Football: Robson homes in on destiny

Former England manager returns to his roots to take on one of the most demanding jobs in the English game
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The Independent Online
THE APPOINTMENT of Bobby Robson as the new manager of Newcastle United does credit to the football club's board of directors. Or it would, if it were possible to believe that the directors had much to do with it. For, as anyone who scans the daily papers will already have worked out, Robson's appointment was an idea born in the head of one man: Robson himself.

How could anyone not admire a 66-year-old man who, having long since covered himself with enough glory to justify several lifetimes in football, so passionately and shamelessly proclaimed his desire to defy the years by tackling one of the most daunting and demanding jobs in the English game? No sooner had Ruud Gullit turned his back on the club for the last time than Robson's job application had landed on the Sunday sports pages.

Yesterday, the deal was done. So quickly did Robson move that only one conflicting rumour - the alleged candidature of Aston Villa's John Gregory - was allowed to surface. And, typically, Robson even took the precaution of making the announcement himself, presumably not trusting the Newcastle directors to do the job properly. This is indeed a man wise in the ways of football clubs and those who run them.

It is fair to assume that the Newcastle directors needed the subtle nudge of headlines like "Robson: I'm ready!" and "Robson awaits Newcastle call", accompanied by descriptions of a man practically wearing out his living room carpet as he waited for the phone to ring. Their record over the past three years, since Kevin Keegan's curious departure, has hardly promoted much faith in their imagination or perspicacity.

Well, perhaps it took imagination to believe that Ruud Gullit would find a home from home in the North-East. But Gullit's dressing room record as a player and manager, a lengthy catalogue of feuds and vendettas, would surely have alerted more prudent men to the risks involved in importing such an unquiet presence in succession to the dour, drab Dalglish era. Only an intemperate longing for a return to Keegan's days of careless rapture could explain such foolhardiness.

Robson, by contrast, appears to be the perfect choice for a club which has so far earned one point in the Premiership this season, yet remains as full of potential on and off the field as it was when Keegan made his exit. The prospect of dealing with the Halls, the semi-retired Sir John and the semi-rehabilitated Douglas, will hold no terrors for a man whose playing career was an example of the triumph of will-power and who learned the realities of life as a manager when he was given the sack less than a year into his first job.

If the journalists who presented his case at the weekend could be said to have done Robson a favour, then it is merely a question of repaying an old debt. In his eight years as England's manager, Robson's treatment at the hands of his newspaper critics established the pattern for the ritual persecution of Graham Taylor and Glenn Hoddle. His record in charge of the national team was not, until its very last act, at all outstanding, but the vindictiveness of the assault seemed a grossly inappropriate response to the character of a man whose only crime was to love football too well.

That lengthy episode apart, Robson has been a friend to journalists, but in his case only the most deep-dyed cynic would see this as a public relations stratagem. He has always been willing to answer questions about football and footballers because that is what he thinks and talks about practically every waking minute, and although experience has made him a politically astute man, he is not proprietorial about his knowledge. His conversation is spontaneous, endlessly enthusiastic, deeply knowledgeable, and totally lacking in the prejudices that once suffused the mind of the average English football man.

Born in Sacriston, County Durham, in 1933, Robson was the son of a Magpies' fan and grew up watching the great Newcastle teams of the post-war years. "Men like Jackie Milburn and Len Shackleton were my heroes," he said at the weekend, while presenting the evidence in favour of his appointment. "There never was another club for me when I was growing up. I'm a Geordie, a Durham boy, and when I bleed, I bleed black and white."

But his devotion went unrewarded when he tried for a Newcastle apprenticeship and was rejected. At 15 he was following his father by working shifts down the coal mine when Middlesbrough took him on. Two years later, at 17, he travelled south to sign for Fulham, where he developed into an unfussy but effective inside forward, alongside the great Johnny Haynes.

In 1956 West Bromwich Albion paid pounds 25,000 to take him to the Hawthorns, and the following year he won his first England cap, scoring two goals in a 4-0 victory over France at Wembley. He went on to win 20 caps, and played in the World Cups of 1958 and 1962. He returned to Fulham in 1962 and played a further five seasons before hanging up his boots at the age of 34.

His first venture into management began the same year, with the Vancouver Royals. A year later he returned to Craven Cottage, but was sacked after 10 months - an experience which applied the final tempering to a character that, beneath the occasionally sentimental and lachrymose surface, contains plenty of steel.

In 1969 he accepted the managership of Ipswich Town, offered by the club's owners, the generous and hospitable Cobbold brothers, probably the last of their type in the boardrooms of League football. Following in the footsteps of Sir Alf Ramsey, Robson spent 13 years restoring the club to the heights of the old First Division, bringing on such players as David Johnson, Trevor Whymark, Bryan Hamilton, Kevin Beattie, Paul Mariner, Russell Osman, John Wark and the club's present manager, George Burley. But his most significant decision was to buy two Dutch midfield players, Arnold Muhren and Frans Thijssen, whose wonderful ball skills and brilliant passing helped raise the level not just of their own team but of English football as a whole, as well as opening many eyes to the potential benefits of introducing players raised in other cultures. In 1978 Ipswich won the FA Cup, beating Arsenal 1-0, and in 1980-81 they were runners-up to Aston Villa in the League, while beating AZ Alkmaar of the Netherlands to win the Uefa Cup.

Robson succeeded Ron Greenwood as England manager in 1982, but his first campaign ended in a failure to qualify for the 1984 European Championship. His squad reached the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico, and after the players had been allowed to express their opinion about his tactics they reached the quarter-finals, where Diego Maradona's two goals eliminated them. Robson's experience at the 1988 European Championship was even more traumatic as England lost all three group games and Marco van Basten tore their defence apart.

