Fans turn stadium into shrine for Sir Bobby

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The Independent Online

Tearful football fans turned a corner of Newcastle United's St James's Park stadium into a shrine for Sir Bobby Robson today.

Thousands braved rain to lay flowers, flags and banners in the Sir John Hall Stand, turning it into a sea of colour laced with the famous black and white of the club's strip.

And it wasn't just Geordies who were paying tribute to football legend Sir Bobby, who died yesterday aged 76 after losing his long battle against cancer. Supporters of other clubs were there too.

So many people are keen to mark his passing that Newcastle United said the stand would remain open between 9am and 5pm daily next week to allow more people to pay their respects.

A club insider estimated at least 15,000 well-wishers had visited the ground since news of Sir Bobby's death was announced.

Tens of thousands of football fans paid their tribute today as pre-season matches across the country were preceded by on pitch expressions of respect - including the players wearing black arm bands and fans giving a minute's applause.

Even fans of Newcastle United's close rivals Sunderland gave Sir Bobby a minute's applause and a chorus of his name before their friendly match against Celtic got under way.

Some supporters wrote messages on a giant black and white replica strip fastened amid the tributes at St James's Park today.

A groundsman at the stadium, who did not wish to be named, said: "The idea was to open the stand today and tomorrow to allow people to pay their respects but the board has decided it will go into next week.

"It is hard to say how many people have been in, but we estimated there to have been 5,000 yesterday and there has been easily twice many already by noon today.

"The giant football shirt had been tucked away in a corner for a couple of years.

"It used to be passed round over the heads of supporters at home games. We thought it would be a nice gesture to put it out for fans to sign.

"The front is covered already and people have begun signing the back."

Families stood tearfully as a steady procession of well-wishers added to the colourful pitchside tribute.

They spoke movingly of the way in which Sir Bobby Robson had affected their lives and their love for a man who many hailed as 'a legend' and who had been an inspiration to them.

One fan, Kevin Gregg, 47, a security guard from Blakelaw, was with Sir Bobby when he visited St James's Park for his charity match on Sunday.

The married father-of-three said: "I walked beside Sir Bobby as they pushed him round the ground in his wheelchair.

"He looked so very weak he should not really have been there, but knowing the man there would have been no stopping him.

"He had this little green cushion he used for supporting his left arm and shoulder and he didn't like people to see it, but I saw that his blanket had slipped so I moved it back into place to cover over the cushion and he looked at me and smiled and it struck me just what a brave, great man he was.

"It was so emotional.

"There were people in the crowd - men, women and children - and they were all openly crying.

"It is devastating that he's gone, it's like losing your granddad.

"He deserves all of this and more, I think they should rename St James's Park after him. He should at least have a stand named after him. As a fan, I would love to come to the Sir Bobby Robson stadium on a match day.

"I worked at St James's Park when he was the boss here.

"He always had time for everybody no matter who you were.

"When he was on his way out to his car, he would always stop and sign autographs even if it was raining, even if he had his hands full. He would just put everything down and be there for people, he was a gentleman."

Father-of-five Ian Runciman, 47, who works for the Ministry of Defence at RAF Boulmer, and his son Ewan, nine, tied a Berwick FC scarf to the stand.

He said: "We've come down from Amble to pay our respects. It is the least we could do.

"I just wanted to pay tribute to a pure football man.

"Sir Bobby, when he was at Newcastle, came to watch Berwick play Albion Rovers and the crowd gave him a great reception.

"There are not many Premiership football managers who would take the time to do something like that.

"People loved him because he was such a nice guy.

"He was approachable and like one of the supporters.

"He was one of us."

Sir Bobby's former neighbour Carol James, 51, a married mother-of-three and a kitchen assistant at Sacriston Juniors Primary School, remembered playing football in the street with Sir Bobby as a child.

She said: "I grew up on the same street in Langley Park as Sir Bobby and all the kids loved him.

"We all knew when he was back because he had a special car with special suspension and all the kids would chase it down the street.

"Then he'd get out and have a kick-about with us all."

She said Sir Bobby delighted the village by bringing the 1978 FA Cup back to Langley Park and displaying it in the local Spar supermarket window.

She added: "When England beat Cameroon at Italia 90 we were all at the pub and the place went wild.

"Then the whole pub marched round to Sir Bobby's father's bungalow and knocked on the door.

"When he answered we were all on our knees bowing to him.

"He had tears in his eyes he was so proud."

Neil Barrass, 31, a father-of-three who works as a slater, travelled down from Glasgow with his wife Samantha and younger daughters Megan, nine and Morgan, six, to lay flowers.

He said: "I was at the charity match on Sunday and when I saw Sir Bobby then I was shocked to see him looking so frail.

"I'm so, so upset that he's gone.

"He was a man that had everybody's respect and I think people today could learn something from that.

"He gave people respect and that's why they respected him back.

"Even Alan Shearer looked up to him.

"I think if more people were like Sir Bobby Robson the world would not be in the state it is in today."

Rob, from South Shields, said Sir Bobby had an 'aura'.

He said: "He fought cancer five times; he was an exceptional man.

"It is good that people are coming here to pay their respects, and it's good that the club will stay open.

"I thought that at the rate it is filling up they are going to have to close the stand for the first game of the season."

Joseph Garbutt, from Washington, said Sir Bobby was loved because he understood people.

He said: "He was a true Geordie, he loved his friends and he hated his enemies.

"He was honest with the supporters, and it has been a long time since we have had that.

"People loved him because he was one of them. That is why so many people have come here today."