Robson was the doyen of the British game, a national institution
whose public image had been comprehensively rehabilitated since the days
of his unfair and frequently hysterical media maulings during his reign
as England boss in the 1980s. In fact, he was an immensely able,
honourable manager who never deserved the tabloid-fed calumny which
descended on his head. His international record bears favourable
comparison with all but one of his predecessors � Sir Alf Ramsey, whose
side lifted the World Cup in 1966.
Eventually, when his career could be placed in perspective, and
particularly following his emotional stint in charge of his childhood
favourites, Newcastle United (1999-2004), his public stock rose
approbation, and the chance to guide his country's fortunes, sprang from
his achievements at club level with unfashionable Ipswich Town, for whom
Robson had operated on a comparative shoestring to create delightful
sides which could hold their own, and sometimes more, against the finest
in the land. Once ensconced on the international front, he never brought
home a trophy, but Robson's England endured horribly unlucky elimination
from successive World Cup tournaments and had their moments of triumph
along the way. In addition, it should not be forgotten that the
north-easterner had been a good wing-half-cum-inside-forward who won a
score of caps at a time when there was no shortage of high-quality
performers in both positions.
Robson hailed from the mining community of Sacriston in Co Durham,
the fourth of five sons of a father who missed only one shift at the
coalface in 51 years. Having noted the bleakness of that life, young
Bobby was determined to avoid the pit and did so at first by becoming an
apprentice electrician at his neighbourhood colliery.
Of course, Robson's ultimate
salvation was football. It was both his obsession � later he would
describe it as his drug � and what he did best. After starring at
schoolboy level, he was given trials by Middlesbrough and Southampton,
both of whom rejected him. Nothing daunted, the 15-year-old
inside-forward continued to impress and two years later a posse of clubs
was hunting his signature.
Robson chose Fulham, enlisting with the Londoners in May 1950 and
making his First Division d�but within a year. He revelled in the
friendly atmosphere fostered by the chairman Tommy Trinder and shone in
an enterprising line-up which also included Johnny Haynes. Despite
relegation in 1952, Robson made steady personal progress, a confident
but level-headed young fellow who brought both skill and industry to his
twin roles of creating and scoring goals. Inevitably he attracted
attention from the top grade and in March 1956 he joined West Bromwich
Albion, a successful club at the time, for a then-hefty �25,000.
When England recognition arrived in November 1957, Robson responded
with two d�but goals in a 4-0 rout of France, suggesting that a lengthy
international stint was in prospect. But selection policy was markedly
inconsistent in those days, the team being picked by committee, and soon
he was discarded. It was to be two years before he regained his place.
During 1960/61, Walter
Winterbottom's England team enjoyed a glorious undefeated sequence,
winning seven games and drawing one, scoring 44 goals in the process.
Sadly, they peaked too soon for the 1962 World Cup, just before which
the 29-year-old Albion skipper was dropped, never to play for his
country again. However, international football had not seen the last of
West Bromwich, though, had. During his Midlands sojourn he had
supplemented what was then a paltry income for a married man with two
(later three) sons by coaching schoolboys. But with the lifting of
football's maximum wage restrictions in 1961, the way was clear for
clubs to reward their players more handsomely. Some did, Albion didn't
and Robson demanded a transfer, returning to Fulham for �20,000 in
August 1962. Back at Craven
Cottage, he flourished in a mainly defensive role, bringing class to an
indifferent side's annual struggle to avoid demotion from the First
Division. Meanwhile, having been encouraged by Winterbottom to develop
his coaching, Robson assisted Oxford University, and when he retired as
a player in 1967 he set his sights on management.
After rejecting offers to coach Arsenal and to become player-boss of
Southend United, he took charge of Vancouver Royals with the great
Hungarian hero Ferenc Pusk�s before returning to Fulham in January 1968
to take over an ailing club.
Robson was unable to prevent relegation and, despite major
reorganisation of his staff, the Cottagers performed poorly in Division
Two and the rookie manager strove, at times, to exercise authority over
former colleagues. Following a row with a director, Robson was sacked in
November and found himself on the dole.
