The applause reached a crescendo before the chants became insistent and irresistible. Tribal conventions were defied by a shared chorus of: "There's only one Bobby Robson". It was his day, a day for dreamers who seek a shred of common decency and dignity in the old game.
Across the country yesterday 150 community events were staged in the former Ipswich and England manager's honour, but Portman Road felt like an appropriate point of pilgrimage. It was the perfect setting, an immaculate time, for a history lesson.
Ipswich's win over Millwall seemed almost incidental. A mundane match, decided by two own goals and a thumping header, was overshadowed by the enduring significance of a man whose humility, honesty and sheer humanity highlights what football has lost, probably for ever. Robson's was a life lived as a passion play. His football had sanctity of purpose beyond the fripperies of the modern game, where multimillionaire players purport to be martyrs and owners with no conception of community ignore a century or more of tradition, and rename clubs on a whim.
Bobby never forgot his alternative to football: hacking at coal seams in claustrophobic tunnels, four feet high, dug deep beneath the Durham countryside. His work ethic was shaped by the example of his father, who missed only a single shift in 51 years underground at Langley Park Colliery.
He balanced professional pragmatism with a strong social conscience. Had he lived to see such a day, Robson would have organised a quiet word with Wayne Rooney about his good fortune, and the dangers of a loss of focus. He would have treated the likes of Luis Suarez with the contempt the Uruguayan deserves.
Football's best-loved knight of the realm knew his worth – he became the first player to sell his image rights when a cigarette-card company paid three guineas for his photograph – but never forgot where he came from, a two-up, two-down terraced house with no bath and an outside toilet.
He remains an ethereal presence at the homely club he made his own. Yellowing press cuttings line the corridor leading to the Ipswich boardroom. One, from January 1969, introduces a young man in a Crombie overcoat who had been taken on by the club's owners, the Cobbold brothers without the security of a contract.
Thirteen years slip away in as many strides. Programmes from the great days, European nights against Barcelona and AC Milan, merely emphasise Ipswich's marginalisation in a world in which the rich are getting richer and the rest scavenge for scraps.
Robson's life is commemorated alongside that of another eminent ghost, a certain Sir Alfred Ernest Ramsey, whose funeral service, from May 19 1999, is reproduced.
The match programme contained vignettes of Robson's kindness, such as sending an 11-year-old schoolboy two FA Cup final tickets, which his father had been unable to source. Yet he was not soft.
Terry Butcher, now a successful manager in Scotland, chuckled gently as he recalled the quiet terror which seized him as a young player entering annual contract negotiations with Robson.
"Bobby would always begin by asking, 'What do you think you're worth?' Butcher said. "Before you could answer, he'd be off: 'Just remember, the working man is suffering. The Tories are closing factories. Africans are starving. We're paying for European butter mountains and wine lakes.' You'd sit there, and stutter, 'Same deal as last season then, gaffer?' He'd shake you firmly by the hand, and you'd go away to work out what you were going to tell your wife. A great man."
Robson was hard enough to make grown men cry – Alan Brazil once jumped in the communal bath in his kit and refused to come out – but sufficiently sensitive to ask after their sick children. He spent the club's money as if it was his own, and rationed toilet rolls in the away dressing-room.
That was an unhappy place last evening, when Steve Lomas, Millwall's manager, was confronted by the difficulties of regime change at the club. He could do little about unfortunate own goals by Shane Lowry and Mark Beevers, but was livid at the laxity of his transitional team's defending. The way Tommy Smith bullied Danny Shittu to head Ipswich's second goal was unacceptable to him.
The Ipswich fans were content with such riches, and saw out the final minutes by reaffirming their love and respect for a man whose resilience sustained him through five bouts of cancer.
Robson's legacy is twofold, and stretches way beyond Suffolk. His charitable foundation will continue to save lives. His example will be remain a rallying point for all who believe there is more to football than a fast buck.
Thanks, Bobby, we will not forget.
Ipswich (4-4-2): Loach; Hewitt, Chambers, Smith, Cresswell (Berra, 86); Edwards (Anderson, 67), Skuse, Hyam, Tabb (Tunnicliffe, 67); McGoldrick, Murphy.
Millwall (4-4-2): Bywater; Smith, Shittu, Beevers, Lowry; Henry, Derry, Bailey, Chaplow (Feeney, 70); Morison (McDonald, 76), Keogh (Easter 54).
Referee Graham Salisbury.
Man of the match Carlos Edwards (Ipswich).
Match rating 6/10.
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