Bobby Robson: One-on-One

Is it true that you lost your place in England’s 1962 World Cup team to a young Bobby Moore? Did you know then he’d go on to achieve what he did?
Steve Cook, Knebworth
I hurt my ankle in training and Bobby came in for me and went on to play what, 107 times? We all knew that Bobby had potential. He was a good-looking boy with all that blond hair and had something about him. He came in and just grew and grew as a player, and what a player. If you’re going to lose your place to anybody, why not Bobby Moore?

At Fulham, did you feel like a Londoner and could you understand the Cockney accent?
Andy Ladd, Bletchley
I adapted as you had to do. It was very different to the North East but I settled in well. I never picked up the real Cockney accent, all that apple and stairs stuff, but I could understand them. I grew very fond of the Cockneys though and I like London very much. I spent several parts of my life in the area, and lived and worked there for eight years as England manager. Add that to my time at Fulham as player and manager and that’s 20 years of my life in the capital, so I love it down there.

Is it true that you learnt of your sacking as Fulham manager in 1968 from London’s Evening Standard?
Mark Riches, Whitstable
I did, yes. I was driving over Putney Bridge and there was an Evening Standard billboard on the pavement declaring, ‘Robson sacked’. I drove on thinking, what Robson is that then, and then it dawned on me. I left the club at 4.30pm and saw that headline about 15 minutes later. It was a monumental... what’s a nice expression for cock up? Let’s just say it was a huge faux pas. I was extremely bitter and very angry.

How long did it take to fall in love with Suffolk when you became Ipswich manager?
Mark Whatling, Ipswich
Oh, it only took about a year. I met a terrific board of directors and a great chairman, John Cobbold. I wasn’t that aware of the area, but my main home is still there and I adore it. I managed Ipswich for 14 years and it was my baby so Suffolk means a lot to me. Will I retire there? Who knows, but it’s a lovely part of the world.

Tell us one crazy story about John Cobbold...
Nick Maltby, New Zealand
I can tell you many. One Saturday, we went to Leicester and were two down after 20 minutes and got hammered. John came to me afterwards and said what enterprising football we were playing, was I doing anything special in training? Confused, I said: “Mr Chairman, we lost, we’re in our yellow kit.” He’s the best guy I ever worked with in football, an amazing character.

Another story about John is he loved a drink. When we won he’d always have a bottle of champagne and when we lost he’d have two. He’s the greatest chairman ever in football. They don’t make them like that anymore.

Would Kieron Dyer have got into the 1981 UEFA Cup-winning Ipswich side?
Gavin Whitfield, Liverpool
Kieron’s good enough to play for anybody but the side I built at Ipswich had a unique shape. We played with two strikers, no wingers, Eric Gates sitting off the front two, two semi-wide midfield players in Arnold Muhren and Frans Thijssen and Johnny Wark sitting in the holding role, so Kieron would have struggled to fit into that formation. Having said that, I believe he would walk into any other side and would do very well. He’s an exceptional talent.

If you had stayed at Portman Road in 1982 could you have kept that side together and would they have won the league?
Harry Panter, North London
Who knows if we would have won the league but we’d come bloody close already. We finished second in 1981 and then we finished second again the following year, which was my last. On both occasions, it went to the last day of the season so we we�re just a fingernail away. We were two players short of a championship-winning side and if I got an injury I couldn’t put in a big-name player like I can now, I had to look at a youngster. In that respect, we did phenomenally well.

It was a brilliant side, the best I ever created or worked with. I had a great team at PSV that won their league, I’m building a good team here, I had fantastic players at Barcelona like Figo, Ronaldo, Luis Enrique, but that Ipswich team was phenomenal [Sir Bobby’s eye’s light up with the memories].

The likes of Gates, Brazil, the two Dutchmen, they were brilliant. It was a perfect system and one we created to suit the players we had. With Wark in the middle, Gates could push on, but if there was a problem, one whistle from the dug-out and Gates was back alongside Warky, the Dutchmen would go wide and it was a straightforward 4-4-2.

On the way to winning the UEFA Cup in 1981, we went to St Etienne who had a brilliant team full of French internationals who would light up the World Cup a year later. They had Platini, Battiston, Larios, the Dutchman Johnny Rep, and we beat them 4-1 in France. Unbelievable times. I shall never forget them.

