After acclaimed service, in Suffolk and then around the globe with England and foreign clubs, Sir Bobby Robson came home. The testimonial service yesterday at Durham Cathedral, attended by many from home and across Europe as famous as he, was a fitting final tribute to an internationally noted player and manager. As Martin Wharton, Bishop of Newcastle, said: "He was a football colossus. A life begun in darkness – as an electrician down the pit – which became bathed in light. A story of black and white."
Yet it was more so a tribute, simply, for a notable man, who had fought the repetitive invasions of cancer with a dogged, largely unobserved fortitude, that earned a heartfelt affection and admiration.
Sir Alex Ferguson, speaking off the cuff, was glowing in his tribute. "Bob knew his roots ... I cannot fully express the enthusiasm that he always showed for the game. With him there were no secrets: he took me to an Ipswich coaching session two weeks before we [Aberdeen] played them in the Uefa Cup."
Robson's 60-year career in football was distinguished not just by an array of achievements, but by his never permitting his celebrity to become devalued by affectation or insincerity. He remained to the last, indelibly, one of us – a humble, generous guy, grateful for life's gifts, conscious that he afforded his first car only at the age of 34; that he juggled a ball to master his touch on the 20-minute daily walk to West Bromwich Albion's training ground, thus avoiding the bus fare; that on occasion at Ipswich he would hitch-hike on scouting trips to save the train fare.
Above all, yesterday's congregation of more than 1,000 recognised that Robson personified England's love of the game. His energy and ambition were as fervent the day he took charge of his beloved Newcastle, already aged 66, as when he first arrived as a novice at Ipswich, and 14 years later began fashioning the national team's fluctuating fortunes.
Mick Mills, Ipswich's FA Cup- winning captain, recalls: "Bobby was England through and through. He had a thirst for hard work which won the hearts of the nation. He loved to learn from foreign teams, he was a worldly manager."
Gary Lineker, who Robson had summoned as an untried youngster from Leicester, recalled that the England manager "made me feel seven feet tall with his enthusiasm. But he knocked me down to size when he turned to me on the bench, with 20 minutes to go, to say, 'Get warmed up, Garth'," – an example of Robson's regular confusion with names. Lineker added: "He was everything that was good about the game."
This son of a miner, born in 1933, a few dozen goal kicks up the road in Co Durham, at Sacriston, who in boyhood would kick a lump of coal around with his mates when they had no ball, would have found such a memorable parade as this among his own people deeply touching. During his England reign, he once observed: "They're playing for the country, I believe in the country. As manager of England you need two hearts."
It is no exaggeration to suggest that his passion for the game or for his playing colleagues never dimmed, whatever the tribulations, on or off the field, whatever his harshest critics might say.
He might have had a wry smile – though he was never vindictive – at his life being celebrated in Durham. It was in this cathedral, founded by the Saxons, rebuilt by the Normans in 1093, that Parliament forces incarcerated Scottish prisoners during the Civil War. Robson had starred in the 9-3 destruction of Scotland in 1961, part of Walter Winterbottom's accomplished side – including Bobby Charlton, Jimmy Greaves and Johnny Haynes – that scored 56 goals in 16 matches prior to the World Cup in 1962, in which Robson gave way to another Bobby, the legendary, unknighted, Moore.
Sir Bobby Charlton, among the mourners, vividly remembers Robson sitting next to him to give reassurance on the flight to Sweden for the World Cup in 1958, a few months after the Munich crash. "What I most remember is that he was always helping others, almost to a fault."
Robson's displays for West Brom as an attacking midfielder under the direction of Vic Buckingham, a managerial inspiration, were among the most spectacular I ever witnessed. This imbued him with the belief that the game is essentially about attack.
As England manager, he was torn between the beautiful game and functionalism, prevalent throughout the domestic league – which was why he oscillated in selection over such gems as John Barnes, Chris Waddle and Paul Gascoigne. In his parallel position as national director of coaching, he mused during the World Cup in 1990: "Do you think what I say to First Division managers will change their idea of how they want to play? The FA run courses for coaches, but very few managers attend."
After the service anecdotes and memories came thick and fast. Sven Goran Eriksson recalled arriving at Ipswich, unknown, and Robson taking him through two hours of a training session and inviting him to sit on the bench for a match the following day. Joe Royle, Everton and England striker, remembers Robson taking him to one side as a 16-year-old and spending two hours giving advice. At Ipswich, they remember him as much for his off-duty dedication as for winning the Cup – attending the supporters club on a Monday evening, the Women's Institute on Tuesday. Malcolm Macdonald recalls begging for Robson's autograph as a six-year-old down a Fulham backstreet and then, years later, when Robson signed him from Tonbridge, being asked, to his astonishment: "Weren't you that knee-high nipper wanting my autograph?"
The service, like Robson's life, was one of both dignity and joy; the eloquence of the music of Elgar, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Michael Tippett, Puccini's "Nessun Dorma", the joy of so many people recollecting the privilege of sharing a special life. Robson's maxim is there for anyone. At a party at my house for Sir Stanley Rous's 90th birthday, Robson reflected: "You're only as old as you feel." He followed that to the full.
'They all admired his courage and dignity': How the great & good paid their respects
"He was everything that was good about the game. He made me feel seven feet tall with his enthusiasm. He loved the game and the game loved him." - Gary Lineker
"He was always helping others, almost to a fault." - Sir Bobby Charlton
"I cannot fully express the enthusiasm he always showed for the game. What made him so special was that he influenced people who had never met him. They admired his courage, his dignity and his enthusiasm." - Sir Alex Ferguson
"He had a thirst for hard work which won the hearts of the nation." - Mick Mills, former Ipswich and England captainReuse content