Sir Bobby Robson: football’s finest man

Sir Bobby Robson: football’s finest man

Bobby Robson was what is a known as a true football man. True football men are a rare breed. Their names and faces are etched in the memory of football’s illustrious and chaotic history, and of course, on more than a few cups. The true football men are legends in their own right; they are monumental figures in the game all of whom who have not only left their mark on football, but set a new standard for the understudies of later generations to measure themselves against — or aspire to. As a player, Robson’s 17-year professional career saw him turn out for Fulham and West Bromwich Albion before returning to Craven Cottage, tallying 141 goals along the way.

Robson’s biggest impact on the game, however, was as a manager. Football management is a skilled position, and the Englishman channeled his tactical nous through a fatherly lens at each post he held as a manager. Robson approached the role with a unique blend of jovial insight and an extraordinary passion to learn and win. The greats in the game teach lessons long after they have gone. When he said, “People want success. It’s like coffee, they want instant,” it not only captured his wit and wisdom, but spoke to the larger context of the world’s game. Today’s game is typified by managers who are never more than 180 minutes away from getting sacked, youth players made to grow up far too quickly, players intoxicated by money over club loyalty, and a fervid rouse of impatience plaguing a game turned billion-pound business.

An indelible truth in football is that its legends live on through the styles, standards, and evolutionary iterations of the game in the most peculiar ways. For example, it was Bobby Robson who hired a young and eager José Mourinho as a translator at Sporting Lisbon then as assistant manager at Porto and Barcelona. Robson, in Mourinho’s own words, helped the young Portuguese man find his way into the upper echelons of football management. In truth, Bobby Robson’s journey as a football manager is still one that is draped in domestic, international, and continental excellence. In November, 1968, his early and languid spell at Fulham was cut short when he learned he was out of a job by reading ‘Robson Sacked’ in the papers before actually being let go.

The real meat and potatoes of Robson’s career as a manager came at Portman Road where he managed Ipswich Town for 13 successful years. The Suffolk club made a regular habit of battling at the top of the table in the First Division. More impressively the Tractor Boys won the Texaco Cup in 1973 after beating Norwich City 4-2 on aggregate, celebrated an FA Cup final victory over Arsenal in 1978, and capped off an impressive run with Robson at the helm when they won the UEFA Cup by defeating AZ Alkmaar in 1981.

Robson’s tenure as England manager – his most famous – was nothing short of a daily struggle. Robson, who twice offered to quit the post and was twice rejected by the Football Association, supposedly for the FA’s contempt for “the best manager England never had” in Brian Clough, breathed life into the Three Lions during his eight years in charge. The World Cup appearances for England under Robson’s charge were perhaps the most heartbreaking and inciting events in English football post-1966. In 1986, the ‘Hand of God’ incident added pressure and fury to an already tense atmosphere within English football. Robson later said:

“It wasn’t the hand of God. It was the hand of a rascal. God had nothing to do with it. That day Maradona diminished in my eyes forever.”

Leading up to the 1990 World Cup finals, Robson helped reshape the image of England’s national football team and redefined what it meant to be associated with the England football team in an era marred by hooliganism in the terraces, rampant misbehaviour by the players, and in-fighting within the Football Association. A symbolic triumph came during the World Cup in Turin, Italy, despite England going out to West Germany in penalties. Revisiting the epic clash, John Barnes captured the performance’s galvanising effect some 20-years later by saying: “The best we actually played is when we went out.”

The match is locked in a time capsule and relived in moments from John Motson emphasising the significance of the occasion at kick-off, to West Germany’s deflected goal, and a thousand other freeze-frame instances where the collective energy of a nation hinged upon the tenterhooks of Robson’s brave souls. The dynamism of the match became ostensibly manic as Gary Lineker equalised and then threatened to reach crescendo when Paul Gascoigne was booked and destined to miss the final should England make it. However, one of the most iconic moments came when Lineker locked eyes with Bobby Robson, pointed to his own eye and mouthed, “Keep an eye on him,” as Gazza’s lower lip quivered and emotion threatened to derail the Gateshead-born player’s performance. That simple motion seemed to restore a calm within the England side and the supporters.

The real outcome, the real victory, of that night in Turin can be summed by realising that close enough was more than good enough. Separating Bobby Robson the player and coach, from Bobby Robson the man seems impossible. The man simply personified football. One of the most impressive feats Robson achieved in club management came with his foray into the continental game. Success at PSV Eindhoven (two Eredivisie titles), Porto (two league titles and one Portuguese Cup), and reaching a milestone in football management by taking control of Barcelona only added to the allure that is Bobby Robson.

It is one thing to base the judgment of an individual’s career on the results they achieved in the game. It is a completely more genuine thing to base that judgment on the collective portrayals and descriptions of those who found their way in the game because of that individual. The validation occurs when the great things they achieved align with the great things people say about them. Bobby Robson fits this bill.

Former player and current coach of Barcelona, Luis Enrique in an interview with The Guardian spoke to the man and coach he played for with the Catalan giants. When asked what Robson meant to Barcelona as a club, Luis Enrique said:

“I think for Barcelona, even though it was only one season, it was a year we won three trophies — one Cup Winners’ Cup, one Copa del Rey, one Spanish Super Cup. It was a difficult season because it was the year after Cruyff had left and Barcelona decided to sign the services of Robson and his great experience and I think he reached the full expectations created at Barcelona. It was a difficult year due to the large number of new players.”

Luis Enrique extolled Bobby Robson’s main qualities as a manager by citing the Englishman’s experience: “The Bobby Robson that we met in Barcelona was already a very highly-qualified manager who had won trophies. Definitely a manager with important experience and one respected worldwide. We can only say that as a manager he had very clear ideas with attacking concepts of play and an easy and clear philosophy.”

