Football: The 'forgotten man' at Barcelona

Simon Turnbull charts the turbulent start to the reign of Robson's successor
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It happened to be in Bobby Robson's old home town that Louis Van Gaal started to lose his bearings as the coach in the driving seat at Futbol Club Barcelona. On a windswept September morning in Durham, the coach carrying the Dutchman and his pounds 400m squad got stuck in a cul-de- sac in the middle of the Ferens Park housing estate.

After their belated arrival at New Ferens Park, the new home of Durham City Football Club, Van Gaal spoke of Barcelona's need to follow the tactical system he perfected at Ajax Amsterdam. "We have to adapt and at the same time get results," he said, "because nobody in Spain is waiting for the adaption time. Maybe I shall be ... er, not fired, because Josep Nunez, the president, believes in me." Van Gaal lost his sense of direction before he could get to the possible implications. He clearly thought it was going to be an easier ride.

Ten weeks later, the Barca boys are still trying to adapt to the Dutch masterplan. They remain lost in Europe, bottom of Group C in the Champions' League with a solitary point from four matches. The European Cup has been beyond their grasp since 5 November, the night Dynamo Kiev thrashed the pride of Catalonia 4-0. Barcelona were jeered off the pitch by the 60,000 crowd. On Wednesday night there may not be many more Catalans than Geordies in Barca's grand home when Newcastle United come to town.

"I should imagine there will be between 20,000 and 25,000," Jeff King estimated. "It's regarded as a nothing game here in Barcelona." A one- time Gooner, King has become a professional Nou Camp follower. He writes for World Soccer and the Spanish football weekly Don Balon and is about to launch an English web-site devoted to Spanish football. As author of The Story of Bobby Robson's Year at Barcelona he is particularly well qualified to assess the half-year that has now passed since Barca withdrew their British Bobby from the coaching beat.

Several ironies leap out of the page in King's excellent tome, a chronicle of Robson's seemingly pre-sealed fate at the Nou Camp, placed into subtly defined perspective against the intriguing backcloth of FC Barcelona, Spanish football and Spanish life. Robson suffered no early-season disasters in his Nou Camp term - not on the scale of Van Gaal's European failures, or of the three successive Primera Liga defeats inflicted upon Barca before their 3-2 success against Celta Viga last Sunday.

Barcelona, under Robson, were unbeaten until 23 November last year. They remained untouchable in Europe, too, lifting the Cup-Winners' Cup. They also won the Spanish Cup and qualified for the Champions' League. Yet, even in October, with Barcelona still unbeaten and top of the league, a composite photograph depicting Robson strapped into an electric chair appeared on the front page of the Spanish sports daily Marca. Robson's ultimate crime was failing to prevent Real Madrid, the bete noire of FC Barcelona and of Catalonia, from winning the Spanish League title. Right from the start, though, he was deemed guilty of forsaking the flair instilled in the Barca team by his popular predecessor, Johan Cruyff. And even now, with Van Gaal struggling and Robson pushed into a nominal executive role as "Director of Signings", there have been no cries for the Englishman to be moved back down the Nou Camp stairs to the dug-out.

King laughed at the mere suggestion. "Robson doesn't even have an office in the Nou Camp now," he said. "He's very much the forgotten man at Barcelona. He's been watching games but nobody thinks Van Gaal would sign any player Robson might recommend to him. He wants to sign his own players. Director of signings? It's seen as a joke here.

"The thing is Robson had a contract for another year. He couldn't walk away when Barcelona took the coach's job off him because his contract did not specify that he would be employed as club coach. He's got a good salary for another year and he's just going to bide his time until a job he would really like comes along. He doesn't want one that would need a four-year re-building plan, like at Everton or Celtic. He wants one where just a little fine-tuning is needed. The Newcastle job would have been ideal but he was still coach when it was offered. He'd go to Liverpool, I'm sure, if Roy Evans was to lose his job there.

"There's no chance of him becoming Barcelona coach again. Van Gaal would have to lose 10 games in a row and do something terrible off the pitch to get the sack. Even then, Robson wouldn't take over. Barca have been dreadful all season and Van Gaal has taken a lot of stick but Nunez and the club have backed him to do a long-term job, to set down the kind of foundations he did at Ajax. He's got a five-year contract and he talks about a seven-year plan.

"He's been slaughtered by the press here, but he's very arrogant. He's similar to Cruyff in personality. He just says, 'I don't care what anyone says. I'm the man in charge. I'll do it the way I want to.' Just last Sunday, in his press conference after the Celta Viga game, a Dutch journalist said to him, 'I've interviewed 60 fans and not one of them understands your tactics.' Van Gaal glared at him and said, 'I'm not talking about that.' The guy came back at him, saying, 'It's a free country. I can ask you a question.' Van Gaal just eyeballed him and said, 'Go home'. It was like watching Arnie - you know, Arnold Schwarzenegger."

The analogy is a rather fitting one, given the premature termination of Barca's European ambitions. The man who stepped on Bobby Robson's toes and into his shoes has become the Terminator at Barcelona.

The Story of Bobby Robson's Year at Barcelona, by Jeff King, is published by Virgin on 4 December, pounds 14.99.