"I thought I'd seen everything in football but when I heard the draw I just couldn't believe it," he said. "I can't begin to tell you how I felt. I just shook my head. The only thought I had was `this is so ironic, it's such a huge irony'."
Newcastle is his home town; the club he supported as a kid. In February this year, when he was still coaching Barcelona but things were going badly and the Catalan press was baying for his blood, Newcastle asked him to come and take over from Kenny Dalglish as manager. Painfully, he said no. He stuck to his guns as Barcelona coach and finished the season in June on a spectacular note, adding the Spanish Cup to the European Cup-Winners' Cup and runners-up place in the Spanish League behind Real Madrid, who pipped Barca at the post by two points.
Then Barcelona sacked him. Or rather, shunted him aside to make way for Ajax's Louis van Gaal, putting on hold a career that has spanned 30 years and seen him reap success at Ipswich, England, Porto and PSV Eindhoven - a team that also figures, no less ironically, in the same Champions' League group as Newcastle and Barcelona.
Robson remains today at Barcelona, employed as the club's Director de Fichajes - head of recruitment. The club signed him on a two-year contract last summer and he remains on his coach's salary, making him undoubtedly the best paid talent scout in the world.
Yet he will be little more than a spectator when Newcastle and Barcelona stage what promises to be a classic encounter at St James' Park on Wednesday. How did he feel? "I can't... I just haven't got the words... It's such a combination of emotions. I mean, this is such an abnormal situation... Look. Let's put it this way, I shall be watching the game with a great deal of interest."
And a great deal of regret, maybe? "No, no, no," he said, without a huge dose of conviction. "My head is clear and I'm trying not to get too emotionally involved about not being there. Of course, Newcastle is my area, my home, but I turned down the job and I'm not looking back. It was the right job but it came at the wrong time and that's that. I'd barely arrived at Barcelona and I wasn't going to let it go just like that. It was a job I'd been waiting to get for 18 years and having got there I didn't want to leave. I felt I had to stay. But yes, of course, it would have been a great chapter in my life to have been involved in this game."
Who did he want to win on Wednesday? "Who do I want to win? What do you mean?" He seemed genuinely amazed at the question. A more vindictive man would have relished the prospect of Newcastle thrashing the club that so outrageously discarded his coaching services.
"I work for Barcelona so there's only one team I want to win. Sure, a defeat for Newcastle will have a tinge of sadness about it. But there's only one team I want to win and that's Barcelona. The same when we play PSV. The first 17 years of my life I spent in Newcastle but I work in Barcelona and they are my masters and that's who I want to win, for sure."
His masters, about whom he refuses to say a bad word, have torn him away from a job that he has described in the past as his drug. How much did he miss the day-to- day thrill of managing a football team? "I am missing it, of course. You can't do anything else. It's like being married to your wife for 30 years and the next day she's not there. You're going to miss her, aren't you? I am missing it but I have my head full of other ideas. I'm clearing my head, and I'm going on. I remain motivated and I'm enjoying my job. For 30 years I've had a team to coach and now I don't have a team to coach but they offered me this job and, well, the fact is I accepted it."
He could have gone to Everton, who made him an offer after Van Gaal took over at Barcelona. He could have gone to Celtic, it is said. Or to Benfica. Instead he is in Egypt. That is where he has been for the last two weeks on orders from Barcelona to look out for fresh talent at the Fifa World Under-17 Championship. "I'm here to try and find players 17 years of age who we might be able to get at a bit less than pounds 18m," he said, talking from his hotel in Cairo.
The best, needless to say, come from that most prodigiously productive of all football playing factories, Brazil. "They have the best team by far," Robson said. "Ghana have some interesting players too. But Brazil, I mean, every one of their players is good and the chances are they've got another two or three teams like that back home. It's amazing."
