Saturday, 5 May 2012

Did I ever mention I was coached by the current England manager? The Roy Hodgson saga

IT was the single, significant fact most people knew little about when Roy Hodson was appointed England manager this week.
The 64-year-old from Croydon started coaching not, as most of his profiles suggest, in Sweden in 1976. He actually began his career a little earlier than that. He was coaching me twice a week at Brooklyn Primary school in Pretoria in 1974, when South Africa was still labouring under Apartheid and the international sports boycott.
When West Brom boss Hodgson, rather than the popular Spurs coach Harry Redknapp, was linked to the toughest job in football last Sunday, my son sent me an email from England. “Isn’t it about time you told the world about Woy  (he pronounces his Rs as Ws) dad? You bored me with that story enough times!”
So, shortly after writing my “Neal and Pray” column for The New Age on Monday (I was about five seconds from predicting every shock outcome this week!), I bashed out a nostalgic piece about my dealings with Hodgson, then playing for Berea Park in the all-white National Football League, nearly 40 years ago.
As a 13-year-old at Valhalla Primary I had been selected for the Northern Transvaal Under 13 Primary Schools squad, along with school pal Noel Cousins – who went on to become South Africa’s most expensive transfer when he moved from Arcadia Shepherds to Moroka Swallows in the 1980s – and Waterkloof Primary’s Roy Wegerle, who played for Jomo Cosmos before going overseas to Rodney Marsh’s Tampa Bay Rowdies, then Chelsea, QPR, Blackburn and Coventry. He even turned out for the USA at two World Cups.
Hodgson was a fine coach. He taught us to pass like Norman “Bite yer legs” Hunter, the Leeds and England star. He urged us to move off the ball, use both feet, keep our eyes open when using our heads. His training methods were firm and exhaustive. He struggled sometimes with the mothers, but then “soccer mums” are the bain of any youth coach’s existence.
At the time, Roy was playing for a very average Berea Park at what was then the local first class cricket ground with racially segregated crowds of around 5,000. I remember him as a cultured but slightly lightweight left-footer, who arrived here billed as a Crystal Palace star.
In truth, and he never tried to hide it, Roy had left Palace and eked out a non-League, semi-professional career in Gravesend, Maidstone and Ashford. Like his fellow Englishmen, Colin Toal and Bobby Houghton, Roy had come to South Africa to rekindle his professional career.
He would occasionally coach me in the Berea junior ranks, but our main link came on that dusty Brooklyn field twice a week for three months, where Hodgson had to trim one last player from his Northern Transvaal squad. There were 15 of us. Only 14 could attend the inter-provincial tournament.
The unfortunate one? Who else? I still remember the tears as Hodgson told me I was unwanted: “I don’t think you’ll be coming Neal, but you’ve got a nice long throw-in.” I went on to play for South African Universities B, Durban City reserves and at semi-professional teams around London before winning the Over-35s FA Cup at the age of 49. But essentially, Roy’s judgement was sound. It always has been.
Hodgson was teaching at Hillview High School at the time, when he wasn’t playing and coaching football. A year later, he left for Sweden with Bobby Houghton, where the pair – less than successful at Berea Park – transformed Scandinavian football.
Houghton coached Malmo to Sweden’s only European final while Hodgson guided Halmstad to heights they have never subsequently managed. Years later, when Sven Goran Eriksson was named England manager, he told us: “Houghton and Hodgson were my inspirations as a young coach.”
You can imagine my surprise when Roy turned up at Blackburn Rovers in 1997. He had a vague recollection of our days together as he struggled to keep the 1995 English champions clear of relegation.
He disappeared overseas again after that, two stints with Inter Milan were the highpoints of his club career, while he achieved moderate success with Switzerland, Finland and the United Arab Emirates as an international boss.
Then he returned to manage Fulham five years ago, did well enough with an average side before a nightmarish 18 months at Liverpool. And this season he calmly guided a weak West Brom squad to Premier League safety.
With his contract about to expire – and Harry Redknapp’s Spurs demanding huge compensation for their coach – Hodgson suddenly became the safe option, the cheap choice, to lead England to Euro2012 after Fabio Capello opted out three months ago.
So it seemed a perfect time to write about “my part in Hodgson’s rise to England manager” on my blog at . Occasionally, it becomes a major site. Like when I revealed cricket writer Peter Roebuck’s dodgy lifestyle on the day of his suicide and 22,000 people from all over the world clicked on the site and sent me rude messages. Or the time I lambasted the Welsh rugby side and 10,000 angry Welshmen descended on me.
Normally, I’ll get about 500 hits day. You can imagine my surprise when, on Monday, over 2,500 had read my Hodgson story. By Tuesday, it was up to 12,000 and sparks were starting to fly.
Liverpool fans wanted to know why their former boss was allowed to play in Apartheid South Africa when their current star Luis Suarez is under pressure for racist remarks made to Manchester United’s Patrice Evra.
