Step up Bobby Robson, my man of the year

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The Independent Online
THE LIST-WRITING season has arrived. Journalists all over the land are compiling their top 10 of this and their most-hated 100 of that. So in a fit of rebellion I've decided to spare you my top 100 footballers of all time, and you'll just have to wait another year for my list of the world's most spectacular goal celebrations. Unless I receive a ludicrous offer to put them on video and sell it in Woolworth's for pounds 9.99.

In the past year there have been a few incidents which epitomise football in the Nineties, most of them depressing. Naming no names, it would be fair to say that Nicolas Anelka's protracted departure from Arsenal has left football fans united in disgust. In a retrospective of 1999 it would be easy to sit here and moan about how bad England were against Scotland, how mercenary footballers are, how disgraceful the Wembley rebuilding fiasco is and how difficult it is to obtain a season ticket these days. So I won't.

Instead, let's search for the story which defines the enduring human spirit, unpolluted by the greedy desire to make a quick buck that infiltrates almost every aspect of the most beautiful game on earth. Alternatively, here's something from the last year that made me smile.

Bobby Robson has nothing left to prove in the game he has earned a crust from for more than 50 years. But our Bobby has far too much passion left in his body to stay at home pruning the garden. If you can earn a living managing the fifth-richest club in the world, let some other bloke trim the roses. Most of us thought the former England maestro's appointment at Newcastle was a stop-gap - get us out of the Gullit mess then we'll look for a younger man to take us on from there, thank you very much. So far so good. With their first away win of the season last Saturday - and Duncan Ferguson's first goal of the year - the Robson effect is working.

Where once there was belligerence between the manager and his players, now there is harmony. Individuals who had been discarded like unwanted Christmas jumpers have been rejuvenated. Only a couple of years ago, Rob Lee was an England regular. Gullit, however, felt he didn't even deserve a squad number, let alone a first-team start. Lee's ostracism reached new levels of humiliation and for crimes unknown, he was deemed unfit to train with his peers.

Then there's Alessandro Pistone, the Italian Under-21 defender bought from Internazionale by Kenny Dalglish. Lord Lucan had nothing on this man - even diehard Magpies thought he'd been transferred, so spectacular and complete was his disappearance. Last Saturday, he was brilliant against Aston Villa, and Lee was back orchestrating the midfield.

Robson took Alan Shearer to one side when he arrived and gave him the support he had desperately been looking for. Shearer had just about reached rock bottom. He wasn't playing well, he was miserable, and Gullit didn't back him publicly. Bad move. Gullit had underestimated the England captain's influence. When he dropped Shearer in his last game in charge against the arch-enemy, Sunderland, the end was never going to be far away.

Robson was right to focus his early attention on getting Shearer back on track, not just because his goals would win games but also because a happy Alan would lead to a happy camp. The difference in mood at the training ground compared to six months ago is incredible. The players are laughing, enjoying their football again. Robson insists that the squad has lunch together after training every day, with him at the head of the table. A family that eats together stays together.

What is most heart-warming for me about the upturn at Newcastle isn't wholly related to the fact that I am a fan, although it helps. The best part about the whole thing is that a man of Robson's years is taking on guys half his age (Bradford's Paul Jewell, for example) in a society which delights in writing off the over-50s. He's also about the only manager around besides Kevin Keegan whose enthusiasm matches the Toon Army's.

He wants to sort out a longer-term contract before Christmas, and the Newcastle board would be crazy not to keep him happy. Meanwhile, Gullit's complex love life still makes the Sunday tabloids. Not even Bobby Robson could sort that mess out.

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