The troubles of Newcastle United were a pre-occupation for so many of his later years, but on one clear day back in July the clouds lifted and the city could instead marvel at Sir Bobby Robson and his way of restoring faith in a game buffeted by the money and corporatism which have engulfed it.
There was not much time left to run in a life which Robson had bestowed so much to the game he loved – five short days, in fact – but the charity match in his name, played on the turf of his beloved St James' Park, left some valedictory images like few others and, in The Independent's poll of the most emotive sporting occasions of the decade, it has won comfortably with 47 per cent of the vote.
Few of the 33,000 there to observe that afternoon will forget the sight of Sir Bobby, being pushed into that arena in a wheelchair, a smile the width of the Tyne brightening his face and proceeding, unscripted, to shake the hands of every player.
Robson, a man fighting cancer for a fifth time and aware long since that this would be the last battle, wept when "Nessun Dorma" rang out. Then, just before the game began, truly a moment to make the heart ache: the sight of Robson, a hunched, diminutive figure in that vast stadium, being wheeled away to his seat, every supporter upstanding and the words of "Walking in a Robson Wonderland" issuing around St James'. It was the song they sang when he was their manager.
"Nessun Dorma" had been his anthem for nearly 20 years. It was the theme tune to the BBC's coverage of the Italia '90 tournament where his career reached its apotheosis and there really was no debate about which game should be re-enacted for the occasion planned for 26 July to raise money for Sir Bobby's Foundation.
In England's Turin semi-final against West Germany in the 1990 World Cup, Robson came so close to taking the English back to a first World Cup final since 1966. It also brought a moment which, in its own small way, changed football. In the ninth minute of extra time, Paul Gascoigne fouled Thomas Berthold, was shown a yellow card and the realisation that he would miss the final, if England had progressed, was telegraphed across his face. The image of Gascoigne, his face red with tears, sobbing on the pitch and holding his shirt to his face, and then Gary Lineker gesticulating to Sir Bobby, live on more than the trauma of that night's defeat on penalties. Football had some humanity after all.
Robson had no direct part in these events, but they reflect the humanity he brought to his beloved football. His love of the game, its players and the working men who were its bedrock was reflected in the way the city of Newcastle responded when he was sacked by the club in August 2004.
He had taken the club from bottom in the Premiership to fifth place in just a few months. Newcastle always knew his place in the pantheon, even if the club didn't. A year after his dismissal Robson was made a freeman of Newcastle. "The proudest moment of my life," he called it.
One of the secrets of the alchemy he worked as a manager was an appreciation of the hopes and fears of his players, just like Gascoigne on that night in Stadio delle Alpi. He could never let them and the game go. When he was called to St James Park at the age of 66 to manage the club, someone put it to him that, after he had fought several close battles with cancer, it was time to step away. Robson was indignant: "I cannot imagine life without being involved in football," he replied. "You cannot go through life putting everything you have into it and reach a line someone else has drawn and then say, 'That's it, I'm finished'. I just can't put away football. Sooner or later it will probably put me away, but until it does, until it says I'm not longer wanted, don't worry, I'm going to still be around." That was the sentiment which they remembered on 26 July.
Perhaps too, they recalled some of the idiosyncrasies which have become rather lost in the new world of football, with its leveraged buyouts and corporate goals.
Though players always knew where they stood with Robson, he did not always give the impression of knowing who they were. Bryan Robson recalls how, as England team captain, he encountered the manager in a hotel lobby. "Morning, Bobby," said Robson. His namesake captain replied: "No, you Bobby, me Bryan."
His occasional zaniness did not stand in the way of an extraordinary level of achievement, though. After the pain of an early dismissal by Fulham he succeeded in places as disparate as Vancouver, Eindhoven, Lisbon, Porto and Barcelona, his finest moments belong to Ipswich Town from that period between 1969 and 1982 when he made them one of the finest sides in Europe. His clinched the FA Cup and the Uefa Cup – extraordinary achievements. He made Ipswich a First Division side to be feared and even launched the club into the foreign player market with the signings of Dutchmen Arnold Muhren and Frans Thyssen.
All this and more was probably in mind when Germany's goalkeeper for the charity match, Oliver Reck, took off his huge glove to shake Robson's hand when the guest of honour met the teams. There were clasped hands, too, from Alan Shearer, Peter Beardsley, Robert Lee, Les Ferdinand and, of course, Gascoigne.
When the game was under way, it seemed that the life which Robson had fought so hard to hold on to had been rewound 19 years. Gascoigne complained bitterly about England's defending for Germany's opening goal. Peter Shilton shook his head. Also present from the Italia '90 squad were John Barnes, Dave Beasant, Steve Hodge, David Platt, Trevor Steven, Des Walker and Mark Wright. Guido Buchwald and Hans Pflugler were the other members of the German side from Turin. Robson's England captain, Terry Butcher, could not play because of a double knee replacement but he commentated on a game in which both sides wore a badge chosen by Robson from designs submitted by local schoolchildren, incorporating the flags of both nations.
The scoreline was inconsequential: the English, "managed" by Howard Wilkinson, beat Lothar Matthaus's Germans 3-2. Robson was delighted but nothing could entirely drag his thoughts from his old club, by then relegated to the Championship and prevaricating over Shearer's desire to remain at the helm. He said: "It's great that Alan has played today, but I'd have preferred to have him involved at Newcastle United because I believe we need a strong manager for the next five years. I expect him to be a great manager, and I hope it's with our club, Newcastle." Football coursed through this man, from cradle to grave.
How readers voted: From Vaughan's tears to Watson's near miss
With nearly four times as many votes as the nearest rival, Sir Bobby Robson's final farewell at St James' Park drew a massive 47 per cent of the vote, but how did the other tear-jerker moments of the past decade fare?
Tom Watson, 26 years after his last Open victory, eight months after having his hip replaced and at 58 years old, gave a glorious display at the 2009 Open which polled in second with 12 per cent of the vote. The American rolled back the years at the event, but eventually lost to Stewart Cink in a four-hole play-off. "It would have been a hell of a story." Watson said.
Seve Ballesteros won 11 per cent of the vote for his brave battle with a brain tumour. The much respected golfer was "gravely ill" at a Madrid hospital last October, sparking fears the game would lose one of its greats. However, the Spaniard recovered well after completing chemotherapy.
The distressing sight of Paula Radcliffe sobbing by the side of the road after breaking down in the marathon at the 2004 Olympics drew 10 per cent of the vote. "I just felt numb," she said.
The emotional night at Old Trafford just five days after George Best's passing took 10 per cent. Fans decorated the stadium with shirts and flowers to celebrate his life during a League Cup tie.
The 2005 Ashes winning captain Michael Vaughan tearfully resigning as England captain polled 4 per cent of the vote, as did Lewis Hamilton's reunion with his mother and step-mother after his 2008 Chinese Grand Prix win
Alan Shearer's failed attempt to save Newcastle from relegation last season took two per cent of the vote.Reuse content