Extraordinary life of a miner's son
Friday 31 July 2009
Sir Bobby Robson was a man who never knew when he was beaten.
On the football pitch, disappointment simply spurred him on to greater things; off it, even a prolonged battle against cancer could not diminish his zest for life or the game which occupied so much of his 76 years.
Robson's death has robbed English football of one of its most enduring characters, a player who was good enough to represent his country on 20 occasions before losing his place to Bobby Moore, but a man who made an even bigger name for himself as a manager.
He had his regrets - but for Diego Maradona's infamous "Hand of God" goal in 1986 and the width of a post in Turin four years later, he might have matched Sir Alf Ramsey's achievement of winning the World Cup.
His failure to claim a trophy during a thrilling five-year spell in charge at Newcastle, the club he supported as a boy, left a yawning gap, while the old Division One title twice only just eluded him as unfashionable Ipswich threatened to upset the natural order.
However, Robson will be remembered as a man who made the impossible seem possible, a quality which endeared him to directors, players and fans wherever he went.
But while he lived out his dreams at Wembley Stadium, the Nou Camp and St James' Park, his character was formed in far more humble surroundings.
Robert William Robson was born in County Durham on February 18, 1933 and grew up in Langley Park.
Life at the coal face was not for him - indeed, he was an apprentice electrician when his big chance came along in the shape of a professional contract at Fulham at the age of 17.
He made 344 appearances and scored 77 goals in two spells at Craven Cottage either side of a six-year stint with West Brom, for whom he turned out on 239 occasions and found the back of the net 55 times.
However, for all his undoubted quality as a player, it was after making the step into management that he set out on the road to worldwide fame.
It was not always straightforward - his first job with Vancouver Royals in Canada ended in failure, while he learnt of his sacking as Fulham boss after just 10 months from a newspaper billboard.
But his career was launched in earnest at Portman Road when in January 1969, he was appointed Ipswich boss to begin a love affair which lasted until his dying day.
Robson transformed a sleepy corner of Suffolk into a major seat of domestic and European football, winning the FA Cup in 1978 and the UEFA Cup three years later.
It was little wonder the Football Association turned to Robson after Ron Greenwood's departure as England manager, and although it was a wrench, he could not ignore his country's call.
The injustice of Maradona's intervention and the penalty shoot-out misery which ended the nation's dreams in the semi-finals at Italia 90 never lost their sting for Robson, an nor really did the knowledge that, had he lifted the trophy that summer, his contract would not have been renewed.
But in characteristically philosophical fashion, Robson threw himself into club management again, cutting his teeth in European football Holland with PSV Eindhoven, whom he guided to the Dutch title in his first season in charge.
From there, he continued his education in Portugal with Sporting Lisbon and then Porto with the help of young interpreter Jose Mourinho, who would later follow him to Spanish giants Barcelona before himself moving on to greater things.
Louis van Gaal's arrival in Catalonia signalled the end of Robson's reign and a stop-gap appointment which took him back to PSV for a year seemed to have brought an end to an illustrious career.
However, at the age of 66, the one job he simply could not turn down came his way after desperate Newcastle chairman Freddy Shepherd turned to him in the wake of Ruud Gullit's disastrous reign on Tyneside.
Against the odds, he dragged a club which had flirted with relegation into the upper reaches of the Premiership and beyond that, into the Champions League with a thrilling brand of football which had Tyneside buzzing as it had during the heights of the Kevin Keegan era.
But crucially, the long-awaited silverware never arrived and in August 2004, Shepherd decided the time for change had come.
Robson, who had been knighted for his services to football in 2002, was deeply wounded by his departure, but yet again, refused to be sidelined, and after being linked with a series of managerial posts, accepted Steve Staunton's invitation to assist him with the Republic of Ireland.
But having already survived two bouts of cancer, he was struck down by a brain tumour in August 2006 and complications for once knocked him sideways before he was given the all-clear.
When asked about Robson, Shepherd once commented: "He's a one-off. When they made him, they threw the mould away. There certainly isn't another one."
Robson transcended eras, somehow managing to rationalise the relative innocence of his own playing days with the excesses of the modern game and the challenge of coaching and motivating multi-millionaires.
Today, he finally had to admit defeat in his last battle of all, but he did so having established himself as one of the most successful managers of his generation, a figure of international standing and an unabashed enthusiast to the last.
Not bad for the son of a County Durham coal miner.
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