Bobby Robson: Good knight reluctant to leave his beloved stage

English football's grand old man is out of a job for the first time in a long while, but his hunger for the game is as strong as ever
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The Independent Online

It's true that he had a half-hearted stab at retirement in 1999, having returned home from managing PSV Eindhoven, but he was feeling withdrawal symptoms by kick-off on the first Saturday. And then, fortuitously, Ruud Gullit resigned as Newcastle United manager.

"But I didn't say to my wife, 'Ooh Elsie, there's a chance'. I sat on my bum. I thought, 'If they want me, they'll contact me'. And all of a sudden I got the call: could I meet them? Financially, it was amicable, although it was not what it should have been. But never mind, money wasn't the object.

"So, yeah, this is the first time in nearly 60 years that I've not been involved. I haven't lost that lust, you know. I'm ready for the right job, but I won't take the wrong one. Whether the right one will come, I don't know. If I was young and had a mortgage, I would roll up my sleeves, put spit on my hands, and get out there looking for it. I don't need to do that, but..."

He tails off. Silence briefly descends. Knowing that he rejected several suitors following his abrupt sacking by Newcastle almost a year ago, I ask whether the "right job" necessarily means Premiership management? "No," he says.

"I'm a very good scout, a very good judge. I would do that. Or if a young manager was coming into a club and wanted some guidance ... I could be an assistant." A rueful smile. "But that's not me. The No 1 job is the one I want. If it doesn't come, I'll surround myself with other issues. I've written a book."

His updated autobiography, Farewell But Not Goodbye (Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99), has brought him to the City of London, where he is due to sign copies in a bookshop. I meet him beforehand, in the lounge of a smart new boutique hotel called Threadneedles. He is accompanied by the Hodder public relations manager, Karen, who has told me that I have precisely an hour with him.

But I should know two things. Firstly, that Robson won't stop talking when the hour is up. And secondly, that you can't stop him enthusing about whatever catches his fancy. At 72, he still puts you in mind of a kid in a toy shop.

His book, I venture, pulls no punches about his shoddy treatment at the hands of the Newcastle chairman, Freddy Shepherd. "Aye, well, the trick was not what to put in but what to leave out. But I couldn't write something insipid, could I?"

Has he kept a careful eye on Newcastle this summer? "It's nothing to do with me any more, but yes, I have. [Scott] Parker seems a fine signing to me. To some degree I don't understand why Chelsea let him go. I liked him at Charlton. Box to box, heavy in [the] tackle, good about the park, disturbs people."

Here, Robson's eyes narrow and he clenches both fists; when describing a footballer's more pugnacious qualities he comes over all pugnacious himself. He recently told another interviewer that the finest player he has ever played or worked with - a list that includes Duncan Edwards, Bobby Charlton, Romario, Figo and Paul Gascoigne - was his centre-half in those heady days at Ipswich Town, Kevin Beattie. I invite him to elaborate.

"He was a colossus. Like Duncan Edwards, he was made for football. Built like a battleship. Thighs like Allan Wells. Remember him, the sprinter? That's where Kevin got the power. Those bloody thighs; those bloody hamstrings. That's what gave him the elevation. He could jump nine feet, above the bar heading down.

"That's what they did with Ronaldo, you know; built those thighs up. That's where he gets his strength, his feint, his double feint. With players like [Craig] Bellamy, [Kieron] Dyer, it's different. They'll never be Hercules."

Speaking of Bellamy and Dyer, the common assumption, by no means discouraged by the Newcastle board, was that Robson was sacked because he could no longer control them and Newcastle's other ill-disciplined youngsters. He clenches his fists again.

"They say they brought Graeme Souness in to restore discipline," he says. "My question is: what indiscipline? Never on the training ground; never on the pitch. I've trained some of the biggest footballers in the world. That whole thing about indiscipline riled me, as though I was running a bloody kiddies' corner. We had a 72-hour embargo on players going out before a match, and anybody caught out was hit with a fine. Of course, it's hard to fine these lads. 'How much, boss?' 'Two weeks' wages.' 'OK, here's a cheque, thanks very much.' The trick is to sign not just good players, but good people. You won't get 20 Alan Shearers in your club, but Gary Speed was great, Shay Given, Andy O'Brien.

"But these are young lads we're talking about. They're not monks. They have good looks, money. If you were earning £65,000 a week at 19, like [Wayne] Rooney, would you stay home every night? Of course not. But what you can't do is stay up until four in the morning. And I didn't tolerate it. If we had such terrific indiscipline, how did we finish third, fourth and fifth? Nobody's explained that to me. Souness comes in, the big disciplinarian, and finishes 14th."

