The world mourns legend who loved game intensely
Sir Bobby Robson’s death has sparked outpourings of grief from Newcastle to Barcelona. Michael Walker salutes a man admired all over the world
Saturday 01 August 2009
There was snow on the cobbles of the back lane leading to the restaurant off Newcastle's Chinatown but, mobile phone in hand, 10 days before his 70th birthday, Bobby Robson skipped over them and into the warmth.
A huge black overcoat was removed – to meet Robson was to encounter a man taller and broader than imagined – and within seconds a knife and fork were lost in the hungry grip of big hands. Bobby Robson could begin.
This was February 2003 and we were due to be engaged in an exercise in nostalgia to mark a date that was causing Robson concern. He was anxious that people would think differently of him at 70 rather than at 68 or 69. "Yes, you're right," he said, "I am sensitive about it."
It seemed faintly ludicrous that Robson was still worried about what others thought of him. Newcastle ended January 2003 top of the Premiership and besides, he had by then accumulated more than 50 years in the unforgiving world of professional football, 36 of which had been in management. He was England manager when the country swooned afresh at Italia '90. He was self-defined.
On this day he interrupted lunch once to take a call confirming Newcastle were signing Jonathan Woodgate from Leeds – part of the re-invention of Newcastle as a top-four club – and then to take one from Jose Mourinho, manager at Porto. "Let me tell you about Jose Mourinho," he said.
Mourinho, Robson knew as his assistant at Porto and Barcelona, so while that afternoon Robson mentioned old-time Newcastle players such as Albert Stubbins and George Robledo, his vast experience across the continent and inexhaustible desire to be in the fulcrum of the game meant he knew too the value of Woodgate and Mourinho. There was the odd moment of guilt about this. Reflecting on the half-century sweep of relentless activity, of being driven by the game above all else, Robson spoke of the damage that it had caused to his family life and to his wife Elsie. He called himself a "chauvinist" as he explained: "After England, I told her we were going to Holland, I didn't ask her. Then I told her 'we're going to Portugal'. I said I'd accepted a two-year contract at Sporting Lisbon. She said: 'You've done what?' I said: 'It'll be good, it'll be different, just a couple of years and I'll retire.' Then came Porto – she liked it there, made English friends who were into port wine. Then I said we were going to Spain. She said: 'Why?'"
Elsie must have had some inclination of Robson's character when she was working in the Sunderland Infirmary and first met the then Fulham midfielder. As others have testified down the decades, and yesterday, Robson was incapable of disguising his love for football.
"The first time I came across Bobby was when Walter Winterbottom selected him for his first game against France at Wembley in November 1957," Sir Tom Finney recalled. "He was a bag of nerves in the tunnel, all agitated because it was his debut.
"After the game he was chatting away as if he'd been playing for England all his life. That was Bobby, always thinking and chatting about the game, and always talking so much common sense."
Jimmy Armfield, another England colleague, emphasised the same thing. "What struck me, even back then, was how much he genuinely liked playing. You could tell he had an adventurous spirit, something which marked him out from the rest."
A sense of adventure, intelligence, ambition and formidable energy, these took Robson and Elsie from the Co Durham mining village of Sacriston and out across the globe.
What Robson also possessed was steel. If in latter years he was portrayed as avuncular, Robson knew he was a different man within. "This game's too tough to get away without being hard," he once said. "You can't always be genial and I have that streak in me, don't worry about that."
One of five sons to Lillian and Philip, Robson was immensely proud of his parents' achievement in bringing up a family in a hard-times mining village. The edge it gave him was evident in the stand-up fight he had early in his managerial career with Ipswich players. That physicality was mentioned by Sir Alex Ferguson yesterday in his homage to Robson.
"In my 23 years working in England there is not a person I'd put an inch above Bobby Robson," Ferguson said. "I mourn the passing of a great friend; a wonderful individual; a tremendous football man and somebody with passion and knowledge of the game that was unsurpassed.
"His character was hewn out of the coal face; developed by the Durham County mining background that he came from. His parents instilled in him the discipline and standards which forged the character of a genuinely colossal human being. He added his own qualities to that which then he passed on to his sons.
"The strength and courage he showed over the past couple of years when battling cancer was indescribable. Always a smile; always a friendly word with never a mention of his own problems. The world, not just the football world, will miss him."
