Bobby Robson’s passing was an event charitably marked by the soccer world. He left the world at 76 as one of the major coaches in the world with a CV as impressive as any.
While his two heroic World Cup exits dominated most of the obituaries, his achievements in coaching winning teams in four countries are to my mind his greatest. England is traditionally insular when it comes to the great game it invented and during most of Robson’s tenure in charge of the national team, its club sides were banned from European competition, entrenching the cultural divide.
So Bobby’s sexagenarian odyssey through Eindhoven, Lisbon, Oporto, Barcelona and Eindhoven again was unique among his Anglo contemporaries. He was born and died a Geordie but secured his place in the manager hall of fame from this exceptional continental interlude in the last quarter of his life. In the first half of the twentieth century a host of English coaches had sailed from Dover to spread the soccer word but come the 1980s there were few working overseas and most of them in the Iberian peninsula such as Malcolm Allison and Terry Venables. Since then, the only Englishman with a comparable international resume would be Roy Hodgson.
Robson was dyed-in-the-wool Judi Slot English before his grand tour and his only overseas playing and coaching experience was with Vancouver in the NASL in 1967-’68. Action for England in the 1958 World Cup followed, plus a glorious UEFA Cup triumph with Ipswich in 1981, but Robson was still regarded as tactically stubborn and too ‘English’ throughout the 1990 World Cup and even when he announced that joining PSV would “complete my footballing education.”
The Dutch tradition of collectivism in the dressing room came as a culture shock to a man used to the manager being the boss, but two titles followed in Holland, a feat he repeated with Porto in Portugal. I recall watching Robson in action as Barcelona coach when Ronaldo scored a hat-trick at Atletico Madrid. He had an unenviable task replacing Johan Cruyff, and despite bagging the Spanish Cup and European Cup Winners Cup, the blaugrana’s second place in La Liga meant he had to make way for Louis Van Gaal. In reality, Robson had only been recruited, unbeknownst to him, as a stop-gap before Van Gaal became available, and even first place might not have been enough to save him.
The last stop on his footballing odyssey was his native Newcastle, where his three top-five finishes have risen in esteem since the Toon have fallen on truly hard times.
Robson regarded his eight years as England manager as his pinnacle and rued the shoot-out agony of Turin for ever after. Alf Ramsey won the World Cup for England, but no-one has come closer before or since to matching that achievement than his successor at Portman Road and the FA. The two fell out after Ramsey saw fit to slam Robson in a column for The Sun, a crime he never forgave him for.
As England coach, Robson was the first to suffer a merciless manhunt from the London tabloids, an unrelenting vilification which was visited on successors Graham Taylor and Steve McClaren, both northeners like Robson. By contrast they held their fire from cockney geezer Terry Venables and for a while, Glenn Hoddle and civilised Swede Sven-Goran Eriksson. England managers as fair game in the firing line seems the norm now, but it was Robson’s mauling in the mid 1980s which kicked it off, when Rupert Murdoch forced Fleet Street into the gutter.
“Quite ridiculous, outrageous and obscene what happened to me,” said Robson in 2003 of his baptism of press fire.
Among the epitaphs, Brian Glanville’s treasure chest of memories unearthed Robson’s struggles in his first managerial job at Ipswich when he had actual fisticuffs with recalcitrant players, and an England player revolt over the team formation a good five years before the well-documented volte-face at Italia ’90, when Chris Waddle and two other senior players persuaded their coach to ditch his beloved 442 and field Mark Wright as a sweeper.
His continental experience, particularly in Portugal, did broaden his tactical mind and he won European Manager of the Year while at Barcelona and a UEFA Order of Merit more recently. And yet no novels have been written or films scripted about his life as they have about the maverick Brian Clough, whose threatening presence kept Robson in a job despite the debacles of Euro ’84 qualification and the Euro ’88 finals, where England lost all three games embarassingly.
Imagine if his resignation letter had been accepted in 1988 – England’s glory at Italia ’90 might never have happened.
Had Robson led one of the big five in England he might have been more highly regarded, although Alex Ferguson has been quick to assert there has been no greater man in British football in his lifetime. While not as heavenly as Ferguson or Guus Hiddink then, Robson remains clearly in the first division of European coaches of all time.
What every obituary writer has correctly identified is his shining decency and boundless enthusiasm for the sport. Spanning six decades of top-level football, by the end Robson appeared to belong in another era, but his gentlemanly values are ones we should all emulate, including his Porto and Barca assistant Jose Mourinho. A photo of the two together is now a tableau of contrasting characters.
His three autobiographies are reasonably interesting but tell us less about the inner man than his interviews or the fly-on-the-wall vignettes in Pete Davies’ landmark book about England at Italia ’90, All Played Out.
Robson schooled some great players including Luis Figo, Patrick Kluivert, Gary Lineker, Romario, Ronaldo and Hristo Stoichkov, and almost everyone who worked with him seems to have found him impossible to dislike. Robson was passionate about performance, but never threw a teacup or turned on the hairdryer. He was more often seen with his arm around a player, encouraging him like a father does his child.
His working-class values of sticking together for the common good and being polite in public were too often mocked. The tabloid press treated him abominably when he managed England, then ate their words when he almost won the World Cup. This week The Sun has been churning out predictable plaudits without mentioning its bilious campaign to get him sacked 20 years ago. Barcelona used him for a season, leaving him to agree with Gary Lineker’s assessment that the Camp Nou is “a madhouse”. Arnold Muhren, one of his aces at Ipswich, as well as some of his PSV players criticised his tactics, though not his character.
By the time of his final years with Newcastle, Robson had gained the widespread respect he had never really enjoyed before, with the exception of the egregious Toon chairman Freddy Shepherd, whom Robson claimed withheld vital transfer and contract information, before summarily dismissing him in 2004.
A saga of footballing ups and downs therefore, but a great life story by the end of it all. He was a Sinatra fan but Je ne regrette rien could have been as appropriate as My Way at his funeral. Robson suffered too many brickbats but his refusal to lower himself to the level of his detractors spoke volumes about his strength of character as much as his five fights with cancer.