However, his luck was about to turn. After scouting briefly for
Chelsea, he became boss of Ipswich Town in January 1969, thus beginning
one of the most fruitful periods of his life. Not that it was all plain
sailing at Portman Road. Despite establishing a rapport with the
generous-spirited Cobbold family, who owned the club, Robson began by
presiding over several disappointing seasons at the wrong end of the
First Division. He had inherited a weak side and there were
confrontations with players, including one bout of fisticuffs, as he
settled in. When a vocal
minority of Ipswich fans demanded his sacking, Robson feared the worst.
Instead, the board persevered with their man, and, gradually, the tide
turned. Despite not having the cash to compete on equal terms with rich
clubs, he assembled a first-rate team, built around the likes of Mick
Mills, Kevin Beattie and Allan Hunter. In 1973 they finished fourth in
the table, equalling the feat in 1974, then improving to third in 1975.
Thereafter they finished out of the top six only once in a decade,
missing the title only narrowly on several occasions.
They did have their moments, however, winning the Uefa Cup in 1981,
though for the sheer joy it brought, even that could not equal their
heady and massively popular victory over Arsenal in the 1978 FA Cup
final. An operator of
Robson's calibre was bound to receive periodic offers. But as the
chances to leave Portman Road came in, so he spurned them. He could have
gone to Leeds, Newcastle, Barcelona and Manchester United among others;
but instead he remained loyal to Ipswich and the Cobbolds, treating them
as they had treated him. It did him huge credit.
However, there was one temptation from which Robson could not walk
away. He had been interviewed for the England post when Don Revie upped
sticks in 1977 and had run the international "B" team between 1978 and
1982. When the opportunity of the top job came his way in 1982, he
accepted. He got off to a
solid start, despite early vilification for the axing of Kevin Keegan.
But, predictably in view of England's failure to reach the 1984 European
Championship finals, his "honeymoon" was woefully short. After one
Wembley defeat by Russia he was spat on and showered with beer, but that
was nothing compared to what certain newspapers had in store. Chief
persecutors were The Sun, which produced badges proclaiming "Robson Out,
Clough In", though that, in its turn, was mild compared with what would
follow later letdowns.
Around this time Robson was head-hunted once more by Barcelona, but
he demonstrated his strength of character by refusing the Spaniards for
a second time. In the short term he was rewarded by one of the finest
results England have ever managed, victory in Brazil, but by now all
attention was centred on the 1986 World Cup. England duly qualified,
then stuttered in their early matches in Mexico before recovering,
thanks largely to Gary Lineker's hat-trick against Poland, to reach a
quarter-final against the eventual champions, Argentina. That day
Robson's men were undone by Diego Maradona, who scored twice in his
side's 2-1 win. The first was the infamous "Hand of God" goal, and the
second was a work of pure genius. England threatened a draw, but
couldn't quite achieve it; they had been unlucky, but Robson deserved
praise for orchestrating a noble effort.
It wasn't quite like that in 1988 when England lost all their games
in the European Championship finals and returned home from Germany in
disgrace. Now Bobby Robson's relations with the press hit a new low. He
was castigated mercilessly, being told to "Go in the Name of God". Then,
after a drab showing against Saudi Arabia, this was amended to "Go in
the Name of Allah". Very droll.
Clearly there was a limit to what one man could take and, after
England scraped into the 1990 World Cup finals in Italy, Robson
announced that he would quit after the tournament. The build-up games
inspired little faith but the team progressed, with a measure of good
fortune, to a semi-final confrontation with West Germany. Here, for the
first time, they played like potential champions, with the maverick Paul
Gascoigne showing signs of realising his phenomenal potential. But just
as Robson was poised on the threshold of emulating Sir Alf Ramsey by
reaching a World Cup final, luck deserted him. The Germans having taken
a fortunate lead, England equalised through Lineker and proved the
stronger side, only to die the most dreaded of soccer deaths, by penalty
shoot-out. At least, however,
an emotional Robson could bow out on a decent note. It was the least he
merited after eight years in which he had presided over 47 victories, 30
draws and only 18 defeats, as well as carrying out vast amounts of
unsung youth coaching work.
