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Sir Bobby Robson can hold his head high

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Sir Bobby Robson can hold his head high

By Tim Rich

 

His first journey in football began on the 10 o'clock bus from Langley Park, one of the pit villages that encircle the great cathedral city of Durham. By 12.15 Bobby Robson, his brother, Ronnie, and his father, Philip, who missed one shift in 51 years working the Brockwell and Harvey Drift seams, would be at the gates of St James' Park. The team of Shackleton, Stubbins and Milburn awaited and, unknown to the Robsons, Bobby and Jack Charlton would have made similar journeys from another Northumberland pit village, Ashington.

 

Sir Bobby Robson's final journey as a football man will be made on another bus, in rather more comfort, to the bulk of Cardiff's Millennium Stadium tomorrow in what is likely to be his last match as the Republic of Ireland's consultant. The man he was chosen to mentor, Steve Staunton, has already been fired and, finally, one of the great figures of the English game can take a retirement earned many times over.

 

In between those two journeys, Robson has endured a voyage like few others. He managed Fulham, Ipswich, England, PSV Eindhoven, Sporting Lisbon, Porto, Barcelona and, 43 years after he watched them play, Newcastle United, a club that never strayed far from his heart.

 

It gave him a breadth of vision available to few others. When, in 2002, Kevin Keegan returned to St James' with Manchester City for the first time since his resignation, Robson was reminded that it was Keegan, a man with whom he enjoyed a sometimes uneasy relationship, who had transformed Newcastle into "a big club." Robson leant back in his chair. "Was not Newcastle a big club when I queued all day and couldn't get a ticket for the FA Cup final in 1951?" He has written four volumes of autobiography and the names of two films shot in the pit village of Langley Park, Days of Hope and The Stars Look Down, could have served as the title for any of them.

 

He won championships in Portugal and Holland, two European trophies and an FA Cup and with reasonable luck would have won several more, perhaps most poignantly, a World Cup.

 

He managed players such as Ronaldo, Romario, Luis Figo, Bryan Robson, Alan Shearer, Paul Gascoigne and, perhaps his favourite of all, Kevin Beattie, who arrived at Ipswich from Carlisle with his boots in a brown paper bag and whom Robson regarded as the finest British talent since George Best.

 

He was also - and this is too often forgotten - a formidable footballer in attack, midfield and finally defence; good enough to be chosen ahead of Stanley Matthews for the 1958 World Cup, before losing his place in Chile, four years later, to Bobby Moore. David Beckham owes Robson something of a debt of thanks; while at Fulham he was the first footballer to negotiate a deal for 'image rights,' a fee of three guineas for his photograph to appear on cigarette cards.

 

He always knew his own value. He returned romantically to rescue a Newcastle side wrecked by the vanity of Ruud Gullit and whose chairman, Freddy Shepherd, thought was beyond salvaging. But he would not do it for their original offer of £400,000 a year. By the time of his messy, premature dismissal, he had twice qualified Newcastle for the Champions League and taken them to a Uefa Cup semi-final. PSV Eindhoven offered him a fresh horizon after the torrents of stress he had endured with England, but they also doubled his salary.

 

He is regarded along with the likes of Alan Bennett and Elton John as "a national treasure," famed for his overwhelming desire to talk football and for storming out of an England press conference and walking straight into a Wembley broom cupboard, but that is to entirely misread the man.

 

In 1992, just as Robson was delivering Eindhoven their second Dutch championship, the playwright, David Hare, was invited to observe Neil Kinnock's election campaign at the very closest of quarters. He produced a play, The Absence of War, with its key observation of the Kinnock character, played by John Thaw, that: "If a man is soft on the outside and hard on the inside, he is a healer. If he is hard on the outside and soft on the inside, he is useless."

 

Robson was very hard on the inside, strong enough to reduce the likes of Kieron Dyer to tears. Nobody becomes manager of Barcelona without being hard on the inside.

 

There are some who would argue that Robson does not belong in the ranks of the great British managers that include Sir Matt Busby, Sir Alex Ferguson, Jock Stein, Bob Paisley and Brian Clough. The doyen of this nation's football writers, Brian Glanville, argued that Robson was "a lucky manager". Unlike the others, he never won a European Cup or even his own domestic championship. That is to miss a very great point. All the others, bar Clough, found themselves at the heart of vast football empires; it would have been remarkable had they not reached the summit.

 

Ferguson's greatest football achievements lie not at Manchester United but in the bleak surroundings of Pittodrie, damp with spray from the far reaches of the North Sea, where he fashioned a side capable of beating Real Madrid in a European final.

 

Until his one season at the Nou Camp, where, beset by a Catalan media that struggled to accept him as a replacement for the iconic figure of Johan Cruyff, Robson never managed one of the great clubs. And when he did, they won the Cup-Winners' Cup, the Copa del Rey and the European Super Cup and with two more points they would have won the Spanish League. The football they played, as it was played under Robson at Ipswich and Newcastle, was a thing of attacking beauty.

 

Before Barcelona, he had opportunities to stand on the greatest stages. He could have managed Leeds after Don Revie, Manchester United after Dave Sexton and Arsenal after George Graham. Had he done so, perhaps Ferguson would never have come to Old Trafford and perhaps there would still be the cry of "Arsene Who?" "If," he would often remark, "is the biggest word in football."

 

And if Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle had converted their penalties against West Germany in Turin, England would probably have overcome a stuttering Argentina, whose hopes rested entirely on the willpower of Diego Maradona, in the 1990 World Cup final.

