THERE is a reason why so many people from my generation make up a sizeable proportion of Sheffield United’s impressive support. One of them is Alan Hodgkinson who died this week aged 79.
The Blades goalkeeper, a major part of the iconic promotion side of 1970-71, is as much of a legend as winger Alan Woodward who passed away in May. He was also part of the famous side watched by those a little older than me which included Joe Shaw, Gerry Summers, Cec Coldwell and Brian Richardson. As big a name as Tony Currie, last year voted United’s best player of all time. Hodgy, second only to Shaw in matches played for the Blades, is right up there with the best. It’s just that he isn’t talked about as much.
There is a reason for that, too. Hodgkinson was old school before they invented old school. A master of his craft, a model professional on and off the field, a modest man happy for others to take the plaudits. He just got on with the job.
And what a job. Had he played in another era Hodgkinson would surely have won many more England caps than five. But in those five appearances the national team never lost. He played at a time that when it came to goalkeepers, English football was spoilt for choice in what was a golden era.
Hodgkinson, who was awarded an MBE for services to football in 2008, went to two World Cups. Sweden in 1958 where he was very much a back up along with Bolton’s Eddie Hopkinson for first choice Colin McDonald of Burnley. In Chile in 1962, he was reserve keeper to a certain Ron Springett from Sheffield Wednesday. Imagine that. The best two goalkeepers in the country both enjoying long-term careers in Sheffield. Springett, of course, died in September aged 80.
Hodgkinson was an agile shot-stopper who read the game like a book. Always in the right place at the right time. Mr dependable. The first name on the team sheet. I watched Hodgkinson at the end of a career which spanned 17 years and 675 appearances. He can’t surely have been any better than he was then.
Hodgy made the spectacular look almost commonplace and this from a man who stood at only 5ft 9ins which presented absolutely no concern. A South Yorkshire lad who epitomised the character of the region he came from which is why he made such an unspoken but appreciative and unbroken connection with United fans. Through it all and beyond he was a gentleman.
Signed from Worksop town for £250 as a youngster in 1953 he spent a season in the youth team before getting sporadic first team experience. Again he was in the shadow of another great keeper in Ted Burgin.
Hodgkinson’s career began to take-off, however, following the arrival of new manager Joe Mercer and once he got the jersey the Laughton Common-born player never looked back. Such was the span of his career, Hodgkinson could count among his many teammates Jimmy Hagan, Alf Ringstead, Harold Brook, Joe and Graham Shaw, Currie and Woodward.
United have been blessed with many superb goalkeepers during my 46 years at the Lane. Alan Kelly, whose father, also called Alan, was at the opposite end to Hodgkinson the first time I saw the Blades, at Preston North End, and Jim Brown being for me top of the list after Hodgy. Simon Tracey, Steve Conroy, Keith Waugh and more recently Paddy Kenny, are others.
Hodgkinson retired from playing at the end of that fantastic promotion season in ’71. A time of sublime football by anyone's standards under another wise and modest man, John Harris, who in comparison made Hodgkinson look like a party animal.
United’s rock-solid shot-stopper was replaced by a heart-stopper in John Hope, signed from Newcastle, as United returned to the old First Division, football’s top tier. Gone was the unquestionable stability in the six-yard box. Hope was an anxiety-ridden mixture of brilliance and bloopers and no-one knew what was going to happen next, including our John.
MEASURE OF THE MAN
Hodgkinson, pushed by his wife, Brenda, began a new career as a goalkeeping coaching consultant. It’s a measure of the man that he was worried there would be no takers when in fact he was inundated with requests for his services.
He worked with amongst many others Everton, Aston Villa, Birmingham City, Leicester City, Coventry City and Scottish giants Rangers when they were giants. He was also assistant manger to former Blades teammate Gerry Summers at Gillingham.
Hodgy spent seven years at Manchester United and famously recommended a Danish goalkeeper to manager Alex Ferguson who goes by the name of Peter Schmeichel. Hodgkinson also had a spell as Scotland’s goalkeeping coach, schooling Andy Goram and Jim Leighton.
He finished his career at Oxford United, announcing his retirement in 2012 and
a year later published a book, ‘Between the Sticks’, a fascinating insight into football past and present.
It was a privilege to watch a master at work. I only wish I had been able to start sooner.
Alan Hodgkinson: August 16, 1936 – December 8, 2015. RIP.