What, if anything, did Paul Mariner have to his game that Ronaldo doesn’t?
Viren Soma, North London
Heading ability. The one thing that immediately springs to mind is that if Ronaldo has one weakness it’s his aerial ability. It’s amazing because he’s not a small man, he has a wonderful physique and in training on free technical headers he was great, but put him under pressure with a defender and he couldn’t do it. Mariner on the other hand was a fantastic target man and brilliant in the air. He could win it, he could flick it on, he could pull to the back post, decide whether to go for goal or knock it back. Mariner had what I call vision in the air. That would be the significant difference between the two.

Is it creepy having a statue of yourself up in Ipswich?
Those Were the Days, on-line Ipswich fanzine
Well no, it’s not creepy. It’s what the club, the fans and the borough council wanted to do for me so that was very nice. I’m very proud of it. I don’t think I’ll see much of it but I’m very pleased it’s there.

My mate, an Ipswich fan, tells me you rejected Gazza as a youngster. Did you foresee his behavioural problems and did that make coaching him with England awkward?
William Abbs, Norwich
We sent him home, yes, but he only came to us to have a look, a 14-year-old on trial. We didn’t think about his behaviour. That wasn’t an issue. I didn’t know him very well, but there were never any reports of him misbehaving. He was very chubby – although he showed some ability, he was in poor shape – but being a Geordie lad, Newcastle always had first choice and they were very keen on him, so that was that. Later on, when I had him with England, there was never a problem. Paul was a smashing lad. He was a great trainer; he loved it. I can honestly say I never had a problem with Paul.

Given the choice, would you rather have won the World Cup as a player or as a manager?
DavyBoy via e-mail
As manager. It’s not that I didn’t love playing, I enjoyed it very much and my advice to players is don’t think about management until you have completely finished your playing career. It’s the most wonderful time of your life. But as a player you are representing yourself, as a manager you represent the whole nation, the team, the fans, the whole country. As the manager, you are in control of everything.

If Gary Lineker had handled the ball into the net in Mexico 1986, would you have said: ‘I didn’t see the incident’?
Rhidian, via e-mail
No, I wouldn’t [a serious tone comes into Sir Bobby’s voice]. I would have said Gary conned the referee, it’s a terrible error �and we should never have won a game like that. I was so angry that day, so angry. It still angers me now. Listen, we were playing for the semi-final of the World Cup and we were geared up to knock out the favourites. They had a great team, not only Maradona, they had Valdano and Butragueño [that’s Jorge Burruchaga] but we were on form and confident so to lose to a goal like that was terrible.

God, I was angry with that referee and the linesman. I didn’t talk to them because I was worried what I’d do. The ref was from Tunisia, I think, and for the life of me I can’t recall where the linesman was from, but it was some other sub-standard football country. Tunisian football has improved but in 1986 Tunisia was far from recognised for its football so to put a Tunisian in charge of a game like England-Argentina – what a shambles!

What was your lowest point as manager of England and how close were you to resigning?
Marc Milmo, London
The lowest point would have to be after the European Championships in 1988 in Germany. We played very badly, lost all three games and ?I handed in my resignation. I went to Bert Millichip who was the FA’s chairman, and a wonderful man and said, “I’ll walk.” Bert said, “Why would you want to do that?” I replied that we’d played poorly, the press were on my back and it might be best if I go. “If you can stick it, so can we,” he said, so I stayed and that was that.

Had England been successful in the penalty shootout against Germany at Italia 90, do you think you would have won the World Cup?
Stuart McCann, via e-mail
You can never say, can you, but my gut reaction would be yes. We had a score to settle after meeting Argentina in Mexico and the ‘Hand of God’ situation. Argentina had several of their best players out for the final and we were just coming good and were very much in the groove. We had exceptional team morale. Our team had developed into a side that was very hard to beat – well nobody beat us, did they? We were so disappointed to go out, absolutely gutted. Even now talking about it I get upset, I’ll never forget that feeling because we would have really fancied ourselves in that final. We would have loved every minute of it.

