Home Too Soon? Hodgson at Blackburn

Posted: August 2, 2016 in English Football, Premier League
Tags: , , , ,

Exotic. Mysterious. Sexy. Not words you’d readily associate with Roy Hodgson. Indeed, that’s been a big part of Mr Roy’s appeal in recent times. He is English football’s equivalent of a pair of oven gloves or a trip to the garden centre. Familiar. Unremarkable. Safe.

During the 90s however, there was an air of the mystic surrounding Hodgson, certainly on these shores. A manager with no great track record domestically, his success abroad won him admiring, curious glances from a league increasingly looking to jazz itself up with glamour from overseas. Having won titles in Sweden, taken Switzerland to their first World Cup finals for 28 years (and third place in the FIFA world rankings) and reached a European final with the Inter of Zanetti, Djorkaeff and Ince, more and more column inches linked him to big jobs back home.

Yet when he finally took the plunge, it was as second choice, after Sven Goran Eriksson’s silver tongued promises, not for the last time, turned out to be less than bankable. When Sven, to  Jack Walker’s disbelief, went back on a verbal agreement to take over at Blackburn Rovers in the summer of 1997, the steel magnate returned to his shortlist and offered the job to another future England manager.

Hodgson had previously been reticent to return, concerned about tarnishing his reputation in his homeland. Yet things had gone a bit sour in Milan; haunted by a shock UEFA Cup Final penalties defeat to Jens Lehmann-inspired Schalke (during which he’d somehow managed to enrage Javier Zanetti, the most mild-mannered man in football), he decided it was finally time to go home.

Hello, Goodbye

After the pressure of working for Massimo Moratti, Lancashire should have been far more sedate. However, Rovers had floundered since winning the Premier League three years earlier, and one of the new manager’s first tasks was to try and keep together what was left of that title-winning squad.

Almost immediately, he had to sell two want-away stars. Henning Berg made it clear he wished to go to Manchester United; Graeme Le Saux, meanwhile, had been unhappy ever since breaking his leg in December 1995. Dissatisfied with the club’s treatment of his injury and their lack of care – nobody from the club even visited him in hospital, while he was forced to make his own way home from the North-East in plaster – Le Saux by his own admission became an increasingly miserable and disruptive presence before finally getting a move back to Chelsea. Bullish, Hodgson blasted both in the press. “Where were they last season, when the club was nearly relegated?” he asked.

The £12m pocketed for the duo (two UK record fees for defenders) was spent freshening the side up with new faces from Europe. Hodgson used his knowledge of the Swiss game to sign central defensive colossus Stephane Henchoz. His big coup of the summer, however, appeared to be the capture of Sweden’s USA ’94 star Martin Dahlin to partner Chris Sutton up front. Other new signings arrived from France (Patrick Valéry) and Sweden (Anders Andersson).

More significantly, he also revolutionised the players’ training regime, bringing in an Italian fitness coach and a structured, meticulously detailed approach that blew the minds of your Crofts and Flitcrofts. Double sessions and gym work were introduced. Diets were monitored. Players were handed their own bespoke programmes. “Roy brought a whole new element of professionalism to training,” recalled Sutton in autobiography Paradise and Beyond. “I actually felt for the first time I had a proper job.” The players, disillusioned with the sloppiness of training in the post-Dalglish years, were suitably impressed.

Top of the league

The new-look Blackburn Rovers shot out of the traps, embarking on a dazzling run of just one defeat in 15 games and storming to the top of the Premier League. Playing intelligent, fluid football, they brutally disposed of Aston Villa 4-0 and put seven past Sheffield Wednesday. Sutton, stuck in the wilderness since the title win, was now once again looking like the player who’d become the country’s first £5m footballer, Hodgson’s focus on movement drills allowing him to ruthlessly exploit space to bang in 11 before Christmas. Strike partner Kevin Gallagher was similarly reborn and almost as deadly, and the duo would plunder 41 goals between them in all competitions.