 

With England, Robson justified Glanville's description of him as "lucky." He was fortunate to have had the unstinting backing of Sir Bert Millichip at the FA, who twice rejected his resignation. He had failed to qualify for the 1984 European Championship, made the quarter-finals of the Mexico World Cup that followed and finished bottom of the group in the 1988 European Championship. He would not have survived now.

 

Robson's brief was made more difficult because English football was sick. The Heysel disaster had prevented clubs playing in Europe. It was a time of rampant hooliganism, when the Mexican press could greet England with the words "The Animals Are Coming." It was a time when, unlike Tony Blair, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher did not even pretend to be interested in the game. In West Germany in 1988 England had fewer travelling supporters than any country bar the Soviet Union. To borrow the title of the seminal book about the 1990 World Cup, English football was 'All Played Out'.

 

From that, Robson fashioned a campaign, backed by the sweep of Luciano Pavarotti's Nessun Dorma, that would energise a nation. At London's Liverpool Street Station, commuters were greeted with: "British Rail regret to announce that Cameroon have gone 2-1 up." They announced Gary Lineker's goals, too. The television viewing figures for the semi-final with West Germany were the highest for a sporting event in this country. None of his players, outraged by years of tabloid abuse, would speak to the press. But Robson kept on talking and eventually the men who had vilified him saw their victim justified. The middle classes fell in love with the game, Sky Television was two years away.

 

Robson and Terry Venables are the only two England managers to have left their jobs to applause. And yet their post-England careers proved very different. While Venables dissipated his talents in a stream of unsuccessful projects - at Portsmouth, Crystal Palace, Leeds and Australia - Robson entered the most extraordinary phase of his career.

 

He was 57 when he went to Eindhoven, which would be followed by Lisbon, Porto and, finally, Barcelona. He was the same age as George Graham and seven years older than Kenny Dalglish were when they finished as managers. For both men, football was said to 'have passed them by.' It never overtook Robson.

 

His years as an Englishman abroad represented an astonishing footballing education. It was something that someone like Ferguson might have done but never did. Everywhere except Sporting Lisbon he found success and even there, he met with compensations; it was where he was first introduced to Jose Mourinho, who became for five years first his translator and then his confidant.

 

What made his successes in Eindhoven, Porto and Barcelona so remarkable was that they were achieved in the grip of cancer. In Holland he endured an operation for cancer of the colon, which compared to the one that removed a tumour from his face in 1995, seemed almost ordinary. The surgeons severed his lip, cut a flap of skin down from his eye, removed his teeth and drilled a hole in the roof of his mouth. He was gently advised never to work again.

 

Instead, he overcame the disease, returned to Porto, won the Portuguese championship and then agreed terms to manage Barcelona. When asked why he had hired Robson, Barcelona's president, Joan Gaspart, replied: "Because he is a gentleman."

 

A life in football

 

1933 Robert William Robson born on Feb 18 in Sacriston, Co Durham

1950 Signs professional contract with Fulham and makes debut aged 17 - 152 apps, 68 goals

1956 Signs for West Bromwich Albion for club record £25,000 - 257 apps, 61 goals

1957 Debut for England. Goes on to win 20 caps and score four goals

1962 Finishes playing career with Fulham

1967 Appointed manager of North American Soccer League's Vancouver Royals

1968 Returns to Fulham as manager, but cannot save them from relegation to second division

1969 Appointed Ipswich manager

1973 Wins Texaco Cup

1978 FA Cup

1981 Uefa Cup

1982 Succeeds Ron Greenwood as England manager after World Cup

1984 Fails to qualify for European Championship. Offer of resignation is refused

1986 England lose World Cup quarter-final after Diego Maradona's 'Hand of God' goal and five minutes later his 'Goal of the Century'

1988 England knocked out at group stage in European Championships, again offer of resignation is refused

1990 Loses to West Germany on penalties in World Cup semi-final

1990 Appointed head coach of PSV Eindhoven

1991 PSV are crowned Dutch League champions, a title they retain in 1992

1992 Moves to Sporting Lisbon

1994 Hired by FC Porto

1994 Portuguese Cup winners

1995 Portuguese League champions (title retained in 1996)

1996 Moves to Barcelona

1997 Lifts Spanish Cup, Spanish Super Cup, European Cup-Winners Cup

1998 Returns to PSV Eindhoven

1999 Appointed Newcastle United manager

2004 Sacked

2006 Appointed to the role of International Football Consultant for the Republic of Ireland

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Guest alex

He's a giant of the game like. One of the best managers Newcastle has ever had anarl.

Edited by alex

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Robson = Legend.

 

Theres often a debate as to whether he was born in Sacriston or Langley like.

 

Sacriston = Fact.

 

Stevieintoon would probably have Robson down as a mackem like...

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1999 Appointed Newcastle United manager

2004 Sacked

 

 

Just read down the time line of his life and those two lines make me baulk :)

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Robson = Legend.

 

Theres often a debate as to whether he was born in Sacriston or Langley like.

 

Sacriston = Fact.

 

Stevieintoon would probably have Robson down as a mackem like...

 

Definately born in sacriston. Moved to Langley Park at 1 ish i think.

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Robson = Legend.

 

Theres often a debate as to whether he was born in Sacriston or Langley like.

 

Sacriston = Fact.

 

Stevieintoon would probably have Robson down as a mackem like...

 

Definately born in sacriston. Moved to Langley Park at 1 ish i think.

 

 

Aye the langley lads try and claim otherwise like.

 

but its refuted by pure fact.

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we never should have sacked him. we've been on a downward curve ever since.

 

loving this line -

 

He is regarded along with the likes of Alan Bennett and Elton John as "a national treasure," famed for his overwhelming desire to talk football and for storming out of an England press conference and walking straight into a Wembley broom cupboard, but that is to entirely misread the man.

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