By the time the train pulled into the Central Station in Newcastle on Friday night, we had already heard the news. For those Tynesiders who had been away for the day, you still had to see it in black and white. There it was, on the front page of the Evening Chronicle: a great, beaming photograph of the great, genial giant of a man and the words, "Bobby Dead".
Up at St James's Park, it transpired, the locals had been paying their respects to Sir Bobby Robson. The towering cathedral of a football ground had been opened to the public and flowers, scarves and banners were spread across the lower reaches of the Leazes End. Not just the locals had come in. One shirt tied to a barrier bore the message: "England's number one, Italia 90. Thank you, Sir Bobby." It had been written in felt-tipped pen on a red and white Sunderland shirt.
Down the road at the Stadium of Light flags were flying at half-mast. It had been announced that Sunderland's players would be wearing black armbands for their pre-season match at Celtic Park yesterday. Sir Bobby had been a regular matchday visitor to the boardroom of Newcastle United's local rivals in recent years. "Everyone sparkled when they saw him enter the room," Niall Quinn, Sunderland's inestimable chairman, said in a club statement. "The intensity with which he discussed tactics was a sight to behold – with pepper and salt pots as defenders and sugar bowls as strikers." It brought a knowing smile to the face.
It was a rare post-match press conference at St James's when Sir Bobby desisted from grabbing some prop – tea cups, biscuits, sugar lumps – to illustrate the finer points of the beautiful game. He could sit there for an age, completely absorbed in his language of love, football talk. Those of us with deadlines to meet would have to slide out of the room like errant schoolboys. You always felt a pang of guilt.
It was always the same – win, lose or draw. Back in April 2003, Manchester United rolled into town on the back of a 3-1 beating at the Bernabeu. Newcastle were the Harry Limes of the Premier League in those days: the Third Men, behind Arsenal and Manchester United. A win would have put them three points behind the Mancunian United with five games to play. They lost 6-2 to a team playing with the swagger of the Harlem Globetrotters.
"I saw Manchester United outsmarted in Madrid," Sir Bobby said in the press room afterwards. "Today I've seen Manchester United outsmart and outmanoeuvre us." Through the pained expression, a twinkle in the eye broke out as he proceeded to analyse the opposition. "We couldn't get near Nicky Butt or Paul Scholes," he said. "In particular Scholes. He was brilliant. What a player that boy is."
That was Sir Bobby. Passionately devoted to the cause of his team but always hopelessly in love with the game. At Newcastle, the object of his boyhood affection, he met his perfect match – like Kevin Keegan before him. Neither of them, of course, managed to put any first-class silverware on the table at St James's Park but they both brought the glory days back in the form of some glorious football.
Keegan's team of 1995-96 might have achieved the crowning glory of the Premier League title had the crossbar at the Gallowgate End not come to the rescue of Manchester United – along with an inspired Peter Schmeichel – during a first-half bombardment in the pivotal contest of the campaign; the Reds held out, pinched victory with a second-half sucker-punch of a Cantona goal, and proceeded to win the title by four points. Sir Bobby's boys of 2002-03 finished third after that 6-2 thrashing, 14 points down on Manchester United, who finished five points clear as champions.
Sir Bobby's Dazzlers were a more polished all-round bunch than Keegan's Cavaliers. They played sparkling stuff at St James's, starting with an 8-0 win over Sheffield Wednesday in September 1999. Alan Shearer scored three in the first half, and in the dressing room at half-time the multi-millionaire was promised a Mars bar by his new manager if he bagged another hat-trick after the interval. He only scored two more. "I guess I'll have to buy my own Mars bar now," he said.
Sir Bobby got the best out of Shearer at Newcastle and out of many others too: Craig Bellamy, Nolberto Solano, Gary Speed, Kieron Dyer, Laurent Robert, Jermaine Jenas, Jonathan Woodgate fleetingly. He also got Newcastle to the semi-finals of the Uefa Cup, the competition he had won in 1981 with his Ipswich side of Thijssen, Muhren and Co. They were beaten by Marseille and two Didier Drogba goals.
That was at the back end of the 2003-04 season. Newcastle had slipped from third to fifth. Four games into the following season he was sacked. Freddy Shepherd, the Newcastle chairman at the time, said he felt like "the man who shot Bambi". By then, Newcastle were struggling to cope not just with Manchester United and Arsenal but also with the burgeoning buying power of Chelsea and Liverpool.
From the perspective of a club presently in meltdown – in the second tier of English football without a manager and without a committed owner – it is difficult to see the golden days that Sir Bobby brought to St James's ever returning.
Just how golden those days were was reflected in the warmth of the reception the good footballing knight received from all corners of the ground when he made what proved to be a farewell visit there last Sunday for the rematch between the England and Germany World Cup semi-finalists of 1990 in aid of his cancer charity, the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation. In a message posted on his website, www.sirbobbyrobsonfoundation.com, Sir Bobby wrote: "Wow!!! What a fantastic reception I received... The people of the North-east did me proud." The feeling was entirely mutual. It was summed up by Marie Hird, one of the hundreds leaving donations on Sir Bobby's site yesterday. "The Durham lad did good," she wrote. "A true legend. A man of the people. RIP."
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