The Ipswich incident proved that Robson could make enemies, but that is a fact of life for managers. The achievement at Ipswich dwarfs any criticism. For the club to win the FA Cup and the Uefa Cup in the space of three years – at a time when both trophies were truly cherished – is an outstanding feat. That it was done with style and spirit was a reflection of Robson's sporting personality. Who could not be won over by a man who slept with the FA Cup under the bed?
They were saying fond farewells in Spain, Portugal and Holland yesterday as well as England and Ireland because of that attitude. This was someone who managed Arnold Mühren, Romario and the original Ronaldo as well as Kevin Beattie. That breadth meant Steve Howey could speak of once being sworn at in Spanish, Portuguese and English all in one sentence by Robson.
Even though he had never played for Newcastle, Robson was back at St James' Park by the time of that incident. After Kevin Keegan's departure in 1997, Newcastle had moved for Robson. But he was at Barcelona and felt unable to break his contract.
Once Ruud Gullit met his end, though, in 1999, Robson said yes: "My father's club." It took two seasons of stabilising first, but Newcastle then rushed the top four with Alan Shearer rejuvenated and Craig Bellamy and Nolberto Solano playing feet-first, fast-flow football that had the pulse quickening.
The Champions League was reached and Robson was abroad again. He was thriving, Newcastle were thriving. But within any football club there exist tensions and Newcastle and Robson could not escape these. Finishing fourth and third in 2002 and 2003 upped expectation in 2004. Newcastle came fifth, winning just one of their last seven games and losing the semi-final of the Uefa Cup to a Didier Drogba-inspired Marseilles.
After four games of the next season, Robson was dismissed. There was no mass protest on Tyneside.
A brief spell alongside Steve Staunton with the Republic of Ireland followed, but club management was over for Robson. Then the cancer kicked in for the fifth time. With typical gusto Robson started fund-raising, which is why he was back at St James' last Sunday night for an England-Germany charity match.
It looked from the stands like there were tears from Robson as "Nessun Dorma" was sung once more. Paul Gascoigne was doing his best not to cry. All present understood the occasion. They did so in the setting where it all began for him, on the terraces with his father.
Robson once described football as his "disease". But it was one he loved, one he carved a life from, one that took him from the pits to cathedrals like the Nou Camp and to the World Cup. It was one that brought him back to the North-east, one that helped him fight the other disease that finally took him away yesterday at the age of 76. Bobby Robson loved football and in return it loved him back.
Knight of the realm: Robson's life and times
*Born 18 February, 1933, Co Durham
*Club career 1950-56, 62-67 Fulham 1956-62 West Bromwich Albion 1967-68 Vancouver (player-manager) 20 caps for England, four goals
1990-92, 98-99 PSV Eindhoven
1992-94 Sporting Lisbon
1999-2004 Newcastle United
*1950 Signed for Fulham, aged 17. Scored 68 goals in 152 games
*1956 Joined West Bromwich Albion for club-record £25,000, scoring 56 goals in 239 appearances
*1957 Makes England debut in win over France, scoring twice
*1967 Appointed player-manager at Vancouver before season in charge at Fulham
*1969 Takes over at Ipswich Town
*1978 Beats Arsenal to win the FA Cup
*1981 Leads Tractor Boys to Uefa Cup with win over AZ Alkmaar
*1982 Appointed England manager
*1984 Fails to reach European Championship finals
*1986 Leads country to World Cup quarter-finals, where Diego Maradona's infamous 'Hand of God' goal, helps Argentina overcome England 2-1
*1988 Exits European Championship finals at group stage
*1990 Extra-time wins over Belgium and Cameroon put England through to World Cup semi-final with West Germany. Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle miss in penalty shoot-out. Takes reins at PSV Eindhoven. Awarded CBE
*1991 Wins first of two Dutch titles
*1992 Takes over at Sporting Lisbon
*1994 Appointed manager at Porto; wins two league titles and one cup
*1996 Moves to Barcelona
*1997 Wins Cup Winners' Cup, Spanish Cup. Voted European Manager of Year
*1998 Returns to PSV
*1999 Appointed Newcastle manager
*2004 Sacked by Freddy Shepherd
*2005 Given freedom of Newcastle
*2006 Consultancy role with Ireland
*2007 Given BBC Sports Personality of the Year Lifetime Achievement Award
*2008 Granted freedom of Ipswich
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