asked, I would be very happy to accept. It is not an ambition, it is not a hope but in football you never know what is round the corner.”

What is round the corner for this Englishman is a new rolling Fulham contract to replace the one that ends this summer. It is being discussed and, said Hodgson: “My feeling is that the club wants me to stay and I don’t have ambitions to use Fulham as a stepping stone for elsewhere.”

Unless, of course, that call comes from the Football Association.


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