Football: Robson revels in reawakening

'We start afresh. But if you've got the wrong attitude or you're not good enough, then it's goodbye'
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The Independent Online
EVERYBODY WANTED their piece of Bobby Robson: the media, the supporters gathered quietly outside St James' Park, and the players. The trouble was, with the loquacious manager of 31 seasons on his soap box, talking football in those rasping, emotion-charged Geordie vowels, lovingly mimicked by a host of impressionists, the schedule of his first day at the office was bound to get thrown into disarray.

The Newcastle chief executive, Freddie Fletcher, and the PR people attempted to usher him on to meet the club's players awaiting him at the Riverside training ground in Chester-le-Street, or at least those not on international duty. "That's OK," Robson said, waving them away cheerily. "I'm enjoying this." It was as if 17 years away from the English League game had reawakened something in him, like a managerial Rip Van Winkle.

Some of it came across as a kind of self-justification for his selection by Newcastle, a verbal resume of his cv, as he sprinkled his conversation with distinguished names such as Ronaldo and Stoichkov that even a 20- year-old like Kieron Dyer would revere. Maybe Robson is aware that there are players such as England's latest debutant who weren't even born when he was scheming Ipswich's 1978 FA Cup final defeat of Arsenal. But at the same time, over at England's training camp, Dyer was putting it: "He's got the T-shirt, hasn't he? Been there, done it all."

Dyer is not that much older than Robson was when the latter wrote a school composition on why he wanted to be a professional footballer. Between then and today a myriad of memories have been collected by a man who has faced defeat and, occasionally, tabloid derision - "For God's Sake, Go!", or even more subtly, "Plonker" - with stoicism, and success with humility. Two Portuguese and two Dutch titles, a Cup-Winners' Cup with Barcelona, all after England rejected him in 1990 and it was assumed he would drift, like some battered hulk, into retirement. His move to Holland and his first period at PSV Eindhoven was like a re-fit. Robson went there, he explained, "for another education, another experience and another lifestyle". It rejuvenated rather than aged him. Last season, back at PSV, he tells you, he didn't miss a day's work, just like his late miner father didn't miss a shift in 42 years.

With speculation about Don Howe joining him, it's tempting to talk of Dad's Army. But while there's a touch of the Corporal Joneses in his declaration of "There's no panic", this is one occupation where longevity is synonymous with success. There'll be the gentle ribbing, of course. Look at Newcastle, eh. From sexy football to sexagenarian football in 12 months. From soap opera, as Keegan described events at St James' Park recently, to Saga. Yet, Sir Alex Ferguson is three years away from his 60th year, Jim Smith a year older. And Terry Venables, at 56, has long advocated that age brings wisdom to management.

"Sixty-six years young," he repeated, karma-like. And who can argue with a man who is still headhunted by Europe's elite. Even since departing from PSV so as to be back in England ready for the biggest of them all, he has rejected two major offers. "And I mean big jobs, big money," Robson added, lest we missed the point.

Ever the enthusiast, he is as impassioned about football, indeed about life, as Kevin Keegan was charismatic, Kenny Dalglish was taciturn, and Ruud Gullit was aloof. The name of his Dutch predecessor was not even broached here; yet, there was enough to satisfy the faithful and the Newcastle board that in Robson, whatever the duration of the newcomer's tenure, they are investing in a rather different animal.

For a start, he thrives on a spell at the wicket with the media, though Robson, a canny professional as you'd expect, simply biffed any yorkers delivered on the subject of his prospective assistants and the vexed issue of Alan Shearer straight back to the bowler. He was, Robson described himself, "a safe pair of hands", adding: "I've never missed a slip catch in my life." There were sufficient hints, though, to glean some of his thoughts on how, as a firefighter, he will douse the inflamed spirits clearly still smouldering at St James' Park. Robson has already delved into the thoughts of Gullit's assistant Steve Clarke, who will remain, at least for the moment.

"He was very open, and did not keep anything back," said Robson. "I can't say exactly what he said. But there are certain things we have to do. I want a united group of players. There is no such thing as foreign and English people. I can't have cliques. I will be strong enough." But would Shearer, as club captain, be regarded as a separate entity? "I treat players individually," he retorted cautiously. "At Barcelona I treated Ronaldo as a young kid differently from Popescu, who was 31. Alan Shearer is Newcastle captain, and is a strong personality here. I understand that and respect that. I have to develop good relations with him, as indeed I do with everybody. I can't make him an exception. I know he is important, and I have to get the best out of him. I want to get him on my side."

He added pointedly: "Everybody has to trust and respect me, and work for me. I represent the club, and they are working for the club. They support the manager and the club."

Five high-profile and lucrative jobs in the last nine years mean that pecuniary concerns will play no part in his decision. He arrives without fear. Some observers expressed surprise at the duration of a contract which expires at the end of the season. "I'm not a 41-year-old coach, with a wife and seven kids and a mortgage, and looking for security," he explained. "One year or three years, it doesn't really matter to me." Decidedly not for a man who four years ago had to contemplate his own mortality when a malignant tumour was removed from his face. He would regard a respectable position in the Premiership "a fantastic job".

That will not be a facile task. As he pointed out wryly, Newcastle are already 17 points behind Manchester United. He may well be "One of us" to those on Tyneside, which surmounts one formidable obstacle; yet, there will be some critics not overly impressed with his previous involvement with English football. Not everyone believes that his reputation earns him a place in the pantheon of managerial legends. At English club level, they contend, his good fortune in being offered the scintillating Dutch pair Frans Thijssen and Arnold Muhren was principally responsible for the transformation of Ipswich. Similarly, that England's "unlucky" elimination after attaining a place in the 1990 World Cup semi-final was not quite the feat that many attribute to his prowess.

Whatever the claims, his ability to mispronounce players' names, which he shares with Jack Charlton, and the occasional malapropism, have contributed to the affectionate regard in which he is held as the great uncle of English football. But his players may take a contrary view from next Tuesday, when he will start evaluating the Newcastle squad bequeathed to him. His amiable demeanour should fool no one. "Everybody here has a chance," he said. "We start afresh. But if you don't want to play, you've got the wrong attitude or you're not good enough, then it's goodbye. We can't carry passengers."

Certainly, there is a feeling permeating St James' Park that Newcastle have paid over the odds for players not even worthy of representing a club of such stature. It will be a fascinating transitional period. In his mind, the new boy knows the shape of his side to face Chelsea next Saturday and you imagine that it will be selected to offer Shearer and Duncan Ferguson maximum opportunities from the wings. "The short-term here is vital," he stressed. "The priority is good results, to restore some confidence, some belief, some enthusiasm." He added, more than a trifle tongue-in-cheek: "Who knows, if I do a good job here, I might carry on for three, four, five years..."

As he eventually left to greet his players, the building workers took time off to gaze down upon him from the construction site which is St James' Park. They wore hard hats. Judged by recent history, the club ought to issue them to incoming managers as well. A multitude of Geordies will be praying that, for the new messiah, it will not be necessary.