Mark Wright: 'I'll miss the spirit of a truly wonderful man'
The former Liverpool and England defender – and key member of Robson's 1990 World Cup squad – remembers the man who gave him his international debut and then inspired him as a manager
Saturday 01 August 2009
He was an inspiration, a brilliant manager and above all he was a great man. Sir Bobby Robson was the most important person in my football career and like so many of the players who worked for him, yesterday's news of his passing causes me great sadness.
I count myself lucky, and very honoured, that I got to see Sir Bobby one more time. I was invited to play in the restaging of the 1990 World Cup semi-final against Germany for Sir Bobby's foundation at St James' Park on Sunday. There were 33,000 people in the stadium that day but they weren't there to see us oldies run around. They were there to honour Sir Bobby.
Yes, he looked old and frail but it was a special occasion. I looked towards him as "Nessun Dorma" played and thought about how much I owed him – and how much he has given football.
For the players who were there it was a chance to do something for a man for whom we have the greatest respect. Each of us owed him something in our careers, for me it was a great deal. He gave me my England debut when I was 20 years old in May 1984 and 43 of the 45 caps I got in my career were under him. When I was a player he would call me every couple of weeks to see how I was and it never really stopped after I moved into management.
This is a story that gives you the measure of the man. Last season, when I was managing Chester City we were down to 13 players, four of whom were 16-year-olds on £45-a-week. Our difficult situation was getting plenty of coverage in the newspapers and a couple of days later I got a call from Sir Bobby.
I asked him how he was doing. "I'm not so good son," he said, "but that's enough about me – what about you? How can I help?" That was typical of Sir Bobby. He was always desperate to do something for his players. He never forgot you. He said: "Stick with it and keep doing the right thing. It's not your fault, just do your best."
He was charismatic, he was dignified but he was also a very funny man. I loved joining up with the England squad when he was manager. When he spoke to us, the players sat still and listened and not every manager commands that kind of respect. He was under a lot of pressure at Italia '90 and he was brave to change the system and play me as a sweeper but it worked.
After draws against Ireland and the Netherlands we got through to the knockout round by beating Egypt in the last group game. After the match Sir Bobby asked me about my goal which I had headed in from Gazza's free-kick. "You were aiming for the other corner weren't you son?" he said. He was right. He knew us too well.
There was huge pressure on the England players going into that World Cup but it was testament to Sir Bobby's motivational skills and his assistant Don Howe that we stayed as such a tight group. For a lot of the tournament we weren't even speaking to the English press, and Sir Bobby was getting a lot of flack himself. But he was always more hurt if it was one of his players who was getting hammered.
He was a great tactician as well. He took a bold step by playing me as sweeper in the game against the Netherlands but by the end of the tournament I had established myself in the team. In fact, I had offers from Roma and Fiorentina to join them so I couldn't have done badly. He got the best out of so many of us.
But what I will always remember from Italia '90 was his reaction to our defeat on penalties in the semi-final against West Germany. "You could have done no more," he told us in the dressing room afterwards. "We all know that we should have won that game but penalties can go either way. I am so proud of what you have achieved and so is your country. We live to fight another day."
Of course, that was his last match in charge of England but he went on to have a great career at PSV Eindhoven, Sporting Lisbon, Barcelona and Newcastle. That moment in Turin will stay with me for ever. One example in many of the spirit of a wonderful man.
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