When I was about 12 or 13, I was playing for my local boys’ team, Sutton Wanderers, when our manager said we had a special training session arranged with a proper coach. I was already a diehard Fulham fan but I’d also started to follow Sutton United so I was rather dismayed when we were told the session would be done by a Carshalton Athletic player. I therefore didn’t pay Roy Hodgson as much attention as I should have when he gave up his time to try and instil some basics in our bunch of scallywags. If I had, perhaps my footballing career might have progressed beyond the Morden and District Sunday League; although in truth a lack of pace, dedication and indeed talent probably saw to that. Little did I know that around 35 years later I was in awe of the very same man as he led us on the most miraculous journey from virtual certainties for relegation to a European Final.
However, before we get that far an awful lot of mileage was covered by Roy as he transformed himself from a journeyman non-league footballer into a highly-qualified coach, whose qualities were regarded much more highly on the continent than in his own country.
Roy was born in Croydon in 1947 and joined his local team, Crystal Place, in his youth but never made it as far as the first team. He therefore drifted into the non-league game but had obviously not given up on the idea of a career in football as he acquired his full coaching badge by the age of 23. Roy had spells with Kent sides Tonbridge, Gravesend, Maidstone and Ashford and began working as a PE Teacher before finishing his playing days at Carshalton in 1976.
Hodgson then embarked on his coaching career at the ripe young age of 29 with Halmstad in Sweden, having been recommended for the job by his old school friend Bob Houghton, who was successfully managing Malmo. It was the start of an epic journey that is still going strong some 44 years later and has now gone full circle with his return to manage his boyhood side Palace.
Roy had immediate success in Sweden and took the unheralded Halmstad to two league titles while he was there. He then moved back to England and was assistant to his pal Houghton, who by now had taken the job at Bristol City. When Houghton was relieved of his post Roy had a short spell in charge, but financial problems were engulfing the club at the time as they were haemorrhaging money and losing players. He therefore moved back to Sweden in 1982 and had short spells with Oddevold and Orebro before taking over at powerhouse Malmo in 1985, where he led them to five successive league titles and some notable achievements in European competition. As a result, Roy is accorded legendary status there and was even offered a lifetime contract but with crippling taxes in Sweden he moved on to a new challenge at Swiss club Neuchatel in 1990. Roy’s work there led to him being given the National Team job in 1992.
Hodgson was again an immediate success and guided them through a group containing Portugal and Italy to qualify for the 1994 World Cup where they again performed creditably in getting through the group stages. His good work continued in getting them to the finals of Euro ‘96 where his side drew with England in the opening match before being eliminated. The reputation he’d acquired had led him to be offered a job with one of the true giants of the European game and Roy had started work at Inter Milan in 1995, initially alongside his job with Switzerland. Inter had been struggling before his arrival but in his two seasons there he restored their fortunes and took them to the 1997 UEFA Cup Final where they lost on penalties to Schalke.
That summer Roy returned to England for the first time in 15 years to take over at Blackburn who had been Premiership Champions in 1995 and were still a force thanks to Jack Walker’s money. Hodgson took them to 6th place and UEFA Cup qualification but when his next season started poorly, he was unceremoniously sacked in the November with the club bottom of the table. Although his reputation in the English game seemed sullied by ‘failure’ at Bristol City and Blackburn, Roy’s true worth was still very much valued elsewhere.
Over the next 10 years he worked in club football again at Inter, Grasshoppers in Switzerland, Copenhagen, Udinese, Viking Stavanger and he also had spells in charge of the United Arab Emirates and Finland national teams. Despite his extraordinary record of success, he was not a name on Fulham supporters’ lips when we were searching for a new manager in December 2007. Lawrie Sanchez had been sacked with us in the bottom three and just two wins in the first 17 games. Ray Lewington stepped in as caretaker while the club conducted their search and after a 5-1 thrashing at Tottenham on Boxing Day, the club announced Hodgson’s appointment on 28 December 2007 to little fanfare from the depressed Fulham supporters.
His first official game was at home to Chelsea but despite a good performance, we slipped to a narrow defeat and this set the tone for his first month in charge. Performances were notably improving but points were elusive. However, Roy was doing valuable work in the transfer window and the addition of Brede Hangeland was to prove particularly significant. The return of long-term absentees Jimmy Bullard and Brian McBride also felt like two fresh signings and a come-from-behind win over Aston Villa felt like a corner had been turned. Even so results were still hard to come by and with five games left we were 6 points adrift of safety. An away win for the first time in 33 games at Reading gave renewed hope but this was immediately snuffed out by defeat to Liverpool and with us 2-0 down at Manchester City the week after, the game looked up.
