A great man, both on and off the football field

Sir Bobby Robson's achievements on the pitch were surpassed by his boundless enthusiasm for life, writes James Lawton

Sir Bobby Robson wasn't one of the very greatest football managers, not in the way of a Sir Matt Busby or Sir Alex Ferguson, but he was a very good one. He had greatness, unquestionably, but it could not be quite so easily measured because it relied on something that flew beyond his strengths – and not a few weaknesses.

Bobby Robson's greatness was in living and loving and never forgetting that if you were ever knocked down there was only one solution to the problem. It was in getting back up again and fighting on, however murderous the odds. You did with an uplift of the shoulders and a quiet but unbreakable resolve. It was a genius that carried him on to a dimension that he made, down all the years, quite his own.

He made a boy's game seem a proper concern of grown men who worked hard for a living and needed some kind of release. He made it a matter of both pain and laughter and in the process he became a household name, a figure who touched ordinary people with a smile of both triumph and resignation. They looked into features made craggy by good and bad experience and it was though he was a mirror of many of their own hopes and fears.

His genius was for life, specifically the football life, the one that he adored so much that when he feared as a young man that it was being taken away from him – when he was sacked by Fulham – he stood in the centre circle of the romantic old field beside the Thames and wept.

Emotional, obsessively driven and endearingly eccentric, he spent the rest of his days fighting for his belief in the game and the values that he had learned among the pitmen and the shipyard workers of his native North-east. He never did this harder or with more grace than when facing the serially recurring trial of cancer which finally claimed him this week, and most vital and beguiling of all was that along with his passion he never lost his humour.

When he was a young and fine midfield player whose skills had carried him away from the coalfields, there was a feeling, not totally unfounded, that he could be arrogant. His skill and his swagger carried him into the West Bromwich and Fulham teams and, soon enough, that of England, and he was never short of something to say for himself.

Once his young team-mate at Fulham, George Cohen, who would go on to be a member of England's World Cup-winning side, was wounded when Robson was invited to comment on his somewhat wayward crossing of the ball after trademarked surges down the right wing. "Well, let's face it," said Robson, "George has hit more photographers than Frank Sinatra."

That was the young Robson – buoyant, a potential conqueror of all he saw. Later, his sentimental side could emerge just as hilariously. When manager of England he was tremendously impressed by the fortitude of his defender Terry Butcher, who played with a bandage that leaked blood from a graze throughout a match in Stockholm. Robson declared: "VC's have been awarded for less." Later, he agreed that he may have gone slightly over the top – but then a man cannot argue too seriously with his nature and his deepest enthusiasm.

If Robson didn't occupy the highest rank of football managers the point can only be made as a matter of degree. Much of his work was superb – and all of it was marked by a warmth for the game and a love of those who played it and the working men who supported it and this was reflected in the shocked reaction of the people of Newcastle and beyond when he was fired by his home-town club in August 2004.

Robson had carried the club from bottom place in the Premiership and they had finished in fifth place just a few months before his firing. A year later Robson was made a freeman of Newcastle, which he described as the "proudest moment of my life". It was a kind of vindication after a development that had sickened the people of the city, and all those who understood that at Newcastle Robson had brought a lifetime of care and understanding of his game to an impossible challenge.

It was a conclusion that is bleakly confirmed by the fact that Newcastle, having employed a string of younger and more expensive managers after sacking Robson, now face life away from the top flight in which their former boss was so at home.

More than anything, Robson knew that the basis of success in football would always be an understanding of the hopes and fears of his players. It was an unforced attitude. It sprang from a nature which always had football, for all its cruelties, even idiocies, at the heart of his universe – a fact which was still as evident in his seventies as was when he was a young manager who would leap up in the middle of dinner to reinact a piece of skill he had seen and admired.

When he touched his seventies and was summoned back to the huge challenge of Newcastle it was gently suggested to him that, after surviving several attacks of cancer, he should surely devote himself to a quieter life, tend his grandchildren and smell some flowers. His patience with the question was mixed with a touch of indignation. "I cannot imagine life without being involved in football," he declared. "You cannot go through life putting everything you have into it and reach a line someone else has drawn and then say, 'That's it, I'm finished.' I just can't put away football. Sooner or later it will probably put me away, but until it does, until it says I'm not longer wanted, don't worry, I'm going to still be around."

