Football On My Mind is an occasional series of articles about current events in the game, not just about Spurs. Endlessly curious, it’s called On My Mind because it is, always.
Last week England manager Roy Hodgson committed what appears to be a cardinal sin in contemporary football. He gave an honest answer to a question from a fan.
Hodgson has been accused of being at the very least naive and at worst of crass stupidity. He’s since apologised but it’s not entirely clear for what exactly. Certainly Rio Ferdinand should have been the first to know that he was not selected for the forthcoming England squad. Any leader worth their salt knows that honesty and trust are powerful motivators, whether the organisation be a charity like the one I manage, a private company or a football team. While the defender’s omission is hardly a surprise, least of all to him I suspect, this apparent breach of duty will reverberate through the rest of the squad. I doubt it will have any immediate noticeable effect but they won’t forget when times are tough and their manager calls for trust in his methods.
In many ways Hodgson presents as a man out of time, a relic even, although this serves to mask a comprehensive understanding of the modern game. It’s hard to imagine him as a young man. He was born an avuncular uncle figure. There’s a comfortable stability in his old-fashioned values of hard work, footballers doing their best and an integrity born of working with players and an endless fascination with the game itself. Most of the time this continuity with the past is reassuring in a time of rapid change and short attention spans and it’s not as if he bangs on about the good old days all the time as many younger pundits choose to do. Roy will never be a trendy uncle, perish the thought that he will lose his charm, but he looks forward as well as back and his broad-minded approach to innovation probably held back his career in England.
The old days were never as good as many would have you believe. Hodgson’s apparent wish that John Terry should be found not guilty by a court or the FA smacks of the unwritten football code of silence, what happens on the pitch stays on the pitch, superseding the imperative to counter racism in all its guises. However, communicating with the supporters is a fundamental element of that old-school attitude and there’s nothing wrong with that whatsoever. Hodgson wants to talk football and does not think he is above the fans, whereas many professionals treat us with barely concealed contempt. The yawning gap between fans and the clubs to which they have devoted a large part of their lives has created a growing sense of alienation that is destined to cause irrevocable harm to the game as a whole unless it is challenged.
These days the them and us attitude prevails. Many Premier League clubs do their utmost to control the contact between their staff and the fans. We faithfully turn up and the only communication is one-way via our bank accounts. Perish the thought that we may wish to interact in any other way. Even in the media, the pundits, paid handsomely to talk, barely disguise their contempt for the task of communicating. And all this is accepted by the producers and directors who tolerate vapid platitudes or, in the case of Mark Lawrenson during Euro 2012, apparent disdain for football itself.
The England manager does something about it, in his own small way. He’s on the tube, not a limo or even a cab, knowing he will be recognised. When he is, he’s happy to talk openly about the game he loves, knowing that fans share that passion. He’s not different because of his status, he’s the same as us. Passionate after all these years about the game we love.
So he talks and ends up all over the back pages because in return for his openness, someone calls the tabloids. No doubt they are boasting to their mates about it and they have trousered a few hundred quid in return.
Hodgson will never be as straightforward again with the public and it’s a reminder to everyone else in the business to keep mouthing the dull platitudes. Keep to themselves any real opinions, anything of any vague interest or that may be marginally different from what anyone else is saying. Perhaps I’m the one who is now being naive in believing there is any such thing as a private conversation any longer.
Uncle Roy was young once. He used to play for Tonbridge Angels, now in the Conference South. I went to see them 10 days ago. My wife’s nephew was mascot. After the game, all the players gathered in the club lounge and happily posed for pictures, chatted to supporters and signed autographs. As the match finished, the away team fans huddled behind the goal. Nothing sinister here – they had been joined by Sutton’s manager who talked to them about the club’s current problems. He gave them bad news, they gave him a round of applause.
This contact is why more fans are turning their backs on the big clubs. It’s not the same in the Premier League but it is possible to work much harder to close the gap between fans and clubs. Hodgson was naive but like any relationship, it works both ways. Perhaps we get the game we deserve.