The last time I met Roy Hodgson, at Le Café Anglais, Rowley Leigh’s restaurant in Bayswater, I drew a king from the pack. I presented Roy — the West Bromwich Albion and now England manager — with Colm Tóibín’s wonderful novel The Master. Roy smiled as he laid down an ace: ‘Is this the one about Henry James? I’m afraid I’ve read it.’
Make that one-all. At a previous lunch I had given him Stefan Zweig’s masterpiece, Beware of Pity, a novel so close to my Habsburg heart that I wanted him to love it, too. It is the sort of book that defines character, never mind literary taste. ‘Magnificent,’ he told me a few weeks later.
These are not the kind of remarks one would expect from a traditional football man, at least not in this country, where players and managers have so little interest in the wider world. There is in football an oikishness, either natural or cultivated, which suits the participants. Ignorance is so highly prized that Graeme Le Saux, a sensitive chap who played for Blackburn Rovers, Chelsea and England, was considered homosexual because he read the Guardian.
In the old days a player who stayed on at school to do A-levels was usually called ‘Bamber’ after Gascoigne, the presenter of University Challenge. Yet things haven’t changed much. Harry Redknapp, the so-called ‘people’s choice’ for the job Hodgson accepted this week, told Southwark Crown Court earlier this year that he couldn’t spell his own name. It doesn’t make him a bad man. But it does reveal quite a lot about the people who work within football. Such a character, Harry.
On the field, in the stands, even in the press box, English football rejoices in its stupidity. It is noticeable, for instance, that foreigners who play in the Premier League often speak better English than the natives. With the exception of Arsène Wenger, Sir Alex Ferguson and a few others, most managers communicate by cliché. As for the pundits, an evening in front of the box or with an ear cocked to the imbecilities of Radio 5 Live can be most instructive.
Alan Hansen, employed as a summariser by the BBC on a cool £40,000 a show, appears to know only four adjectives: great, unbelievable, incredible and sensational. It is inconceivable (there’s one for you, Mr Hansen) that such thin verbal gruel would be tolerated in any other sport. Mark Lawrenson, a colleague during Liverpool’s glory days who now sits alongside Hansen on the Match of the Day sofa, bridled recently at Gary Lineker’s use of ‘sagacious’. Lawrenson is not, incidentally, a thicko. But he clearly feels he has to appear stupid, to avoid ‘a ribbing from the lads’.
So it isn’t difficult for a man like Hodgson, who reads books and generally takes an interest in things beyond his parish, to stand out among so many intellectual pygmies. Now that he is the manager of England, he will stand out a lot more. At 64, the oldest man to take on the job, his life will never be the same. Compared with the England manager, who wears a dartboard strapped to his chest, Saint Sebastian had it easy.
What kind of man is he? The best kind. We became pally some years ago, as mutual friends of that supreme football journalist Brian Glanville and his heir Patrick Barclay, and it was apparent straight away that he knows why God granted us two ears but only one tongue. He takes an interest in other people, expresses himself clearly and has a curiosity that has nothing to do with intellectual window-dressing. Rather, he has the human instinct to want to know a bit more about the world, which used to be highly prized.
He is a small-p patriot, born in Croydon among the old-fashioned working class, whose values, broadly speaking, he shares. No flag-waver he, nor royalist. England means more to him than kings and queens. Having spent much of the past four decades working in Europe, where he learned to speak four languages, one might expect no less. But, despite his travels, and a broadening of horizons, there is something of Housman’s Wenlock Edge about him — ‘the blood that warms an English yeoman’.
He was once described, memorably, as looking like a 1950s bus driver. Certainly he is the kind of chap who popped up in Ealing comedies, sitting in the pub next to Stanley Holloway, nursing half a mild, joining in the laughter. When he was appointed manager of Fulham four years ago, it seemed appropriate. After all, Craven Cottage is only a hop, skip and jump from Pimlico; no passport required.
He achieved wonders at Fulham, keeping them in the Premier League when they seemed doomed, eventually taking them to within a kick of winning the Europa League before losing a final to Atlético Madrid. He has done very well with the Albion, another middle-ranking Premier League club, but in between jobs he endured a wounding six months at Liverpool, where restless fans and a hostile local media gave him a drubbing. As he might admit, he was the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. And Scousers are lovable, aren’t they? Always ready to give a chap a hand.
Now he is where he could so easily have been many years ago, had the Football Association taken a long-term view of what the game needed instead of shelling out the better part of £40 million to foreign coaches, Sven-Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello, who were fine club managers who understood too little about English football. It won’t help Hodgson in his quest to improve the national team’s fortunes that he reads Ivan Klima and Philip Roth, but it will make the journey so much more interesting.
Last month I told him that, at long last, I had embarked on one of his favourite books, The Engineer of Human Souls by Josef Skvorecky. But, I had to confess, there was a lot going on! Too much, perhaps. ‘Persevere, Michael,’ came the response. It is advice he has taken himself throughout a long career in football, and now, as the figurehead of the game in England, he stands at the summit. This modest, thoughtful man deserves our support, whether we watch football or not. His is a triumph for the quiet virtues of patience, resilience and dignity.