Inter needed a saviour. Lodged at the bottom of Serie A after a nightmare start to the 1995/96 season, their star-studded line up was stalling in spectacular fashion.
With big names, including Javier Zanetti and Robert Carlos, misfiring and a malaise hanging ominously over the club, manager Ottavio Bianchi, was shown the door. Bianchi had guided Diego Maradona’s Napoli to the Scudetto several years earlier, but couldn’t handle the pressure pot of the San Siro. And his replacement would have to act fast to stop the rot.
So, when Roy Hodgson was unveiled as the new man at the helm, there was some bemusement. The little-known Englishman had spent most of his managerial career in Sweden following a relatively unspectacular time in his homeland’s non-league as a player, so his profile wasn’t exactly what many fans had expected.
Hodgson was free-spending president Massimo Moratti’s first managerial appointment, making the selection of a relatively low-profile head coach all the more curious. Yet while the then-48-year-old had never managed in an elite European league before being handed the reins at one of Italy’s premier clubs, Hodgson’s record wasn’t to be sniffed at. He’d won a string of league titles in Sweden with Halmstad and Malmo, led Switzerland’s national team to World Cup qualification in 1994 and had just sealed a place at Euro 96 before Moratti came calling.
Hodgson was no stranger to the Nerazzuri either. While at Malmo, his charges took on Inter in the European Cup in 1988 and 1989, narrowly bowing out 2-1 on aggregate in the first year, before reversing that scoreline 11 months later. More recently, the Croydon-born boss had drawn and beaten Italy in two matches in charge of Switzerland.
Understated yet deeply knowledgeable, Hodgson proved to be the perfect fit for Inter. As the team’s fifth manager in little over a year, he knew that failure to settle in quickly would see him pay the price.
Thankfully, the Englishman’s approach worked. Breathing a new ethos into a side so familiar with Italy’s traditional calcio values, Hodgson wasn’t afraid to mix it up. World Cup winner Giuseppe Bergomi moved to right-back, while Roberto Carlos was utilised in midfield and even as a striker, as Inter pulled away from the relegation battle to earn a seventh-place finish and European qualification.
Despite the turnaround, not everyone was convinced. A polyglot who could speak several languages, Hodgson wasn’t instantly fluent in Italian and had his detractors; namely Roberto Carlos, who insisted he would be more effective in defence. This led to some branding Hodgson as a firefighter who did what was needed to lead the club’s superstars away from danger, but didn’t have the wherewithal to lead them back to past glories.
Those assumptions couldn’t have been more wrong. In fact, Hodgson’s studious, likeable manner was exactly what was needed at the time.
“He had big personalities at Inter, star names, but he handled everything that was thrown at him,” former midfielder Aron Winter told The Telegraph in 2012.
“He earned the respect of the dressing room because he is so knowledgeable, he knows what he wants and how to communicate that to the players. That came across straight away.”
That approach continued to work, as Inter enjoyed another year of relative success – finishing third in Serie A and reaching the UEFA Cup final. But the second leg of the European final against Schalke proved to be Hodgson’s last assignment in charge. After drawing 1-1 on aggregate, Inter lost on penalties – an outcome which upset the home fans, who pelted their coach with coins and lighters.
Moratti, who had a reputation for being trigger-happy with his managers as his time at San Siro unfolded, wasn’t quite so disappointed with Hodgson’s performance. And when the Englishman announced he was leaving to join Blackburn that summer, he was offered a new deal to convince him to stay. But Hodgson was set on Ewood Park.
That wasn’t to be the end of Inter’s love affair with their unlikely capo allenatore, though. After the early promise of Hodgson’s stay at Blackburn dissipated into disaster during his second season, he returned to the San Siro as technical director and even got the chance to grace the dugout once more at the end of the 1998/99 campaign to lead a team blessed with Ronaldo and Roberto Baggio.
“Roy Hodgson was an important person in the development of Inter to the point we have reached today,” said Moratti in 2010.
“He saved us at the right time. When he came we were in trouble and things appeared dark. He didn’t panic, he was calm and made us calm. Disaster was averted at the most important time. Everyone at Inter will remember him for that and his contribution. He is considered by us all as an important person in our history. He left an endowment to this club that’s important in our history.”
Commeth the hour, commeth the saviour.