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Roy Hodgson Calls FSG's Bluff

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Just before the new year ticked over, Fenway Sports Group attempted, by way of a well-constructed leak, to get a message out: We're going to sack Roy Hodgson soon. Maybe. Well, at least by the end of the season. Probably. Superficially it certainly seemed something that Liverpool fans everywhere wanted to hear, namely that the owners knew Roy Hodgson wasn't the man to take the club forward long term. However, when you looked a little deeper, it was an oddly redundant message that didn't actually say anything new.

It implied that Hodgson's tenure would soon be over, but immediately took pains to point out that it might not be over until the end of the season. It mentioned that FSG was actively looking for a long term managerial solution, but then it had always been assumed that Hodgson was a short-term hire in the best of circumstances. They sought to acknowledge that Hodgson had crossed a line when he went from blaming players and former mangers to attempting to deflect any blame from himself onto the Anfield faithful, but such distancing is hardly a surprise after your club's manager has sent the supporters to join the b-team under the bus--it's just damage control, and an absolute minimum of damage control at that.

Everything they said was significant only in that it seemed highly unusual for an ownership group to semi-officially seek to confirm such assumed truths publicly. So while in the end their leak may have said a lot of things, none of those things fundamentally altered the landscape. A cynic might even suggest that it was nothing but a bald faced attempt to buy time--perhaps for themselves, but perhaps too for Roy Hodgson. After all, he hardly seemed a man who believed he was on the verge of losing his job following the Bolton match when he publicly asked for support (both monetary and otherwise) to build a team in his image.

Hodge Worry
What, me worry?

Only days before, Anfield had been on the verge of riot against a manager who had never truly been their manager as the match against Wolves rolled to a close, yet following the brief respite that was Bolton not only did Roy Hodgson seem untroubled, he seemed positively bullish. In the circumstances it's hardly a stretch to suggest that by leaking a confirmation of the blindingly obvious to the press ahead of the Bolton match, FSG intended to insure that any bile from the terraces would be dialed back a couple of notches for that match. After all, supporters would think, FSG knows he's not the answer and is going to replace him, so we don't have to continue down the uncomfortable path that is chanting for his head. Only FSG had really only said that Hodgson was likely to be sacked soon, with soon perhaps not coming until the end of the year, which was in line with what those same supporters had assumed was true all along. The only meaningful change in the wake of the leak was on the side of the fans, with The Kop far less likely to drag Hodgson out of the stadium themselves if things started to go badly--or perhaps even if they didn't. Otherwise, no matter how odd it might have initially seemed for FSG to say what they said, the game hadn't changed. At least not for those who wanted him gone.

Now, suddenly, Hodgson had one home game, immediately followed by two matches on the road where for all his troubles actually winning matches at least the crowd wouldn't be quite so set against him. The thinking might have gone that if Hodgson won against Bolton, won against Blackburn, and at least put in a good showing against United, well, perhaps Anfield wouldn't be baying for his blood yesterday and the owners could take until the end of the season to find a replacement like they always wanted, since a caretaker clearly wasn't their preferred way to move forward. In all probability Hodgson would have been fully aware of the strategy beforehand, which would go some way towards explaining his various reactions since, but in any case it seems likely that the leak greeted with such joy by many Liverpool supporters on the final Friday of 2010 was nothing more than a way to buy Hodgson three more matches to right the ship. It promised absolutely nothing, said nothing that wasn't already assumed, and yet it got the fans off everybody's backs for long enough that if results had fallen right they might have been able to do what they always wanted--keep the manager around for the rest of the year.

Hodgson wouldn't have been too upset by this line of reasoning, all things considered. After all, he always knew he was in a tough spot once new owners arrived, and as a man with an interstellar ego he surely will believe until the day he dies that he was deserving of his position and always the right man to lead Liverpool to glory. As such he certainly would have believed that with just a bit more time things would come right. But beyond simply being blessed with mountains of self-belief, he's also an increasingly stubborn man with those 35 years experience in Switzerland and Scandinavia, and even when FSG found a way to play the fans and give him that little bit more time to save himself, he fell back on those stubborn ways and awful road displays to throw that chance right back in their faces.


