Sheffield United: Doug Hodgson on Chris Wilder, promotion and why The Blades are a very special club
Doug Hodgson tells The Star's James Shield why, despite leaving Bramall Lane over two decades ago, he is still in love with Sheffield United.
For once, it wasn't the pain of his injury ravaged body or pressure of running a string of businesses which kept Doug Hodgson awake at night.
"I was in bed because of the time difference," the Australian says, remembering where he was when his old club Sheffield United were promoted from the Championship. "Don't think I was asleep, though. I was following how things were going on the internet."
Social media was Hodgson's window into Bramall Lane last term as, despite being nearly 11,000 miles away, he kept up to date with the progress of Chris Wilder's team. Now based on Victoria's Mornington Peninsula, about an hour's drive from Melbourne, the sportspages of his local papers focus on the ARL and NRL rather than events in English football's second tier. But it speaks volumes, about both Hodgson's connections with the city and friendships he made during nearly three seasons with The Blades that, over two decades after making his 38th and final appearance for them, so many supporters still keep him up-to-date.
"It's a wonderful thing really," Hodgson continues, speaking from his home near Frankston. "I'm on a lot of closed Facebook pages devoted to United and I've still got a lot of mates, who are all fans themselves, that I've stayed in touch with. My father-in-law, who still lives in the city, also tells me what's been going on. I get the good, the bad and the ugly. But obviously, in recent years, it's been all good. Bloody good in fact."
Hodgson is referring to United's re-awakening under Wilder, climbing from League One to the top-flight in only three seasons. Their rise through the divisions has captured his imagination and evoked some wonderful memories. But mostly it is the methods Wilder employs, including the importance he places on comradeship, which prompts Hodgson mention him in the same breath as some of the greatest managers in United’s history.
"Man management, that's the key from what I can see," he says. "Chris has brought out the best in every single player and they way they have gelled, well, that's obviously come from the coaching staff. You could see from the celebrations that they're more than just team mates, those lads are mates full stop.
"Dave Bassett, Neil Warnock and Howard Kendall, they all had that in their sides too. You win as one. Always.
"That's the way the best do it. That's what these boys have obviously done as well."
A one-time kickboxer and nightclub doorman, Hodgson is a treasure trove of remarkable stories. Told as youngster his career was over - "I was in a car with my mates when we got smashed by a drunk driver" - he was spirited to South Yorkshire after impressing against United when they travelled Down Under for a friendly tour.
"I was representing Western Australia at the time," he smiles. "I'd moved over there because, let's put it like this, a few things had happened which meant it was probably a good time to head cross country."
The invitation to England marked the start of a life-changing journey which also included spells with Plymouth Argyle, Burnley, Oldham Athletic and Northampton Town. But it was at United where, after meeting his wife, Hodgson cemented friendships which still exist to this day. The two giant scimitars which adorn a wall inside his house prove, beyond all reasonable doubt, that Hodgson also regards United as part of his family.
"I've got amazing memories of a really great time in my life," he says. "I created some fantastic friendships out of my time at the club. The friendships that have been created through United are still bonded to this day, after nearly 30 years
"I love coming back to the club and having a pint with my old team mates that still live in Sheffield. I’ve had many visitors over here to our house as well, including Dave Bassett , Neil Warnock’s daughter, Brian Gayle's son and Glyn Hodges and family. Graham Anthony and Gary Sinclair have all been to visit. as well. My mates mean everything to me, always have."
Hodgson's bond with the city remains strong too, despite returning home and establishing four successful companies when a serious neck problem - "a disc exploded and hit my spinal cord" - forced his retirement from the game.
"Sheffield has been a massive part of my life because of the relationships I have created with mates over the years and obviously marrying a Sheffield girl, even though her family are from the other side," Hodgson explains. "They're Owls. But for me personally it’s where my career started as a professional footballer and where it ended as the reserve team manager of a great club. My passion still lies there."
Hodgson's stint in charge of United's second string, combined with his own track record of beating supposedly insurmountable odds, has led to a heightened sense of respect for the achievements of Wilder and his squad. Now aged 50 and forced to undergo surgery every nine months - "They burn my nerves and give me injections" - Hodgson felt compelled to get in touch with his fellow defender after watching him transform United's fortunes.
"I sent Chris Wilder a message saying I wasn’t jealous of him getting promotion, I was jealous of the two week bender it looked like the team had gone on together," he reveals. "That’s all down to Chris and the togetherness he's inspired among what are really good players."
