Roy Hodgson probably felt he couldn’t turn the Liverpool job down. If his success at Fulham brought him the respect in England he had long craved, success at Liverpool would finally establish his credentials as one of the game’s top managers. He couldn’t say no.
Have you ever gone into the cubicle at work and found that someone before you has left an almighty stench? You need to go, and in time your nose deadens the stench, but when you leave the cubicle someone – perhaps a senior director – is waiting to go in, and when they go in they smell it too and assume it was you. In their eyes you will always be the person who made the almighty stench. You weren’t – it was like that before you got there – but this is not how your successor will view things.
So it was, to an extent, with Hodgson. I’ve talked to some very clued up Liverpool fans about the situation and they have just about persuaded me that Hodgson was the wrong man for the job, but it is still my belief that the club was in a terrible way before he arrived, and that success was always (in retrospect) unlikely. Rafa Benitez was a top manager, but I’m starting to come round to the view that his best side was built on Mascherano, Alonso and Hyppia, as well as Torres, Reina and Gerrard. Hodgson had a disinterested/knackered/injured Torres, a strangely vulnerable Reina (how different might things have been without Reina’s mistake against Arsenal?) and a Gerrard who, try as he might, can’t always do it alone.
He had to supplement this core with bit parts, ordinary players that he had to improve upon as quickly as he could. Joe Cole seemed like a good idea but now his lack of action at Chelsea has been explained. Mereiles looks to have been a shrewd pickup, but Paul Konchesky and Christian Poulson have been poor performers (in a short period of time Hodgson saw he would need a left-back and a holding midfielder: he knew these two players very well and thought they’d make good stop-gaps.)
He should have had a half-decent side. I always thought that Fulham, with a Gerrard type up top, could have been contenders. We were so tight at the back, surely adding that bit of class up front would make us very hard to stop? So Liverpool, with better players all over the pitch, ought to have been okay. Didn’t happen. He was saddled with £18m England right back Glen Johnson, a player about as far from the Hodgson ideal as you might get, and tried to make Krygiakos and Skrtl into a new Hangeland and Hughes (which didn’t really work). With no Zamora to act as a focal point and no Danny Murphy to run the game from the middle, his teams looked thoroughly ragged, to the point where they were messy in defence and messier in attack. The disappointment for Hodgson will be that in time much of this could have been resolved (it took a while for his system to ‘kick in’ at Fulham, after all).
But it would never have been enough. Liverpool’s fans didn’t take to him, and seemed to take exception almost every time he opened his mouth to the media. This too was unusual – at Fulham he was admirable in front of the cameras – but as Dave Kidd of The People pointed out in a recent TOOFIF, once the Great Escape had been pulled off he was hardly asked a difficult question. At Anfield things were different. Here he was talking up his previous achievements while his new team struggled, and fans took the view that Hodgson was interested in Hodgson first and Liverpool second. I find this sort of accusation confusing in that it’s presumably the way 99.9% of managers view their jobs. Under this kind of pressure, this kind of criticism, why wouldn’t Hodgson defend himself with the best tools available to him (his previous achievements; his recent award)? But this was taken as a negative as well. Hodgson didn’t ‘get’ the supporters.
What is there to ‘get’ about supporters anyway? It has been suggested that Hodgson didn’t thank Fulham fans enough when he left, and while this is perhaps the case, I suspect that Hodgson honestly felt Fulham’s achievements were down to his and the players’ hard work, and that the fans were all well and good but a distant third in this hierarchy. In this he’s almost certainly correct (I appreciate that fans are vital in bringing money to the club, but at the stadium? Presumably park teams and reserve teams, playing in front of one man and his dog, are still able to make stirring comebacks every so often?), but as we all find out as we move through life, certain concessions need to be made along the way. All politicians must become adept at managing their reputation, and this will mean spending time with people you don’t really like, people you actively dislike, always saying “the right thing” in the name of reputation. It’s true in the workplace to a lesser extent as well. We must all work with ‘stakeholders’ (customers, suppliers, and so on) and talk bland nonsense in the name of affability. It’s how the world works. When Hodgson said “I haven’t seen much of the famous Anfield support” he was speaking the truth as he saw it (and he’s right: their support is pretty ordinary), but this was of course a terrible mistake. He might very reasonably have felt that the fans didn’t understand him or the game of football, but he needed to better appreciate where the power lay in the relationship and communicate accordingly (but even then, the press will only highlight what it wants to highlight).
So why didn’t it work out? I think Mark Lawrenson suggested that Hodgson was the wrong manager at the wrong time, and surely there’s something to that. Hodgson’s a good football manager but perhaps not a good enough manager, and certainly not for these particular circumstances. Tim Sherwood, who fell out with Hodgson at Blackburn and arguably caused a good thing to go pear-shaped in so doing, said that Hodgson was the best coach he’d worked with, but not the best manager. It seems to me that a modern football manager, particularly one at a big club, needs all kinds of non-coaching skills to get by, particularly if he hasn’t won anything (at that club). While I believe the results on the pitch would have improved in time (although possibly not to the point where they became acceptable to success hungry supporters), I’m not sure that everything else would have sorted itself out. Hodgson, one way or another, was perfect for Fulham, but just as many fine but unphotogenic singers end up doing backing vocals for the likes of Danii Minogue (and even if they did get a record deal, they probably wouldn’t sell anything because the public would rather buy crap from a face they like than something worthwhile from a face they don’t), so too do many good coaches not get the chances they might feel they deserve. Hodgson, after 35 years, got his chance and – to stretch an already weak metaphor to breaking point – ended up singing like Danii Minogue anyway.
Where was I? The big job: he couldn’t say no, but he should have.