In the 1990 World Cup semi-final, could you have done anything different? I heard you were thinking of subbing Peter Shilton for Dave Beasant in the last minute because he had a better record at penalties?
Paul Hancock, Wetherby
That idea passed me by, yeah. Shilton was probably not so great at penalties so bringing on Beasant crossed my mind. The thing is if you do it and you succeed you’re a genius, if you do it and you lose the first thing people will say is “Why did you take off your No 1 keeper and bring on your third choice?” We stuck with Shilton and as it turned out every penalty the Germans took was a cracker that no one would have saved. That was also the case six years later at Wembley.

What were the fundamental differences between working on the continent and working here?
Mark Hall, Tottenham
In a professional sense there were some differences that I preferred. Abroad we’d stay at a hotel the night before every match including those at home. I’ve thought about doing that here – we did it before the big game against Sunderland in September and it worked.

The main difference, though, is that in every job I’ve had here, I’ve always had a secretary and couldn’t have got by without them – I still can’t. In 10 years abroad, I never had a secretary because abroad you don’t get all the requests and invitations you receive here. I get 80 letters a day in England, over there I’d get 10 a week and would answer them myself.

On the other hand, here I get no interference from the board, it’s all down to me when we do training and what happens with the team. Abroad I was just the coach, so what happened off the pitch was out my hands and I don’t miss that. It was a problem but you have to adapt to a different way of doing things and I felt I did. In all my time abroad, I never bought one English player and never brought in my own staff. Not once. I think it helped me settle. My Portuguese staff and Spanish staff appreciated it because they’d been worried about their jobs, and I benefited as I became closer to a particular culture and mentality.

I won’t lie, I was tempted to buy English players and very nearly bought Alan Shearer at Barcelona. We needed a centre-forward and the chairman asked if I knew one. I told him: “I know a cracker, he’s English and he’s top.” It was just after Euro 96 and I approached Ray Harford at Blackburn. Ray told me he wasn’t for sale, and could I not disturb him by letting the press know of our interest. I told him he could trust me, and a week later Alan was sold to Newcastle! We got Ronaldo instead.

How do the pressures from the Spanish press differ from those in England?
Allon Hoskin, via e-mail
We had press conferences every day over there, but there seemed to be less pressure. I had a good working relationship with the press in Spain and they respected me which always helps. I had a couple of guys who didn’t like the fact that an Englishman was working in Spain and they gave me stick, but I didn’t let it bother me.

Barcelona has two papers dedicated to the football club and, like The Mirror and The Sun, they are very much in competition. Every page has to be filled with nothing but Barcelona so the press are a massive presence. The young Spanish players are brought up learning how to deal with the press, though, and that doesn’t happen here so our young players struggle a bit, I think. As manager, I had to do a pre-match press conference, a post-match press conference, and then a mid-week conference. For all the others, I’d send a player and they were fine with that.

How’s your Dutch?
Rob Blake, via e-mail
Heel Moeilijk, which means it’s very difficult. I did try to learn it but everyone speaks English to you over there so it becomes hard to pick it up. Not like Portugal where I had to learn – and quick.
Is it true that you’ve twice been approached about the Southend manager’s job? (I remember the Express running the story about 10 years ago!)
Bernie Friend, Leigh on Sea
Yes, I was, you know. [A long pause]. I’ve been offered the Westend [er, that’s Southend, Sir Bobby] job twice. Now where was I when it first happened? [Another pause] I think I had come to the end of my contract at PSV and I had the choice of going home or on to Portugal (to Sporting Lisbon). I got an offer to take on Southend United and develop the club. I didn’t really think about it to be honest, Portugal was too good an offer. John Adams was chief executive at Southend and said I should consider taking  on a smaller club as I’d done my big projects at home and abroad. I had other ideas though.

You famously refused the job of Geordie Messiah in favour of honouring your contract at Barcelona. Did this cut deeply especially as you could see us under-achieving with various plonkers in the manager’s seat?
Al Osbourne (bleeding black and white), via e-mail
It was extremely difficult but I was under contract and it was as simple as that. To be honest, I had waited 18 years to get to a club like Barcelona so I was in no huge rush to get out of there. The club was doing well, we had won the Spanish Cup and so it was difficult. I went to the chairman to gauge how he felt about me leaving and he just shrugged the suggestion off: ‘No you are our coach and you have a contract,’ so I couldn’t go anyway.

Does it make you proud being the oldest manager in the Premiership?
John McDonnell, The Wi�rral
Proud? I don’t think about it at all, it never dawns on me. I’m just doing what I want to do, getting up, going training. Age to me is just a number. You are either old and you feel old or you’re old and you feel young. I want to go to work and I love working with young players because they keep me young.

