Letter From Barcelona: `Sir' Bobby is paella prince

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The Independent Online
SHOULD BOBBY Robson succeed in salvaging the leaky Newcastle vessel, should the Magpies soar through the Premiership once more, there will be no shortage of Geordies arguing that the man deserves a knighthood.

Some might say he deserves one already. Lesser British ambassadors routinely receive this tribute. Robson has served 10 enormously successful years in missions abroad, not least as coach of Barcelona Football Club, a job whose demands are beyond the imagination of the most venerable Foreign Office envoy.

But, barring a miracle at Newcastle like the European Cup in two years' time, this is one prize likely to pass the returned exile by. Never mind. He will not be too woebegone. For he does have a significant consolation. No. More than a consolation. The satisfaction, the pride, the glory of knowing that there is a corner of a foreign field where they have gone right ahead and endowed him with their highest honour.

This correspondent can now reveal, in the pages of The Independent for the first time, a secret that the modest Robson has kept hidden for the last three months. That here in Barcelona or, to be more precise, here in the small town of Sitges (just south of Barcelona) where he used to live, he already IS a knight. Yes. That's right. And there are some 60 witnesses to prove it.

On the afternoon of Monday 7 June, at a ceremony as rich in pageantry as in champagne, Bobby Robson, the coal-miner's son from County Durham, was solemnly admitted to the Order of Knights of the Paella Club of Sitges. This is not, one should hasten to add, an award lightly given. Sitges was founded by the Romans, but only three, maybe four, such knighthoods have ever been bestowed.

The occasion was the high-point of a cycle of festivities prompted by the return "home", after a year's absence, of the coach who arrived in Barcelona in 1996 under the impossible burden of replacing Johan Cruyff; who for six months underwent criticism more lacerating than any he had experienced since his worst days in the England job; and who departed a year later laden with trophies and the esteem of a grateful and repentant public.

If Robson were to walk a hundred yards down a Barcelona street today he would receive a hundred warm handshakes. It's not that he is perceived to be the greatest coach the club has ever had. Cruyff, who also starred as a Barca player, was the man who finally won them the elusive European Cup. But Robson, under whom they won the Spanish Cup and the European Cup-Winners' Cup, was always, as they say here, "un Senor", a title best translated as "a True Gent". Even the press that had once crucified him reported the news last week of his appointment to the Newcastle job with headlines like "the Return of a Maestro", "Welcomed like a Hero" and, in a jocular barb at the enormity of the task he faces at Newcastle, "God help Grandad".

In Sitges (winter population 15,000, summer population about 20 times more) the locals loved him right from the start. His candour, his warmth, his bluff nobility, won them over. The good burghers of Sitges, Barca fans to a man, rewarded him on that June day with the highest prize they have to offer. The setting for the quarterly luncheon of the Paella Club was the cavernous dining room of a magnificent stone-wall mansion set among the vineyards that grace the town's periphery.

Robson was seated, like a medieval lord, at the head of a long table. Vast quantities of paella having been consumed, Robson received orders from the three extant knights to arise. Whereupon, in a ritual that whiffed of good-natured blasphemy, rice (uncooked) was tossed over his head as, first, the assembled diners bellowed out the Paella Club's official anthem and then one of the ordained knights intoned the club's "10 commandements", each of which Robson was entrusted to uphold. Having sworn, among other things, never, ever to praise a bad paella, a large round medal in the form of a plate of rice, seafood and chicken was hung around his neck, a historic moment (for never before had a non-Catalan received this honour) that was greeted by the assembled club members with hearty applause.

A couple of hours earlier it had been Robson's turn to hand out medals. To the competitors in a golf tournament (average score 102) that had taken place that morning in the local course. An annual competition, played twice so far, that has become known as "The Bobby Robson Classic".

Robson himself had taken part, hitting his drive from the first tee at 8.00 am. Those few remaining Newcastle fans who harbour doubts as to "grandad's" stamina might like to know that he, and his wife Elsie, had been out dancing the night before till two in the morning.

John Carlin