Anyone re-reading a tabloid newspaper of the late 1980s would find it difficult to believe that Sir Bobby Robson was one of the most successful and likeable football managers of his time.
He took England to the quarterfinals and semi-finals of successive World Cups, where they were beaten by the eventual winners on both occasions, and he won a string of titles at club level with Ipswich Town, PSV Eindhoven, FC Porto and Barcelona.
However, thanks to merciless attacks from sections of the press, his period as England manager, during which he bore the insults with stoicism and dignity, was often traumatic. In his book All Played Out, about the 1990 World Cup, Pete Davies wrote: “He took us to the last eight, then the last four, under torrents of unjustifiable venom and vilification. So it was good, in the end, that he went out triumphant, because it couldn’t have happened to a nicer man.”
Yet the trials by tabloid were as nothing compared to two brushes with cancer in his early sixties; he survived both, and, against the advice of doctors, returned to the training ground.
He ended his career in five years with his native Newcastle United in the Premiership, resuscitating their fortunes and taking the team into the Champions League after Ruud Gullit’s tenure almost led to the Magpies being relegated.
Despite this success, his failure to bring silverware to a club that had failed to win anything for so long tested the patience of its directors who had promised more. There were also tensions between Robson, the product of a proud, self-disciplined working-class background, and the modern generation of multimillionaire players. In August 2004 he was sacked at the start of a new season. It was a shoddy episode, but in many respects typical: Robson was always one of football’s whipping boys.
His sacking at Newcastle was especially painful as Robson had grown up a passionate supporter of the club. And in the period since, he had to watch the club’s calamitous decline as ownership changed and managers came and went. At the end of last season, the club was relegated from the Premier League and remains up for sale and in turmoil.
Robson’s appearance in a wheelchair at a charity match last Sunday at St James’ Park in Newcastle, in which former players from the England-Germany World Cup semi-final in 1990 raised money for his cancer research foundation, was a poignant moment for the club’s fans as they contrasted Robson’s dignity and achievement with their club’s present plight.
Robson was one of many successful footballers of his generation from the North East of England, born in 1933 in the village of Sacriston, Co Durham, the son of a miner who missed only one shift in 51 years of work. Robson followed his father underground aged 15 as an apprentice electrician, returning to a house without a bath or indoor toilet, before heading out to follow “the sporting passion that was to raise me to the surface once and for all”.
His talent as a footballer led to a string of offers from clubs, and he chose Fulham in 1950. Leaving home was a wrench, but while in London he married a fellow North-Easterner, Elsie. And during his six years at Fulham as an attacking midfielder he won England under-21 and B international caps. He played alongside the likes of Johnny Haynes, but also people who awakened an interest in coaching, such as Jimmy Hill and Ron Greenwood, his eventual predecessor as England manager. He moved on to West Bromwich Albion in 1956, an altogether more ambitious and high-profile outfit, and full international recognition followed, Robson going on to make 20 England appearances, during which he scored four goals.
Robson returned to Fulham in 1962, but, as he recalled, his playing career “fizzled out”. He had won no trophies and was especially disappointed to miss out on the England World Cup adventures of 1962 and the triumph in 1966. Life felt insecure. In contrast to today’s football stars, he had not earned much; even when he was an England international, Robson had not owned a car. He began to do more and more coaching, including the Oxford University team. By 1967 he was ready to try his hand at management and after a spell as a player-coach in Vancouver, Canada, he went back to Fulham again, this time as manager. But he was forced to sell players and, not surprisingly, could not deliver success on the field; after only nine months, he was sacked.
It was, however, a blessing in disguise. While doing some freelance scouting, he learnt that Ipswich Town were looking for a manager, and he took the job in January 1969.
Under the enlightened leadership of the Cobbold family — for whom the definition of a crisis was a shortage of white wine in the board room — Robson was given the time and support required to build an attractive, attacking side bristling with home-grown internationals that took the 1978 FA Cup, beating Arsenal 1-0, and with one or two significant changes, the Uefa Cup in 1981, and could have won even more. In the 1980-81 season, in fact, Ipswich came agonisingly close to a treble, but their small squad told against them. Even so, they reached the FA Cup semi-final and were in contention for the League championship until the final day.
With such a record of success, it was natural that Robson attracted the attention of the Football Association, which was looking for a successor to Greenwood as England manager after the 1982 World Cup.
He started badly, England failing to qualify for the 1984 European Championships, and he was abused and spat upon by the Wembley crowd after a 2-0 defeat by the Soviet Union. However, on the South American tour that followed, England beat Brazil in the Maracanã Stadium, and thereafter the team qualified for all three of the major tournaments during his reign.
In 1986 England were eliminated from the Mexico World Cup at the quarter-final stage by Argentina, Diego Maradona following his infamous “hand of God” goal with a sublime second before Gary Lineker brought England to within inches of forcing extra time. The tournament had started unpromisingly, however, and Robson was increasingly a target for press criticism. The red-top protagonists in a growing circulation war found a number of people willing to take money in return for criticising Robson, from former players such as Emlyn Hughes and Steve Perryman, to the former England manager Sir Alf Ramsey.
As competition increased to see which back page could heap most ridicule on him, the invective scraped the barrel, with choice epithets such as “plonker” and “prat” deployed as well as such headlines as “In the Name of God, Go”. It was hardly surprising that Robson’s hair turned white during his England stewardship, but he refused to be cowed: “I will not let these people get to me or rattle me,” he said in 1988. “They have never been anywhere or done anything in football. Why should I listen to them?”