The team's stock was not high when Robson took them to Italia 90 but after some initial good fortune the players had earned the nation's full support by the time they lost the semi-final to Germany in a penalty shoot- out. By that time it was already known that Robson, weary of the endless criticism, had already agreed to leave the job and take over as coach of PSV Eindhoven. Given what he had endured, this was in no sense a betrayal, as some claimed it to be.

His nine years wandering the leagues of Europe confounded most of those who, despite his achievements in East Anglia, believed him to be the victim of a fatal indecisiveness. At PSV he nurtured the teenaged Ronaldo and won the Dutch title twice. In 1992 he moved to Portugal, first to Sporting Lisbon and then to FC Porto, with whom he won the league twice. In 1996 he joined Barcelona, where he won the Cup-Winners' Cup and the Spanish Cup in his single season in sole charge before being moved into a scouting job to make way for Louis van Gaal. Unhappy with the arrangement, he returned to Eindhoven on a one-year contract and, after sorting out a confused and divided dressing room, took the club to third place in the Dutch table and a berth in this season's Champions' League.

After succeeding in League football in four countries, and having most recently coped with a PSV squad including four Russians, a Lithuanian, a Slovak, a Pole, a Brazilian and a Portuguese, Robson is likely to be stimulated rather than abashed by the task of moulding Newcastle's motley crew into a team capable of fighting its way out of the relegation zone. He is not error-free, but you would not bet much against his meeting the challenge of maximising the talents of players like Nolberto Solano and Didier Domi, of reawakening the sleeping talent of Alan Shearer, and of giving the Toon Army something to sing about.


1933: Born Sacriston, County Durham, 18 February.

1948: Signs as an apprentice with Middlesbrough while working at local coal mine.

1950: Joins Fulham as inside forward.

1956: Sold for pounds 25,000 to West Bromwich Albion.

1957: Scores twice on England debut, a 4-0 Wembley victory over France. Went on to earn 20 caps, playing in the 1958 and 1962 World Cup finals.

1962: Returns to Fulham.

1967: Retires from playing. Manages Vancouver Royals.

1968: Becomes Fulham manager but is sacked after 10 months.

1969: Appointed manager of Ipswich Town, where he stays for 13 years.

1978: Leads Ipswich to FA Cup, beating favourites Arsenal 1-0 at Wembley. Takes over England B team.

1980/81: Ipswich win Uefa Cup, beating Dutch side AZ Alkmaar 5-4 on aggregate, and finish runners-up in the league.

1982: Succeeds Ron Greenwood as England manager.

1984: England fail to reach European Championship finals after losing to Denmark at Wembley.

1986: Takes England to World Cup finals in Mexico where Diego Maradona scores his infamous "Hand of God" goal to knock them out in quarter-finals.

1988: England lose all three group games in European Championship, including 1-0 defeat to Republic of Ireland.

1990: Goes to World Cup in Italy with little public support. After a shaky start, England make it through to the semi-finals where they lose on penalties to West Germany. Stands down from England job to take over PSV Eindhoven, nurturing teenage Brazilian striker Ronaldo.

1990/91: Takes PSV to Dutch title.

1991/92: Retains Dutch title. Moves to Portugal to take over Sporting Lisbon.

1993: Leaves Sporting "by mutual consent" after elimination from Uefa Cup.

1994: Joins Porto and leads them to the Portuguese Cup in his first season.

1994/95: Wins Portuguese title.

1995/96: Retains title. Becomes Barcelona coach.

1996/97: Wins Spanish Cup and Cup Winners' Cup in first season but moved to desk job after the arrival of Louis Van Gaal.

1998/99: Rejoins PSV on one-year contract, but they have poor season.

2 Sept: Becomes Newcastle manager.


When Bobby Robson last managed an English Club

Ipswich, led by Robson, finish as runners-up in the old First Division behind Liverpool. Tottenham beat QPR 1-0 in the FA Cup final. A 19-year-old Ruud Gullit moves from Harlem to Feyenoord. Arthur Cox is the manager of Second Division Newcastle United.

The Labour party is split as Tony Benn challenges Denis Healey to become Michael Foot's deputy.

Argentina invades the Falklands. Maggie Thatcher, with staunch moral support from Ronald Reagan, oversees their recapture. Tottenham's Ossie Ardiles returns to his native Argentina as hostilities unfold.

Erica Roe (above) becomes the nation's pin-up after streaking at Twickenham.

The scan on Princess Diana's first baby is leaked to a newspaper, which tells the world she is expecting a boy.

Mark Thatcher gets lost in the Sahara desert while taking part in the Paris-Dakar rally.

A revolution is happening in computing. The ZX81's popularity soars and the colour ZX Spectrum is eagerly awaited.

Southampton and England's Kevin Keegan misses England games with back problems.

Geoff Boycott proclaims "I'm a sick man" as he comes home early from England's tour of India with Delhi belly.

Manilow Mania hits Britain as Barry (above) arrives on tour. More than 1m people try to buy 75,000 concert tickets.

Ivan Lendl beats the world No1 John McEnroe for the fourth time and goes on to take the top spot himself.

A Saturday night on BBC1 sees Nanny (with Wendy Craig) followed by The Two Ronnies, Dallas (Jock dies in helicopter crash), Match of the Day (at 9.55pm) and Parkinson.

Top bands include Duran Duran and Top Cell. Survivor reach No1 with Eye of the Tiger.