Bobby Robson’s time at Newcastle United saw the Magpies return to European football. A homecoming of sorts for a man whose father expressed disappointment that his own son opted for Fulham over Newcastle, Robson instilled a sense of pride to Tyneside. His dismissal is still a blight on the great service he bestowed to a club he loved and that loved him back. In December 2007, Bobby Robson was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year show to pay tribute to “his contribution as both player and manager in a career spanning more than half a century”. His speech that night, like so many of his other speaking engagements, was filled with humility, modesty, and a blue-collar sagaciousness built upon years toiling away at his craft.

Prior to accepting his award, Bobby Robson’s words carried another prominent lesson in footballing class:

“You know, nobody wins everything on his own. This award is really an extension of an opportunity for me to say thank you very much to everybody that has supported me, everybody that I’ve played with, and everybody that I managed. I’ve had a fabulous career. I’ve played with and managed some of the greatest players in the world; of that there is no doubt. But without the fantastic people I’ve worked with, I wouldn’t be here tonight.”

Will the world ever see a class of manager and man the likes of Sir Bobby Robson again? People miss him. Winning football matches with the world’s best players is impressive. And Bobby Robson won with some of the greats, but he also built his teams from the ground up. He managed an entire spectrum of football teams, not just the trendy ones. Through hard work and a sense of duty to the game, he became one of the few men who are respected worldwide in football circles. It speaks volumes of the man when the likes of Mourinho, Sir Alex Ferguson, Pep Guardiola, Ronaldo, and countless others say Robson was one of the biggest inspirations in their careers — and in the modern game with all its personality wars and episodic rivalries, we may never see a universally loved man like Bobby Robson for quite some time.

Towards the end, Bobby Robson exemplified another trait he always exuded: bravery. On the day he died, an article in The Guardian ended with a beautiful quote of Robson’s: “… I am going to die sooner rather than later. But then everyone has to go sometime and I have enjoyed every minute.” The man with the gentle smile, kind eyes, feathery hair, and insatiable appetite for the game was not only a trailblazer, but a fighter. Towards the end of his life, he fought cancer five times over a 15-year span. In footballing terms, Bobby Robson beat cancer 4-1.

At St James’ Park, five days before his death, in his final public appearance, Clive Tyldesley and Terry Butcher appropriately spoke of Sir Bobby Robson as he was wheeled out to receive the UEFA Order of Merit award prior to the charity match held in his honour.

“His heroes were Jackie Milburn, Len Shackleton, and Albert Stubbins. And now, Newcastle celebrates its local hero. The Godfather of this club and English football’s favourite Old Uncle. It’s a standing ovation in every corner of this stadium and so many of these players owe him so much. He’s just the most fantastic man to be around. He was never going to miss this occasion.” The truth is, however, that football misses its favourite old uncle, Sir Bobby Robson.

Reviewing footage from a Newcastle United training, one image of Sir Bobby Robson stands out. A man in a snow-speckled coat and toque, breathing in the Tyneside winter, staring with eyes of ice at a simple football session. As always, he was studying, assessing, and demanding more from his players in increasingly difficult conditions. There are many images of Sir Bobby Robson that bring a smile while simultaneously threatening to cause many to leak a tear into their pint. Then there are the images of a man with a gentle heart, a warm smile, a friendly voice, and silvery hair lifting trophies. But the real lasting images are those of a man being lifted up by his team. And somehow that’s most fitting. Sir Bobby Robson is one of football’s greatest trophies.

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A selection of Sir Bobby’s most memorable words: 

Alan Shearer has done very well for us, considering his age. We have introduced some movement into his game because he has got two good legs now. Last season he played with one leg.”

“He’s the only man I know who could start an argument with himself.” (On Craig Bellamy)

“Denis Law once kicked me at Wembley in front of the Queen in an international. I mean, no man is entitled to do that, really.”

“In the first half he took a corner, a poor corner, which hit the first defender, and it took him 17 minutes to get back to the halfway line.” (on former Newcastle winger Laurent Robert)

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What others have said about Sir Bobby:

“Bobby Robson is one of those people who never die, not so much for what he did in his career, for one victory more or less, but for what he knew to give to those who had, like me, the good fortune to know him and walk by his side.” José Mourinho

“He would talk to me like I was the best player in the world and I went out at St James’ Park feeling like I was going to play like the best player in the world. I am 5ft 6 or 5ft 7ins tall but I am telling you this: when I put that kit on and I was standing in that tunnel with Bobby Robson, I felt like I was Didier Drogba.” Craig Bellamy

“In my 23 years working in England there is not a person I would put an inch above Bobby Robson. I mourn the passing of a great friend, a wonderful individual, a tremendous football man and somebody with passion and knowledge of the game that was unsurpassed.” Sir Alex Ferguson

“I have never come across anybody with such a passion for football. We had a tremendous personal relationship as manager and skipper.” Bryan Robson

“I’ll think of him as someone gracious and kind whenever I’ve wanted to speak to him about anything. He’s been magical for the game itself.” Bobby Charlton

“Sir Bobby was a wonderful man, a real gentleman. I remember very well the times I managed my teams against him.” Fabio Capello

“It was a pleasure to know him, not only as a coach but also as a person. It was a marvellous experience.” Pep Guardiola

“He will be remembered not only for his playing career and his outstanding managerial career at both club and international level, but also because he was a truly warm and passionate human being.” Michel Platini

By Jon Townsend. Follow @jon_townsend3