Robson plots another winning 'homecoming'

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Sir Bobby Robson was standing on the steps of Newcastle's team hotel waiting in the driving rain for his players to arrive.

The downpour might have reminded him of the sodden day 13 years ago when he had accompanied PSV's players through the streets of the city to celebrate Eindhoven's capture of the Dutch title, accompanied by a brass band.

The Newcastle manager had travelled ahead of his players for the first leg of tonight's Uefa Cup quarter-final. He has deep and enduring links with the Netherlands and was keen to renew them. From his home in Suffolk, he used to claim that it was easier to travel to Holland than to Sheffield, and it was in the Netherlands that he fashioned some of his more memorable European nights.

There was the defeat of Alkmaar that won Ipswich the Uefa Cup in 1981; Barcelona's victory in the 1997 Cup-Winners' Cup final; and last year's dramatic 3-2 triumph over Feyenoord in the De Kuip stadium that saw Newcastle progress to the second phase of the Champions' League having lost their first three games in the competition. Craig Bellamy thought it was the highlight of his career, better even than scoring the winner for Wales against Italy in his home city of Cardiff.

Yesterday evening, Robson dispensed easy charm. Going to PSV, who could almost treble the £80,000 a year he earned as the England manager, had made him a better coach. "I had to re-educate myself," he smiled.

One Dutch journalist asked how it felt to be regarded as some kind of footballing saint. His 71-year-old face creased with a kind of happy embarrassment as he replied that the questioner should ask his wife.

When news leaked of his appointment at PSV, just before the 1990 World Cup, it should be recalled that Robson faced the same barrage of hostility that surfaced when Sven Goran Eriksson was photographed entering the house of Chelsea's chief executive, Peter Kenyon. "Traitor" was one of the more hurtful headlines.

The bonhomie will cease tonight. Jermaine Jenas said the fixture felt like a Champions' League encounter. PSV Eindhoven were good enough this season to have beaten Deportivo La Coruña here, they were good enough two years ago to eliminate Leeds United from the Uefa Cup and they were good enough four years ago to disembowel Manchester United. And outside their haven of St James' Park, Newcastle are a deeply questionable commodity.

This season Newcastle have won more away games in the Uefa Cup than they have in the Premiership. "There is a reason for that," Robson said. "The matches in the Uefa Cup have not been as hard as in the Premiership, although Basle were tough. Now we are down to the last eight, anything weak has disappeared. If we win, we play Marseilles or Inter Milan."

But although the competition is the only route by which Robson can satisfy Tyneside's craving for silverware, there are too many pitfalls for it to be discussed openly. Across the river on Wearside they speculated about Sunderland making the Uefa Cup and the FA Cup final: all they had to do was overcome Millwall. "Our best chance of winning a trophy is when we get to the final," Robson said. "If we think we are nearly there, we will last one game.

"Look at Arsenal, they were going for the Treble a few days ago and now they are out of two cups. Football is a hard, hard game. Look at Real Madrid. When Raul scored on Tuesday night, they were 5-2 up and they must have thought the game was finished. Monaco knocked them out: that's why this is such a wonderful game."

PSV Eindhoven (probable 4-4-2): Wattereus; Bogelund, Colin, Bouma, Lee; Park, Van Bommel, Vogel, De Jong; Vennegoor, Kezman.

Newcastle United (probable 4-4-2): Given; Hughes, Bramble, Woodgate, Bernard; Jenas, Dyer, Speed, Robert; Bellamy, Shearer.

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