Other members of the old guard were similarly influential. Stuart Ripley’s blistering wing play earned him his second England cap, four years after his first. Hodgson called for Sutton and Tim Sherwood to join him in Glenn Hoddle’s squad. Colin Hendry was ensuring the defence held together despite the loss of Berg and Le Saux. There was excitement too, at the emergence of young Irish winger Damien Duff. Another unforeseen title challenge suddenly seemed possible. Rovers rang in the new year in second place.

Winter is coming

However, to the befuddlement of many of the players and Hodgson himself, Blackburn were as consistently bad in the second half of the campaign as they’d been good during the first, losing nine of their last 14 games and slipping meekly out of the title race.

The signs had actually been there for a while. Of Hodgson’s new signings, only Henchoz had been an unqualified success. Dahlin in particular, beset by back problems, was a big disappointment, scoring just four times. Perhaps demoralised at the death of his international career, the goals dried up for Sutton in the wake of his infamous clash with Hoddle over refusing to play for England ‘B’.

There was also the suggestion that the training methods that had been so pivotal in their fine start had become part of the problem. The double sessions and intensity of the training had a draining effect by the winter months. Rovers were using full-sized pitches, and continuing to go full-pelt when other clubs were easing off with warm-weather training abroad. In the 100mph thrust of the English game, he was asking an awful lot of his men. Gallagher would tell Charles Lambert, author of The Club That Jack Built: “We trained very, very hard and I think the demands in training and the fact we weren’t getting much of a break took its toll.”

Nevertheless, a 1-0 win on the last day via a rare Sutton free kick rescued 6th place for Rovers and a place in the UEFA Cup – a fantastic return after a turbulent couple of years. Sutton’s goal earned him a share of the golden boot to add more cause to crack out the Thwaites and hotpots. Yet the steepness of that slump had set off alarm bells.

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The difficult second season

Going into his sophomore campaign, Hodgson’s reputation remained sky-high. He was linked in close-season with an excellent Monaco side featuring Henry and Trezeguet, and in the early weeks of 1998-99 was on the shortlist for the position of German national team head coach – Franz Beckenbauer himself reportedly intervened to insist that the gig went to a German. When England got off to a poor start to Euro 2000 qualifying, Hodgson was installed as the bookies’ favourite to replace Glenn Hoddle, who found himself under increasing pressure even before he “never said them things”.

All was not well at Blackburn however. Pre-season plans were thrown into disarray when Hendry demanded a transfer. The big centre half’s head had been turned captaining Scotland at the World Cup (and starring in the video for Del Amitri’s official World Cup single, bittersweet oh-God-please-don’t-embarrass-us-again ballad Don’t Come Home Too Soon). Boyhood team Rangers had dangled a captain’s armband of their own at him too, and Hendry, at 32, believed it was his last chance to live a lifelong dream. But Blackburn rejected his request, and things turned nasty. Rovers eventually, after heated talks on all sides, settled for £4m – but a huge hole was torn in the heart of their defence, and they’d lost a leader.

They looked set to lose another when Sherwood, also eager to move closer to home, similarly began to agitate for a transfer, and a rift with Hodgson only grew wider as the season progressed.

Odder was the manager’s determination to shove Ripley out the door after a fine season, the winger devastated to be told he was no longer part of his plans and flogged to Southampton for just £1.5m. “It was pretty much forced upon me,” he told Lambert. “I didn’t want to leave. Roy Hodgson decided it was time for me to move on.”

At least the previous season’s success meant that Roy was allowed to go shopping with Uncle Jack’s credit card. Rovers were responsible for two of the summer’s three biggest deals. £7.25m was lavished on Southampton’s Kevin Davies, while £5.3m went to Derby for Christian Dailly.