Make no mistake, FSG didn't--and likely still doesn't--want to get rid of him mid-season, and they've done everything in their power to avoid the inevitable. Certainly those more familiar with the English--and European--game might look at their choice and see a grand foolishness in being happy settling for tenth or thereabouts, as it is always harder to attract quality players to break into the top four or top six than it is to attract players of the quality needed to remain there, and once you've slipped it can be fiendishly difficult to hold on to the quality players you do have. All of this--seemingly obviously--makes it the height of irresponsibility to willingly settle for an unambitious manager and a lower league position than should be aspired to based on the quality of players at hand, doing nothing but make any desired rebuilding process longer and more costly in the end. Yet through naivety--or some inscrutable cunning beyond mere fans--FSG seemed more than happy to finish mid-table and risk a more difficult climb to the top in future years if it meant avoiding the risk of appointing a caretaker who, if he did well, might end up wanting to stay and through doing so throw a wrench in their long term plans. Perhaps their number men told them that riding out this poor season was the best approach, but if that's the case it seems an oddly massive gamble for such self-proclaimed football ingénues.

Is the bad man gone yet?

Still, now he appears to have called their bluff--though for all that they clearly don't want to, they may find they have no real choice but to fire him anyhow--by throwing out a tauntingly awful display against Blackburn. Certainly he didn't set out to have Liverpool deliver such a shockingly poor performance, but clearly Hodgson still, after everything, believes in his methods and will stick to them come hell or high water. Meanwhile that earlier leak at least showed that FSG is well aware of just how low the fans' opinion of the Roy Hodgson is, and that more such results and performances might not leave them any real choice in the matter. Now, true to his stubborn form and after only the second of three games purchased for him to prove he might not be as awful as everybody thought, all that has happened is a confirmation and reenforcement of the post-Wolves mood amongst followers of LFC.

The sad thing is that even with Hodgson gone anything better than mid-table may be well out of the question at this point, and so no matter what they do FSG seems to have lost the gamble they took when originally deciding to allow him to remain for the rest of the season. It's no longer a question of keeping Hodgson and hoping for tenth versus apointing Dalglish (or another qualified caretaker) with hopes of competing for a European spot. Now it's a question of keeping Hodgson and facing a very real chance of a relegation dogfight or of replacing him and hoping to settle in somewhere comfortably mid-table. The best result at this point seems to involve a combination of the two negatives--mid-table mediocrity combined with a competent short-term replacement--FSG had to previously choose between, while it's no longer a stretch to suggest that if they continue in their efforts to employ Roy Hodgson that "epic swindle" could easily turn into having purchased the most popular club in the Championship.

Their gambit to buy a bit more time undermined by an atrocious loss at Blackburn, one is left to hope that FSG doesn't somehow manage to come up with the same answer--keep Hodgson, cross their fingers, and pray--to their manager dilemma at the second time of asking. Already the rumous are picking up that he's well and truly gone this time, with various Liverpool-centric outlets passing along information said to confirm it from those said to be in the know. Yet it wasn't that much different after Wolves, or after Blackpool, or after Everton, or after Newcastle, and it is difficult to put any more weight in the rumours than to think that this is finally the transfer window that sees David Villa or David Silva or Arda Turan make the move to Liverpool. Hodgson needs to be sent packing--he may even have already been sacked, for all intents and purposes, with only details left to be ironed out--and yet his presence at the club has become such a bleak and oppressive one that it is hard to credit such rumours for fear of being left disappointed yet again.

One hopes that very soon this will all have become moot and that he will be well and truly gone, but with Roy Hodgson around, a little bit of hope usually ends in a whole lot of heartache.

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