In praise of Sir Bobby Robson

Sir Bobby Robson’s death hurts.

In a game that often seems to have the morality of a snake pit, he was a thoroughly decent man who was revered for his passion, success and commitment throughout European football but mysteriously, never got the respect he deserved in England. 

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A fine inside-forward and half-back for Fulham, West Brom and England, he starred in the great 1960/61 England side that beat Scotland 9-3 but missed the 1962 World Cup with an ankle injury.

If he and striker Bobby Smith had been fit, England might have done better than the last eight. Such ill luck would pepper his career as manager.

Heading home against Hull - 1953 

For many years after the semi-final of Italia 90, he would recall, with incredulity, the width of the post that had denied Chris Waddle and England a place in the final.

In his first proper managerial job at Fulham in the 1960s, he learned he had been fired from an Evening Standard hoarding.

At Sporting Lisbon, his reward for steering a shambolic club to the top of the Portuguese league for the first time in 15 years was the sack in December 1994.

At Barcelona two years later, given the impossible task of replacing local football deity Johan Cruyff, he won the Cup-Winners’ Cup but was still moved upstairs to make room for Louis van Gaal.

At Newcastle, he was their most successful manager since Kevin Keegan but was summarily dismissed after an iffy start to 2004/05.

Yet Robson was no nearly man.

He won the FA Cup and UEFA Cup with Ipswich, the Eredivisie twice with PSV, the Portuguese league twice with Porto (where fans dubbed him “Bobby Five O” because the team won 5-0 so often), the Cup-Winners’ Cup and the Copa del Rey with Barcelona.

Leading Ipswich to the runners-up spot twice was, even in the more open context of English football in the 1970s, some feat, especially as he only signed about 14 players in 13 years at the club.

Honoured in Ipswich 

His England reign has never been properly evaluated.

His World Cup record – the last eight in 1986 and the semis in 1990 – puts him behind only Sir Alf Ramsey in the pantheon of England managers (although Robson’s record in the European Championships was much less impressive).

He had the misfortune as England manager to be confronted with a peculiarly vicious press pack who made fun of his habit of misnaming players, his expression (he had the demeanour, said one writer, “of a man who suspects he has left the gas on at home”) and tactical acumen.

At one point, Robson ruminated: “The papers think the World Cup is just for them.”

He had a point and, as his successors struggled to match his achievements, it became clear that he had actually managed England far more effectively than many hacks cared to admit.

Even so, some writers have tried to take the shine off his glory at Italia 90 by insisting that the tactical shift to a sweeper and away from 4-4-2 was the players’ idea, not his.

Robson denied this vehemently but even if you take the least flattering view of this episode, you have to credit Robson for having the imagination and the flexibility to try the tactical switch.

His greatest legacy to European football, apart from his dignity, passion and the cultured football his teams invariably played, is probably the talent he has nurtured and discovered.

Gazza, Romario, Ronaldo, Arnold Muhren, Peter Beardsley, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Terry Butcher and Kevin Beattie all owe a debt to him, while Frank Arnesen and Jose Mourinho learned a lot from working with him as they rose through the coaching system.

"Here's a tenner, go and do something about that hair..." 

Robson’s integrity, courage and determination reminds me of Albert Camus’s remark that “a man does not show his greatness by remaining at one extreme but rather by touching both at once.”

Robson’s life has spanned the extremes of European football.

He will be particularly mourned in Barcelona, Birmingham, Eindhoven, Ipswich, London, Newcastle and Porto, but his memory will endure throughout the European game.

He once said of Neil Webb: “Everybody’s special, but Webbie’s special special” – and then left him on the bench for most of Italia 90.

Many coaches and players are special, but Sir Bobby was “special special.”

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