Football: Still crazy after all these years: The trials he endured as England manager have done little to dull Bobby Robson's love of football. Rupert Metcalf reports from Lisbon

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The Independent Online
IT WOULD be an exaggeration to say he looks any younger, but Bobby Robson is without doubt a far more relaxed character than in those now-distant days when his stewardship of the English national side brought him heaps of public ridicule.

The 60-year-old former Ipswich Town and Fulham manager is in his third year of club coaching overseas, following his retirement from the England job after his side's fourth- place finish at the 1990 World Cup. His two- year spell in the Netherlands with PSV Eindhoven brought him two titles - something he never achieved, even once, with Ipswich - but, as with Rangers in Scotland, this was perhaps not enough for the footballing showpiece of the Philips corporate empire.

So, last summer, Robson chose to pack his bags again, and move south to Portugal. Continuing the Caledonian comparisons, his latest club have much in common with another who wear green and white hoops: Celtic. Sporting Club, of Lisbon, are one of the three big teams in Portugal, but they are at present struggling to come out of the shadows of their more glamorous neighbours Benfica and, from the north, the formidable Porto.

Sporting have 16 championships and 15 cup wins to their credit, but they have not won the title since 1982, and Robson is relishing the task of reviving their fortunes. He is taking the job seriously, but he smiles more, he seems much less harassed, than when he was the favourite target of the poison-pen merchants of the English tabloid press.

On Sporting's training pitch, surrounded by dusty building sites next to their huge Estadio Jose Alvalade, Robson rules with enthusiasm. Not for him the jacket and tie - he is in the middle of the field, in track suit and baseball cap, cajoling his charges to produce the goods in passing, crossing and shooting exercises.

Encouraging his multi-national squad with a mixture of English, Portuguese and sign language, he groans when several embarrassed culprits dispatch the ball, from inside the box, over the 20ft fence behind the goal. Nevertheless, there is a sense that he is in his element here, that working with young players is a precious part of his job.

Following the training session, in the large press room off Sporting's old-fashioned but elegant foyer, Robson spoke of this latest stage in a managerial career which started at Craven Cottage in 1968.

'This job is not too different to the one I had at PSV but it's vastly different to Ipswich. I'm free now (after training), I can do what I want. If I want to go and play golf, I can play golf. My commitment to the club begins and ends with my commitment to the players in terms of training, coaching and selection.

'At Ipswich I was first in and last out. I did everything except order the bloody toilet rolls. Here, if I decide that we don't train in the afternoon, then I'm free. I can just concentrate on coaching, and I've got time to go home and prepare my work for the next day.

'In England, the players disappear after morning training finishes, but there are so many other things the manager has to do. Here, when I come back in the morning, I'm fresh - my brain has had a rest from all the other activities. I don't have to worry about what is happening in the rest of the club, I don't have to sit in the office all afternoon waiting for the telephone to ring.

'The English manager has too much to do. Scouting, negotiation of contracts, buying and selling of players, wheeling and dealing, all that is away from me here. If a player has a disagreement over his bonus money, in England he takes it up with the manager. Here, or at PSV, it's someone else's problem, not mine. 'In England, you'd be arguing with a player over a contract at nine o'clock in the morning, and half an hour later you'd be working with the player on the training field, and he's angry with you and you're angry with him. What sort of a deal is that? It's not right. Here, I don't have these difficulties - I can be on the player's side against the general manager or the president. The English clubs really need to think about their way of doing things.'

Robson may be relieved that the more tiresome aspects of trading players are not his responsibility, but he knows he cannot bring in players of his choice without the approval of his powerful president, Jose Sousa Cintra. 'I don't have complete control over transfers, but my recommendations are important. At the start of this season, I got what I wanted: we bought Stan Valckx (a high-class sweeper from PSV), Andrzej Juskowiak (the top scorer at the Barcelona Olympics, from Lech Poznan of Poland), and Sergei Cherbakov (a Russian midfielder from Shakhtyor Donetsk).

'I would have brought in some English players, but I find that the transfer market in England is way out of proportion in terms of the money they want and the value of the player. That's why Ipswich were able to take two players from here (Boncho Genchev and Vlado Bozinoski) for very modest fees compared to what they would have paid for the same standard of player from England.'

