Football: Robson proves able guide to European pitfalls

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The Independent Online
BOBBY ROBSON was described in Rome's Corriere dello Sport yesterday as "the Spencer Tracy of football".

It is a delightful and not inappropriate image. A typical Tracy character was, according to Aylesworth and Bowman's World Guide to Filmstars, "a tough, humourous fellow who was also a pillar of integrity". Tracy the actor was further described as possessing "solidity", "dependability" and "dignified unprentiousness".

There is much of Robson in that description, though it omits his child- like enthusiasm for the game of football. Like Tracy he is still working in his 67th year, still proving a success.

His evident pleasure in working with footballers is as much a reason for his career longevity as his ability as a coach. He must have conducted thousands of training sessions during three decades as a manager but he took the Newcastle squad through their paces on the eve of Thursday's Uefa Cup match against Roma in the Stadio Olimpico as if the experience was as fresh to him as the pasta in the restaurants of Travestere.

He wore his passion on his sleeve as he alternatively admonished and applauded, occasionally breaking into a run and having a kick or two himself. After the studied cool of Ruud Gullit's remote management style, it was easy to understand how Robson's arrival has liberated a squad which had become insular and suspicious.

His impact on Alan Shearer has attracted most attention but no players have benefited more than the previously banished Rob Lee and Alessandro Pistone while Warren Barton, on Thursday night, looked as if he had played in the role of sweeper all his life.

Even the late withdrawal of Marcelino was turned into an advantage, with Robson apparently reacting by locking the Brazilian out of the dressing- room before telling the rest of the squad: "We have some bottlers at this club but they won't be here much longer". The message got through.

Robson's reward, to judge from the comments of Freddy Shepherd after the match, may well be an extension to his contract which, at present, is only to the end of the season.

"That is as proud as I have ever felt," said the club's chairman, adding, "and it is all about the team spirit he has instilled in them. They were probably the best team we have played in Europe and we did really well and deserved a draw.

"He is more experienced in Europe than any other manager and that came to the fore again when he had to rejig the whole team."

With Robson having been working on the continent since 1990, and not having coached at club level in England since 1986, Newcastle's Premiership campaign has inevitably stuttered on occasions since he replaced Gullit three months ago. With 13 points from 15 games they are still just one point clear of the relegation zone and need a win at home to Tottenham tomorrow.

However, in the Uefa Cup, Robson's overseas experience has enabled Newcastle to produce performances of composure and confidence. This was particularly evident in Rome as Robson outfoxed the European Cup-winner, Fabio Capello. Had it not been for a rare moment of impetuosity by Laurent Charvet, the sole blemish in his impressive first match of the season, Newcastle would have preserved their unbeaten record in the competition.

Capello, having accused Shearer of being "un-English" and "diving", said the result satisfied him even though his team had wasted chances to add to Roma's lone goal. He added that Newcastle would have to leave more space in the return at St James' Park in 12 days' time as they needed to score. "We have a 50-50 chance of qualifying," was Capello's verdict.

Apart from Juventus, who gained an impressive win in Greece, the same can be said for the rest of Italy's Uefa Cup challenge. Parma, the holders, only beat Sturm Graz 2-1 at home while Bologna were held by Galatasaray and Udinese lost to Bayer Leverkusen.

With Arsenal looking well-placed to go through, and Leeds also involved, a Newcastle victory could thus mean England having more clubs than Italy in the Uefa Cup for the first time since the post-Heysel ban.

A heady thought, but there is much football to to be played first, especially by Newcastle if they are to work a North-east passage.