I ask him whether he supported the surprising appointment of Souness; whether, perhaps, he would have preferred to see a boyhood Newcastle fan like himself, in the form of the Birmingham City manager, Steve Bruce, get the job he never wanted to lose? A chuckle. "It's ever so funny, you know. It's a scream. I lost my job, and flew out to the Algarve the next day to get the hell out of it. Steve was there. He has a house on the golf complex where I play. So in the Sunday papers here he's being associated with the Newcastle job, and I'm sitting in his villa with my wife. They're all saying that Newcastle are talking to Steve Bruce, and he's with me in the Algarve. We were laughing our heads off. Would I have liked Steve to get the job? Well, Birmingham put a £3m bounty on his head. The owners there made it hard for Freddy. But he's a good young manager."

The good young manager Robson knows best, of course, is Chelsea's Jose Mourinho, who at Sporting Lisbon, Porto and Barcelona was his interpreter.

"He was never afraid to talk strongly to a big player. The players could have said, 'Who are you to talk to me like this?' But they never did.

"Jose had a way of saying it just like I would have done if I'd spoken perfect Spanish or Portuguese. I'd say, 'Listen, Jose, tell Figo that he's coming inside too much, condensing the play. Tell him to stay wide, we'll get the ball to him. Tell Figo that.' And he did, and they respected him for it. But he never did any coaching, you know. He just stood behind me and translated. So I'm ever so proud of what he's achieved, although I've left five blinking messages on his phone in the past few weeks and he hasn't replied yet. When he does I'll give him a bollocking."

Characteristically, Robson does not disguise the mild hurt he feels that Mourinho both failed to consult him before talking the Chelsea job, and has hardly sought his advice since.

"But he's his own man. I want to tell him sometimes to slow down. Don't fight Uefa, Jose, because you can't win. But he's in a remarkable situation there,. Jose's told me that Roman Abramovich says to him, 'Don't you think we need this player, or that player?' Jose says, 'I've got 27 already, I don't need 28. I don't need another one to control.' And there's Abramovich trying to persuade him to spend more money! I've met him, Roman. Several times. And I like him. A very nice man, very modest. And besotted by the game."

They are improbable kindred spirits, the besotted Russian billionaire and the besotted miner's son from Langley Park. The difference is that Robson has forgotten more about football than Abramovich will ever know; more than most of us will ever know. I ask him whether, in 55 years in the game, he has ever seen a situation remotely comparable with Chelsea's massive financial dominance?

"Well, many, many years ago, before your time, Sunderland were known as the Bank of England club. Their chairman went out and spent some amazing money at that time - I suppose it was the early 1950s - to bring in some great players, like Len Shackleton, [Ken] Chisholm, a fella called Ted Purdon. But they didn't win anything and they ran out of money eventually. Maybe that will happen at Chelsea. Nothing is bottomless, is it?"

Maybe not, although there does seem to be an infinite quality to Robson's passion for football. It's a passion, moreover, that has never had a rancorous edge.

"That's never been my style," he says. "But I know why it develops: pressure of winning. The pressure now, with the money factor and the media explosion, is more than it's ever been. The game is still terrific, though. I've been watching Sky this summer and they didn't know what to put on the bloody screen. They couldn't wait for the season to start."

By the time the season ends, another World Cup will be upon us. Robson - whose World Cup record as England manager is exceeded only by Sir Alf Ramsey - is hopeful. "Greece won the European Championship without a class player in the side. They had decent but ordinary players. But what they also had was discipline, organisation and fitness. If we can add those things to the excellent players we have - [Frank] Lampard, [Steven] Gerrard, Rooney, [John] Terry - we've a good chance."

Does he have reservations about Sven Goran Eriksson? A telltale pause. "I can't answer that. All I can say is that he's getting good results. And that we have a Premiership that is the envy of the world, but there aren't enough good English coaches. We'll always produce good players, but we have to produce good coaches too. The problem is that someone like Alan Shearer might not want to do it. Why does he need the headaches, with £25m in the bank? I did it because I had a three kids and a mortgage. But then you don't have to be a great player to be a great coach. Jose's proved that; [Arsène] Wenger's proved it. You just have to understand that a football team is 11 individuals all playing off the strengths of each other.

"And if things are not right with your team..." He glances at Karen, the PR woman, who has been agitating to leave for the last 10 minutes. "It's like looking at a pretty woman and realising she's got the wrong dress on, or her jewellery doesn't go with her dress, or her hair's bloody awful."

"Thanks very much," says Karen.

"You have to ask yourself three things," continues Robson, unfazed. "Where is it wrong, why is it wrong, and what are you going to do about it?"

I have time for one last question. Who is his pick as the greatest British club manager of all time?

He smiles. "I think Sir Alex [Ferguson]. Bill Shankly was a marvellous man manager, and Bob Paisley, while he wasn't clever with words, was an old fox. Cloughie was special. I loved him in many ways. But he bullied players, frightened them. I think, over the course of time, what Sir Alex has done is marvellous."

And with that, Robson stands, shakes my hand, and then talks to me about football for a further 10 minutes, off the record, while Karen has what looks like a quiet nervous breakdown.