The person Roy Hodgson’s always wanted to meet is a 90-year-old Irish-American author whose most famous book was originally banned for obscenity in both countries.
JP Donleavy’s The Ginger Man was first published in 1955 in Paris. It tells the racy misadventures of Sebastian Dangerfield, a married student of law at Trinity College, Dublin during the 1940s.
Dangerfield’s sexual exploits are said to have been inspired by Donleavy’s own adventures in the Bohemian Dublin of the time. Just like the film Mike Bassett: England Manager was a 2001 biting satire about an intellectually challenged coach who finds himself in charge of the national team after winning the ‘Mr Clutch Cup’ with Norwich City.
Mike Bassett and Roy Hodgson’s names may have the same number of syllables, but they couldn’t be more different. Forget Roy of the Rovers, Hodgson, now looking to get a job back in football after his and England’s humiliation at Euro 2016 by Iceland, is Roy of the Readers, getting through around a novel a week, even when he was boss of the national side.
His passion for literature emerged during the four years he spent as manager of the England team and in his first interview with the written press since France, he admitted novels have shaped him – as a man and a manager.
As a young coach, Hodgson, now 69, devoured books on the game, the most influential when it came to leadership as well as tactics being Tackle Soccer, the 1977 manual by football visionary Dave Sexton, the former Chelsea, QPR and Manchester United coach and the man who guided England’s Under-21s to their two only European Championships successes.
Hodgson, of course, joined the long list of not-so-heroic failures at the Euros with the senior team last summer. It was not the last chapter he wanted following his four years in the job, but literature has helped him face up to his failure and bring him back to the point where he’s determined to rewrite his story by returning as a top manager.
As chief football writer of the red-top Daily Star, my own love of modern literature perhaps surprises Hodgson. But it is a chance on our travels to talk occasionally about something other than football. He recommends the superbly moving Stoner by John Williams. I, in turn, give him a copy of the darkly comic A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole who, like one of Hodgson’s own favourite writers, committed suicide. He says, after a slow start, he thoroughly enjoyed it.
“I’ve always read novels and the ones that made the biggest impressions when I was younger were the Donleavy ones,” he tells me. “He still remains to this day the person I would most like to meet.
In more recent years I have been more drawn to the Austrians, Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth in particular
“Donleavy is a wonderful writer. His books are very much about life and people’s passage through life. I think they are poignant and very well written because he has a brilliant command of the English language and of course they make you laugh.
“I suppose I would still say he was the one who had the biggest influence before I moved on to the Americans, the Updikes, the Roths and these sort of people.
“A lot of the Jewish writers for a while – particularly Bashevis Singer, Roth , Malamud, Bellow.
“After that, it was the famous English quartet I was very keen on – Faulks, Barnes, [Martin] Amis and [Graham] Swift.
“Before that I was a big fan of John Fowles, I loved all his books, particularly The Magus. I have read a lot of other very, very different things people have recommended to me over time.
“In more recent years I have been more drawn to the Austrians, Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth in particular. Zweig was the most famous European author in the 1930s – I didn’t know that his books sold in enormous numbers. Both died young, they were troubled souls, Roth drank himself to death and Zweig committed suicide.
“Chekhov, at the moment I have discovered – I suppose I should have read him earlier. Also the South Americans, Vargas Llosa, who I told you about, and Garcia Marquez. I was big into the Czechs at one time – Kundera, Klima, Bohumil and Skvorecky, all those sort of guys. I’ve read all their books, in translation of course!
“I’ve no aspirations to be a writer myself, for me reading has been purely for pleasure. I’ve been lucky enough to read some good, intelligent authors who’ve got to fashion your views on life.
“You have got to be very careful in life, the things you do, the people you meet, the books you read, things you pick up from watching things. You go out and something’s got into your head and the next moment you are doing something or saying something which, sub-consciously, you have picked up from reading the book. You would be naive to think that isn’t always a risk.
“Possibly this is maybe too bold a thing to say, but as you get older you should have a bit more wisdom. I’ve got a lot of natural wisdom from books without actually seeking it.”
As for Hodgson’s own tale, six months on from that Iceland fiasco and he’s ready for redemption. He and his wife of 45 years, Sheila, have bought a flat in Richmond and he arranges to meet me outside the station.
He’s wearing a dark suit with white shirt and no tie, and nobody bothers us as we go for a coffee nearby.
