Passion, pressure and perspective: in an exclusive interview with Sport, Roy Hodgson speaks candidly about life as England manager
Roy Hodgson

From behind an expansive but neatly arranged desk in his office at Wembley Stadium, the England football manager is telling Sport to get in touch with Bill Wyman. 

If we had a number for the veteran Rolling Stones bassist, we tell Roy Hodgson, we would – but this is not the direction we expected conversation to take when we asked about his earliest memories of the sport in which he has made his name.

“I remember two games distinctly from my youth,” says Hodgson. “One was at Stamford Bridge, where I watched Chelsea play Blackpool. It was shortly after the Matthews Final of 1953, so I would have been six or seven, and all the great Blackpool players of that era were playing: Stanley Matthews himself, Stan Mortensen, Harry Johnston. I couldn’t tell you one detail of a ball being kicked, but I know I was definitely there.

“The other one was a few years later, when Crystal Palace played Real Madrid in an evening friendly. Why that game was taking place, I don’t know – it was that iconic Real team of Ferenc Puskas, Francisco Gento, Alfredo di Stefano. Again, though, don’t ask me for details. Bill Wyman knows the details – the last time I spoke to him, he could name both teams.”

The game to which he refers took place in April 1962, we discover – an evening kick-off to mark the official unveiling of the club’s new floodlights. The young Hodgson, still four months short of his 15th birthday, would have seen the esteemed visitors run out 4-3 victors of an appropriately entertaining encounter. More than half a century later, does the now 68-year-old retain the same love affair with football he had back then?

“Yes, and I always will,” he responds immediately. “I have exactly the same passion for the game now I had when I started – and that’s important for me, because two of the qualities I prize most in people who coach or manage are energy and enthusiasm. Football players need inspiring like anyone else, and the way to inspire anyone is through energy, enthusiasm, passion. While I retain those qualities, I hope to be connected to the game in some way.”

A ball and a patch of green

It is now almost 40 years since Hodgson took his first role in coaching, at the unheralded Swedish club Halmstads. How do the players he led in those early days differ from the select band of multimillionaires he must now marshal in one of the most pressurised positions in world football?

“The major difference is that, in the 1970s, football in England was already very much a full-time professional game, whereas in Sweden they were only just beginning to embrace it,” he reflects. “But I don’t think people as animals change particularly – I don’t think the job of coaching footballers, of managing people, changes enormously.

“What changes most, I believe, is the environment. Today we are dealing with young people growing up in a totally different environment. They won’t necessarily play as much football casually as we did, because there are so many other things they can do and so many more demands on their time. You can add to that the impacts of the internet and social media, but I strongly believe there is always going to be a group of people who come to the game of football in the way we did, and people even before my generation did. They will come purely because they are in love with the idea of playing football.

“Football is a game that excites and captivates people, but it is also a game that most people have had some form of contact with. Everyone has tried it, played it to some level, because it is such an easy game to play. You have a few friends, a ball and a patch of green – and there you are, we can play. I don’t think the fundamental joy of the sport has changed at all.”

Pressure Cooker

It is one thing to speak about the inherent joy of kicking about a football with your mates in the park; another entirely to consider the pressures that come with being involved at the very top level of modern football. Despite having enjoyed a significant amount of success during his peripatetic career in management, Hodgson knows only too well the intensity of focus that now rests upon both him and his players.

“The earliest I came across truly enormous pressure was at Inter,” he says of a post he took on the back of leading Switzerland to qualification for Euro ’96. “Of course you feel pressure always, every match day, the nervousness, the desire to do well. But I think going to Inter, and realising the size of the expectation on the club to regain the former glories of the 1960s and ’70s, is when I first felt it.

“There’s no doubt, though, that the responsibility of being the manager of England is the one I have felt most. I have always felt very proud, very gratified to have been given the opportunity – honoured to have been selected for what I consider the best job any Englishman in football could want. But you see the enormous disappointment when results don’t go the way you want them to, and you are very much aware, the players are aware, that we must carry this responsibility.

