Twenty years before picking Ryan Bertrand, Jordan Henderson and Adam Lallana in the same line-up, Roy Hodgson had the option to field a team containing Gianluca Pagliuca, Giuseppe Bergomi, Javier Zanetti, Nicola Berti, Benito Carbone, Paul Ince and Roberto Carlos. It sounds great in theory, but the side in question, the Inter Milan of the mid-1990s, weren’t really up to much.
At the time of Hodgson’s appointment as Inter manager in 1995, the club had been in the doldrums for a number of years and were Scudetto-less since 1989, when they had won Serie A by a record margin of 11 points (those were the days of two points for a win).
The rot had set in with a vengeance after head coach Giovanni Trapattoni left to join Juventus. Il Trap had followed up the ’89 Scudetto with third place in 1990 and second place plus a UEFA Cup win in 1991, but his departure that year saw Inter fall into relative mediocrity on the domestic scene, finishing eighth, second, 13th and sixth over the next four seasons.
Only in 1993, under Osvaldo Bagnoli – he of the 1985 Hellas Verona triumph – did Inter show any real intent to challenge for the league title following Trapattoni’s defection. But Bagnoli’s team ultimately lost out to an AC Milan side who had lain waste to the division, with Marco van Basten and Jean-Pierre Papin taking turns at putting Serie A defences to the sword. In truth, there had been little chance of anyone seriously challenging the might of Silvio Berlusconi’s super team, least of all a transitional Nerazzurri outfit.
By 1995 it was clear that the moderate domestic success of this Bagnoli-led second place was something of an anomaly in the post-Trap era. On the continental front, the UEFA Cup was won again in 1994, but this proved scant consolation to fans demanding success in the league; all the more so given Milan’s thrilling Serie A and Champions League double during the same campaign. Enter Massimo Moratti, son of Angelo, whose petro-lira had helped Inter form one of the world’s finest club sides during the 1960s.
“After Angelo Moratti sold the club in 1968,” wrote Paolo Bandini in 2013, “Massimo dedicated himself to the family’s other business concerns, eventually taking over as CEO of their energy company, Saras, when his father passed away in 1981. His support for Inter, though, never waned. He watched as the team’s fortunes dipped under new presidents Ivanoe Fraizzoli and Ernesto Pellegrini [before stepping in], buying the club outright and launching himself into the task of restoring it to its former glory. He hired the Inter players he had looked up to as a youth, players like Giacinto Facchetti [and] Sandro Mazzola, to be his new directors.”
Moratti became, in effect, a one-man crusade. An Interista with money to burn, he resolved to spare no expense in his quest to return his team to the summit of Italian – and European – football. It’s tempting to portray him as being cut from the same cloth as Don Silvio – a profligate oligarch in search of publicity – but that would be unfair. Moratti was motivated as much by philanthropy as any tycoon can realistically be; unlike Milan for Berlusconi, Inter for him was not merely a plaything or a vote-winner. Rather, it was a cause.
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Swiftly, the cash flowed out of Moratti’s bank account and into the coffers of several of the world’s other major football clubs. Within months of assuming control, he had brought Paul Ince and Roberto Carlos to the San Siro. Speaking in 2015, Ince recalls the transfer: “Funnily enough on the day I left [Manchester United], [Alex Ferguson] actually rang me from Colorado Springs and said ‘I want you to stay’. I had Massimo Moratti in my kitchen, true story, about to sign a five-year deal for Inter Milan. [Ferguson] rang from Colorado Springs and said I’ve made a mistake. I said, ‘No, sorry boss, I’ve got people in Inter Milan.’ It was all done and dusted.”
Not long after signing Ince, Moratti was to appoint his first manager – and, by extension, to sack his first. It was to be an experience with which the Inter chairman would become familiar as the years passed: by the time he took a step back from the club in 2013, he had presided over the coming-and-going of nineteen different head coaches.