He’s looking fitter and healthier than last summer having shed a few kilos in the gym below his new home, with near-daily workouts on the cross-trainer and exercise bike, plus sit-ups and a few light weights. “I’m still not at the weight that I played but I’m a damned sight nearer to it!” he says.
I’ve never regarded myself as a celebrity, I have regarded myself as a professional football manager
Each day he aims to complete the “mandatory 10,000 steps” as he goes for a stroll, often up and down Richmond Hill. Hodgson’s never been one to shy away from being seen in public and claims he’s never been given any hassle, even after the Euro 2016 disaster.
He has no intention of hiding away. “We are moving in a different world now, where celebrity is the key,” says Hodgson, who also reveals he’s turned down the chance to go on Strictly Coming Dancing, saying: “I’d have been another Ed Balls!”
He adds: “I’ve never regarded myself as a celebrity, I have regarded myself as a professional football manager, a job which I have done for many years and think I do well.
“I’m quite proud of my achievements. But I don’t think that lifts me into the celebrity world.”
“It has given me a life doing exactly what I wanted to do. But I don’t regard myself as any different to anybody else.
“I want to walk down streets, I want to leave Richmond by train, I don’t want to travel in a chauffeur-driven car. Because it’s not me, it’s not my background, it’s not where I came from. And it’s not what I could get used to.”
If something comes up abroad we can go. There is no other job for me.
Fluent in Swedish and French, with decent Italian, ‘Renaissance Roy’ also finds German easy to pick up. Having managed teams in Sweden, Switzerland, Italy, Denmark, United Arab Emirates, Norway and Finland as well as England, he’s prepared to pack his bags again.
“It doesn’t matter, home or abroad,” he says. “It’s only my wife and me, our son is in America and we are not tied to this country like a lot of people are through family. We are pretty independent.
“If something comes up abroad we can go. There is no other job for me. It’s a bit late in the day to start becoming a shopkeeper!”
He remains fiercely defiant about his England legacy and reveals how those close to him helped him through the huge blow of that Iceland defeat and the sleepless nights that followed it.
“Family’s important to everybody,” he says. “That must be a big problem for those The Big Issue is trying to help. They don’t have that family support, they feel alone. I never felt that way.
“I certainly didn’t feel suicidal and I certainly didn’t feel self-doubt either because I think probably the four years, especially the last two years after the World Cup, fashioning a team from a very young group of players, many of whom weren’t even in their club side, and playing the sort of football we were capable of playing – we were playing very, very well.
“I am very, very proud of that achievement. I think it is probably the best work, in many ways, that I did or have done so far.
“But of course, any work you do as a sporting person, a football coach or any coach, if it is good work you’ve got to have something – a championship – to show for it.
I certainly didn’t feel suicidal and I certainly didn’t feel self-doubt either
“We didn’t get that, quite the reverse. But I believe people who work within the game and inside sport realise what I did and certainly I got all sorts of messages from all sorts of important friends and acquaintances. So there was never any doubt I would collapse in any way with self-doubt.
“If anything, I think the experience makes you stronger. In football however well you think you are doing, however well your life is going, there is always a mugger there lurking in the shadows, to bash you over the head when you least expect it.”
He has no time for the pundits who criticised him for consigning Harry Kane to take corners and making six changes from the side that beat Wales prior to the 0-0 Euro 2016 group game with Slovakia.
“They are nonsense. People should be ashamed of those things. Why shouldn’t Harry Kane take corners? If he happens to be the best striker of a ball in the team and gives you the best delivery why shouldn’t he do it?
I don’t need to watch it [the Iceland defeat], I have a perfectly good idea of what happened and why it happened.
“And the ‘six’ changes are actually four changes from the team who were on the field at the end of the game against Wales. Questions would have been asked if I’d left out Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge after they came on as substitutes at half-time and scored [against Wales].
“What’s more, working with a squad of players, people would also ask why didn’t I give a chance to Jordan Henderson and Jack Wilshere, Ryan Bertrand and Nathaniel Clyne, who are four excellent players.
“I was totally uninterested in those type of comments, which I regard as purely irrelevant and dishonest. No one whose opinion I respect would have said anything like that, otherwise I would have heard about it.”
Hodgson admits he has not watched the Iceland game again since that fateful day on June 27. “I consign it to history,” he says. “I don’t need to watch it, I have a perfectly good idea of what happened and why it happened.” You sense even if he was tempted one day, he’d much rather read a good book.
After three days of deliberations, Roy Hodgson came up with his 10 favourite books of all time. Or six…