Football: Interview - Masterclass with Bobby Robson

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The Independent Online
THERE IS an episode during my interview with Bobby Robson which does not really translate to print, more's the pity. We are talking tactics, and Robson is getting increasingly animated. Suddenly he leaps to his feet, pulls a handful of coins from his pocket and slaps them on the table. There ensues a masterclass in footballing strategy, delivered as a game of shove ha'penny.

I have asked Robson whether, if he were still England manager, he would favour a flat back four over a sweeper system. "We've got to have adaptability in our defenders," he says. "I like a flat back four and we're familiar with it. But if you're playing world football, against players who twist and turn you, it's not always the solution."

He directs my attention towards an elaborate configuration of 10p pieces. "I got caught," he continues. "And afterwards I said that I would never be caught again. In the European Championships, we had Mark Wright and Tony Adams in the centre, and we played the Dutch. I thought we could handle it, but Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit killed Wright and Adams. Killed them. They were the two best strikers in the world at that time, and they were through us before we could blink. We lost 3-1." Robson looks reproachfully at the two 10p pieces representing Wright and Adams. He slides a 50p between them.

"Two years later, in the 1990 World Cup, I took Butcher, Walker, little Parker, but I also took Mark Wright specifically so that if we met Holland again - and we did - I could play him as a sweeper. We drew 0-0 and we should have won. So on a certain day, in a certain match, you must have flexibility. And when you have the ball, attack for God's sake." Three coins whizz across the table towards me. "I like wingers. I used them at Barcelona, at PSV [Eindhoven], and with England I had the beauty of Waddle, Barnes, Trevor Steven, Morley. I don't think we have the same class of winger now." I mention a particular player, who must remain nameless. Robson throws his hands up in despair. "He's a flatterer. And his final ball is pathetic. Pathetic. He fools the public but he doesn't fool me."

If there is anyone better qualified than Robson to cast judgement on a player then I can't think of him, and I suspect Robson can't either. He has a healthy regard for his own footballing nous, and why not? He made nearly 600 appearances for Fulham and West Bromwich Albion, latterly as an attacking wing-back, and played for England in two World Cups, finally losing his place to the young Bobby Moore. In 13 years as manager of humble Ipswich Town, he guided them into Europe 10 times, and won both the FA Cup and Uefa Cup. "You would consider that impossible now, wouldn't you?" he says, bluntly. "Well, we did it."

His managerial CV hardly needs detailing. He managed England for eight years, taking them to within a Maradona fist of the 1986 World Cup semi- final, and to within two missed penalties of the 1990 final. He went on to manage PSV Eindhoven, Porto, Sporting Lisbon and Barcelona, for whom he presciently bought Ronaldo from his former club, PSV. "I put him on the world stage," he says, immodestly but truthfully.

To coin an old cliche, Robson has forgotten more about football than some of us will ever know. Yet he still can't get enough of it. At 66, having concluded another brief stint with his first foreign club, PSV, he is again ensconced at his home in Ipswich. And for the first time in his career, waiting for the phone to ring. "Members of my family think I should smell the roses, play more golf. But I'm not an animal like that. I'll only retire if I'm not offered a job. I'm in good condition and for the last 17 years I could hardly have worked at a higher level. Barcelona are arguably the biggest club in the world, in fact in my view there's no argument, because they represent a nation, Catalonia. Now, I won't take on a ridiculous situation. I'm just waiting for the right ball to bounce. But I'll definitely stay in England. I have already turned down three big offers. Big clubs in big countries."

In his autobiography, an updated edition of which is published on Friday*, Robson suggests he might one day renew his love affair with Ipswich Town. He doubts it now, he says. "The current manager is one of my young boys, George Burley. I signed him on as a 16-year-old out of Ayrshire. I always thought he had a bit of a chance in management, but he's done better than I thought, to be honest."

So, if not Ipswich, then who? Certainly, when the first Premiership manager is sacked - which normally happens before September is out - it will not be surprising if succession talk focuses on a certain old age pensioner. In the meantime, Howard Wilkinson has given Robson a part-time role with England, as a sort of mentor to the coaches of the Under-23s, Under-21s and junior teams.

He will not, of course, presume to advise Kevin Keegan. In fact, there has been some bad blood between them, now mostly evaporated. But Keegan was furious when Robson left him out of the England squad following the 1982 World Cup. "He had opted to play in the Second Division with Newcastle and he probably sees the wisdom of my decision now. I had to make some tough decisions and he'll have to, too. We did have a brush, yes. But we get along fine now. I rang his hotel to wish him luck before the Sweden game earlier this year. And coincidentally, in my book, which I wrote while I was in Barcelona, I said that he would make a fine England manager. It takes two years to learn the job, though. It will take Kevin Keegan two years to know the job, and if he doesn't know now, he'll know then, that they play very good football abroad."

