My Football Heroes – Sir Bobby Robson

“What is a club in any case? Not the buildings or the directors or the people who are paid to represent it. It’s not the television contracts, get-out clauses, marketing departments or executive boxes. It’s the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city. It’s a small boy clambering up stadium steps for the very first time, gripping his father’s hand, gawping at that hallowed stretch of turf beneath him and, without being able to do a thing about it, falling in love.”

Sir Bobby Robson – A true gentleman of football. I don’t think anyone can say a bad word about the man. In my eyes, Sir Bobby Robson saved Newcastle United. Robson became Newcastle United manager in September 1999, the club were rock bottom of the league at the time. Robson came in and changed Newcastle, he breathed new life into the club. Newcastle faced second bottom side Sheffield Wednesday in Robson’s first game in charge, Newcastle ran out 8-0 winners, with Alan Shearer scoring five of them. Robson guided Newcastle from bottom of the Premier League to a fourth-place finish in the 2001–02 season. The following season, Newcastle finished third, ensuring qualification for the Champions League for the second consecutive year. Robson was unable to guide Newcastle through the Champions League qualifying rounds and the club was pushed back into the UEFA Cup for the 2003–04 season. At the end of the 2003–04 season, Newcastle United finished fifth in the table, five points short of the Champions League qualifying fourth place but reached the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup before losing to Marseille. Robson was sacked by Newcastle in August 2004, after a poor start to the season and discontent in the dressing room.

Robson will always be adored by Newcastle fans, he knew what the club meant to the fans because he himself was one. His father would take him to watch Newcastle United play at St James’ Park on Saturday afternoons, requiring a 34-mile round trip. Robson describes Jackie Milburn and Len Shackleton as his childhood heroes. Both played for Newcastle in the inside-forward position, the position Robson would later assume during his playing career.  Sir Bobby Robson is one of the greatest managers England have produced. Managing teams abroad such as Barcelona, PSV Eindhoven, Sporting Lisbon and Porto. Whilst managing Sporting Lisbon, a certain Jose Mourinho was Robson’s interpreter, he followed Robson from Sporting Lisbon to Porto and later Barcelona.

Sir Bobby Robson also managed England, his achievements at Ipswich Town earned him the job. Robson’s first game in charge saw immediate controversy, as he dropped Kevin Keegan for the match against Denmark. On 21 September 1983, Robson suffered his only loss in the 28 qualifying matches he was to undertake as England manager. The defeat, again to Denmark, ultimately led to England’s failure to qualify for the 1984 European Championships, and resulted in Robson offering to resign in favour of Brian Clough. The resignation was rejected by the FA chairman, Bert Millichip (primarily down to his and the FA’s disdain for Clough), and Robson went on to lead the England team to qualify for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.

England began the competition poorly and captain Bryan Robson was injured with a recurrence of a dislocated shoulder. Bobby Robson changed the team’s tactics for the final match of the first round, selecting Peter Beardsley ahead of Mark Hateley as a striking partner for Gary Lineker. The team won its next two matches, against Poland and Paraguay, 3–0 and qualified for the quarter-finals. England were defeated in the last eight by Argentina with a brace of goals from Diego Maradona; the infamous “Hand of God” goal, and the “Goal of the Century” he scored five minutes later. Robson was unimpressed by Maradona’s claim of divine intervention, stating: “It wasn’t the hand of God. It was the hand of a rascal. God had nothing to do with it… That day, Maradona was diminished in my eyes forever”.

Robson’s England dropped only one point in qualifying for Euro 1988 which included an 8–0 defeat of Turkey. However, this was followed by failure at the tournament itself, held in West Germany, where England were knocked out in the group stage. They finished bottom of their group, succumbing to defeats against Ireland, eventual winner the Netherlands and eventual runner-up the USSR. Robson was vilified by the British press, and after a draw in a friendly with Saudi Arabia, one newspaper demanded: “In the name of Allah, go”. Again Robson submitted his resignation, and again it was rejected by Millichip (again Brian Clough is often cited as a reason).

Robson led England without conceding a goal through the six-match qualification for the 1990 World Cup where they were one of six seeded teams. Again they were placed in a group with the Netherlands and Ireland, with Egypt the fourth side. As in the 1986 World Cup, Robson was denied the service of his captain, Bryan Robson, who suffered an achilles tendon injury which prevented him playing in the latter stages of the tournament. England topped their qualifying group, accumulating four points from their three games. However their progress was not without controversy. England changed formation from their traditional 4–4–2 to incorporate a sweeper, with some sources suggesting this was due to player revolt after the 1–1 draw in the first match with the Republic of Ireland. Robson denies this claim: “I made the switch, not them. I had no intention of allowing van Basten and Gullit to rip holes in us”.

This was followed by victories over Belgium and Cameroon in the knock-out stages, to set up a semi-final with West Germany. England lost the match on a penalty shoot-out, after the score had been tied at 1–1 following extra time. Robson said afterwards that “not a day goes by when he does not think about the semi-final and other choices he might have made”. Robson remains only the second coach after Alf Ramsey to take England to a World Cup semi-final, and the only coach to do so on foreign soil.

On 31 July 2009, Robson died of lung cancer at his home in County Durham, aged 76, after a long battle with the disease. After the news of his death, leading figures from the world of football and politics paid tribute to him. Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson called him a “great friend, a wonderful individual and tremendous football man.” UEFA president Michel Platini said: “He will be remembered not only for his playing career and his outstanding managerial career at both club and international level, but also because he was a truly warm and passionate human being.” Gary Lineker said: “It is a sad day and a great loss. He was a wonderful man and will be deeply missed by everybody in the country. I never played for a more enthusiastic man. He gave so much to the game.” Former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Tony Blair, described Sir Bobby as a “real Geordie gentleman.”According to the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Robson “epitomised everything that is great about football in this country.” His friend, the broadcaster Michael Parkinson, said: “Robson will be remembered long after the present lot are old bones. By his decency, his humour, his love of the game’s traditions and origins and confusion at what it had become, he made present day football look what it is – shabby by comparison. I can think of no more fitting epitaph.”

Robson’s funeral, a private family ceremony, took place on 5 August 2009. The location remained undisclosed at the request of his family until the funeral had taken place. It was later revealed to be Esh, County Durham. A thanksgiving service for Robson was held on 21 September 2009 at Durham Cathedral. One thousand invited guests attended the service, which was also broadcast live on national television, and to Newcastle United’s St James’ Park, Ipswich Town’s Portman Road ground, and Fulham’s Craven Cottage. Robson was survived by his wife and their three sons: Andrew, Paul and Mark.

Robson will forever be remembered as a true gentleman of football. I will be forever grateful to him for bringing good times back to St James’ Park after the disastrous Ruud Gullit era. Robson deservedly has a statue outside St James’ Park, a down to earth and kind hearted man he will forever live long in the memory of those he came into contact with.