“As much as you see the disappointment, though, you also see the euphoria that follows a sporting success. Look at the ladies reaching the semi finals of the Women’s World Cup this summer, the cricket team winning back the Ashes, Andy Murray winning Wimbledon – you see what these successes do to the nation. We would desperately love to put something in front of England football fans that gives them the same buzz.”

When Hodgson speaks of the responsibility he feels to the nation, he convinces. Too often, we suggest, his players have been guilty of paying lip service to the same duty without ever truly understanding it.

“I would defend the players to the hilt on this,” he counters strongly. “We have had failures, when going out of Euro 2012 on penalties, and in particular at the World Cup. But I would never believe or listen to anyone telling me it is because the players didn’t want it enough.

“I think freeing people of the stress and pressure of expectation is a very easy thing to talk about, but very hard to actually then achieve. We have to try and make certain, as we go forward with a very young group of England players, that they are capable of accepting this pressure. Because we can’t change it – we can’t ask the media to treat us more kindly or not ask too much from us. We can’t ask the fans not to want or expect or hope that England might win tournaments.

“That’s a given. It’s always going to be there, so we have to breed players who are mentally strong enough to say: ‘I know this, I understand this, but I trust in myself and my ability, and I believe that my teammates and I are good enough to do it.’ That is what we are constantly talking about and working on. I get so little time with the players on the field, so a lot of my job is on that leadership front, about man-management.”

The gold fish bowl

Almost three and a half years since his surprise accession to the role, Hodgson is on the verge of securing England’s place at what would be a third major tournament under his control. He readily admits that a quarter-final defeat on penalties to Italy at Euro 2012, and a first group-stage exit at a World Cup since 1958, represents two failed campaigns. Yet he speaks with an assured calmness and a refreshing sense of perspective – a quality, perhaps, that has helped him survive in the job when others may have been removed.

“Age certainly gives you perspective,” he says. “But not as much, perhaps, as travel – living in different countries, speaking different languages, learning about different cultures. It enables you to see things a little bit less in the goldfish bowl, to lift your head outside it and put things in a better perspective.

“When I speak to managers here who are out of work or maybe disenchanted with the problems they face at their clubs, I feel that quite a few of them would be more than happy to go abroad. I was speaking to David Moyes recently, and he is really enjoying life at Real Socieded – delighted to be there after the disappointment of Manchester United. If opportunities do come about overseas, I think people should and will take them.”

Hodgson is a manager whose reputation was built overseas and who, to a degree, remains more highly respected outside of England than he is by a demanding fanbase within these shores. It is no surprise that he would advocate British coaches developing their skills overseas, but he is acutely aware that physical or geographical displacement doesn’t always equate to a mental distancing from the pressures of the game.

“I don’t think you ever really can manage it,” he says. “I’m lucky now in the sense that I can have quite long periods between games, but when you’re actually in the maelstrom of preparation I don’t think you ever totally escape it. If I am talking to younger coaches and they want me to give them some magic formula for releasing the pressure valve in between games or even training sessions, the sad truth is that there really isn’t a way. It’s a question of trying to get the right balance in your life – but the reality is that, when you’re in the job, and you want success and to progress in your career, it’s much easier said than done. You need help.”

For the England manager, that comes mainly in the form of his passion for reading – we meet a man deeply ensconced in the last Julian Barnes novel to remain on his unread list, and with a Richard Ford book already lined up to follow. He speaks with great animation about his fondness for the works of the late Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig, and enthuses over the many hidden gems he has stumbled across in Marylebone’s Daunt Books. Is he off there now, we wonder, as our time together comes to an end?

“Right now I am meeting my wife for lunch,” Hodgson reveals. “Then tonight, we are going to a film screening – it’s a new one starring my friend Tom Courtenay, and I think he should be there as well. Charlotte Rampling is in it too, and it’s had some very good reviews. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, by all accounts, but I’m looking forward to it.”

England v Switzerland at Wembley, September 8, 7.45pm. Tickets on sale at TheFA.com/tickets – £10 for children and £20 for adults in the family area

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