Football: Robson's happy homecoming

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The Independent Online
A YEAR AGO the statue of Jackie Milburn outside St James' Park was draped in dreadlocks in honour of Ruud Gullit; yesterday it ought to have had a grey short back and sides. With matronly precision Newcastle United ushered aside sexy football and replaced it with good old values in the shape of Bobby Robson.

Robson, the 66-year-old son of a Durham miner and a Newcastle supporter since childhood, was appointed manager until the end of the season, although it is likely his stay will be extended. "I will be here as long as my brain, my heart and my legs work together," the former England manager said.

The Newcastle chairman, Freddie Shepherd, also implied Robson's role may change once the fire-fighting job of lifting the club from the foot of the Premiership is accomplished. "The first priority is to improve results," he said. "Thereafter, the board have asked him to undertake a thorough review of all aspects of the playing side of the club."

Robson, looking tanned and fit in a grey suit, was the epitome of enthusiasm as he returned to English club football after a gap of 17 years by embarking on a position he first coveted in the 1950s, when he saw Milburn and thought: "It would be lovely to come here as manager and have a player like that".

"I realise I have a massive job ahead of me," he said. "It's a great challenge and I'm eager for the task. I don't underestimate it, I'm not afraid of it and I'm going to really enjoy working in the north-east again."

It was a bravura performance from Robson, whose career since leaving the England job has included spells at PSV Eindhoven and Barcelona. He appeared close to tears as he spoke of his pride but lightened the occasion with shafts of humour. At one point he produced a handkerchief and waved it to illustrate the pressure of 110,000 Barcelona fans wishing to bid him goodbye, at another he described an unwanted omen.

"I followed a car from where I was staying and the registration was SOS 1," he said, smiling broadly. "I don't know if that was ironic or someone was trying to tell me something, but I got the message." You could not imagine the prickly Gullit, who resigned last Saturday, making a joke at his own expense.

Nor could you imagine the Dutchman striking an instant rapport with supporters as Robson did as he swept into sunny St James' Park just after 9am. "It's a lovely day," he said waving to the large group of fans, "and a great day to be manager of Newcastle United."

It was the start of a PR exercise which moved seasoned watchers of managerial press conferences on Tyneside to describe it as the most impressive of many. Flanked by Shepherd and the chief executive, Freddie Fletcher, Robson promised something for everyone. The fans' choice, he insisted there would be "no panic" and no instant change, including Gullit's No 2, Steve Clarke, who had been expected to leave. "I met him last night," Robson said, "and I was very impressed with him."

Asked if he had cash to reinforce a squad who have managed one point from 18, he refused to elaborate. "First of all, I have to look at the present players," he said. "The club have spent a massive sum of money and my job is to ascertain what that quality is. I have to give them a chance and it may well be that we may not have to spend. Everyone starts fresh.

"We're joint bottom, we have a beauty of a match in our next game [Chelsea at Stamford Bridge] and the club needs a victory. I know what happens in football clubs when you don't get results, players get on a banana slide. I need to restore confidence."

On cue he received a goodwill message from Alan Shearer, whose fall-out with Gullit hastened the latter's departure. "It is obvious from his track record that he is an outstanding achiever with vast experience of football at every level," it said. "He also has local roots and will understand and share the passion of our magnificent fans. I am looking forward to playing for him."

Outside the black and white faithful watched, waited and hoped, not a dreadlock wig, so popular 12 months ago, in sight. Yesterday they would have been as appropriate as a Sunderland shirt.

THE PREMIERSHIP OVER-50s CLUB

Name Club Date of birth Age

Bobby Robson Newcastle United 18/02/33 66

Jim Smith Derby County 17/11/40 58

Sir Alex Ferguson Machester United 31/12/41 57

Egil Olsen Wimbledon 22/04/42 57

Graham Taylor Watford 15/09/44 54

George Graham Tottenham Hotspur 30/11/44 54

Harry Redknapp West Ham United 02/03/47 52

Gerard Houllier Liverpool 03/09/47 52

Walter Smith Everton 24/02/48 51

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