Even Davies seemed surprised by the size of the fee. The signing appeared to be based on half a decent season, and eye-catching televised goals against Manchester United and Chelsea. But this was, as Hodgson later confessed, a “signing by committee”. Hodgson hadn’t seen him play. His reputation was as a hard working foil rather than a prolific centre forward, yet he was presented as the new Shearer, the man who’d score the goals – breaking up a Sutton/Gallagher partnership that actually was scoring goals. The price tag and its accompanying pressures weighed like the proverbial albatross on the young striker.

The mother of all hangovers

In a stark contrast to the previous season, Rovers were appalling from the outset, losing six of their first 10 as their rotten form carried over. Injuries mounted, with Gallagher, Sutton, Flitcroft, McKinlay and Wilcox all out for weeks at a time. Discipline was another problem, with five red cards in the first three months.

Predictably, the big money signings flopped. Davies was already in trouble when a mystery virus denied him a run of games. As ever, he was a willing worker but the goals wouldn’t come, and some fans turned on him. Dailly didn’t fare much better. Widely expected to be Hendry’s replacement, Hodgson seemed determined to play him anywhere but central defence, the curse of versatility seeing the Scot deployed at full back, in midfield and even out wide. The defence was a punch-drunk mess, conceding 22 goals in 14 games. Free transfer Darren Peacock might have matched his predecessor in the lustrous long blonde hair stakes, but his performances underlined how much Hendry was missed.

The pressure began to tell on the manager. During a memorable 3-4 Monday night defeat to Chelsea, he resembled Michael Douglas in Falling Down, twitching, clawing at his own face, jabbering to himself and officials even after his own team had scored. Blackburn’s customary early European exit came courtesy of Lyon, while the feud with certain senior players intensified. Hodgson publicly questioned Sherwood’s commitment after his captain was sent off against Manchester United. Sherwood returned fire by openly calling for a change of manager. Paranoia set in. He gave bizarre interviews. Stories emerged of Hodgson halting training to demand someone identified a pilot flying a plane over the training ground. Gallagher was berated in front of his wife for talking to a journalist. All the while, Blackburn kept losing.

Game over

The end came in November. Bottom club Southampton comprehensively outplayed Rovers – you know you’re in trouble when the match report uses the words ‘Carlton Palmer’ and ‘clever backheel’ in close proximity – and with their 2-0 win Saints leapfrogged their opponents and sent them bottom. Soundtracking this sorry afternoon, ironic chants of “Hodgson for England” rained down from the Blackburn end.

Hodgson was immediately summoned to see Walker and summarily dismissed. He was the only one not to see it coming. He protested that things weren’t that bad, that they’d only been losing by the odd goal, that he could turn it around. Yet this was precisely the kind of delusion that had seen fans fall out of love with a manager who’d taken to proclaiming the mediocre likes of Coventry and Southampton “very, very good sides” as they joined them in a relegation battle. His record for 1998 as a calendar year read P31 W4 D7 L19, which speaks for itself.

After a scramble for a replacement saw Harry Redknapp and even Hendry linked with the manager’s job, Walker plumped for Bryan Kidd, amusingly considered at the time to be a large part of the power behind the throne in his role as Assistant Manager at Manchester United. Yet Kidd’s managerial experience amounted to a brief, ropy spell at Preston in the 80s, and the trouble Blackburn were in demanded a more experienced stager. Kidd was given £40m to spend on the likes of Keith Gillespie, Lee Carsley and Matt Jansen, but nothing stymied the flow of losses, and he was soon publicly branding his charges “rubber dinghy men”, searching for the escape rafts rather than wanting to fight. Blackburn drowned. Four years after winning the league, they were relegated.

Hodgson’s reputation, as he’d feared, was severely damaged in Britain, now treated in the press as an eccentric punchline mere months after he’d been touted as the national team’s future. He headed back overseas to restore some credibility, and it would be a decade before he came home again. As Fulham fans will attest, it went rather better that time. England would be his destiny after all.

So, sadly, would Iceland.

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