What came next was truly astonishing and the story will be written large in Fulham folklore for evermore. In a remarkable last twenty minutes in Manchester, we scored three times and survived innumerable scares at the other end that would’ve been the final nail in our coffin. We followed this with a massive 2-0 win over Birmingham, and with Reading nosediving we suddenly found ourselves going into the last game at Portsmouth with our fate in our own hands. A sweltering, nerve-shredding day played out on the South Coast and with other results going against us, we needed a goal as time was running out. Danny Murphy was the hero of the hour with an unlikely header, and when the final whistle blew and salvation was achieved, there was an explosion of relief, elation and downright ecstasy. The greatest of great escapes had just been witnessed and for us Fulham fans, Roy Hodgson was the Messiah.
If we loved him then what he went on to achieve over his next two seasons elevated him even further in our hearts and minds. With a full summer’s transfer window in front of him Roy had a proper chance to address the issues that had seen us at the foot of the table for two years. He didn’t spend ludicrous amounts of money either. Andy Johnson was the only real big-money buy. Instead, Hodgson acquired good honest professionals that he knew would do the job demanded of them. It was as though Roy was piecing a jigsaw together; the pieces that arrived that summer included Mark Schwarzer, John Pantsil, Zoltan Gera and Bobby Zamora.
Things didn’t click straight away but as the season wore on, performances and results became more consistent. The team was built on defensive solidity as we only conceded a remarkable 34 goals in the whole season. The team defended from the front with every player well-drilled in the team ethic. Zamora was criticised for his lack of goals that year, but those critics didn’t appreciate how much work he was doing off the ball. It led to the departure of the popular but maverick Jimmy Bullard, which caused dismay at the time amongst fans as he was replaced by the less-heralded Dickson Etuhu. Roy knew though. With the disciplined Etuhu on defensive duties, it gave Danny Murphy more freedom to be the playmaker; it was an unlikely marriage, but it was assuredly made in heaven. By the season’s end, we were 7th in the table and had qualified for Europe. That finish remains Fulham’s highest ever placing.
We therefore started the next campaign ludicrously early in the qualifying rounds of the newly christened Europa League. I was fearful European competition might spread us too thin, but Hodgson was very shrewd in his use of resources in the early stages of the competition. The adventure was very nearly over before it started though when we survived a late scare at Amkar Perm, where one more goal would have seen us knocked out. Hodgson had again done good work in the transfer market with the arrival of Damien Duff being a particularly sharp piece of business.
As the Group Stages began, Hodgson seemed to prioritise the Premier League, which after all was our bread and butter. We were picking up more than enough points to stay comfortably mid-table, so we were then able to give Europe a better tilt. We were very unlucky to get just one point from two epic encounters with Roma and so it left us going into the last game at Basel needing a win to get through. It was a dream come true for me as it was the first time I’d seen my team play in the flesh in Europe and the boys didn’t let me down as we emerged with a magnificent 3-2 win in snowy conditions. We were getting that good that when we came home to thrash Manchester United 3-0 a couple of days later, it almost seemed like just another day at the office.
With safety all but secured, it gave Hodgson a chance to prioritise Europe for the knock out stages. Even with a full-strength side, we were up against it when Shakhtar Donetsk arrived at the Cottage. Some of the football they played that night was breath-taking but somehow we hung in there and managed to achieve a remarkable victory courtesy of a Zamora thunderbolt. Even so I thought we’d get stuffed in Ukraine in the return, but Hodgson had us so well organised that we drew valiantly to see us though to a game with Italian giants Juventus.
A 3-1 defeat in Turin and an early goal at the Cottage looked like the end of the road but a spine-tingling comeback crowned by an exquisite chip from Clint Dempsey will live forever in the memory of those of us privileged enough to be there that night. German Champions Wolfsburg were next but two supremely slick and professional performances saw us through to the Semi Final with Hamburg. When we trailed halfway through the second leg in SW6 the game once again looked up. ‘Stand up if you still believe’ came the cry from the fans, although as I tentatively got to my feet, I have to admit I really didn’t. I should have had more faith. Simon Davies and Zoltan Gera turned the game on its head in a matter of minutes and when the final whistle blew there truly was a ‘Tidal Wave on the Thames’. Thanks to Peter Drury for that line: I listen back to his commentary every now and then and still get moist around the eyes every time.
Then came the trip to the final and ultimately heartbreak against Atletico Madrid, but my overwhelming feeling that night was one of pride not disappointment. My team had been at the foot of the fourth division just 14 years previously. It therefore beggars belief we made it to a European Final at all. There were plenty of people involved in that achievement but most of our thanks should go to the mastermind behind it, Roy Hodgson. Or ‘Sir Roy’ as he will forever be known in Fulham.Such is the regard he’s held in that very few of us were angry that he left for Liverpool that summer. Indeed, there was no rejoicing when he failed there. In truth, they didn’t deserve him. At Fulham he’d been a perfect fit, but he was never properly appreciated at a ‘big club’ like Liverpool. Roy did a decent enough job with England, but his reputation will forever be tarnished by that defeat to Iceland. He’s deservedly restored it at Crystal Palace although to see some of their fans’ comments on social media, I don’t think they truly love him like we did/do. For us, Sir Roy will always be a hero.