Saturday, August 01, 2009

Sir Bobby Robson (1933 - 2009)

Sir Bobby Robson's name will never diminish with the passing years of British football history. He achieved more in his homeland and in Europe than most people could ever hope to, and he did so with an approachable manner and a respect for his peers that gave him a special distinction in the sport.

As a player, Robson was a great talent. He spent six seasons at Fulham honing his goalscoring skills before moving onto West Bromwich Albion where he was an important part of their successful team of the late-1950's and early-1960's.

It was while playing for West Brom that Robson was first selected to play for England and he was a key part of the squad that participated in the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. He made twenty appearances for the national team in all, and though his name was on the list for the World Cup squad four years later, he never played through injury.

Another five year stint at Fulham began in 1962 but as his playing career drew to a close he was already considering his future in a different role. A chance to be player-manager with Vancouver Royals in the NASL arrived in 1967, but his career in management began in earnest two years later at Ipswich Town after a short trial at Fulham.

Robson's first job at Portman Road was to establish a team that was able to retain its footing in the top flight and he achieved this after an uncertain start when Ipswich finished third in Division One in 1975. His next target was to win some silverware for the fans, and naturally enough Robson did this too with his usual understated sense of efficiency. While other managers were spending fortunes on foreign players to no great effect, Robson bought talented prospects like Arnold Muhren and Frans Thijssen and brought out the very best in them.

A win in the 1978 FA Cup Final showed Robson and Ipswich were moving in the right direction and in 1981 this was underlined by a narrow but nonetheless hard fought victory in the UEFA Cup Final. Having saved his small band of East Anglian lightweights from relegation to the Second Division in 1969, Robson had transformed Ipswich into one of the biggest names in European football.

It was hardly surprising that such exploits brought Bobby Robson's name to the attention of others desperately seeking success. Shortly after Ipswich had finished second in Division One for a second successive season in 1981-82, the FA came calling. With the 1982 World Cup barely over and done with, Bobby Robson was appointed manager of the England national team.

Though it was a position he took on with great pride, it was one that garnered some of the fiercest criticism he'd ever receive in all his days of football management. Initially missing out on qualification for the 1984 European Championships, Robson brought out the worst in the tabloid press, but a place in the 1986 World Cup Finals in Mexico soon changed all that - initially.

England's slow start to the tournament (which included a 1-0 defeat to Portugal and a 0-0 draw to Morocco) left many fans thinking their team would soon be on its way home. The outcry back home was considerable with many questioning Robson's apparent inability to instil a winning mentality into his team. The flak he received from all corners of the media was enormous and one wondered if he'd remain in post much beyond the end of the tournament.

Finally however, success was achieved in England's third group game as Gary Lineker's hat-trick gave Robson's side a 3-0 win that saw them reach the knock-out stages by the skin of their teeth. Having brought the smile back to English football, Robson showed great humility by listening to his own players and switching to the sweeper system they felt happier playing in. England duly went on to reach the quarter-final stage where they were knocked out famously by the skill and cunning of Diego Maradona. No matter - Bobby Robson's England side returned home to a grateful nation that didn't think a quarter-final finish was possible, having played some great football along the way.

Four years later and with an improved team, Robson took England to the 1990 World Cup in Italy. Qualifying from a tough First Round group, England then struggled against Belgium in the Second Round and were only saved by a last-minute goal by David Platt. Cameroon were even more of a challenge in the next round, but another extra time win was achieved to earn a place in the last four of the World Cup for the first time since 1966.

Though they battled hard, England were eventually defeated by West Germany on penalties in the semi-finals. Robson felt the pain of defeat more than anyone that day, but once again the nation was proud - proud of the fact that he'd taken an England team so far having waited so long.

Before the tournament had even started, the FA and Bobby Robson knew this would be the latter's last hurrah before vacating his post. A new challenge awaited the former Ipswich man - the chance to manage some of the big names in European club football.

First there was PSV where he won two league titles, then a short, fractious spell at Sporting Lisbon before joining Porto where his assistant was Jose Mourinho. Before his arrival there, Porto were struggling to attract in excess of 10,000 fans to their home games. That soon changed as Robson helped them win two league titles and a Portuguese Cup before leaving for the bright lights of Barcelona.

It was 1996 and Bobby Robson was still a big name in football management, some fifteen years after winning the UEFA Cup with Ipswich. Barcelona needed someone with a track record of success to run the club short-term and do so he did. In the one season he was there and with Mourinho still under his wing, Barcelona won the Spanish Cup, Spanish Super Cup and European Cup Winners' Cup. He was voted European Manager of the Year for 1996-97 and was persuaded to became General Manager in order to allow Louis van Gaal to take over the hot seat.

It was not the role he craved, however, and a year later returned to PSV for a second spell in charge. Then came the call which, as someone that used to watch Jackie Milburn as a kid, he probably hoped to receive before he retired from management altogether - the call to become manager of Newcastle United.

Following the resignation of Ruud Gullit as The Magpies' head coach in 1999, Robson was brought in to quickly restore the title-challenging form of Kevin Keegan after Gullit and Kenny Dalglish had overseen a drop in standards. As at Ipswich, Robson needed a few seasons to bring about success, but when he did, Newcastle qualified for the Champions League in 2001-02 and 2002-03. When they qualified for the UEFA Cup in 2003-04, however, the club saw this as a sign of failure and promptly showed Robson the door.

And that, sadly, was the way Robson ended his managerial career. How ironic that a club now adrift and lacking direction in the second tier of English football should sack a man of Robson's stature because qualification for the UEFA Cup wasn't good enough.

Yet for all that, Sir Bobby Robson retained his respect and his dignity, not to mention the admiration of Newcastle fans and those from other clubs and countries. Diagnosed with cancer on five separate occasions, he battled on with such courage and strength that he even found the time and effort to set up The Sir Bobby Robson Foundation, a charity that raises money to fund research into the early detection and treatment of cancer. Thanks to the selfless work carried out by Sir Bobby in the last few years of his life, the foundation has already raised more than twice the original target figure of £500,000 which itself was passed within eight weeks.

Sir Bobby Robson was knighted in 2002 for services to football and was given the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2007 BBC Sports Personality of the Year Awards. He was made a Freeman of the cities of Ipswich and Durham (his place of birth), and saw a statue erected in his honour outside Ipswich Town's Portman Road ground in 2002.

When you read all of the above, it's not difficult to understand that Sir Bobby Robson's death leaves an absolute chasm in British football. The news of his passing has prompted unprecedented coverage of his life and work in the press, and the list of players and managers that have given quotes about him reads like a World Football Hall of Fame.

Sir Alex Ferguson said: "In my 23 years working in England there is not a person I would put an inch above Bobby Robson. I mourn the passing of a great friend, a wonderful individual, a tremendous football man and somebody with passion and knowledge of the game that was unsurpassed."

Paul Gascoigne, a member of Robson's 1990 England World Cup team said: "I'm speechless. I'm devastated. Bobby was like my second dad. I was like a son to him. He gave me a chance to play in the World Cup. I can't really talk that much because I just want to cry, that's all."

Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola, who worked under Robson at the Nou Camp during the 1996-97 season, said: "It was a pleasure to know him, not only as a coach but also as a person. It was a marvellous experience. It was a very difficult season, even though we won three trophies. Despite the problems of that year, he never lost his composure and always behaved like a gentleman."

It'd be easy enough for us to fill this page with many more quotes of the same kind, but quite honestly they all describe Sir Bobby Robson as someone that was excellent at his job, an exemplary ambassador of the game and above all else a gentleman. Having assessed the evidence, we can only agree wholeheartedly.

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