He did not help his own cause by appearing forgetful and indecisive at times, but on the pitch he was responsible for some memorable moments, such as Gary Lineker’s golden boot award for top scorer of the 1986 World Cup, the introduction to international football of his fellow Geordie Paul Gascoigne, and the thrilling run to the 1990 World Cup semi-final, lost only on penalties to Germany, still England’s finest hour since 1966.
Yet even that was soured by revelations of an affair that broke just before the 1990 tournament amid suggestions that player power had been responsible for key team changes (an accusation Robson hotly denied); so it was hardly surprising that he decided he had had enough. Despite his record — 47 wins in 95 matches, especially impressive bearing in mind that European club experience was denied to most of his players after the 1985 Heysel Stadium tragedy — the FA made little attempt to dissuade him when he was offered a return to club management with PSV. The press, antagonistic as ever, cast it as running away or going into exile, but it brought him rewards on the field in the form of two successive Dutch championships.
He moved on to Portugal, where he took readily to the lifestyle, but fell foul of Sousa Cintra, the Sporting Lisbon president, who sacked him unfairly after a defeat in Europe. Robson was to have his revenge with FC Porto, whom he took to the Portuguese cup final at the end of his first season, where they beat none other than Sporting. Even better, the following season Porto clinched the league title on Sporting’s ground, with the Lisbon fans generously joining in the applause. He was assisted here and subsequently by an ambitious young man who began as interpreter and became his coaching assistant — one Jose Mourinho, later to be such a successful and colourful manager in his own right at Porto, Chelsea and now Inter Milan.
The only clouds for Robson were a continuing failure in Europe, but he overcame that in his next job at Barcelona, arguably the biggest club in world football. His first year there turned out to be one of the club’s most successful: they won the Spanish cup, qualified for the Champions League by finishing as runners-up in the Spanish league and, finally, presented Robson with another European triumph in the form of the Cup Winners’ Cup. He also oversaw the signing of Ronaldo from PSV, later sold on for a $12 million profit. Good enough, perhaps, for any other club.
Unfortunately, Robson’s usual low-key approach did not convince the Catalan press, which found fault with his tactics even after a 6-0 win.
Worse, the hated Castilian enemy, Real Madrid, had taken the major prize, the championship, and the club invoked a clause in the two-year contract that provided for a kick upstairs, which Robson had noted but never believed would be acted upon. As he admitted, he was the only man in Catalonia who did not know he was to be replaced as coach by Louis van Gaal of Ajax, but the press at least was eventually forced to recognise what he had achieved.
A year as director of signings provided a gentle sabbatical, but Robson still hankered for day-to-day involvement, and it was to the Netherlands and PSV that he returned, guiding them into the Champions League during a one-year period as caretaker. Nevertheless, he was quick to offer his services in any capacity when Glenn Hoddle resigned as England manager in autumn 1998.
Why wish to go through it all again? As Terry Butcher, who played for him with Ipswich and England, said: “He’s funny, he makes mistakes, he gets players’ names wrong sometimes, but he’s England’s number one fan. He desperately wants England to win.”
Robson, who had proved to be the most successful England manager since Sir Alf Ramsey, returned to England in September 1999 to take the helm of Newcastle United. It was an emotional appointment for a club with huge and fanatical support and fierce regional pride which had suffered decades of disappointment.
“When, as Newcastle manager, I looked across the banks of faces at St James’s Park, I saw my dad,” he said, “every fan out there was my dad.”
Under the misguidance of the former Chelsea manager Ruud Gullit, the outfit had almost been relegated to the second tier of England football, but Robson’s acumen and experience ensured that Newcastle were once again competing with the best in the top half of the Premiership, and qualifying in some seasons for the Champions League.
They did not, however, secure any trophies. And Robson’s relations with the Newcastle board, led by the chairman Freddy Shepherd, had never been warm after the initially poor salary offered to the new manager, and a failure to keep him fully informed about player transfers.
This world of the Premier League, in which football clubs were part of multimillion pound businesses more beholden to financial markets than fans or football results was a far cry from his previous English club management experience, where the ever- patient Cobbolds at Ipswich shrugged philosophically and sympathised with their manager if their team lost, rather than call crisis meetings and demand dismissals.
Nor did Robson always find it easy to understand how to manage and motivate Premiership footballers whose hugely wealthy lives, lived far apart from the fans, were so vastly different from the world in which he had grown up. On one occasion a young Newcastle star asked Robson to order the team bus to be turned round on the way back from a match because he had left a pair of diamond earrings in a stadium dressing room. More seriously, players began openly to defy his coaching decisions.
Having announced that he would manage the team for one more year, in August 2004 Shepherd sacked Robson just four games into a new season, leaving him “angry and bitter”, as he described in his autobiography, Farewell but not Goodbye.
He did not manage at club level again, though in 2006 he was appointed an assistant coach to the Republic of Ireland. He remained close to the North East, and spent time there helping to raise money for cancer research.
In his own struggles with cancer he had shown huge resilience. In 1995, after his wife finally persuaded him to consult a doctor about what seemed to be a persistent sinus problem, Robson was told he had a malignant melanoma in his face.
An operation left him needing an artificial palate without which he could not talk or eat. Doctors told him he would not work again but he soon returned to the football he so adored for another decade. His early life, he believed, had given him the mental and physical toughness to survive everything from tabloid ridicule to severe illness.
In the end the cancer returned. But as he became ill again Robson was still to be seen supporting Newcastle United at St James’s Park, just as he had as a boy from a mining family, hoping despite all the disappointments, to escape the darker demands of life through the thrill of football.
Bobby Robson was knighted in 2002. He married Elsie Mary Gray in 1955. She and three sons survive him.
Sir Robert William "Bobby" Robson, footballer and football manager, was born on February 18, 1933. He died of cancer on July 31, 2009, aged 76.