Sunday, December 28, 2008

Manager of the Year 2008: Roy Hodgson

Exactly one year ago, Roy Hodgson took over as Fulham manager after Lawrie Sanchez's ill fated run. The team were in disarray and were conceding goals at an alarming rate and relegation looked a foregone conclusion. And just to rub salt in their wounds, Roy Hodgson found himself taking over on the verge of the crunch tie with Chelsea, a match that saw Fulham sink to even lower depths after a 2-1 defeat.

Move forward a year, and Fulham sit comfortably in mid-table. They are unbeaten in seven games, only Manchester United have conceded fewer goals and today they dealt a massive blow to Chelsea's title ambitions by claiming a 2-2 draw at Craven Cottage, a real fortress under Hodgson.

In a remarkable 32 year career as a manager, Hodgson has managed a amazing 16 teams. In Scandinavia and Switzerland he is regarded as one of the greatest ever managers to ply their trade over there. In Italy, after his latest stint with Inter he was chased by a number of Serie A clubs, he has managed Inter Milan on no less than three occasions and is so widely regarded by Internazionale that they have approached him on a number of occasions to become their Director of Football.

On the International scene, he was courted by both Finland and Ireland and was considering a contract in the UAE before Fulham approached him.

But why choose Fulham?

Throughout his entire career, Hodgson has known success. He guided Halmstads to the Swedish title in his first year as a manager, and won the Swedish league on seven occasions with Halmstad and Malmo. He brought unheralded success to the Swiss national team, finished second in Serie A with Inter, won the Danish League with Copenhagen, and was sacked a little over a year into his job at Blackburn.

It is this sacking that has driven one of the best coaches in Europe to take over at Craven Cottage, he wants to prove to his home country that his reputation outside England is a deserved one.

Initially when he took over, Fulham were in freefall. Lawrie Sanchez's tactics had confused the players, his transfer dealings were atrocious and Fulham looked like they had consigned themselves to life in the Championship.

Within days of arriving at Craven Cottage, Hodgson set about saving the sinking ship. One of the major complaints against Lawrie Sanchez was that he signed small players. During his time at Fulham, he never signed a player taller than 5'9". No surprise then that Fulham had conceded more goals from headers and crosses than any other team in the Premiership.

Hodgson took out Mohammad Al-Fayed's chequebook immediately and signed five players. The giant Brede Hangeland was brought in for a modest fee of £2.5m from Copenhagen in a bid to add height and strength to the defence. And it has worked most spectacularly for Hodgson—Hangeland is now being lauded as one of the best centre halves in the league, and is now being tracked by a host of top European sides.

Other players to come in included Erik Nevland and Jari Litmanen, both veterans were brought in on short term deals to help their ex-manager.

Jimmy Bullard returned from injury and was rejuvenated as if he was a new player and with the team beginning to gel, they began to claw their way back into the league.

Heading into the last month of the league, Fulham still looked dead and buried. But a remarkable run of four wins from their last five games, including their first away win in 18 months secured top flight football on the final day of the season.

During the summer, Hodgson has further strengthened the team. He saw something in the gangling John Pantsil when West Ham did not and since his move to Craven Cottage, the Ghanaian has become one of the best attacking full backs in the league. To date he has put in more crosses than any other player in the league.

Signing Pantsil has also brought out the best in Simon Davies. The solid pro and ever reliable player had begun to lose some of his renowned stamina in recent times, but with Pantsil now taking up most of the running on the right, Davies has been allowed to move slightly inside, a move that not only strengthen's midfield but which allows Fulham to get the best from the Welsh players work rate and range of passing.

This has also allowed Danny Murphy to thrive as an attacking midfielder, the ex-Spurs and Liverpool player's career looked over until Hodgson plucked him from reserve football at White Hart Lane and he has repaid his manager's faith with a number of important goals, including the one that secured Fulham's Premiership status.

As it stands, only Paul Konchesky has kept his place in the back four as Hodgson has completely re-built his defensive line, but having a solid defence is not Fulham's only secret.

They have a midfield that play good attractive football. They try to do the right things all the time, and with players like Bullard, Davies, Murphy, Eddie Johnson and the tireless Clint Dempsey in the team, it comes as no surprise that Fulham now enjoy a larger percentage of possession in their matches.

Under Sanchez, they averaged a possession percentage of 44 percent. With Hodgson in charge it has risen to an excellent 52 percent.

Fulham have proved a much harder prospect this season, and at the half way stage they find themselves in ninth position.

They are unbeaten in their last nine games, and have only lost once in 12. West Ham and Chelsea are the only teams who have scored more than once against them and they look a good outside bet for the FA Cup.

Hodgson is not happy though. Brian McBride going back to America has left a huge gulf up front, Andy Johnson has not been as prolific as one would have hoped and Bobby Zamora does not look like a Premiership player, so Hodgson will be on the look out for a striker in January.

Midfielder Kagiso Dikgacoi from South Africa is close to agreeing terms and Kevin Doyle from Reading has been linked recently as Fulham look to end their goalscoring problems.

All in all, a hugely successful year for a team who looked doomed in January. Now they are on the outskirts of Europe, have some of the leagues most sought after players in Bullard and Hangeland and for the first time in a long time a real manager.

Roy Hodgson, is my vote for the best manager in the EPL 2008.

twitter / WillieGannon