Roy's friendly chats likely to go down the tube


SIDELINE CUT:The England manager has indicated he will have to call a halt to his friendly chats on the underground after revealing Rio Ferdinand’s international career was over

JUST LIKE that, Roy Hodgson becomes one of the last originals in sport.

Who could not be charmed by the news that the England football manager not only travels about on the London Underground but is happy to talk football with his fellow passengers? Has there been a more hopeful gesture for sport in recent years?

If you haven’t heard, the England football boss has landed himself in hot water for disclosing his plans regarding Rio Ferdinand for England’s forthcoming international fixture against San Marino. Hodgson was taking a train to the Emirates Stadium to catch an Arsenal match and because he holds what is one of the most heavily scrutinised jobs in world sport, most people in the carriage knew who he was. So when one of his fellow travellers asked him if Rio would feature in his squad list. Roy had several options. He could have pretended not to hear and bury his head into one of the Roth or Kundera novels into which he dives when not worrying about the perpetual ennui of Michael Carrick or the wayward form of Theo Walcott.

He could have given a stingingly sharp and mostly incomprehensible reply a la Kenny Dalglish, his successor at Anfield. The man speaks six languages: he could have employed any of them to fool his neighbour into believing he had just mistaken some Scandinavian geezer who was a dead ringer for the England boss. He could have simply shrugged.

Instead, Hodgson decided to treat the man with respect and engaged in a civilised conversation with him. So it came to pass that on a Jubilee Line carriage some time during rush hour, the England manager told this man or woman and the other “strangers on the train” who were undoubtedly riveted to the conversation while leafing through their Fifty Shades and Evening Standards that the chances of big Rio playing for his country again were slim. “He is pushing 34 and hasn’t played for England for a long, long time.”

It was a fair, rational and even an elegiac response. And it was also just plain honest. Football is England’s national game. Tens of thousands of people spend entire years of their lives watching football, talking about football and thinking about football. Three million of ’em care so much about Rio Ferdinand that they follow his every utterance on Twitter. Hundreds of thousands spend hard-earned money on season tickets and on the latest club shirt. They subscribe to Sky and therefore help to pay the staggering wages which footballers now enjoy.

When Hodgson engaged in the conversation in the rush hour on that Jubilee Line, he probably had all of this in mind. He was paying the fans – the people – the respect that he plainly feels they deserve: he was working on the principle that England’s team was just that and that it belonged to the fan on the train as much as it did to the manager.

One supposes Hodgson hoped the man could treat their conversation for what it was: an exchange of views between two genuine football men with a passion for the game. He probably hoped the man would get off at his appointed stop – Baker Street or St John’s Wood – and think about the England manager’s dilemma about what to do over a decent centre ’alve as he made his way home. Big John Terry is, as everyone knows, no longer an option. With Ferdinand gone, England could be looking at the Joleon Lescott/Ryan Shawcross combination. In that brief conversation, Hodgson allowed the other passengers to feel part of the debate.

But what happens? Someone who was privy to the conversation goes running to the newspapers. Someone gives/sells the story and it appears on the back pages to make it seem as if Hodgson was roaming through the honeycomb warren of the London underground disclosing the secrets of English football to harassed commuters.

And wouldn’t it be brilliant if that was the way he communicated all news about the England team? To hell with the press conference! There is something magical about the idea of Roy muttering “Hart’s out for Wednesday night. Ankle” to a group of school kids as he topped up his Oyster Card. Or dropping a page containing his first X1 into the guitar case of a busker playing Don’t Look Back In Anger at the Charing Cross road entrance to Leicester Square station.

Imagine just how exciting it would be to be the person riding the down escalator at Lancaster Gate only to see the England manager gazing dolefully from underneath a trilby hat and whispering to him as he passed by on the up-elevator: “Wayne and big Andy up front for the Poles. Keep mum.”

The news, of course, would not take long to travel – as Hodgson has already found out. But Hodgson was simply trying to give the team back to the people.

Of course, it was slightly embarrassing for Rio Ferdinand to learn about his exclusion from the England squad from Some Guy On A Train. But it probably wasn’t entirely surprising either given that Ferdinand was not part of Hodgson’s plans during Euro 2012. Ferdinand is of a different generation to Hodgson and has spent his football career making his way through the celebrity culture that big football stars simultaneously embrace and loathe.

You can find any number of stories on Ferdinand which reflect positively and negatively on the man. Like Hodgson, though, he tries to communicate with the people – albeit it through Twitter rather than by boarding a train. The chances are that Rio hasn’t used the underground since the days when he grew up in Peckham. Ferdinand, though, comes across as one of the more engaged of the England’s football stars and he is undoubtedly smart and seasoned enough to read Hodgson’s mistake for just that.

The big shame is that the conversation was ever made public knowledge. It need not have been. What a great pub story: You’ll never guess, boys . . . guess who I met on the train tonight?

But nope. He had to go and spoil it.

So maybe the FA will quietly insist that Roy make use of the association limousine from now on. In an event, Hodgson indicated that he will probably have to call a halt to his friendly chats on the underground and remain silent and stony faced – behave like everyone else in the carriage, in other words.

It is a great shame. Hodgson wasn’t travelling by train as some sort of grand gesture. He did it because he likes to travel that way. But he must have been aware of the symbolism of his presence on that train. It became fashionable for Boris and PM Cameron to mingle with the citizens on train carriages during the love-in that was the summer Olympics but that was a passing fad. Hodgson was a dedicated underground user, just as Alf Ramsey, the mastermind behind the fabled summer of 1966, used to be.

This is an age when the universal moan about sport is that the stars have “lost touch”. They earn more money than they can ever hope to spend and live in nouveau white mansions and holiday in the same boring, exclusive resorts and aren’t really answerable to anything or anyone.

By taking the train in London, Hodgson was at least trying to make a stand against all of that. It was a small, noble attempt to make contact with the man on the street. And the man on the street blew it.

Mind the Gap.

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