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Wednesday 8 February 2023 Dublin: 4°C
Alamy Stock Photo Joe Hodge pictured competing for Wolves against Crystal Palace.
# fall and rise
The inspiring story behind Ireland's recent Premier League debutant
Joe Hodge has already endured significant setbacks on his way to elite level.

ON WEDNESDAY, Joe Hodge made his first-ever start at senior level.

The young midfielder, who was born in Manchester but qualifies to play for Ireland through his grandmother, completed 90 minutes in Wolves’ 1-0 EFL Cup win over Leeds, featuring alongside fellow promising Irish talents Nathan Collins and Connor Ronan in the starting XI.

That came off the back of three Premier League appearances earlier this season, and it would be no surprise were he to add to that tally in the late kick-off against table-toppers Arsenal tonight.

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At 20, people might assume his journey to elite level has been relatively smooth, but there have in fact been major setbacks along the way.

It is just over a year since a serious injury threatened to end his career before it really got started.

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For many Irish fans, Hodge would have first come on their radar in 2019.

Aged 16, the midfielder was one of the standout players at the Euro U19s tournament, when Ireland improbably reached the semi-final before bowing out against Portugal.

That same year, Hodge started all three games as Ireland U17s hosted the European Championships, narrowly missing out on progression from the group stages despite remaining unbeaten in the three games they played.

A watching Stephen Kenny was among those impressed

“He’s a classic midfielder, a natural midfield player,” Kenny told RTÉ after Ireland’s 1-1 draw with Belgium.

“He understands the game for someone so young, a great appreciation of space. He takes great angles receiving the ball and has great feet, good vision, and a range of passing.

“I suppose he has to develop physically but he showed tonight that he had the stamina to match the athletic Belgian players. It was an impressive second-half performance.”

Those two tournaments could have really propelled the prodigious teen’s career to a different level.

Instead, it would be over three years since he wore the green jersey again.

“I’m a different player from when I was 16,” he told reporters in September. “It was good back then but I have to start over and forget about that.”

The next couple of seasons would prove a difficult period for the youngster. Injury problems saw his game time severely limited.

Named Manchester City’s ‘Scholar of the Year’ in 2020 in recognition of his considerable potential, the accolade came after he suffered both a broken leg and ankle the previous year.

In addition, ahead of the 2021 League of Ireland season, in a major coup for Derry City, Hodge joined the Candystripes on a five-month-loan deal.

Yet the youngster did not play a single Premier Division match, as a back injury again derailed his progress and caused the transfer to be cut short prematurely.

In August last year, there was another significant development in Hodge’s career.

He left Manchester City — the club he had played for since the age of nine — and signed with Wolves on a three-year contract.

Scott Sellars, the former Newcastle and Blackburn player, is currently Wolves’ technical director but previously worked in Man City’s academy.

Buying a player with Hodge’s injury history was a calculated risk — he was even injured at the time he signed — but Sellars was well aware too of the player’s high potential from working with him at City.

One other individual that knows Hodge better than most is Jonathan Fenner, the lead strength-and-conditioning coach with Wolves U21s.

“I previously worked with Joe on international duty when he was on the England side before he switched over to Ireland,” he tells The42.

“When I first saw him on international duty, he was quite a shy guy, he didn’t really speak too much. He’s still a quiet guy, but I would say he has a quiet confidence.

“When he first came in [at Wolves], people looked up to him straight away even though he was the new guy in the changing room.”

Hodge was still rehabbing from a serious injury when he arrived at Molineux, and given his role at the club, Fenner was one of the key people in helping the youngster attempt to overcome his injury issues.

“I think he was in quite a frustrated headspace because he’d been out of football for so long. And when he first came to the club, he was getting closer to playing football, he started outdoor running with Man City. And then we were going to continue that.

“However, pretty quickly, within the first week, we felt something wasn’t quite right. And we found a further injury.

“The injury he sustained [previously] is certainly a very serious injury and it is load sensitive.

“But it is a lot more common than people know. It used to be a career-ending injury. However, we’ve got a hell of a lot more knowledge and experience of working with it and how we can make sure it never happens again with each individual player.”

While some players can be “up and down” during a long period out, Fenner says that Hodge never seemed too affected by this challenging process.

The staff at Wolves also worked on specific areas of his game that they could improve.

“We have a different philosophy really with conditioning than Man City. So we wanted to make him stronger and more powerful.

“Firstly, that made him more resistant to injury. We also think, even though he has a smaller stature, he can have much better acceleration than before.”

Moreover, Hodge’s small stature might lead some people to assume he can be easily brushed off the ball but Fenner says the player is deceptively strong.

“He has developed that over the last year — the other day, he hit a new PB [personal best] in his top speed in training, which he has been working towards.

“Short distances, sharp changes in direction, he is very quick. It just tends to be the longer distances, he’ll get swallowed up by someone with a longer stride.

“But he’s one of the fittest players I’ve ever worked with, endurance wise, he outruns everyone on a match day.”

joe-hodge Ryan Byrne / INPHO Joe Hodge pictured playing for Ireland U21s against Israel. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Off the pitch too, Hodge is an asset: “One of the other players who was having a bit of a tough time, not performance-wise, but a lot of the players were getting onto him because he’s quite sloppy in his standards, he was being quite late,” says Fenner. 

“[Joe] stayed in the gym session, after it, for about 40 minutes talking one-on-one with him to try and affect him and [enhance] his professionalism and work ethic.

“And it did have an effect, you saw it straight away the next day on the training pitch.