Would you be in favour of the Premiership becoming smaller in order to give England more time to prepare for major tournaments?
Graham Maylam, Reading
Yes, I would. It would have to be assured that the clubs outside the top six would not lose a penny because they need all the money they can get, but I would be all for fewer games.

How important do you think it is for Newcastle to have a Geordie chairman, a Geordie manager and a Geordie captain, and do you think other clubs should follow the trend?
Richard Mennear, Hartlepool
I’m not worried about other clubs. Sir John Hall, when he was in charge and was revolutionising the club, was very keen on a local input and actually wanted a Geordie team. He felt very strongly about that. That would take some doing, but our current chairman is delighted as he thinks it’s very important. I agree with him, it’s important for somewhere like Newcastle to have locals involved because there is such a strong attachment to the club from the public. For Geordies to see local boys in charge at different levels within the club is special and makes them feel good. It helps them trust us.

Do you ever get an urge to sing along with the Toon Army?
Michael Oldfield, via e-mail
No, no but I hear them and I like it. Our travelling support is fantastic and very loud, but on a big occasion there is nowhere like St James’ Park. Wow!

You have given us Newcastle fans a team to be proud of again, but what timescale can you put on us realising our dream of being champions?
Alex Ferrario, Romford
You can never put a timescale on it. We continue to try and improve, but everybody else does the same. We invest, but then Arsenal invest, Liverpool invest so we’re trying to catch up. It’s a difficult question to answer. We haven’t been champions since 1927 so that tells you how hard it’s been. What I will say is this – Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United are where we want to be. We need more investment but it’s not that easy so we have to continue building a team to match this wonderful stadium.

Do you believe Jermaine Jenas will develop into a dominant midfielder like Patrick Viera? Gary Speed does well in this role but is not in the Vieira, Keane, Gerrard class.
Martin Turnball, Swindon
First of all JJ (Jenas) is going to develop into an outstanding midfield player, but not like Vieira. He’s different. Vieira is strong, powerful and gets box-to-box. JJ has good legs and gets about but he is more silky with the ball. He won’t have that power but he can do great things with the football.

As for Gary Speed not being as good as Keane, Vieira and Gerrard, that’s a bit unfair because you’re talking about the three best midfield players in this country. It’s a harsh comparison. Gary Speed is massive for us and has been very good for Newcastle United Football Club.

Of all the honours you have won with some of the greatest clubs in the world which one has given you most satisfaction?
Mark Leader, Mansfield
I couldn’t answer that. They are all so special and so different. I won the Spanish Cup, the English Cup, the Cup Winners’ Cup, the UEFA Cup, the Dutch Championship – that was very special because we beat Ajax who were the bigger club but we created a better team. My Ipswich team gave me so much satisfaction but they all have different merits and came at different stages of my life so it’s too difficult to say really.

Which one player do you consider to be the best signing you’ve ever made?
Andrew Gardner, Halifax
Ronaldo was marvellous. He had one year with me at Barcelona, I bought him from PSV, and he was out of this world. He was a god, absolutely fantastic. He had amazing ability, was a great young athlete, a nice character, respected me and it was sad he only played eight months for us there. I enjoyed watching him in the summer and was so pleased for him. The year he had with us you could see he was going to be phenomenal. He was so strong, would go past people, come deep to get the ball, turn and whatever you put in front of him there was a chance he could always go through you. Power and skill.

Having had the pleasure of watching the likes of Maradona, Gazza and Ronaldo at close quarters who do you consider to be the player with the greatest God-given ability?
David Munro, Manchester
I once saw Ronaldo score a goal for Barcelona where he beat five or six players. As I’ve said, he was phenomenal. I had Romario who was excellent as well, but Maradona at his best was the best I ever saw. A superb player. Ronaldo would be a close second though.

From the February 2003 issue of FourFourTwo.

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Gary Parkinson is a freelance writer, editor, trainer, muso, singer, actor and coach. He spent 14 years at FourFourTwo as the Global Digital Editor and continues to regularly contribute to the magazine and website, including major features on Euro 96, Subbuteo, Robert Maxwell and the inside story of Liverpool's 1990 title win. He is also a Bolton Wanderers fan.