William Mager: Mocking the way Roy Hodgson speaks is not ok. It’s really not.

Posted on May 8, 2012



Being an England manager and having poor command of the spoken word aren’t unusual.

Sir Alf Ramsey had a strong Cockney accent and didn’t pronounce his ‘H’ sounds. Like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, he took elocution lessons.

Ron Greenwood pronounced the word ‘relevant’ as ‘revelant’ instead.

Sir Bobby Robson had a somewhat intermittent connection between his brain and his mouth and provided football journalists with many amusing quotes.

Widen your scope to the football leagues and you’ll find that approximately 76% of managers are mumbling or slurring in a Scottish accent (Sir Alex Ferguson, Gordon Strachan), struggling to master English as their second language (Jacques Santini), consistently adding additional vowels to players’ names (David Pleat) or using empty stock phrases and made up words like ‘bouncebackability’ (everyone).

What sets Roy Hodgson apart from the above is that he not only has a pretty good command of English, he also speaks four other languages to a standard where he’s regularly invited to appear as a football pundit in other countries.

While speaking all of these languages, Hodgson also has Rhotacism – a mispronunciation of his R sounds. Instead, they sound more like Ws to some. When he was at Blackburn, he was nicknamed Woy of the Wovers. At Fulham, the fans unfurled a banner at the UEFA Cup Final proclaiming ‘IN WOY WE TRUST’.

Is it even a speech impediment, or a side effect of speaking fluent Swedish (which doesn’t use the R sound)? Hodgson gives a better account of himself in press conferences than Fabio Capello did; he’s been through more clubs than Ian Woosnam; he’s won more trophies and paid more tax (allegedly) than Harry Redknapp; and has finally achieved a long-held dream to become England manager.

Sadly, what also sets Roy Hodgson apart from the above England managers is that they never had their manner of speaking turned into a frontpage splash.

Last Thursday The Sun blared ‘BWING ON THE EUWOS’ on their cover, followed by “We’ll see you in Ukwaine against Fwance!”They then described him first and foremost as ‘affectionately known as Woy due to his speech impediment’.

The Sun are, to my knowledge, the only newspaper to highlight this on the front page. Immediately the subtext is ‘Man with speech impediment gets England job’. It’s not a positive subtext. It’s intended to demean him and reduce his status before a ball has been kicked under his stewardship.

On Twitter the night before, we’d already seen a few Mirror Football and Guardian journalists make their own Woy related gags. I’d found it particularly vexing.

Following the Sun’s front page, various newspapers including The Guardian and The Mirror either conveniently forgot, or directly addressed their own Woy-related indiscretions to stick the boot in to The Sun. The righteous outrage peaked in a – presumably Hodgson-sanctioned – statement from The FA condemning The Sun’s headline.

So far, so good. Balance restored. We can all move on and judge Roy on his results alone, right?

No. It was a twitrage over a harmless joke. Jonathan ‘Wossy’ Ross said so in The Sun, so it must be true.

Speech impediments are comedy dynamite. If you’ve ever laughed at Barry Kripke in The Big Bang Theory (FYI he says his own name as ‘Bawwy Kwipke’); Elmer Fudd forever hunting that Wascally Wabbit Bugs Bunny; Michael Palin flubbing his Rs in A Fish Called Wanda and A Life of Brian; or Rowan Atkinson struggling with his Bs as Mr Bean or as a Vicar in Four Weddings – why should you get all wound up about this total non-story

Michael Palin: “Welease Wodewick, In Weeno Weritas, Thwow him to the fwoor etc”

Michael Palin based his stutter in A Fish Called Wanda on his own father’s difficulties with speech, and founded a centre to help stammering children in 1993.

Rowan Atkinson was a childhood stutterer. He particularly struggled with the letter B, which he overcame by over articulating it to comedic effect. Now it’s his stock in trade. Palin and Atkinson are drawing on their own experience with speech impediments and turning it into their comedic currency. Which is fine.