Robson grins. A been-there, done-that sort of grin. I think he privately believes Keegan would be wise to consult him now and again. Or at any rate that it is crazy for a new England manager to disregard those who know international football inside out. "You do have to be your own man," he says. "I took over from Ron Greenwood, a great tactician, but I didn't ask for tactical advice. What I did do, when we qualified for Mexico in 1986, I invited Ron to the FA to tell me about World Cup football. How do you handle the players for five weeks, when normally you have them for three days?

"And Ron told me that you have to be certain of their characters, find out the sort of people they are. If you have a good character and a not- so-good character, of similar footballing quality, take the good one. Glenn should have, would have, looked at that last year. Then you have to put the right people in the right bedrooms. They can be cliquey - try to break up the cliques. Ron told me about keeping them occupied, so we took books. We asked each player what he liked to read. Cowboys and Indians? Autobiographies? What sort of films did they like? Walt Disney? Laurel and Hardy? The lads like to gamble. Shilton was mad on horses, so was Robson. So we produced a video and had racing evenings, with Shilton as the bookie.

"We taught them how to handle the press. Then there was sunbathing. Do you let them? Bobby Charlton tells me a wonderful story about Sir Alf. He wouldn't let the players sunbathe, so Bobby went to him. `Alf,' he said. "I'm going to have to play in the sun for an hour and a half. I'll burn me bald head. I need to get a bit of sun on it gradually.' That's sensible, isn't it? We also had to be sure we were taking good tourists. Not lads who would want to go home after two weeks, saying `the wife's on the phone, the baby's sick.' You couldn't do that in war, could you? I'm off. The baby's sick. And you're going to war in the World Cup."

To extend the analogy, Bobby Robson's men were ambushed in 1986 by Maradona. The Hand of God incident still rankles greatly, and Robson talks about it at length. I feel like a therapist as he damns Fifa for choosing an inexperienced Tunisian referee to officiate in the Azteca Stadium, in front of 114,000 people, and recalls how he turned to Don Howe in astonishment, as Maradona ran back to the centre spot. "We were at stocking-top height. We saw the handball clearly. I said to Don, `the ref hasn't seen it, he's given a goal!' And Don said, `no ...'"

As for 1990, Robson is certain that England would have beaten Argentina in the final. "I'd have staked everything I owned on it. They weren't the Argentina of four years before." But it was not to be, and his eight-year reign fizzled out in acrimony, for word had leaked out before the World Cup that Robson, denied an assurance that he would be offered an extension to his contract, had accepted a job with PSV.

"I was called a traitor for leaving, by the same people who three months earlier had said I was a plonker and should go." He heaves a heavy sigh. He wanted to stay on until the 1994 World Cup, and with hindsight, it's a shame he didn't. "Mind you, in eight years, I only had the release of players from Saturday fixtures on two occasions. Sometimes, on a Monday morning before a Wednesday international, I'd only have eight players for training. I was mad to take the job, on those terms."

So, for better or for worse, Robson left the England job and went overseas. What, I wonder, do they make of us there? "The Premiership is envied, no question. Our stadiums, collectively, are probably the best in the world. They envy our public, our fervour, our competitiveness. The football is not totally admired. I've just come from Holland, where they play for possession. Our football is frenetic, but it's compelling. There are hardly any foreign players who wouldn't play in the Premiership."

And hardly any who don't, it sometimes seems. Robson smiles. "Yes, well, I helped to start all that. I brought two players to Ipswich, Arnold Muhren and Frans Thyssen, who you couldn't find in England. Muhren was a wonderful passer, great vision. Thyssen was a fantastic dribbler. I sold [Brian] Talbot for pounds 450,000, bought Muhren for pounds 150,00, Thyssen for pounds 200,000, both better players than Talbot, and put pounds 50,000 in the bank.

"But I knew that they would benefit the First Division, you see. That they were better than what we already had. Now I'm told there are about 370 foreigners in our football. That means 370 British players who do not get a game on a Saturday. You have to be careful. We know how good Bergkamp and Kanu and Zola are. We don't know yet about the foreigners Gerard Houllier has bought. But it's no good paying pounds 3m to bring in a foreigner, find he's not good enough and stick him in the reserves. That means he stops a British player being developed through the reserves system. Also, we have to look at our own market. Are we overpricing our own players?

"Alex Ferguson has done brilliantly to bring through Scholes, Butt, Beckham, the Nevilles, Wes Brown. But I had no option at Ipswich. We probably ran the best youth system in the country. We had to. We had no money, but I had that other important commodity, time. I won't win anything with 17-year-olds, but I might when they're 20, so I need three years... so please give me a five-year contract. The chairman did better than that. He gave me a 10-year contract."

*Bobby Robson: An Englishman Abroad (Pan Books, pounds 6.99)