The Shearer parallel appeals to Robson, Newcastle's hero of '69
Sunday 03 April 2005
Newcastle United have been this way before. The last time they won a trophy of first-class value they had to beat the Sporting Clube de Portugal - Sporting Lisbon, to give them their Sunday name - along the way.
That was in the second round of the Inter Cities Fairs Cup in the 1968-69 season. The difference between the clubs, who meet again in the first leg of the Uefa Cup quarter-finals at St James' Park on Thursday night, was Bryan "Pop" Robson - all 5ft 8in of his goal-poaching excellence. The winner he struck in the second leg on Tyneside is regarded by longer-toothed aficionados of the black and whites as the finest ever scored by a Newcastle player in the club's 100 matches in European competition.
"I don't know about that," Robson said, blushing at the assertion. "There have been some great goals over the years. Alan Shearer has scored some decent ones, hasn't he? It was one of my favourite goals, though. Tommy Gibb floated a free-kick to the edge of the box, Wyn Davies got his head to the ball, and I got on the end of it with a volley."
Not just any volley. Robson sprung a good three feet off the ground to get his right foot to the ball, and he propelled it with a force that threatened to rip through the Gallowgate End net and send it halfway to Gateshead. It secured a 1-0 win on a chill November night and a 2-1 success on aggregate.
Robson plundered six goals in total as the leading marksman in that triumphant Fairs Cup campaign. "It was all pretty simple stuff," he reflected, looking out over the Slaley Hall golf course, close to his home in the Northumberland market town of Hexham. "The Continental sides hadn't come across a player like big Wyn before ['You'll not see nothing like the mighty Wyn,' the Gallowgate crowd used to chant in tribute to Robson's 6ft 1in striking partner]. The plan was to aim balls into the box for Wyn and I would pick up the pieces.
"We were very strong through the middle of the team, with Willie McFaul in goal, and Bob Moncur and Ollie Burton at the centre of defence. The present Newcastle side have that strength too. They've got quality all the way through, from Shay Given in goal to Alan Shearer up front. We were a pretty young team, though, and Europe was new to us. Newcastle now have more experienced players - players who are really ready to win something. It's hard for them with the home leg first, but they've got enough about them now as a team to progress. They've got enough in the locker."
Graeme Souness's side, of course, have Alan Shearer in the locker for their twin assault on this season's Uefa Cup and FA Cup, and for 12 months beyond. "It's great news for Newcastle and for Graeme Souness," Robson said, Newcastle's 34-year-old captain having announced his intention to continue playing. "You need players like Alan Shearer in your team. He's crucial for Newcastle. He came back to the North-east to try to win something and I hope he succeeds. It's a tragedy that a club like Newcastle haven't won anything since 1969."
Robson himself played in England's top division as a 38-year-old. In his last game in the old First Division, in May 1984, he scored a goal that saved Sunderland from relegation. He hung up his boots a year later, as a 39-year-old player-coach with Carlisle United in what was then the Third Division.
His longevity as a nimble poacher of goals - "the best striker England never capped," Jimmy Greaves called him - owed much to the sharpness and poise he gained from the extracurricular training he undertook with Len Heppell, a former professional ballroom dancer. They started working together after Robson's prowess as a county-standard table-tennis player brought him into contact with Heppell's daughter, Maureen, an England international player.
"Lennie could spot things in your movement and he knew how to improve them," Robson said of the man who has become his long-time father-in-law. "I spent the summer of 1968 working with him - playing table tennis and running and doing little exercises to improve my sharpness. It was just simple stuff, working on reactions and balance and poise, but it made a massive difference to me.
"I had been a canny little player before that, getting nine or 10 goals a season, but that next season I scored 30 - 24 in the League and the FA Cup and six in the Fairs Cup. The season after that I scored 25."
Robson continued to prosper as a top-flight scorer after moving on from Newcastle to West Ham, earning the Football League's Golden Boot for his 28 First Division goals in the 1972-73 season. Now 59, and working as a scout for Birmingham City, he looks fit enough to keep popping in the goals, although, for the record, the nickname came not from his ability to deposit a football into a net swiftly but from being one third of a group of school friends known as "snap, crackle and pop".
Pop and Maureen have three grown-up children, Louise, Stephen and Gemma, and a grandson, Joseph. "Joseph's four," Pop said. "Stephen's already had him along to St James' Park, so he's black and white." Just like the 36-year-old television footage of his proud grandfather in his goalscoring, trophy-winning pomp.
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