Ordinary England fans – and the notorious tabloid newspapers – wanted to know more. A Fleet Street agency called me, asking if they could have the story and the picture of Hodgson, circa 1973, playing for Berea Park.
The May Day public holiday became a welter of interviews – on Britain’s Channel4 by Skype, on Sky Sports by telephone, with BBC radio late at night. Everyone wanted to know why Roy had decided to play in South Africa of all places in those dim, distant years of darkness. Though football was the first sport under Apartheid to ignore racial segregation and form the old NPSL, I had to explain that only happened in 1978, a full two years after Roy had left for Sweden.
Channel 4’s Keme Nzerem asked me: “Do you think Roy was right to play in South Africa at that time?” I thought hard. I too had emigrated here as a 9-year-old in 1970. My dad, who made the same choice as Roy, was sitting next to me. He’s lived in Centurion for over 40 years. But I had no choice. An honest answer. Would I have come to a pariah state to play in a racially segregated league in my mid-20s? “No,” I said, “But I don’t think Roy was guilty of racism, he was young and na├»ve. The most you can accuse him of is ignorance. If you’d watched the TV or read a newspaper, you’d have known all about Apartheid.”
They asked if Roy ever tried to bring black lads in to the team. Of course he hadn’t. I told the story of Arthur, a young coloured lad who tried to play with us at Berea Park before being told to scarper. He was better than Noel. I was a bit upset, but nothing happened. In those days, nobody asked questions, nobody tainted the pure white gloss of our sports teams. Black football belonged in the townships.
Searching for the right words, I told the various British interviewers: “Under Apartheid, it was like Germany before the second World War. Nobody asked where the Jews were. They just got on with their lives. It was only when I got to 16 or 17 I realised the black lads loved football too… and things began to change before I left for England in 1985.”
Fired up by this single, controversial chapter in Hodgson’s life – unwittingly exposed by my blog - the question was soon flying across the world to Wembley.
At 4pm on Tuesday, when Hodgson was officially unveiled as England coach, he was asked, much to the chagrin of many conservative football fans: “Why did you go to South Africa under Apartheid?”
It was the question I had raised, put forward by Channel 4. Hodgson, ever the diplomat, handled it with reasonable aplomb. He said: "I was young at the time, and went there purely for football reasons. I was desperate to play football professionally again.
“All the English lads who went out there were anti-apartheid, but there's not much we could have done about it. We all thought it was an evil regime.
“But I think it’s unfair to bring all this up now, after 40 years."
He’s probably right of course. Many others took the same route, cricketers, rugby stars and footballers like George Best and Kevin Keegan all came to South Africa during the FIFA ban and sports boycott.
And while many twittered me to say I had caused an unnecessary storm, this was my response: “Two words. Evil regime. With that Hodgson has established his anti-racist credentials. Given the John Terry situation hanging over England, that can’t be a bad thing.”
The compliments and insults continue to flood in to my various inboxes on Twitter, Facebook and email. Ultimately though, the job is done. The truth of Roy Hodgson’s time in Apartheid South Africa – glossed over by most of the online profiles – is out, the questions have been asked, elderly demons exorcised for the oldest manager ever appointed by the FA.
My old mate Mark Gleeson put out a piece on Reuters which appeared everywhere from the Chicago Tribune to the London Guardian while Channel 4 put this out: and I got to mention it on eNews and eTV's Sunrise in my regular Monday slots.
Now all we have to worry about is his ability as an England boss when he takes over after West Brom’s final two Premier League games and names a squad for Euro 2012. Never inspirational with big clubs, but always capable of forging average players in to a cohesive unit, the jury is out. Will he be another Steve McClaren or an inspirational Terry Venables?
The bottom line is, he’s a nice bloke. A superb coach. A thinker. He may not have lit up Pretoria, but 40 years on: good luck Roy. You might need it.

This story first appeared on page 22 of The New Age on Friday... see


The whites-only National Football League (NFL) was the first pro football league in South Africa. It was established in 1959 during the apartheid era, and no black, “coloured” or “Indian” players were allowed to participate. When NFL folded after 18 years in 1977, it was superseded by a non-racial league. In practical terms, a merger happened between NFL (for whites) and NPSL (for blacks), to become the new common NPSL. “Indian” teams and “coloured” teams gradually came on board. South Africa was banned by FIFA in 1961 but a range of foreign stars – including Gordon Banks, Derek Dougan, Bobby Charlton, Mick Channon and former England stars Alan Ball and Johnny Haynes played despite Apartheid sports boycott. So too did former England boss Kevin Keegan. But his time at Cape Town Spurs was never raised during his tenure. The FIFA ban was not lifted until 1993.

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