Soccer: Silence of Henry adds to Hodgson's tension

By Ian Herbert

The graffiti scrawled on a Melwood wall yesterday stated "Hodgson Out", but the Liverpool manager was in early and still at his desk late into the afternoon, even though it was a designated day off for most of the players whose capitulation at Blackburn Rovers on Thursday (NZ time) left his job in such jeopardy.

Those who work closely with Hodgson say he is bearing this nightmare experience with equanimity, wise as he is to the brutal environment soccer can provide, yet the silence from Boston has been deafening.

The smartest soccer proprietors publicly support their managers even while preparing to sack them but this seems to be a lesson John W. Henry has yet to learn. He is creating a news vacuum that is making Hodgson's position desperate.

The rumour mill was in overdrive when he emerged to place a bin bag of items in his car. After much deliberation within the club about the merits of protecting him, it seems Hodgson will appear publicly to discuss Monday's FA Cup tie with Manchester United.

Though Kevin Keegan, John Barnes and Steve McManaman all came out in favour of Hodgson being given more time, the manager is not delivering what he claimed privately that he could in the summer.

Liverpool's non-executive chairman at that time, Martin Broughton, declared back in July that Hodgson's "extremely thoughtful, prepared, thorough" interview for the job included a commitment to focus "on how we could get more from existing players", which had been most impressive.

"It was not [about] how much money he could have."

There are some extenuating circumstances - the injured Jamie Carragher would not have allowed a defensive display like Thursday's - but the players Hodgson has inherited have become shadows of the individuals they once were.

Henry and Liverpool chairman Tom Werner would have appreciated Hodgson's interview pitch. Though discussions of their success at the Boston Red Sox have focused on the appointment of the relatively untried Theo Epstein as evidence of their love of young and highly intelligent managers, Epstein was their general manager - not their coach.

The baseball man who turned the Red Sox around was Terry Francona, a seasoned baseball pro, who arrived in 2004, aged 45, with previous experience of handling the truculent pitcher Curt Schilling, whom the club had just signed from the Philadelphia Phillies and who was to prove critical to their first world series championship since 1918.

He had also managed to get the best from Michael Jordan at the Birmingham Barons franchise. Now Henry wants someone able to work similar wonders on Fernando Torres.

But Francona was also amenable to the modern baseball ways that the Americans want now to adapt to soccer, having worked as a bench coach at the Oakland Athletics where general manager Billy Beane introduced the sabermetrics system. The problem for Henry, Werner and their Fenway Sports Group is not to find a modern young manager - there are plenty of those around - but one capable of beginning to lift players in the way that Francona did at Boston, where he remains manager to this day.

The connections that the Americans' new director of soccer strategy, Damien Comolli, has with continental soccer have elevated Marseilles' Didier Deschamps, the former Barcelona coach Frank Rikjaard, Porto's Andre Villas-Boas and, in what would be a particularly bold move, Ralph Rangnick, the 52-year-old who recently resigned from Hoffenheim, to the ranks of possible contenders.

Yet the picture of Rangnick's suitability is clouded. He was bankrolled by a wealthy benefactor at Hoffenheim, whose £147.1 million ($300 million) investment over 10 years included a sizeable outlay on players.

Some of his scientific methods might appeal to the Liverpool owners and to Comolli, a big fan of German soccer: the players were encouraged to shoot against specific areas of a large electronic wall and there were elaborate devices to get players passing in triangles. But there are doubts that Rangnick's man-management skills match his ideas as a technocrat.

Another consideration is whether the German would be willing to cede control to Comolli, having commanded such power at Hoffenheim.

The same goes for Kenny Dalglish who, if he accepted a caretaker-manager's role, may not appreciate a new recruit calling the shots at a club where he is a legend.

Hodgson, by contrast, has fitted comfortably into his relationship with Comolli.

Since Comolli has the Americans' ear, it is conceivable that their good relationship is helping preserve Hodgson's fragile tenure.

Another Anfield legend, Keegan, led demands for more time for Hodgson. "It's not easy but Liverpool have been in decline for a number of years and I think Roy Hodgson is just picking up the tab," he said.

"Where are all these youngsters they signed? I think there are a lot of questions that need to be asked way beyond Roy Hodgson."

Hodgson's question is simple. Does he have a job, or doesn't he?

- INDEPENDENT

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