It is getting on for 11 years since I started interviewing celebrated sporting figures for The Independent, and I am often asked to name my favourite subject.
It's always hard to pick one, but as a general rule it is the old-timers who provide the best interviews. They have more time, less to prove, a wider perspective, wonderful tales, and invariably, unflagging zest for their sport, and indeed for life.
Of these old-timers, Sir Bobby Robson stood apart. I interviewed him three times, and each time came away with a spring in my step. He had that effect on people. As everyone knows, he was a man of enormous charm and charisma. And yet there are some charmers who make you feel as though there is nobody in the world to whom they would rather be talking. That wasn't Robson. On the contrary, I always had the feeling that it could have been anyone across the table – prince, pauper, journalist, janitor or jute-maker – and he would have talked just as passionately, without remembering for more than 30 seconds the name of the person trying to get a question in edgeways.
There follow some extracts from my three interviews with the great man, which I hope give a flavour of his unique personality.
'Attack for God's sake'
Interviewed in August 1999
There is an episode during my interview with Bobby Robson which does not really translate to print, more's the pity. We are talking tactics, and Robson is getting increasingly animated. Suddenly he leaps to his feet, pulls a handful of coins from his pocket and slaps them on the table. There ensues a masterclass in footballing strategy, delivered as a game of shove ha'penny.
I have asked Robson whether, if he were still England manager, he would favour a flat back four over a sweeper system. "We've got to have adaptability in our defenders," he says. "I like a flat-back four and we're familiar with it. But if you're playing world football, against players who twist and turn you, it's not always the solution."
He directs my attention towards an elaborate configuration of 10p pieces. "I got caught," he continues. "And afterwards I said that I would never be caught again. In the European Championships [in 1988], we had Mark Wright and Tony Adams in the centre, and we played the Dutch. I thought we could handle it, but Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit killed Wright and Adams. Killed them. They were the two best strikers in the world at that time, and they were through us before we could blink. We lost 3-1." Robson looks reproachfully at the two 10p pieces representing Wright and Adams. He slides a 50p between them.
"Two years later, in the 1990 World Cup, I took [Terry] Butcher, [Des] Walker, little [Paul] Parker, but I also took Mark Wright specifically so that if we met Holland again – and we did – I could play him as a sweeper. We drew 0-0 and we should have won. So on a certain day, in a certain match, you must have flexibility. And when you have the ball, attack for God's sake." Three coins whizz across the table towards me. "I like wingers. I used them at Barcelona, at PSV [Eindhoven], and with England I had the beauty of [Chris] Waddle, [John] Barnes, Trevor Steven, [Tony] Morley. I don't think we have the same class of winger now." I mention Steve McManaman (right). Robson throws his hands up in despair. "He's a flatterer. And his final ball is pathetic. Pathetic. He fools the public but he doesn't fool me."
If there is anyone better qualified than Robson to cast judgement on a player then I can't think of him, and I suspect Robson can't either. He has a healthy regard for his own footballing nous, and why not? He made nearly 600 appearances for Fulham and West Bromwich Albion, latterly as an attacking wing-back, and played for England in two World Cups, finally losing his place to the young Bobby Moore. In 13 years as manager of humble Ipswich Town, he guided them into Europe 10 times, and won both the FA Cup and Uefa Cup. "You would consider that impossible now, wouldn't you?" he says, bluntly. "Well, we did it."
'I saved the club, really'
Interview in March 2001
Not long before he died, I was fortunate enough to watch the great Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic. What does this have to do with the Newcastle United manager, Bobby Robson, you might ask? It's a fair point, but bear with me. Bernstein shuffled into the auditorium looking like an old man. But as soon as he picked up the baton he shed 40 years. He crouched down, leapt up, twirled, beamed, grimaced. And a similar metamorphosis overcomes Robson when he starts talking football.
I am sure he is a long way from taking his place in the celestial dug-out, but he looks creased and weary and all of his 68 years. And then he starts talking about the counter-attacking principles of Portuguese footie and behold, the eyes sparkle, the creases drop away, the hair darkens. For Robson, football is a form of Viagra, keeping him young. Which is ironic, because Mrs Robson, the long-suffering Elsie, would like him to jack it in.