As Ron Atkinson found to his cost at Atletico Madrid, job security is not a luxury foreign coaches at clubs from Europe's Latin countries tend to enjoy. Robson knows that Sousa Cintra may invite him to depart at a moment's notice, after a couple of bad results that would raise no more than a few grumbles at home. 'I'm prepared for it, if it happens,' he said, 'but I think I've managed to persuade the president that the best solution is not always to sack the coach. Before I came they had been through 11 coaches in 10 years. They still haven't won anything, which proves that sacking the coach all the time is not the right thing to do. The club needs a bit of stability on the coaching side. What our young players need is a headmaster sort of guy who knows how to run a football club. They have to learn that, if they play badly, they'll be out, not the coach.'

Sporting occupy third place in the league table, seven points behind the leaders, Porto, and four behind Benfica, whom they meet tonight at Benfica's Estadio da Luz. The home side have a score to settle, having lost 2-0 at Sporting in the autumn.

'It's hostile here, between us and Benfica,' Robson said. 'It's always been competitive in England, with Newcastle and Sunderland, Arsenal and Tottenham and the rest, but it's never as hostile and volatile as it is here. Here it's hate. It's intense. If we lose, the fans will only be happy if Benfica lose on the same day, but if we lose and they win, it's war.

'How many matches has George Graham lost this season - 12? If I'd lost that many I wouldn't be here. I'd be out of a job. Look at Tomislav Ivic at Benfica - a good coach, but look what happened to him. They lost to us, and he was out. Not the players, him.

'Football here is everything. In England other sports compete for attention - rugby, cricket, racing and the rest - but here there is one sport that matters: football, from morning to night, from January to January. It's all they live for, it's all they talk about.'

With just two points for a win, Robson is pessimistic about Sporting's chances of closing the gap on the top two. 'Porto and Benfica have very experienced squads, they've been together a long time. We won't give up, though, and if we finish third we will have done well, because we have seven players who are 20 or 21, while the other two have plenty of mature internationals in their sides.'

Although his president may not take too kindly to another empty trophy room, Robson is relieved to find that the local press normally treat him with respect - compared to his experiences as the England manager. 'In Portugal there are nothing like as many daily papers as there are in England, so the pressure to get stories, to write something different, is not there. We have a special press in England. There are some papers I dislike intensely, I didn't like the way they wrote when I was national manager. They were not constructive, they were not responsible to the game.

'Certain sections of the media in England are looking and hoping for you to fail. I knew that we had guys on the plane hoping that we would lose because it's a better story. If you go to Greece and win 2-1, so what? If you go to Greece and lose 2-1, that's better, it's a story.

'Here, they write about the technical and the tactical side of the game. Sure, you get criticised, but you don't get called a carrot, or a turnip, or a plonker or whatever.'

Robson retains little affection for the English tabloid press, but he maintains a keen interest in the fortunes of the national team, and their World Cup prospects. 'We have a lot to do,' he admitted. 'The difficult matches are to come, but we've got to go for it. The players have to realise that nothing less than their best form will do, especially when they go to Poland and Holland. People seem worried that we only beat San Marino 6-0 while Norway beat them 10-0 - but we beat Turkey 4-0, which will not be easy for the other sides to do.

'Paul Gascoigne's injury has obviously not helped the England side, but when he is fully fit he still needs to work hard to keep his weight down. He's always been a podgy boy, the Mars Bar Kid, but that's a question of self- discipline. The way he played for me in the last World Cup was sensational, I thought he was easily the best young player in the tournament. I thought he would love Italy and the football there, providing he had a background of stability. That's what he needs. It's only his first season, though. The second season should see him at his best. He's still learning.'

As far as his own future is concerned, Robson sees little sign of clouds on the horizon. 'I'm in a position where I don't have to worry about what I'll be doing in 1994. I'm here for two years and I don't need to bother about what happens next. I like it here very much, the climate, the people, the football. I enjoy working with my young team, educating them how to play the game properly.

'What happens after the two years I don't know. If I feel I want to pack it in, I'll pack it in. If I want to return to England, after four years away, I'll do so. But I don't want to retire. I want to work. I'm at a retirement age but I've no desire to do so, I'm too involved in football. I love it too much to let it go by me.

'I've worked hard to get into a position where good jobs are available to me, and I don't want to throw that away. If the next offer I get is Accrington Stanley, then I retire, but I'm not ready for that yet.'

An exile in a strange land he may be, but Bobby Robson is still very much in love with the game that has been his life.

(Photograph omitted)