It was a fond farewell, even as he returned to the scene of personal disappointment. Roy Hodgson said he was pleased his last game was at Anfield, “one of the temples of football,” and bowed out a local hero, the Croydon bus driver’s son who had travelled the globe, returned to his native south London and kept his boyhood club Crystal Palace up for four consecutive seasons. Arsenal gave him a guard of honour when they visited Palace. After 45 years in dugouts from Scandinavia and Switzerland to San Siro and Selhurst Park, he had earned the right to retire.
Except the tributes last summer were premature. Hodgson returned, management’s addictive properties ensuring he needed one final fix. Going to Watford was a mistake, for him and them alike. He has extended his record as the Premier League’s oldest ever manager. His final game, at Stamford Bridge on Sunday, will come at 74 years, nine months and 13 days. It will also come with Watford long since relegated, with indications that the methods that served him well in the Allsvenskan in the 1970s have finally stopped working, and that Roy has gone rogue.
Hodgson has spent his final weeks in management being irascible and tactless. Which, unless your allegiances lie with Watford, has offered entertainment. There was his lap of honour of Selhurst Park, getting the acclaim from Palace fans that he was denied in Covid times, but then he forgot to acknowledge the Watford support. He had contrived to blame the rivalry between the two clubs on the Hornets. He looked disengaged on the day Watford’s fate was sealed, making no substitutions in a display of passiveness, hiding behind sunglasses he said were necessitated by shingles. He bluntly admitted he would not recognise his successor, Rob Edwards, whose achievements in getting Forest Green promoted from League Two had clearly not attracted his attention.
He has an 11.8 per cent win rate which is unlikely to improve against Chelsea. His return of 0.52 points per game means he could only come third in Watford’s manager-of-the-year poll. With the exception of goalkeeper Ben Foster, a Hodgson loyalist from happier times at West Bromwich Albion who argued no manager could have saved the Hornets, few seem to have much affection for him.
The feeling may be mutual. That Hodgson has a solitary point at home and bowed out at Vicarage Road with a 5-1 defeat to Leicester may mean it is just as well his last game is away. Some of his last squad may not miss him or vice versa. He seems to think they are overrated by his employers. “Perhaps I’m left to reflect that some of the players suggested to me as the ones who would resolve the club’s parlous situation weren’t, in fact, able to produce the performances that they’d been billed as being capable of,” he wrote in his programme notes last week.
Ismaila Sarr, Josh King and Emmanuel Dennis had scored 18 league goals before Hodgson’s January arrival; they only have two, both from the Nigerian, since. He has failed to get the best from any. He at least engineered three clean sheets in his first six games and Watford’s historically atrocious defensive record – no team has conceded more on their own turf in a top-flight season in the last six decades – reflects more on others, and not merely because their owners have long shown an aversion to spending sizeable fees on defenders.
But if it underlines that this is not a Hodgson squad, this season has amounted to a hubristic failure of the Pozzo project. The appointment of Edwards – the antithesis of many a Pozzo manager – suggests a recognition of such. Over their last two Premier League campaigns, the Hornets have been managed by seven men, one a caretaker, and got a mere 14 wins. The revolving door has led to the trapdoor.
Perhaps, too, their transfer policy is not quite as inspired as they may think. Dennis shaped up as an outstanding signing, King and Moussa Sissoko as fine ones, yet the reality is Watford only just have more points than signings (23-19). Some were futuristic, some may crop up in random Europa League runs in future seasons and Hassane Kamara won player of the year despite only joining in January but somewhere along the line Watford forgot the principles of team-building. They were not a side as much as 11 men, some of whom knew each other’s names. Stripping a club of continuity and identity eventually came a cost; is it any wonder Watford sometimes lacked spirit?
The idea that the players were sufficiently good that they could drop in managers who would succeed in the short term has been disproved. Claudio Ranieri was a disastrous appointment and he and Hodgson – combined age: 144 – seem in decline, but when only one of Watford’s last 14 coaches has made it to 50 games in charge, and none to 70, the fundamental problem lies with the club.
The owners can say the last few years have been the second most successful spell in Watford’s history but their last two in the Premier League have been dismal. It may be an exaggeration to say it has tarnished Hodgson’s legacy – a 46-year career is sufficiently rich that Watford is merely an undignified footnote – but he should have stayed out of the fray, surveying their demise in detached fashion from his sofa, not the technical area. If retirement beckons for him, Watford need a reset and a regime which is the opposite of Hodgson’s.