"At the beginning of last season I wasn't working in football for the first time in 50 years," he says. "My wife said, 'it'll take time, you'll adjust' but I didn't like it. Now I've got a 12-month rolling contract and the chairman [Freddy Shepherd] says it's up to me when I leave. My wife says, 'good, let's see more of the children. Let's see the world. Let's see Australia. Let's see Tahiti.' And I say, 'yes, dear, but Manchester United will be playing Chelsea that Saturday...'"
Robson (right) has had previous opportunities to manage the club he has supported since boyhood. They tried to lure him away from Barcelona and he was tempted. Hell, he first went to St James' Park in 1946, when he was 13. He was there when Len Shackleton scored six on his debut, against Newport County. He cheered them on at Wembley in the 1951 FA Cup final, when they beat Blackpool 2-0. "But I'd waited 18 years to get to Barcelona and I was in no hurry to leave. I'd just persuaded the club to buy Ronaldo. I had [Hristo] Stoichkov there, Figo, a bloody good team. Besides, you don't walk out on Barcelona. Because if you do, you have to pay back every penny they've paid you!"
To stop me missing the significance of this, Robson hammers his fist on the desk. "There's a clause in the contract saying so. They can sack you, but you don't sack them. Phwooh! Incredible place. I used to go out on to the pitch, and there'd be 120,000 fans there, and the back of your neck would bristle. It was like being in charge of a runaway train. It's the most pressurised job in the world. Because Barcelona represents a country. Barcelona is the army of Catalonia. They were shattered when Figo left to go to Real Madrid, to fight for another country against them. When Real Madrid beat Barcelona the whole city trembles."
Middlesbrough beating Newcastle has less impact on the Richter scale. Indeed, Robson's experiences at Barcelona leave him well-equipped to deal with relatively modest expectations at St James' Park. All the same, he faced a fiendish task just to maintain Premier League status when he succeeded Ruud Gullit 18 months ago. Newcastle were second bottom of the Premiership with one point from seven games.
"You know, the chairman said when I came that he didn't think I'd be able to do it, to keep them up. He was investing in a super stadium and had visions, with respect, of Stockport and Crewe playing there every week. But from the eighth game we scored 51 points and finished 11th. By the beginning of March we couldn't go down. I saved the club, really, because if you go down, will you ever come up? Look at Notts Forest. You'd have thought they'd come straight back up, but they haven't, have they?"
'Those bloody thighs'
Interviewed in August 2005
His book, I venture, pulls no punches about his shoddy treatment at the hands of the Newcastle chairman, Freddy Shepherd. "Aye, well, the trick was not what to put in but what to leave out. But I couldn't write something insipid, could I?" Has he kept a careful eye on Newcastle this summer? "It's nothing to do with me any more, but yes, I have. [Scott] Parker seems a fine signing to me. To some degree I don't understand why Chelsea let him go. I liked him at Charlton. Box to box, heavy in [the] tackle, good about the park, disturbs people."
Here, Robson's eyes narrow and he clenches both fists; when describing a footballer's more pugnacious qualities he comes over all pugnacious himself. He recently told another interviewer that the finest player he has ever played or worked with – a list that includes Duncan Edwards, Bobby Charlton, Romario, Figo and Paul Gascoigne – was his centre-half in those heady days at Ipswich Town, Kevin Beattie. I invite him to elaborate. "He was a colossus. Like Duncan Edwards, he was made for football. Built like a battleship. Thighs like Allan Wells. Remember him, the sprinter? That's where Kevin got the power. Those bloody thighs; those bloody hamstrings. That's what gave him the elevation. He could jump nine feet, above the bar heading down. That's what they did with Ronaldo, you know; built those thighs up. That's where he gets his strength, his feint, his double feint. With players like [Craig] Bellamy, [Kieron] Dyer, it's different. They'll never be Hercules."
Speaking of Bellamy and Dyer, the common assumption, by no means discouraged by the Newcastle board, was that Robson was sacked because he could no longer control them and Newcastle's other ill-disciplined youngsters. He clenches his fists again. "They say they brought Graeme Souness in to restore discipline," he says. "My question is: what indiscipline? Never on the training ground; never on the pitch. I've trained some of the biggest footballers in the world. That whole thing about indiscipline riled me, as though I was running a bloody kiddies' corner."