Save Our Lads: Coping with the Bane of Hodgson

Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images

Originally published on Premier Punditry.

I used to admire the England national team. It’s my duty as an American soccer fan to provide unequivocal backing to the USMNT every time a major international tournament like the World Cup rolls around, but, until recently, England could always claim second place in my allegiances.

Perhaps it was a cultural affinity transposed from years of watching Premier League football and supporting a Premier League club; Steven Gerrard has been responsible for so much happiness in my life over the past decade or so that it was hard not to wish him all the best when he was captaining for his national side. There’s also the fact that, with 48 years of hurt and counting, the Brits are basically lovable losers at this point when it comes to the world stage. In any case, until not too long ago, England could count on my quasi-support.

Those days are gone. The English national team’s petulant cycle of failure and disappointment is no longer defensible in my eyes; the self-aggrandizing loathing consistently banged out by British journalists even less so. Because England employs Roy Hodgson as their manager, and I fear the worst for the band of talented, young English footballers who provide the thrust behind Liverpool Football Club’s exhilarating brand of football.

The Hodge’s time in charge at Liverpool has been well-documented. He was appointed at arguably the lowest point in the club’s illustrious history; Liverpool were on the brink of administration in the fall of 2010, having finished 7th in the previous Premier League campaign after what was undoubtedly the most painful season I’ve ever witnessed as a football supporter. England’s most decorated footballing institution was being bled dry by two venture capitalists who had no regard for its well-being, and a Chelsea supporter was in charge of finding new owners for the club.

It was this clusterfuck of a situation in which the Roy Hodgson era at Liverpool was born. The man’s time at the club was always going to be inseparable from the context in which it existed — and that context was so extraordinary, and so dire, that it was always going to be difficult not to give Hodgson some benefit of the doubt.

Of course, looking back, it’s now obvious that Hodgson’s time at Liverpool did nothing but exacerbate the club’s situation. The boardroom tumult that had evaporated Liverpool’s coffers was mere subterfuge for the workings of the Hodge, a man whose entire professional career has been built on proudly doing just enough to get by. Heavy defeats were rationalized as mere setbacks in some greater, unseen process; inexcusable draws were excused as up to par with expectations.

It wasn’t long before Fenway Sports Group — an organization that’s found on-field success at every sporting enterprise they’ve overseen — came to Anfield and quickly realized that the Hodge wasn’t up to snuff. And so Roy was jettisoned; King Kenny returned, and while the results weren’t that much better, he delivered a critical boost to the club’s self-esteem. Kenny understood what was expected at Liverpool; this was a man who had spent most of five decades in football winning things and generally being excellent. Kenny gave Liverpool back its dignity.

Hodgson, meanwhile, went on to West Brom, where he succeeded in not getting relegated. The FA, reeling from the national team’s worst public relations disaster this century, came calling shortly thereafter — and if ever there was a man for the job of England manager, it was the Hodge. In more than two years since assuming the position, Hodgson’s brought his patented brand of pedantic football and managed expectations to the international stage. He squeezed every last drop from the aged, tired legs of the Steven Gerrard – Scott Parker midfield axis at Euro 2012, and rode the Big Caz in all his ponytailed glory to a last-16 defeat at the hands of Andrea Pirlo.

It’s been disappointment after disappointment since then, with the English media seemingly more than happy to ride along with the Hodge in the glory of his effervescent mediocrity. More power to them; I need no part of Roy Hodgson’s England national team.

Except. Except when news breaks that Daniel Sturridge has yet again failed come out of an England training session in one piece; when Jordan Henderson is being continually shackled as a holding midfielder in a double pivot until he, too, comes out of training injured. As a Liverpool fan, I once thought the bane of Hodgson was forever cast away to a forlorn page of my club’s history. I was wrong — there’s no escaping the malevolence of the Hodge.

Daniel Sturridge is one of the most electrifying forwards in European football, albeit one with a checkered injury history. At Liverpool, he is carefully watched by Brendan Rodgers’ staff, who know the player’s body better than anyone and do all they can to maximize his performance while preserving his health. The Hodge, meanwhile, once sought to ‘test [Sturridge’s] resolve’ by playing him while he was carrying a thigh strain. He tested his resolve yet again in last week’s friendly versus Norway at Wembley — forever to be known as the Most Depressing, Meaningless Contest Ever — by playing Sturridge for 90 minutes three days after he played the full 90 versus Spurs at White Hart Lane. And yet Sturridge is the one who gets labeled “injury prone.”

Jordan Henderson is the latest casualty, after it emerged that he picked up an ankle knock during England training. Nobody knows how severe the injury is as of this writing; it doesn’t sound too terrible, but it could very well be the sort of ankle ligament tear that keeps players out for months. Henderson is an iron lung of a player who’s given every drop of energy over the past year to both his club and country; in a Brendan Rodgers central midfield that never features less than three players, he’s a marauding force of nature on both sides of the ball. And so the Hodge plays him as a static, holding midfielder in two-man midfield next to Jack Wilshere (or even worse, Steven Gerrard, as we saw this past summer) and he’s rendered ineffective. Exquisite tactics, Hodgy.

Raheem Sterling seems thus far impervious to the bane of the Hodge. He’s playing like a young man for whom it’s all clicked — his extraordinary physical gifts seem in tune with a maturing understanding of how to play both on and off the ball at the very highest level of the game. I can only hope that I haven’t jinxed the kid, but he seems ripe for picking by the grey, uninventive hands of the Hodge and all his backward notions of what an English attacking player can be. 4-4-2 forever, y’all.

So it goes — Adam Lallana isn’t fit for selection by Hodgy this international break, but you just know he’ll be selected and played as some conventional winger once he’s ready to don St. George’s Cross once more. From Sturridge to Sterling, from Lallana to the Ox to Ross Barkley to even Jack Wilshere, this is an underrated crop of young English talent that’s coming through the national team set-up at the moment. And for the next two years, they’ll be helplessly trapped in the Hodgson-ness of it all, bound to an unimaginative and archaic idea of what football can be by a 67-year-old company man who’s never won anything of any consequence in his life.

Save our lads. Get them out of there, and now. There’s glory to be had at Liverpool, and we need these kids playing to have it. Don’t let the Hodge rob us of our dignity once more.

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