Roy Hodgson’s doomed Watford ending set for further brutal twist

Given Roy Hodgson’s longstanding love of literature, he no doubt wanted the final chapter of his managerial career to have a happy ending. Sadly, it is not to be. After a nomadic and eventful existence stretching over four decades, taking in 17 clubs as well as four international sides, the 74-year-old will step into retirement this summer as the man who oversaw Watford’s second Premier League relegation in three seasons. It has been a tough denouement and for Hodgson there comes the prospect of a brutal twist.

Watford sit 19th, 12 points from safety with four games to go, and will be down should they fail to beat Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park on Saturday afternoon. Given they have won only two of their previous 23 games and face a side who are far superior despite flatlining somewhat since last month’s FA Cup semi-final defeat to Chelsea, the odds of them being victorious are slim to say the least. This, then, is likely to be it for Watford and when the final whistle blows and the home crowd crow at the demise of a rival, their manager may well reflect on how so much has changed so quickly. After all, 12 months ago he was receiving adulation from Palace supporters having announced his departure from the club after four years as manager. Taking charge of his boyhood team had been a “fairytale” and back then he could not have envisaged his return would be in such nightmarish circumstances.

“I am looking forward to going back,” Hodgson said on the eve of the game. “The reception I get might be different because I don’t think Watford has ever been one of Palace’s favourite opponents. I’m not expecting them to race out and embrace me with open arms. But I’d like to think the Palace fans know the job Ray [Lewington, Hodgson’s assistant coach] and I did for them.”

It was undeniably a good job, with Hodgson steering Palace to 11th, 12th, 14th and 14th having taken charge when the club found itself goalless, pointless and directionless after the Frank de Boer fiasco. Equally, it was the right time for both parties to go their separate ways and for Hodgson that was supposed to mean calling it a day. Instead he answered Watford’s SOS in late January – or as he put it, “the siren call from the mermaid as the sailor passes by on his ship” – after they found themselves 19th having burned through another two managers in Xisco Muñoz and Claudio Ranieri since their return to the top flight. Hodgson was confident he could keep them up but, if anything, things have got worse, with Watford losing a record 11 consecutive home games and generally performing with a lack of leadership, defensive nous and attacking courage.

Roy Hodgson waves to the Crystal Palace fans in May 2021.
Roy Hodgson waves to the Crystal Palace fans during happier times in May 2021. Photograph: Reuters

All of which begs the question; does Hodgson regret stepping out of his slippers and back into the managerial fray? “My only regret is it didn’t work out in the way I dreamed it might,” he replied. “But I don’t regret accepting the job and I don’t regret that the send-off won’t be like the one from Crystal Palace. I’ve had 46 years in this profession and I’ve come to see if your hope and ambition is that every time you leave a job you will be carried shoulder high out of the ground then you are very naive and stupid.

“At times the team has been quite hard done by and I do think there has been a change to the way we play. The biggest regret is that hasn’t led to the number of points we needed to stay up – we pinned a lot of hope on our front players but they have not been able to produce their best performances.”

Hodgson announced this week, shortly after receiving a CBE for services to football, that he expects the end of the season really will mean the end of his time as a manager. His contract with Watford will be up and there is no desire to seek one elsewhere. It is time to prioritise his family and wellbeing, something brought into sharp focus on Thursday when Hodgson revealed he had shingles, which is why he wore sunglasses during last week’s defeat to Burnley.

Yet for the man who began coaching at Halmstad in 1976 and has gone as far as the United Arab Emirates in search of work since there is no kicking the habit, with Hodgson suggesting he could be tempted back into football should the right job become available. “If one of the top three clubs suddenly decide it’s got to be me and they will accept nobody else other than me – who knows, I might have my arm twisted,” he said, seemingly only half-joking. “But I’m not looking for a further arm twist. I am looking forward to a rest and maybe another niche to keep my brain active and keep me feeling that I’ve got something to offer. That [role] will have to develop over time, really.”

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That is for the future. For now there is the end of a trying campaign for all concerned at Watford and for their manager, the 14th to be appointed by owner Gino Pozzo in the past 10 years, an especially notable trip to south London.

“There will be emotion,” said Hodgson, having revealed he had dinner with Patrick Vieira shortly after the Frenchman succeeded him at Selhurst Park. “I was overwhelmed with the send-off not just from the fans, but from the club itself. I have only good things in my memory about Crystal Palace.”