If there were ever any doubt about his ability, it was laid to rest
emphatically in his subsequent career. He led PSV Eindhoven to two Dutch
titles, thus laying to rest the championship bogey that had haunted him
at Ipswich. Then came a move to Sporting Lisbon, which ended
surprisingly in the sack, and a more successful spell with Porto, whom
he guided to a European Cup semi-final in 1994 before winning two more
After undergoing a second cancer operation in 1995 (the first had
been in 1992), Robson recovered rapidly and turned down the chance of
managing Arsenal. Still, though, his drive remained strong and a year
later, aged 63, at last he accepted an invitation from Barcelona. In his
first term, despite the recruitment of the star Brazilian striker
Ronaldo, the side made an uncertain start and as the pressure of
colossal expectation mounted, Robson ran into political problems with
the autocratic club president Josep Nuñez. By New Year 1997, the Ajax
coach Louis van Gaal had been lined up to replace Robson at season's
end, but the Englishman embarrassed his employers by inspiring his men
to double glory, Barcelona beating Paris St-Germain to lift the European
Cup-Winners' Cup and Real Betis to take the Spanish Cup.
Now he was impossible to sack,
so when van Gaal arrived for 1997/98, Robson was shunted "upstairs" to
become director of recruitment, a glorified chief scout, a post he held
for a year before taking over again at PSV.
In 1999 he returned to England and accepted a Football Association
offer to become mentor to the next generation of England coaches, but in
September he got the call from the club he had loved as long as he could
remember, Newcastle United. At
St James' Park, where he replaced Ruud Gullit, he found a strife-torn
club at the foot of the Premiership; morale was low, indiscipline was
rife and there were wounds to heal. He began by restoring Alan Shearer
(who had been dropped by the Dutchman) to the side and the England
centre-forward responded by scoring five goals in Robson's first home
match, an 8-0 annihilation of Sheffield Wednesday.
The new boss immediately infused the place with his infectious
enthusiasm. He overhauled the coaching regime and began team-building,
at first without much money, but eventually with a substantial budget.
He transformed United's fortunes. In that first campaign they reached
the semi-finals of the FA Cup and enjoyed an enlivening Uefa Cup run.
Then, after another season of consolidation, they topped the table in
December before finishing fourth in 2001/02. The following summer
Robson, who had been appointed CBE in 1991, was knighted.
Newcastle rose to third in 2002/03 and attained the second group
phase of the Champions League. In 2003/04 they made an appearance in the
Uefa Cup semi-finals, where they lost to Marseille, offering
compensation for dipping to fifth place in the League. All the while
Robson represented traditional and sensible sporting values while
continuing to radiate his passion for the game, and at times he was
understandably perplexed by the boorish or careless attitudes of some of
the young millionaires in his charge.
Some observers doubted whether a septuagenarian was capable of
controlling the volatile likes of Craig Bellamy and Lee Bowyer, and on
the eve of the 2004/05 season, Robson's position was undermined by the
chairman, Freddy Shepherd � one of the directors caught mocking the fans
so disgracefully � who announced that Robson's contract would not be
renewed in the spring. At the end of August Robson was summarily sacked
by Shepherd, but on the day of his departure it was his and not the
chairman's dignity which shone through the storm clouds gathering over
St James' Park. Even after
that, after everything, Robson remained eager to be involved in
football, and in January 2006, now aged 73, he was named as consultant
to the new Republic of Ireland boss Steve Staunton. Soon, there followed
a third successful cancer operation, though his vulnerability was
underlined that August when, after being appointed honorary president of
Ipswich Town, he fell ill 10 minutes into their game against Crystal
Robson stepped down from his Irish role in November 2007, and in
March 2008, as he launched a foundation at Newcastle's Freeman Hospital
to help in the fight against cancer, he spoke of battling the disease
for the fifth time. Already the new charity has raised more than �1.3m
and he was still campaigning for it indomitably on Sunday, when he
attended a fundraising game, a re-run of the 1990 England-Germany
semi-final, at St. James' Park.
Bobby Robson was a sensitive and decent man, a truly
accomplished manager who rose courageously above an army of petty
tormentors. Though he never achieved his ambitions of lifting the World
Cup or the English League crown, he came close enough to earn real and
lasting honour in the game to which he devoted his life.
- The Independent Obituary