Hodgson hopes to watch United in the flesh later this year, when he brings a team of youth footballers over to England for a series of behind-closed doors games. The trip, which could include a match at the Steelphalt Academy, promises to be a wonderful experience on both a personal and professional level. Hodgson is particularly intrigued, fascinated even, by the route Wilder has taken to the highest level after cutting his coaching teeth with Alfreton and Halifax before moving to Oxford and then Sixfields. Hodgson believes that grounding, coupled with the fighting spirit it requires to rise up from the bottom, should serve United well when they lock horns against some of the sport's most iconic names.
"I did an interview on the radio here in Australia about Sheffield United getting promoted. I did some research on Chris and the success that he has achieved at the clubs that he managed along his journey has been fantastic.
"The success that he has brought to Sheffield United is absolutely incredible. You've got to take your hat off to a manager and his team in what he has achieved so far. Fingers crossed for him there is more to come. I'm sure there is if you look at his track record."
United's bid to establish themselves in the top-flight begins on August 10, with a visit to AFC Bournemouth. It is a battle Hodgson is convinced, and not for sentimental reasons, they can win.
"The budget and what the club allows expenditure-wise on players to strengthen the squad, that will have a lot to do with the outcome of the season," he says "But I believe that Chris and his team have enough experience keep Sheffield United where they belong. And that is in the Premier League."
Doug Hodgson's larger than life personality, combined with his fighting spirit, ensured he made more of an impression on Sheffield United than a CV detailing 38 appearances over the course of three years might otherwise suggest, writes James Shield.
Those qualities have helped him overcome two potentially debilitating injuries which, the former defender explains, require regular and invasive treatment.
"My career finished with a header in training in 1999, when my disc exploded hitting my spinal cord," Hodgson says. "I was lucky not to end up in a chair instead having a fusion (of some vertebrae) which involved having a plate and four screws in my neck.
"Since 2000, I’ve been hospitalised every 9 months with injections and nerve burning into my neck.
"On numerous occasions over the 16 year period, I flew back to England every two years to see my surgeon and get treatment as I found it hard to get successful treatment for in Australia.
"Three years ago I needed another fusion in my neck, which involved taking the first plate out and inserting a further plate in. To this day, I'm still having injections 19 years later."
The scars of a career spent battling centre-forwards are not limited to Hodgson's neck.
"As for the back , they class mine as a typical pro' sportsman’s back; dried out discs, from being overworked. I have had 11 epidurals in there, then I had a surgeon asking me when did I broke it. I didn't realise I had. His reply, was 'you must have done in when I was playing football .
"Following nine days in hospital and being unable to walk, I had the operation to fuse my back in November last year. I’m still on the road to recovery now and it’s going to be a long one. But I'm not whingeing too much as I’m still fortunate enough to be able to do a lot of things other people can't."
As well as running four businesses employing more than 90 staff, Doug Hodgson still finds time to coach young Australian players some of whom, the former Sheffield United defender believes, are capable of following in his footsteps by forging careers overseas.
Later this year, when he brings some of Langwarrin Soccer Club's most promising teenagers to England, Hodgson hopes it will prove an enlightening experience.
"I’ve been involved in the junior set up over here for a number of years now, winning numerous titles and trying to develop players," he says. "My under-16's play in the Victorian NPL league. I feel that it will be a great experience for these kids to test themselves against Professional Clubs in Britain and experience the professional environment for themselves. You never know some might not come back."
Hodgson joined United in 1994 before, three years and nearly 40 appearances later, moving to Oldham Athletic following spells on loan with Burnley and Plymouth Argyle. He finished his playing career at Northampton Town, the team Chris Wilder led to the League Two title ahead of his appointment as United manager. Naturally, given his association with Bramall Lane, Hodgson hopes to shoehorn a visit Bramall Lane onto Langwarrin's itinerary.
"I’ve been speaking to Bobby French, who is in charge of that area at Sheffield United. We certainly are hoping to include a trip to The Blades on the agenda and hopefully arrange a game against their under-16's as well."
Name: Douglas John Hodgson
Born: Frankston, Australia
Date of Birth: 27th February 1969
Career in England: Sheffield United (1994/97), Plymouth Argyle (loan, 1995), Burnley (loan, 1996), Oldham Athletic (1997/98), Northampton Town (loan, 1998).