For Roy Hodgson, the “easy thing would have been to disappear off into retirement”. So said Dan Ashworth in February 2019, as he reflected on Hodgson’s failed tenure as the England manager, and the view of the Football Association’s former technical director would have found broad agreement.
Only not with Hodgson.
What happened with England remains the biggest stick with which to beat the 74-year-old, even if the Liverpool support might beg to differ. The quarter-final showing at Euro 2012, after Hodgson had been parachuted in at the last minute, was creditable but then came the group stage exit at the 2014 World Cup. And then came Iceland at Euro 2016.
Hodgson is not the sort of man for whom the easy option appeals. And nor is he the type to embrace retirement – even at this stage of his life.
It was why he jumped at the challenge to get back in at Crystal Palace in September 2017, despite the club he supported as a boy being in disarray – with no points and no goals from the opening four matches of the Premier League season.
It was why, when he departed at the end of last season, head held high after giving Palace the top-flight comfort they had craved for years, he refused to rule out another comeback. And it is why we are where we are, with Hodgson having signed at Watford, eager to throw himself into another highly daunting assignment.
Hodgson is already the oldest person to have managed in the Premier League; he broke Sir Bobby Robson’s record when he led Palace to a 4-1 win over Leicester at the age of 71 years and 198 days. He has been out of the game for the past eight months. But those who ask why he still needs it, why he ought not simply to walk away from the remorseless mental and physical pressures, clearly do not know him.
“It is a sadistic pleasure,” Hodgson told the Guardian in January 2018. “The suffering never stops – that’s the problem … if anything, it gets worse. Getting that first foot on the rung of the ladder, that’s where you find it easier to shrug off those times when your foot slips off and you have to get yourself going again. When you have been lucky enough to move up, all you see is the slide back down. You don’t see the further steps upwards.
“You learn to harden yourself towards it but, the longer you are in, it isn’t something you can give up lightly. Even if you’re not winning, it is possible to derive some satisfaction from the fact you are working properly.”
Watford have not won since 20 November and the manner of last Friday’s 3-0 defeat at home to lowly Norwich – the club’s seventh loss in eight league matches, the other was drawn – made the dismissal of Claudio Ranieri feel inevitable. The team looked bankrupt on every level and Hodgson will need to hit the training ground running before his first game on Saturday week – the trip to Burnley, the only club below Watford in the table.
Still, few managers are hired in good times and Hodgson has been in similar situations before, particularly in the Premier League. At Fulham in December 2007 and West Brom in February 2011, he took over teams at low ebbs and in serious danger of relegation only to steer them to safety. And he would do the same at Palace. Forget Big Ron or Big Sam. It is Big Roy that a struggling club needs.
At Fulham, Hodgson drove them to seventh and 12th in the following two seasons, reaching the Europa League final in the second; at West Brom, it was 10th in his one full campaign and at Palace, it was 11th, 12th, 14th and 14th.
Hodgson likes to put down firm foundations and build on them but, if he has to look no further than the end of the season at Watford, then fine by him. It is all about instilling solidity and quickly, providing the platform for a little flexibility in the final third, and Hodgson has been doing this since his first managerial role at Halmstad in Sweden, in 1976.
Back then, Hodgson inherited a team who had avoided relegation on goal difference the previous season and were widely tipped to go down. He changed to a back four, encouraged his players to push up, pressure the ball and also transition quickly, using long passes in behind the opposition defence. Halmstad won the league straight away.
If ever a team needed tightening up, it is Watford; their defence is regularly referred to as being of Championship level. But Hodgson will get them organised in meticulous fashion, running the same session over and over, drumming home his principles of shape, structure and pattern of play.
It can be monotonous for the players, even boring, and Hodgson’s teams have not always been an easy watch, which is probably why it did not work out for him during that unhappy six-month spell at Liverpool in 2010-11. Or with England. But there is a method to it and Watford are sorely in need of something.
Hodgson consistently said that as long as he retained his energy and enthusiasm, he would carry on. As he prepares for his 22nd job as a manager, there is no sign of it fading.