Robson's job consists of travelling around the world watching football at every level, seeing what players are on the market and building up a network of scouts in Europe, Africa and South America. Barcelona, probably the world's richest club in terms of assets, always like to have as many options open as possible. That was the story behind the Steve McManaman affair. The Liverpool player was one option. Rivaldo, the Brazilian from Deportivo la Coruna, was another. Van Gaal needed a player to play up front on the left. Both MacManaman and Rivaldo fit the bill. But Rivaldo scores goals - 22 in the Spanish League last year. So the Brazilian, who cost pounds 4 more, got the job. The quantity of money splashed out not only by Barcelona, but by Spanish clubs generally, in the last year has been amazing. Barcelona, Robson said, have spent pounds 50m; Atletico Madrid, who captured Juninho from Middlesbrough, pounds 45m; Valencia pounds 25m. "It's a combination of big TV contracts; the income from the large gates you get in Spanish football; and in some cases wealthy owners who are prepared to dig deep into their own pockets," Robson said.
Such was the case with Real Betis, who recently smashed the world transfer record by shelling out pounds 20m for the young Brazilian, Denilson. Betis have nothing like the financial clout, much less the record of success of teams like Barcelona, Atletico and Real Madrid. They are the Sheffield Wednesday of Spanish football.
"It's staggering," Robson said. "But the president of Betis underwites the transfer and he is one of the richest people in Spain. But he's an asset, that Denilson boy. He really is. A year ago we spent pounds 13m on Ronaldo and I thought `God almighty, that's a huge price, it won't go any higher than that'. But one year later we're laughing at that price. Denilson is a very valuable player unless he gets injured. But if he avoids the heavy wagons they'll always get their money back on him, I think. He's an investment at that price because he is 20. I mean, Man United, for instance, paid pounds 3.5m for Sheringham and he's 31 years of age. Now put that into perspective. Put that as a business venture against Denilson and ask yourself, which is the better buy?"
Robson seems to have rapidly acquired the language and habits of thought required in his new role as a player in the global football economy. But it is when asked to offer his thoughts on the the game itself that he fully engages the passions, that he shifts his brain into a higher gear.
Cesar Luis Menotti, now the coach of Sampdoria, observed after a pre- season friendly with Barcelona that Van Gaal's squad - bolstered by the arrival of six new foreigners in the summer - had no shortage of class players. But, Menotti said, it remains to be seen whether they are also a team.
"That's right," Robson said. "Big players get huge salaries, but do they also have the motivation to work their socks off and play their hearts out? That's the challenge of the manager. That's the art. I think Barcelona have got the best squad in Spain and maybe in Europe and the capabilities of Louis van Gaal now are very important to weld those players into a team, to give them that spirit, that heart you need to win the crunch matches."
One man - whom Robson admires - whose capacity to achieve just that is Alex Ferguson. Man for man, Robson believes, Manchester United do not have the same quality as Barcelona. "But if you've got 11 players really pumping away you can minimise the difference in quality. And that's what Man United will do because those kids have been brought up together, brought up the Manchester way, educated in Manchester, full of that committment to the club, working for a common purpose - all those qualities add up to a team that's going to be very hard to beat in Europe."
Hearing him speak you can tell a part of him is aching to return to his great 30-year passion. He will not say it. He has too proper a sense of duty towards his employers. And he does feel a sincere devotion to the club, and to the fans - whose affection he has secured for evermore after last season's heroics. Everywhere he goes in Barcelona he is received warmly. People still beg for his autograph, reach out to shake his hand, applaud him as he takes his seat at the Nou Camp.
He is content, sometimes happy. But there is something missing. Why did he not acept Everton's offer? Again, he will not say. But it is perhaps because the club was not quite ambitious enough for him, because it would require too many years to turn around. As he said last season when he was still coaching Barcelona, "Where do you go after here? It has to be somewhere really big."
Manchester United, Arsenal and Newcastle would fit the bill, but those jobs are taken. Liverpool would meet his requirements, too, and who knows, if the frustrations of recent years persist, whether they might turn their thoughts to Robson? After all - with his track record, knowledge of the international game and uncannily youthful energy - Robson must be, without a doubt, the best out-of-work coach in the world.Reuse content