“Hodgey is not around the 21s as much anymore, because he’s in the first-team environment, and you start to see that player dropping off because he’s not got Hodgey there.”

Someone who has known Hodge even long than Fenner is James Collins, the Wolves U21s head coach who has also been working as assistant interim head coach since Bruno Lage’s departure as manager last month.

He remembers Hodge at U8s level, during his time working at Crewe Alexandra.

“He was a very talented little boy, always had the same drive and determination, and was a very likable kid even at seven and eight years of age.

“He’s still putting the same amount of effort in now, the same drive and determination.”

The late Dutch legend Johan Cruyff once famously pronounced that “every disadvantage has its advantage”. Throughout the age groups, Hodge came up against players that were much bigger than him and so had to compensate in other aspects of his game.

“He makes himself the best physical specimen he can possibly be.

“I’ve been coaching him for years, and he’s if not the strongest, one of the strongest-minded kids I’ve ever met. He doesn’t let things faze him.”

This mentality, Collins adds, was key to his recovery from years of injury hell.

“A lot of people who have a long-term injury, it’s not just weeks or months, it’s almost years, you have to do everything right to give yourself the best possible chance to come back from it. And not many people have got that in them.”

The coach also says Hodge’s positive influence tends to rub off on other players.

“If we have a team meeting, it’s very, very difficult for young boys to speak up in front of their peers. 

“Young players are very wary of how it looks, how they look to other people, they all want to look good in front of their mates. But he doesn’t show any of that. He will always be the first to speak, he will always be the first to knock himself and show that vulnerability.

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“I remember at the start of the season, our 21s had gone up a division, having had a successful back half of last season. And I was doing a presentation on how tough the league’s going to be this year, and what qualities we’re going to have to show, almost playing down our chances.

“I asked the boys about what they thought. And Joe said: ‘Listen, we’re good, we’re going to be alright, don’t play us down.’

“Some people say that and you would think ‘he’s a being a clever dick there,’ but he wasn’t. He genuinely was backing his teammates, he felt I was saying it’s going to be tough, it’s going to be a struggle. And he wanted to say: ‘No, this group of players that I’ve got with me are up to this.’

“And I remember the meeting finishing and thinking that was terrific, that he had the balls to come back at me and challenge my perception of what the year might look like.”

Hodge, of course, is still far from the finished product. Collins identifies “longer passes” and “final balls” as areas where there remains room for improvement.

Yet the coaching staff had enough belief in the player to hand him a Premier League debut after half-time at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea last month, while he has gone on to make further top-flight appearances in a 1-0 win over Nottingham Forest and a 2-1 defeat versus Crystal Palace.

“The first game at Chelsea was really interesting because we were struggling in midfield for a bit of edge. We conceded a goal right at half-time and we felt we needed somebody to really put their stamp on the game. We looked at the bench and even though he hasn’t played in the Premier League, he was a standout in that regard.

“When [Steve Davis] said ‘will we put him on to do that,’ I had no doubt he could do that. 

“So, he played a very, very strong second half against Chelsea, and improved the team.

“He came on late against Nottingham Forest, we were hanging on in the game, we were 1-0 up and he came on, for similar reasons.

“And then he came on at Crystal Palace in a slightly higher position, which probably doesn’t suit him as much, the number 10 position. And maybe he didn’t do quite as well in that game for that reason but still did some really good things.

“Of the three games that maybe was his least influential from a footballing point of view.

“To go into the Premier League is tough for anyone at any time, but he can be delighted with his start and the players now trust him.

“Diego Costa, Joao Moutinho, Ruben Neves, these are top players — they’ll give him the ball. They took him under their wing and that’s down to his character.”

Ireland U21s boss Jim Crawford has also been following Hodge’s career for quite some time down the various age groups at international level.

Injuries had restricted his involvement for most of Crawford’s tenure thus far, but he included him in a couple of camps as he began to recover.

Conor Coventry and Gavin Kilkenny had been regulars in central midfield throughout a historic campaign that saw the 21s reach the playoffs for the first time ever.

Yet the Bournemouth starlet picked up an injury and so there was an opening alongside Coventry for the two climactic games against Israel.

“Pre the September window, I went over to see him play,” says Crawford. “I was aware Gavin Kilkenny was injured, so I ran the rule over Joe, see how he was doing with Wolverhampton Wanderers U21s.

“He really was exceptional in all the games that I’ve seen him play. I had no hesitation whatsoever to give them a start.”

Ireland ultimately suffered penalty shootout heartache, but Hodge still acquitted himself well regardless.

The youngster’s recent Premier League appearances led to inevitable talk of a senior Ireland call-up, but he was absent from the squad announced by Stephen Kenny on Thursday.

“I think certainly for the next campaign with the 21s, he’ll have a huge influence on our players,” adds Crawford. “And I’m happy that he played a role in the last campaign because he’ll bring the experience with him to the group. 

“And I certainly think he’s got a future with the Republic of Ireland, even the senior team, because his attitude is something you need in football.”

The key question now, of course, is whether Hodge can build on his recent progress and establish himself as a regular at Wolves.

“I don’t think anybody can give the answer to that,” says Collins. “But before he played in the Premier League, I was convinced he could play in the Premier League. And nothing that he’s shown since has made me think [otherwise].”

Speaking before Julen Lopetegui was confirmed as Wolves’ new boss, Fenner explained: “I think he’ll go about his business as he normally does, he’ll go down and train and show the new manager what he’s about.

“I think he’s a Premier League-standard player and I think he’ll have a long career.” 

For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more >

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