The trial of Roy

Roy Hodgson hasn't always managed foreign clubs. Matt Nation remembers his short stint in charge of Bristol City

On turning to the front bit of your Sunday tabloid, you often find pages five to eight plastered with a ‘seedy past’ exposé. The host of a sofa-based chat-show, for example, is revealed to have once visited a topless bar, dropped a couple of tabs and then thrown a cloakroom attendant through a plate-glass window. The nation smirks behind its collective hand for a couple of days, then loses interest, comes over all moral and decides to let bygones be bygones.

While he has never shared settee and banalities with June Whitfield, Roy Hodgson is currently enjoying levels of attention which could, potentially, catapult him further towards the front of the paper. Already itinerant, tactically astute and a folk-hero in Switzerland, Roy could now also be credited with having pulled off a minor miracle in making Blackburn a great deal less unpopular than they were three or four years ago. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine anybody less deserving of having muck and detritus from the past smeared all over them.

But it is precisely the nice guys, Roy, who get it in the neck, particularly when there are some people out there who just cannot let bygones be bygones. Like my father, who, on seeing your craggy-dressed-up-as-cosmopolitan features staring out from newspaper and television alike, went all of a doodah until his son helped him to place his head between his knees and draped warm towels over the back of his neck. Like my sister’s first boyfriend, whose father-in-law-in-waiting threw him out of the house the very first time he came round because his first name was the same as yours, Roy.

I wonder whether you know just how much it hurt back then. When you and Bob Houghton managed to do what nobody else had ever managed to do, namely drag the City down into the Fourth Division at the beginning of the 1980s. I know the descent through the divisions had already started before you arrived, Roy; I know that the club was in a desperate financial position, that the backbone of the team was forced to tear up their contacts and accept voluntary redundancy; I know that you were only the assistant, Roy, and that it was Houghton who had the final word. Nevertheless, Roy, you were part of the big picture, that great big, farraginous Jackson-Pollock of an eyesore which, at that time, passed for Bristol City.

And you even became the boss for three months in early 1982, Roy, those unedifying three months when your charges won three games in twenty. What on earth did you say during the pre-match team talks that made them go out onto the pitch with the verve of a long-term inmate of Death Row? “Go out there and get it over with”? “One day we’ll all look back at this and laugh our heads off”?

Can you remember the players you imposed on us, Roy? Terry Boyle, the man who ran like Stan Laurel going the wrong way on a Travelator; Alan Nicholls, spindle-shanks centre-half with the bifurcate clearances, who would have been dragged out of position much more often but for the fact that he was never where he was supposed to be to start with; and what about Errington Kelly, Roy, possibly the only free transfer that even Bristol Rovers didn’t want? You might be multi-lingual, but you didn’t know that Errington is a name fit only for a big band leader or a North Sea seaside resort; it’s not a footballer’s name, Roy, not in any language.

You may not have signed all these players yourself, Roy, you may have inherited some, blooded some, or simply had no others available. But they are all inextricably linked with your time at the City; you filled in the team sheets, you let them stay when you could have banned them from the training ground.

These names mean nothing to most people and they probably mean even less to you, Roy. You will have consigned them to the murky twilight zone which you inhabited before you went away and got reinvented. In fact, if we ever manage to catch a glimpse of your CV, we’ll probably find the years 1980-82 accounted for by some euphemism such as “travelling” or “managerial research in England”. They’ve probably got a word in the Army for people like you.

What has become of the damage cases whom you left behind? My father is now retired and currently awaiting delivery of a defibrillator to counteract the effect of seeing you on Football Focus. My sister is happily married and appears to have suppressed the events surrounding the ignominious exit of her first love, save for the fact that she hasn’t spoken since. Even the Roy the Boyfriend, who was so shaken by the whole affair that he has never married, seems to have come to terms with bachelorhood and the resultant evenings spent playing with electric train sets. They’re settled, they’re making do.

Maybe you should get settled too, Roy. You seem to have forgotten where you came from, and other people are doing their best to forget it as well. And should wanderlust or a Bristol City chairman asking you to name your price ever cause you to remember, then fight the urge to do anything about it. Make sure you never return to Bristol, unless you want to be sent packing back up the M5 with the toe of my father’s slipper wedged up your backside. Leave my family alone, Roy, they’ve suffered enough.

From WSC 130 December 1997. What was happening this month