I’ve struggled overnight to think of something fitting to say about Sir Bobby Robson. Reading the tributes that have poured in from across the country, bridging the partisan divides that football creates, and around the world, it is clear that this man’s love for the game was matched by the affection he was held in by those of us who watched it. Robson was, by all accounts, a good player who would have added to his 20 England caps were it not for an untimely injury.
In two spells at Fulham, he would have been frustrated by our lack of ambition. He suffered relegation first time around and, when he returned after a salary dispute with West Brom, any chance he had of picking up silverware was hampered by the swift sale of Alan Mullery and Rodney Marsh. Typically, Fulham ended his managerial career all too quickly too – and, as Robson established himself as one of the country’s brightest managerial talents, we began to slide further and further away from the top flight.
His achievements at Portman Road were remarkable. Ipswich twice finished as league-runners up, beat the heavily favoured Arsenal 1-0 in the 1978 FA Cup final (and Ipswich should have won by more than that slender scoreline) and won the UEFA Cup with a thrilling 5-4 aggregate win over AZ Alkmaar. In all of his time at Ipswich, they finished outside the top six only once and this was all the more impressive for the fact that Robson relied heavily on prospects from the club’s youth development programme.
It is probably for his success as England manager that Robson will be most fondly remembered. Who knows how far we might have gone in 1986 without the ‘Hand of God’ goal in 1986? A fact forgotten in all the gushing tributes penned by the journalists is that Robson was vilified and nearly hounded out of the England job. First, after failing to qualify for the 1984 European Championships and then when a disastrous Euro ’88 campaign was followed by a dismal draw in Saudi Arabia. Throughout all this Robson was dignified in front of the media and aware of his position – twice his resignation was rejected.
When the FA did decide to terminate his contract, the news came out just before Italia ’90. Robson was decried as a traitor by the English press for negotiating a deal to coach PSV Eindhoven after the tournament and cartoon strips, including one called ‘Booby,’ depicted him as a clueless, bumbling, buffoon. After their traditional slow start, England progressed all the way to the semi-finals, where they should have been West Germany, only to lose on penalties.
Robson’s success continued at PSV, where he won the Dutch league in two successive seasons, and at Sporting Lisbon, where he finished his first season in third place and was sacked with the club at the top of the Portuguese league for the first time in 15 years. He was sacked by Sporting’s maverick President, who frequently signed players without his manager’s consent, because Sporting had crashed out of the UEFA Cup.
Snapped up by Portuguese giants Porto, Robson had his revenge over his former employers in the Portuguese Cup final and led Porto to two straight league titles, despite suffering from melanoma. A chance phone call to discuss Luis Figo led to a job offer from Barcelona. Robson brought a young Brazilian, Ronaldo, to the Camp Nou and led Barcelona to the Spanish Cup, the Spanish Super Cup and the European Cup Winners’ Cup in the same season. He was voted European manager of the year for 1996-97 and was perhaps too quickly moved upstairs.
Robson returned briefly to PSV before spending four years at Newcastle, where he resurrected the career of Alan Shearer and lifted the Magpies from the relegation zone to regular European football. He was sacked by Freddy Shepherd early in the 2004 season, a decision which could be seen as the beginning of Newcastle’s slide which reached its lowest point with their relegation this season. His love for football continued in a consultancy post with the Republic of Ireland, numerous awards and an insatiable appetite for the game.
Robson continued to raise money for his foundation and cancer-stricken children in the North East right until the last. He was warm, friendly, funny and a gentleman: quite simply, a man who will never be forgotten.
Readers might wish to make a donation to the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation or sign the book of condolence which is open at Craven Cottage today.