Sport | 1 week ago

So Roy Hodgson returns to south London even if he is a man who, in some fundamental way, never really left.

Wherever he has gone in the world, Hodgson has carried with him the look of a stressed commuter perpetually anxious that the 7.38 from Norwood Junction will be delayed by forces beyond his control. In another life, it is easy to imagine Hodgson having strong views on Southern Rail’s latest price hike. He may even have strong views in this life as he is a man whose interests have always extended beyond his own world.

Hodgson's fatalism has tended to inform everything he does. He is the desk sergeant to whom you report a stolen bike and who dutifully records all the information in the logbook before telling you that, son, the chances of finding your bike are, well, zero.

Yet, more than ever, perhaps it doesn’t matter what Hodgson brought with him when he travelled across Europe, but that he went at all.

If English football has suffered thanks to its main characters' lack of curiosity about the world, a reluctance to travel and to absorb other cultures, that view of the world beyond Britain as somewhere not to be trusted has, since Hodgson last did his most meaningful work, been endorsed by Brexit.

There will be those who insist, of course, that this was not the message of Brexit and the country remains open for business, even if that is stated in the faintly hysterical tones of a shopkeeper who has been caught dousing his own shop in petrol as he attempts to pull off an insurance scam, but now stands at the doorway, oilcan in hand, while his store burns to the ground and he vainly tries to sell off what's left of his rotting merchandise.

Yet the perception that Britain is a less inviting and less outgoing place is certainly Brexit's unintended consequence, demonstrated by the EU citizens who have decided that the UK is not for them, even if they are among those who are still welcome.

For this reason, it seems churlish not to hail the return of a man who has always represented, in his own imperfect way, an open and curious approach to life.

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When the time comes, when Britain crashes out of Europe and the country rules who can stay and who must leave, Hodgson will not be among those rounded up. But let’s just say that, with his interest in the novels of Milan Kundera and the paintings of Wassily Kandinsky, he will certainly not be cleaved to the bosom of those who believe they have taken back control.

There was time when it was easy to mock Hodgson for these tastes, to conclude that it was more important he had signed Paul Konchesky for Liverpool than he was, as the Guardian put it, “probably the only football manager in England to have once drawn parallels between his career and a Kandinsky painting”.

But the age when we could mock Hodgson - and those who felt he should be hailed because he had read a few good books and liked the music of Jackson Browne - is gone. Suddenly those things are important in a football manager. Hodgson with his devotion to European literature and paintings must be welcomed back, even if he succeeds Frank De Boer, a man who is not just a Europhile, but an actual European.

In fact, it seems deeply symbolic that Hodgson’s last constructive act as England manager - and by constructive we refer to the deeply Hodgsonian 0-0 draw with Slovakia - took place three days before the Brexit vote.

We could mock it then, but all was to change over the next few days.

There is no indication, of course, how Hodgson actually voted but that shouldn’t concern us here as he so clearly represents the distinction, more important than ever, between patriotism and nationalism.

Before the Iceland game, Hodgson, sitting alongside his captain Wayne Rooney, addressed the Brexit result and we can draw our own conclusions.

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“We voted when we could, we had our say, but the nation has had its say. We are part of the nation and we will live with that,” he said, while adding with a typical non-flourish, “as far as football is concerned, it has not made one ha’porth of difference to our preparation for this game”.

Here was an England those who voted remain could believe in, a man who spoke several languages but who was also comfortable with a phrase like “it has not made one ha’porth of difference”, whatever that means. Here was a man who was comfortable with where he had come from but always eager - but not too eager - to get somewhere else.

And how easy it was to dismiss a man like that back then, how naive we were to think our certainties would always be so certain. But if Brexit has made Ken Clarke seem more radical and revolutionary than Dennis Skinner, it has also transformed Hodgson from fretful church warden to a man who now strides the world like, well, like Ken Clarke.

In a country that has surrendered so much to the forces of nationalism, we can no longer dismiss a man who a few months ago remarked that “in more recent years I have been more drawn to the Austrians, Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth in particular” as a conservative figure.

In a changed world, Hodgson now embodies something progressive and inclusive. Hodgson appreciates the world and Europe. With his regular presence on Uefa Technical committees alongside his good friend Gerard Houllier, he could be said to be a Eurocrat himself.

It was certainly possible to detect a sadness when he sat alongside Rooney before the Iceland game and spoke about Brexit, but then again, Hodgson carries an innate sadness with him, a man who, if anything, has read too many good books and is aware of all that can go wrong at any moment in life or, indeed, from any set-piece.

“We have just been getting on with our football lives and accepting that, back home, a major decision has been taken, which Wayne and I will live with when we get home,” he said back then, making it sound like they had learned while abroad that a radical plan to introduce a contra-flow system on an arterial road in their hometown had been implemented and they would adapt as best they could to the traffic chaos on their return.

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Wayne, of course, has been living with it in his own way ever since, while Hodgson has been dealing with exile.

It is no coincidence that Britain’s first meaningful engagement with the outside world after the Brexit vote was England’s meeting with Iceland, a match which could be said to have anticipated everything that has happened since.

A game which was supposed to be easy turned out to be more difficult than expected in part because of the stubborn reluctance of many to appreciate the trouble they were in. By the time they did, it was now impossible in part because of this complacency and the ongoing inability of anyone to do the right thing competently or even simply stand in the right place. It could be said that if you want a vision of a country with Liam Fox as a senior government figure or indeed a vision for Britain’s future post-Brexit, imagine Harry Kane taking corners - forever.

All that was to come was revealed on that night and in the end, it was Hodgson, the symbol of the curious and outgoing England now under threat, who was sacrificed.

He was replaced by Big Sam - according to one report a Leave voter - who lasted 67 days in the job, at which point it becomes too easy to stoop to symbolism.

So Hodgson is back where it all started, but if Britain has lurched backwards, he now looks like a progressive. Since he left football, so much has changed that it is important he is still the same man, the same Roy Hodgson, the same force for good in an desperately uncertain world.

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