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Hodgson made his most important move before choosing Euro squad


Short of leaving Wayne Rooney out in favor of Bobby Zamora there is little that Roy Hodgson could do to make pulses thump or eyebrows soar when England's new manager announces his first roster Wednesday.

Since he is picking the men he will take to Euro 2012, this should be a Really Big Deal, but the nation generally understands that no chef could make a tasty dish using only stale ingredients, especially in his first week in the kitchen. Fans and media are short on hope and tired of hype.

Hodgson must decide whether to take John Terry, who is due in court July 9, accused of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand (reports are Ferdinand's brother, Rio, will not be named to the team). But there's a fatalistic, shoulder-shrugging reassurance for the manager in knowing that whatever he decides about Terry, he'll be criticized. In the England job there is rarely a right answer, always a wrong one.

Then there's the usual chin-stroking over the semi-injured (Scott Parker, Gary Cahill, Darren Bent) and the semi-talented (Frazier Campbell, Gabriel Agbonlahor). And the question of whether Hodgson will lob in a wild card, such as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

The Arsenal winger's vigor, potential and fearlessness would excite everyone in the buildup. Then he'd probably spend the tournament sitting on the bench, perhaps enjoying a run-out for the last eight minutes of a goalless draw against Sweden.

No, regardless of who's on the plane to Poland and Ukraine, Hodgson has already made his most important pick by naming Gary Neville as a coach last Monday. This was a nice surprise for the British press, far nicer than discovering that the FA had chosen Hodgson ahead of Harry Redknapp, the Tottenham Hotspur manager.

"Roy Hodgson may not be as boring and predictable as we thought," wrote The Sun. Neville is a qualified coach, but it wouldn't matter if he lacked the tactical nous to run an eighth-grade five-a-side team. It's his chat, not his coaching, that counts.

This is "Red Nev," the retired United and England defender, Liverpool fan-taunter and player activist turned Sky Sports pundit and Mail on Sunday columnist. Neville is in vogue because he is a broadcaster who offers insights beyond "Well, he's put the ball over an empty net from three yards, Martin. He should have done better ... and he knows it!"

The 37-year-old went viral after Fernando Torres scored for Chelsea against Barcelona at the end of last month's Champions League semifinal second leg by emitting a commentary-box gurgle of delight which made him sound like a man being strangled and loving it.

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He can span the gap between manager and players. This was not a bridge that Fabio Capello, Hodgson's predecessor, ever wanted to traverse. The Italian preferred to stand on the bank across from his players, glaring at them with a forehead so furrowed it resembled a relief map of the Grand Canyon.

While no one becomes as successful as Hodgson without a hulking ego, there remains an air of decency about him that seems to hail from a bygone age and is wholly out of joint with the current climate.

Covering a road game in Basel during Fulham's voyage to the Europa League final in 2009-10, reporters hunting mulled wine and bratwurst bumped into Hodgson at the snowy Swiss city's Christmas market. He was doing a spot of sightseeing before the match and traveled in from the team hotel via streetcar. Despite the freezing temperature he took off a glove when he shook hands, an instinctively well-mannered gesture. The politeness of someone who would never expect the hand offered in return to be fitted with brass knuckles.

Since newspapers are battling decline by shouting ever louder, a large proportion of the media is committed to sensationalizing whatever occurs, and with England there is usually more bad news than good.

With many of the top Premier League clubs now operated by remote control from distant lands by billionaires who don't even go to matches, let alone read the Daily Express, the England team is one of the few remaining spheres where sports writers can feel confident that they are truly persuading fans and FA decision-makers.

Except ... the FA chose Hodgson. Shock at their decision to overlook the favored Redknapp manifested itself in scorn that went beyond justifiable skepticism about Hodgson's ability following his failure at Anfield in 2010-11. He become a tabloid caricature not after his first serious defeat, as is standard, but his first day: a couple of widely-condemned headlines dubbed him "Woy," a mocking reference to a minor speech impediment that was originally used affectionately by Fulham fans.

But Neville's arrival is smart PR. He wrote this month that he would have chosen Redknapp, so Hodgson seems flexible and open-minded. Neville says what he thinks. He'll call a spade a spade and a diving foreigner a diving foreigner. Recently he even criticized the FA, so that's one hobby he shares with most English soccer journalists. He will provide some of the uncomplicated charisma and Eng-ur-land cheerleading that the press was expecting Redknapp to deliver.

Thoughtful, intelligent, cosmopolitan and sometimes haughty, Hodgson is fluent in several languages; alas, tabloid-speak is not one of them. He is unwilling to play the game between the games: the quote-generated media soap opera that feeds newspapers and rolling news channels on non-matchdays and gives them a sense of influence and self-importance.

The 64-year-old still thinks news conferences are opportunities to discuss injuries and be cordial about the opposition, not one-man theater shows where the actor must declaim in Twitter-fitting one-liners. He is a story-defusal expert, adept at spotting the fuss-generating potential of a certain answer to a certain question, then spraying a cooling foam of dull words all over the inquiry, as one would use a fire extinguisher to smother an incipient blaze. Journalists are left holding tape recorders as useful as a soggy box of matches.

Now there is a dramatist to work with the bureaucrat, Red Nev alongside beige Roy. With the mediocrity of England's talent pool sure to be laid bare Wednesday, England could use Neville's tub-thumping as a spicy garnish to Hodgson's stodge.

Tom Dart is a U.S.-based freelance journalist and a former soccer writer for The Times of London. He can be followed on Twitter at @Tom_Dart.