The incumbent, Ottavio Bianchi, who had coached Napoli to Serie A in 1987 – “I didn’t like him from the start”, commented Diego Maradona in his autobiography – was soon shown the door, to be replaced by an ex-Bristol City manager not widely known in Italian footballing circles: Roy Hodgson.
As pointed out Sam Wallace of the Independent in 2012, Hodgson was “given the Inter job before he was put in charge of a club of equivalent standing in England.” In fact, Hodgson’s name had been made on the back of his fledgeling career in international management with Switzerland and a stellar career in the Swedish league during the 1970s and 1980s. He was a left-field selection, certainly, but Inter weren’t in a position to be choosy: when Hodgson was hired, they were rooted firmly in the relegation zone.
So it was that Moratti’s first manager, the man entrusted to be the figurehead of a bright new dawn for one of calcio’s aristocrats, was an understated Croydonian who had never managed in one of Europe’s elite leagues. But, importantly, Hodgson was respected by some key figures at Inter. “I got the job at Inter on the back of qualifying Switzerland for the 1994 World Cup and Euro 96,” noted Hodgson. “We drew 2-2 with Italy in Cagliari and beat them in Berne, so I suppose that and also Malmö FF eliminating Inter from the European Cup [in 1988] had a part to play when Inter were looking for a coach, [but] in particular my very dear friend Giacinto Facchetti. I think he admired the way I worked and he persuaded Massimo Moratti to take me.”
For Hodgson, a staunch advocate of zonal marking and the offside trap, the first problem would be implementing his preferred playing style within a team that was not used to it. “When I went to Italy,” Hodgson told World Soccer in 2012, “they still played with a libero and they still played man-to-man. That was the Inter team I took over and one that I had to change into a zonal team … What helped me was that Arrigo [Sacchi] had already paved the way, so there was no problem for me in trying to change things.”
Arrigo Sacchi was in many ways the foremost moderniser in Italian football, introducing as he did a high-tempo, pressing style. It was a tactic that revolutionised Serie A in the late 1980s and early 1990s, becoming the hallmark of Sacchi’s Milan and, later, the Nazionale he led to the final of the 1994 World Cup. Hodgson had found comparable levels of success while employing a similar strategy in Sweden, where he and Bob Houghton had, much to the chagrin of many locals, pioneered the use of what was to become known there as the “English” style. (Sacchi, too, had faced opposition to his innovations). Hodgson wasted no time in applying these ideas at Inter, despite initial misgivings.
“I’d been afraid, for example, that Beppe Bergomi wouldn’t take to my coaching,” Hodgson said later. “He’d won the World Cup and all his life been a man-to-man marker. I wanted him to mark zonally – and play at right back. But he was very receptive.”
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Come the end of the 1995/96 season, Inter had recovered enough to finish seventh, in no small part thanks to 17 goals from Marco Branca, who had been signed halfway through the campaign. Within two years, Branca would pitch up at then second-tier Middlesbrough and help fire them to both a League Cup final and promotion to the Premiership.
Hodgson had pulled through, transforming a team battling relegation into one good enough to make the European placings. In doing so, he had succeeded in bringing a modern tactical approach to the club and shaking off the more “traditional” methods implemented by Trapattoni, Bagnoli, et al.
But by the start of the following season, he was already under pressure from an unsympathetic press who doubted his ability to manage the expectations of the chairman and his superstar signings, who were beginning to arrive in their droves. Indeed, it is Hodgson’s indecision regarding one of those big names, the Brazilian left-back Roberto Carlos, that even now colours his memory in the eyes of many Inter fans.
According to Simon Kuper in The Football Men, Hodgson, during his first year at Inter, “practically forbade [Carlos] to cross the halfway line”. Kuper’s words are perhaps unfair – and not entirely reflective of Hodgson’s philosophy – but it’s unquestionable that when considering Carlos for a place in his team’s back four, the Inter manager cared little for the forward-thinking intent of one of the greatest attacking left-backs the world has seen. For Hodgson, Carlos was a liability, a player whose individual flair and supposed tactical ill-discipline could tilt his team fatally out of defensive sync.
