As Roy Hodgson Calls Time on His Career, How Should History Remember the England Years?

PA/Owen Humphreys

by Dom Smith

Roy Hodgson sat down. He said he was going to read his speech so as not to be misquoted. He continued speaking as an iPhone nearby rang on and on. He spoke for 2 minutes and 42 seconds. Then he walked out of the press room, and out of his four-year reign as England manager.

The next day, Hodgson was back in the press room for a lunchtime grill — and no, this did not mean lunch. To chat to the press for one final time. He’d been desperate to avoid this ‘morning after’ deliberation. “I was not forced to come here,” he assured unassuredly.

“I did so because I’ve never shirked and press conference, I’ve never run away. When suggestions were being made to me that if I didn’t turn up today I could be construed as being frightened to sit in front of you, I decided to come. I maintain I’m unhappy about it, because it’s no longer my job. Nothing I can say would do anything other than fuel the flames.”

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Whether or not facing the media one final time would be constructive to his legacy was not the point. Every England manager faces the media the day after a tournament exit, still at the helm or not.

With his final words, Hodgson, ever the proud footballing man, just gulped a little as he spoke. “Thank you very much for coming today. I’ve got nothing more to add. I leave you to write your stories, and I thank you once again for the time that I’ve had with you.”

And so ended Hodgson’s four-year reign as England boss. As he finally retires from management this summer aged 74 and following 59 years in the game, it’s worth returning to his tenure. Did Hodgson do a good job?

The bread and butter of England management Hodgson did well. In England’s post-McClaren recent history, qualification campaigns have tended to go swimmingly well for England. Drawing San Marino every time helps of course. Hodgson’s England followed the script, winning 16 and drawing four of the 20 qualifiers under his stewardship, going unbeaten in these matches throughout his tenure. England never landed one of Europe’s best national teams in their two qualifying groups under Hodgson, granted. But he still deserves credit for avoiding defeat to Switzerland, Ukraine, Poland, Montenegro and Slovenia both home and away.

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As tournaments neared, you never felt Roy Hodgson had any real grasp on what his best team was. And looking back, that’s probably because he genuinely didn’t. Hodgson’s England started exceptionally well in all three of their tournament openers. They were superb in the first 30 minutes against France at Euro 2012, outstanding in the first half against Italy in 2014 in the jungle humidity of Manaus, and almost perfect throughout their Euro 2016 opener against Russia, doing everything bar finding that crucial second goal.

Those three results read as follows. France 2012: 1–1 draw. Italy 2014: 2–1 defeat. Russia 2016: 1–1 draw. No wins. For a manager who was already seemingly unable to name his strongest XI, these results in many ways set England up to fail in these three competitions. In every match of Hodgson’s tournament reign, there were team-sheet tinkers. And every time, it felt as though these were more to please supporters and to try something else on a whim, than a conscious attempt to revert to a well-thought-out or well-rehearsed Plan B.

Hodgson left his post after the Iceland defeat as statistically one of the national team’s worst manager in history, in terms of major tournament achievement. After that Euro 2012 opening day draw with the French, his side eked out one-goal wins against Sweden and Ukraine to top the group. He had been given the England job just six months before the tournament, so he’d done well to finish top of the group above France and undefeated. However, over the next four years he would manage just a single tournament win from his final eight matches in charge of the national team. That solitary win was against neighbours Wales at Euro 2016, courtesy of a 91st-minute winner from substitute Daniel Sturridge.

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Wales reached the semi-final of that tournament, knocking out many people’s favourites, Marc Wilmot’s Belgium, in the process. England squirmed through the group with a 0–0 draw against Slovakia, before being thunderclapped out of France and onto the Eurotunnel in the very next round by a country with a population smaller than Coventry’s.

So England’s tournament record under Hodgson: dismal. And it was all the more dismal because of the fact Hodgson’s England were so good in qualifiers and prestigious friendly matches. In his own words, this “engendered” hope which he and England could not live up to, when it came to the cut and thrust of tournament football.

Under Hodgson, England’s qualifying record was good — that’s well documented. So were his results in friendly matches. In only his second match in charge, he beat Belgium at a time when their golden generation were beginning to make headlines and show signs of what they might go on to become. That set the tone. Over the next four years, Hodgson guided England to friendly wins over Italy, Brazil, Denmark, France, Germany and Portugal. That’s a decent achievement, even if it does offer absolutely no tangible reward whatsoever.

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But where Hodgson did start to bring the England process forward from the farcical celebrity eras of Sven-Göran Eriksson and Fabio Capello and the dour days of Steve McClaren was the aligning and refining of the England talent pathway.

Southgate has of course taken this to an entirely different level, at times drawing criticism for calling up too many young players and missing the value of experience and leadership. Hodgson couldn’t be criticised for this; his tenure saw faith, if not reliance, placed upon veterans like Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney, Joe Hart and Michael Carrick.

But blooding young players is vital for any successful sports team. It’s especially important for national teams, who are not afforded the luxury of buying what they need on the trading floor. For too long, it was seen as the England youth teams’ job to harness and harvest the talent of England’s next generation. The senior team have a role to play too. You only experience the level of pressure that the England seniors get when you experience it for yourself. The U21s can provide a good footballing education, but perhaps lacks the teachings a player will get from travelling to a major tournament with the Three Lions.

Hodgson knew this, and played an instrumental role in developing a number of players who have gone on to become seasoned tournament performers during Southgate’s reign. Hodgson spent four years managing Raheem Sterling and Kyle Walker, and also helped to introduce Harry Kane, John Stones and one or two others to the unique challenges of international football as well.

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The England team that travelled to South Africa for the 2010 World Cup under Capello was the oldest team at that tournament, with an average age of 30 — something you’d have expected from Algeria or perhaps Slovakia, but not from England. Southgate’s team in Russia eight years on was older than just one of the 31 other teams: Nigeria. England reached the semi-finals there. Hodgson’s time in the hot-seat was a pivotal transition period between those two extremes.

Nevertheless, when it mattered, Hodgson and his coaches Ray Lewington and Gary Neville were unable to translate the promise they’d established into results. As Hodgson retires this summer, his impact on the game will be remembered for the jobs in which he turned the fortunes of struggling football clubs around. International football, and England in particular, is an entirely different beast.

Was he the right man to appoint at the time? Compared to the other names mooted, perhaps he was. Was the nation naïve to pin its hopes on Hodgson restoring England’s place at football’s summit? Yes, it probably was. In the years since, has his tenure been harshly reduced to a single match against Iceland? Perhaps it has. Roy Hodgson retires an English football great. The top job just took him a little out of his depth.

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