After our 2010 play-off win, the camera panned up to the Royal Box at Wembley, three men were seen hugging. The Sky commentator spotted Jim Smith, didn’t recognise Kelvin Thomas and was contractually forbidden from mentioning ITV’s Jim Rosenthal.
The sense of relief and triumph from three men at the heart of Oxford United was palpable; with the players celebrating on the pitch there was a visceral sense of the bond across the club and the sheer bloody hard work both on and off the pitch that got us to that point. One man who was missing from the scene was goalkeeping coach Alan Hodgkinson.
Hodgkinson played a funny role at the club, at times it seemed like they were getting a grant to allow him to come to training, or that Jim Smith was doing a favour for his wife who just wanted him out of the house.
He was part of the wallpaper at home games, at half-time he would trot out to gently kick the ball into the hands of the substitute keeper like a lads and dads trip down the park. After a couple of minutes, they’d usually stop to watch the half-times scroll through the scoreboard. If they weren’t there, you wouldn’t miss them, but you’d get the sense that something wasn’t right.
But there was depth to Hodgkinson, who was sprung from the Old Boy Network, a mafia-like operation of which the Godfathers were the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Bobby Robson. We are often led to believe that players become stars through talent alone, but in truth, they are the product of a surprisingly small pool of greybeards with the ability and experience to create great players. Like Harvey Keitel’s character in Pulp Fiction, when this network needed goalkeepers, they turned to Hodgkinson.
The doddery old guy on the pitch was a legendary ‘keeping coach, the first, in fact. The man who discovered Peter Schmiechel, Andy Goram, Jim Leighton and coached David Seaman.
He was in the 1958 World Cup squad in Sweden. It wasn’t a great tournament for England; three draws and a defeat saw them heading home before those other footballing giants Wales and Northern Ireland.
The tournament was significant in that it heralded the end of the era of Tom Finney, Billy Wright, Johnny Haynes and the emergence of the likes of Bobby Charlton (a non-playing substitute) and, above all, Pele. This was the generation that would herald George Best and all the rubbish that came with him. With the 60s just around the corner and the global cultural shift that came with TV, 1958 marked the end of the gentleman generation and the start of the football superstars.
So, how was Alan Hodgkinson’s World Cup? Well, not spectacular. The official FIFA record says he was in the squad, but other sources say that he and Maurice Setters didn’t even travel. It seems that nobody has ever thought to ask Mr Hodgkinson, although perhaps he couldn’t remember himself.
Four years later, in Chile, Hodgkinson had clawed his way up the ranking making it to second string ahead of Gordon Banks, behind Ron Sprigget. In it, England won through their group as runners’-up before being put to the sword by eventual winners Brazil. Again, Hodgkinson watched from the sidelines.
He had already played the last of his five England games by the time he went to Chile and although his club career with Sheffield United went on until 1971, he wasn’t considered for the 1966 squad.
He made a brief return to the World Cup in 1998 as Craig Brown brought him in to coach Scotland’s goalkeepers for the tournament in France. Over 40 years later, he came to Oxford where he coached current Oxford keeper Simon Eastwood in his first spell and transformed Ryan Clarke’s career, a pivotal player in our promotion back to the Football League.
“I worked at Man United and Rangers and in some big European finals but I can honestly say that play-off final at Wembley [in 2010] gave me as much pleasure and as much excitement as any other day in football.” he’s quoted as saying, and you believe him.
He died in 2015 aged 79, a genuine footballing revolutionary.