So Carlos was tried elsewhere. In a match against Bari in January 1996, for example, as described by Rory Smith in The Blizzard, “Hodgson named five full-backs in his two banks of four, one of them, Roberto Carlos, in central midfield.”
But it wasn’t just in midfield that Carlos found himself selected. “[Hodgson] played me up front because he wanted a system of four defenders,” he told Guillem Balague in 2014. “So I spoke to Massimo Moratti and said to him, ‘Please have a word with the manager and ask him to play me as a left full-back’. And at the same time, Fabio Capello arrived (at Madrid) … He said he wanted me at Real Madrid because he had seen me playing up front and he liked what he saw because he saw a role for me [as a left-back] in the system he was playing”.
And so it was that barely a year after coming to Italy, the little Brazilian was gone; off to Spain for a decade of fame and success. “Of all the walking reproaches to Inter’s transfer policy, Carlos remains number one”, states Kuper.
And in many ways, the transfer has also become the defining aspect of the Hodgson regime at Inter, a faux pas on the Englishman’s part that still has not been forgotten by Interisti. Or by Carlos himself: “It’s not that I did not have a good relationship with Hodgson. It is just that Hodgson doesn’t know much about football”, he is reported as having said several years later.
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Yet there is little denying that Hodgson helped Inter to progress in the immediate aftermath of Moratti’s takeover, both tactically and in terms of their league position. After ending up in seventh place in 1995/96, Inter climbed onto the podium in Serie A in 1996/97 with a third-place finish. It was their best performance since 1993, and there were signs that the club was beginning to claw its way back into the upper echelons of Italian football.
There was even another chance to experience non-domestic success, albeit once again in Europe’s second-tier competition, the UEFA Cup. Hodgson’s team had progressed through the tournament with relative ease, and were expected to beat Schalke 04 in the two-legged final.
A late goal from Iván Zamorano in the home tie had cancelled out Marc Wilmots’ first-leg strike for the Germans, but Inter were unable to overcome their opponents in the resultant penalty shootout. Zamorano and Aron Winter missed the decisive spot-kicks, consigning Hodgson to a somewhat ignominious, trophy-less exit as Inter coach (although failure in the final is surely offset by the fact that it was Hodgson’s turnaround of the club’s fortunes in 1995/96 that allowed them to qualify for the competition in the first place).
The solid if unspectacular upward mobility of the previous 24 months had not culminated in silverware, and soon after the final he returned to England to manage in his home country for the first time since 1982.
“There was a lot of respect for Hodgson in Italy for the way he behaved, and for the fact he arrived already being able to speak Italian,” said James Richardson in 2012. “But in terms of his reputation, he was remembered for the UEFA Cup final loss, and the Roberto Carlos sale happening on his watch.
“It wasn’t seen as a great loss when he left for Blackburn, as the feeling was that he’d done alright but that it had all run its course. The average football fan in Italy doesn’t look at Hodgson as a genius, they think he was a decent enough coach who ultimately made a couple of big mistakes. I can’t remember any fantastic Inter performances during that era, and people always think of Roberto Carlos when they think of Hodgson in Italy”.
To do so is to discount the stabilising effect Hodgson had on a troubled club, but it doesn’t seem unfair to suggest that with the players at his disposal, he could have done better, particularly in Europe. Two seasons of reconstruction were all well and good, even admirable, but Moratti and the Interisti wanted more, and Hodgson was unable to deliver.
The Inter supremo had ambitions beyond third place in the league and a UEFA Cup runners-up medal, and no longer saw Hodgson as the man to help achieve them. He may have been right, but it would take another decade – and nine more managers – for Inter to finally win back the Scudetto. For his albeit modest achievements in helping set them on the right path, Hodgson deserves recognition.
By Luke Ginnell @HeavyFirstTouch