Robson's most celebrated moment as a football manager came in Turin in 1990 when he led England, a chronically under-achieving side, to the semi-final of the World Cup, only to lose to Germany in a catastrophic penalty shoot-out. It was a savage denouement and in many other managers it was likely to have brought bitter recriminations. In Robson it provoked a resigned shrug and a series of avuncular arms around the shoulders of the stricken players. The players largely adored him because of such attitudes – and the sense of a man who knew their feelings, and all the vulnerability that is implicit in making a living in a mere game.

Four years before his brush with glory in Italy, Robson lived more dangerously in Mexico before the notorious goal from Diego Maradona that put England out of the World Cup in the quarter-finals. The feeling is that England recovered from a poor start that threatened elimination at the group stage of the tournament partly because of a new development in the game – player power.

If it was so, Robson lived diplomatically with his situation, except when he was asked to comment on the Maradona goal that had clearly been punched into the England net.

"Absolutely, unbelievably diabolical," he said before getting on with his life.

The players understood they could talk with their boss and if this occasionally led to a crossing of old demarcation lines there was never any question of Robson being seen in the dressing room as less than a good and knowledgeable football man. Certain vagaries were noted, however, most famously by the team captain Bryan Robson, who recalled encountering the manager in a hotel lobby. "Morning Bobby," said Robson. His namesake captain replied, "No, you Bobby, me Bryan."

There is no question about where Robson achieved the closest to working perfection, despite successful stints in such places as Vancouver, after that jarring dismissal by Fulham, Eindhoven, Lisbon, Porto and Barcelona. It was with Ipswich Town between 1969 and 1982. Robson made Ipswich one of the best teams in Europe. He won the FA Cup and the Uefa Cup, a stunning achievement, and even launched the club into the foreign player market with the signings of the highly skilled Dutchmen Arnold Muhren and Frans Thyssen.

His reward was local adoration and the deepest respect from John Cobbold, the old Etonian chairman of the club famous for his liking for champagne. "We have the best manager in the world," declared Cobbold, "and he isn't going anywhere."

He was, of course, and first it was the English job, because if Robson came to love Ipswich he also hungered for a wider theatre of action. It left him in a state of some personal conflict when Ron Greenwood gave up the England managership at the end of the 1982 World Cup in Spain.

Terry Venables, who would take the job himself later in his career but was then coaching Barcelona, remembers a collision with Robson late at night in a Spanish hotel. Venables recalls that he was in his pyjamas when Robson knocked at his bedroom door and said he was seeking advice about his future. He had noted Venables' successful Spanish adventure and though he was happy at Ipswich he did sometimes yearn for a new challenge. Now it had come to a head. He had been asked to succeed Greenwood in the England job. What should he do?

Venables offered him a parable. Robson should imagine he was walking down a street and had to choose between frequenting one of two pubs; one side of the street the pub had superb beer but lacked décor and the barmaid was something of a dragon. The other pub had mediocre beer but a convivial atmosphere and a beautiful barmaid. It was a question of what you wanted in life. Robson nodded and reflected and moved the conversation forward. Some hours later he retired to his room and Venables went off to sleep. A little later there was a knock on his door. It was Robson again. "Terry, what was that about the pub again?"

Venables tells the story with a laugh – and the deepest of affection. An affection shared by all those who knew him in football and in life and who balanced the eccentricities against the certainty that here was a man who understood the very heartbeat of the game that he had made his life.

Yes, there was the zaniness which once had him walking into a broom cupboard after a particularly testing press conference during his England reign. But there was also the compassion and the knowing sense of life and frailty that made him such a caring mentor of the troubled Paul Gascoigne when he launched his international career. "He's very talented," declared Robson, "but he's also daft as a brush." There were times when something of the same might have been said of Sir Bobby Robson. But it was a sublime daftness. It was filled with heart and compassion but also a tough awareness of how cruelly the game – and life – could be.

There was, too, the superb fighting instinct that made him resist the waves of cancer for so long. One of his three sons, the youngest, Mark, was encountered at a Test match in Brisbane. He said that it was extraordinary his father had survived so long. His courage and his humour had been such an inspiration to all he touched but sadly his life was ebbing away now. That was three years ago – a great gift that enabled him to work on his foundation fighting cancer, to meet his friends, to savour all over again – as though it was the first time – a game of football.

Was Sir Bobby truly great? Yes, he was, beyond question, because what is greatness if it isn't to persuade everyone you meet that life is indeed worth living. He did it in public and private right until the end and, like football, it was a game in which he never tired.

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