TThe full-time whistle blows in the Emirates: the trigger for around 400 coaches, stewards, broadcasters, supervisors and various other elements of the football crowd to populate the pitch. Roy Hodgson puts his glasses in his jacket pocket and stands on the touchline, staring somberly into the maelstrom and looking – as he often does these days – like a man remembering a sandwich he once ate in 1962. A cameraman recognizes the opportunity to capture the perfectly framed shot; He spins around Hodgson, catching him from behind as he stares at a distant banner at the end of the Crystal Palace:
ON AND OFF THE PITCH
Takes us backwards
The natural tendency here, at least for the professional storyteller, is to superimpose a kind of human narrative onto this composite tableau, to peer into Hodgson’s brain and bring its contents onto the page. Was he thinking about the ending? Wondering if this great, weathered career has finally come to an end? Maybe even take in one last ray of footballing daylight, create one last memory before disappearing into the tunnel and the sweet embrace of oblivion.
Unfortunately no. “I was waiting for the players to leave the pitch,” he said when asked what was going through his mind at the time. Which is, of course, a flawless, flawless response to the brand for Hodgson. He has often admitted that there is a touch of arrogance within him, and the idea of being decoded or read – the idea that you, a person who is not Roy Hodgson, could ever truly understand Roy Hodgson’s thoughts – seems to be downright insulting to him. In any case, if he had really thought about something poignant and meaningful, he would hardly have deigned to share it with people like us.
In the current Premier League coaching landscape, with its cast of therapists and televangelists, this sort of thing stands out much more than it used to. Hodgson has no interest in feeding you sugar-coated bromides or taking you on a grand journey. He’s not trying to tell you a story or sell you a vision. He doesn’t even accept one of football’s holiest lies: that fans are the game’s treasured lifeblood, whose whims and motivations must never be questioned, let alone questioned. “You wouldn’t understand why I took Eze off the field,” he said of the booing that greeted his decision to take Eberechi Eze off the field in Wednesday’s FA Cup defeat to Everton.
All of this is likely to lead to Hodgson being sacked sooner rather than later. The victories have dried up – just one in all competitions since the beginning of October. Football is in a gentle decline. The machine has lost a lot of thrust and energy, and a Hodgson team without thrust and energy is essentially indistinguishable from a square dance.
Most importantly, the fans have had enough and at this stage it is no defense at all to claim that Palace are still on track to avoid relegation, especially when you consider the weakness of the three promoted teams and the possibility of Points take into account deductions for Everton and Nottingham Forest. It’s also worth noting that this is the 11th consecutive season of Premier League football, a period in which they have never finished in the bottom five or taken fewer than 40 points, and that historically we are basically a Palace -Golden experience age.
None of this really matters. Football on a broader level is not really an empirical exercise but a stream of feelings, and the feeling of staleness and stasis that has taken hold at Selhurst Park is not the sort of thing you can really fight your way out of. Especially when you have a friendly but often grumpy manager who describes fans as “spoiled” at more careless moments, grumbles that he “won’t miss a thing” when he’s gone and when asked what his message is to the players, after a humiliating 5-0 defeat, he replied with the simple, encouraging words: “You have to stick with the work you have done.”
And frankly, if the Palace board pulls the lever on Hodgson now, no-one can complain too much. Here the defending from set pieces was abysmal, the attacking strategy flimsy, the space available behind the Palace defense – long before the two late counterattacks in which Gabriel Martinelli scored – something that makes opposing analysts stop the tape and frantically search for it a notebook.
But also bear in mind that this is a squad that has received little investment or refreshment in recent years, forcing Hodgson to spend the last few months dealing with a catastrophic injury crisis. Wilfried Zaha’s experience and invention were only inadequately replaced. And what is often described as a “long-term build” looks a lot like an unequal ownership that has begun to abandon its ambitions in favor of standing still in anticipation of a possible sale.
Hodgson is then asked whether he still has the board’s support, and of course he knows what the question is really about. “In the scenario you’re imagining,” he said, rolling the “r” with relish, “that has to be a question for you, right?” And there’s a small smile: as if the only thing worse than a dismissal would consist of having to explain oneself.