To my knowledge, I haven’t seen Roy Hodgson take part in any chat show sketches or comedy programmes lampooning his own speech. Presumably he doesn’t want anyone drawing attention to it, least of all on the front pages.

Then of course, there’s my own personal experience, which affects my perception of this whole affair in three ways.

Firstly, I’ve never found comedy speech impediments funny. Not because I find it offensive. I just don’t HEAR any of those apparently amusing inflections. I would probably laugh my arse off at them if I could.

Secondly, having learned to speak through intensive teaching, I’m never going to have perfect, clear speech. Speech is – in the tactful phrase of an NHS doctor the other week – ‘effortful’ for me.

As a result school wasn’t always a happy place for me. As well as being the only deaf kid in the school, I was also a bit of a smug git, the class swot, with terrible dress sense. It was my speech that was used as a weapon against me. Everything I said, any attempt at conversation, would be repeated back to me in an exaggerated ‘idiot’ voice. This got to a stage where I would only ever speak when someone asked me a direct question.

Thirdly, when I left school to go to sixth form, I hoped things would get better. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of allowing my local newspaper, The Sheffield Star, to interview me about my amazing GCSE results (8 As, 3 A*s and 3 Bs). They sent a photographer and everything.

On my first day at college, I was front-page news. There was a picture of me, wearing a white T shirt, a leather waistcoat, and black rimmed round glasses. I looked like Harry Potter. If Harry Potter was a German exchange student.

What was the headline?

BRAVE BILLY BEATS THE ODDS.

‘Man with speech impediment gets England job.’ ‘Deaf guy gets GCSEs’. One written with obvious negative subtext, the other written to make me feel better about my apparently terrible affliction, instead sending me into a fashion shame spiral that took years to get over.

When I look at that Sun headline, I think of teenagers at school who might read it and think it’s OK to mock a classmate with a lisp or a stutter, or the office joker who’ll cut out the headline and stick it up on the monitor of a colleague with a stammer. If Roy Hodgson’s big enough to take it on the chin, so are they, surely?

Speech difficulties are hilarious to everyone, except those that actually have them.

Even stranger is seeing deaf people jumping on the Woy bandwagon. I had a couple of texts and saw a couple of tweets from deaf guys who found Roy’s Rs amusing. They were essentially spoofing a speech impediment that they can’t themselves hear, while not having particularly flawless speech themselves. I’ve made plenty of racist, sexist, bigoted and vulgar jokes in my time (Exhibit A: my twitter feed) but this just looks like the bullied kid at school trying to get in with the cool guys (like me on Twitter, right guys?!).

Roy Hodgson’s speech is a non-issue. It’s arguable as to whether he even has a speech impediment in the first place. The Sun tried to make it an issue. They were wrong, and they got shouted down for it. Other newspapers and tabloids are quietly taking note of this and mostly following suit.

Before the twitter gags and Sun headlines, I was ambivalent about Hodgson. I wasn’t sure about his ability to manage England egos. Now I’m on his side for utterly trivial reasons. I hope he tells Terry, Lampard, Gerrard and Rooney to do one; takes a young squad to Poland and Ukraine with no expectations; and does better than expected before the inevitable quarter final exit on penalties. And let’s have no more guff about the way he talks.

Bring on the Euros. We’ll see you in Ukraine against France.

What do you think? Is this political correctness gone MAD?! Am I getting way too wound up about such a trivial incident? Or are we right to take a stand against this sort of thing? Let me know your views in the comments below.

William Mager would like to make it clear that there are no records of that Sheffield Star front page. “I destroyed every single copy in existence.” He is an award-winning director for film and TV, who made his first film aged 14 when he “set fire to a model Audi Quattro and was subsequently banned from the school film club for excessive pyromania.” He’s made short films, dramas and mini-series, and works for the BBC. Find out all about his work at his personal website – and if you’re on Twitter, follow him here.

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