Friday, July 31, 2009

Sir Bobby, the man who loved football forever

"The best thing about him is his personality, his character - which is brilliant...and he has the ability to put a smile on your face. He was like a father to me." Ronaldo, speaking in 2003

"He is immortal because he leaves in everybody who knows him a mark of his personality. A great coach but, more than that, a great person,"
- Jose Mourinho, today

Funny things, obituaries -they bring out the best in good and bad people. While Bobby Robson's ex-players are pouring out tributes, the same newspapers who did their best to make his life a misery are now falling over themselves to say what a man has just died, a hero who fought cancer five times.

I salute Robson as the man who came closer than anyone in my lifetime to bringing the World Cup back to England and who maintained his decency and joy of living to counter the maxim that nice guys finish last. My first images of Robson are of him striking gold with Ipswich in the UEFA Cup in the days when that competition's caliber matched that of the Champions Cup. From then on his eight years in charge of England dominate my memories of him, a formative time for me as a fan and a boy.

Robson's England losing to the Hand of God in Mexico '86 was painful enough, but the semi-final penalty defeat to Germany four years later remains the most devastating moment in my, and all living Englishmen's soccer lives, as I have never before or since seen every male I know cry simultaneously. That near miss in Italy will forever make Robson a legend here, as the general consensus, sober or drunk, is that England would have beaten the ragged Argentinians in the final. Robson returned to a hero's welcome at Luton Airport, though the FA were less than sweet as he made his way to the Netherlands.

Two titles with PSV followed, although the collectivism of the Dutch dressing room came as a culture shock to the dyed-in-the-wool Geordie, whose previous Holland experience had been limited to the mercurial duo of Arnold Muhren and Frans Thijssen at Ipswich. Simon Kuper entitled one of the chapters in his classic book Football Against the Enemy, 'Why Bobby Robson failed at PSV' to explain this clash of mentalities. Muhren went further in calling Robson tactically confused.

It was a shock for us in 1992 to see him embarking on a Southern European coaching odyssey while pushing 60, leading Sporting Lisbon, Porto and Barcelona over the next five years and bagging as many trophies, including the Cup Winners Cup with Barça in 1997. Then another season with PSV before 11th, 4th, 3rd and 5th placed finishes with Newcastle (how they must pine for those days now) followed.

But what flack he took for those achievements. His spell in charge of England from 1982-'90 saw him suffer an unprecedented barrage of abuse from domestic tabloids, a sustained hate campaign which no previous manager had undergone. It began the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sun printing 'Robson Out!' pins when England failed to make it to Euro '84, before the serious vitriol flowed as they crashed out of the Euro '88 finals 0 and 3. "Plonker!" screamed one headline, "In the name of God, Go!" cried another, as the Geordie gentleman's reputation was savaged and his private life thrown to the wolves.

Robson was still being remorselessly pilloried as England stumbled into Italia '90 by the grace of a Polish crossbar and began ineptly with a dreadful 1-1 tie with Eire in a stormy Cagliari. But he had the last laugh as his team came within inches of the final. His stock had soared, but the memory of too many stifling England performances and his bumbling diction ("It argues well for the future" etc) was strong.

Robson was considered tactically stubborn in England, underusing a dazzling array of attacking talent (Gary Lineker, John Barnes, Glenn Hoddle, Chris Waddle and Peter Beardsley) and it was only after a senior player revolt in Italy that England fielded a sweeper and progressed. But 2-1 down against Cameroon in the quarter-final in Naples, Robson threw his new system away and claimed after England's 3-2 win that "a flat back four saved us."

He was no tactical genius or great communicator but he never deserved the opprobrium, which he took hard, visibly suffering from the media onslaught. I recall him on TV in 1988 pleading with the newspapers to "Support the team!" such was his despair in the jaws of the press.

Robson's generosity of spirit always shone and his book of courteousness his former pupil at Sporting, Porto and Barça, Jose Mourinho, would do well to take a leaf out of. In his memoir written after Italia '90 Against the Odds, Robson took great exception to former England coach Alf Ramsey slamming his team selections, and to prove he was made of better moral fiber, promised never to comment on his successors; he kept his word.

When he coached Barcelona I queued at dawn outside Atletico Madrid to grab tickets for their visit, which culminated in a Ronaldo hat-trick, the besuited Bobby anxiously shooting his strike ace orders from the touchline as they cruised to a sleek victory.

But as his Catalan calling wore on it seemed clear the club were packing his bags behind his back and did little to prevent Newcastle trying to tap him up. Add to that Johan Cruyff's predictable attacks in the press and Robson was again being denied respect.

He kept a brave face through it all. When waylaid by a daft FIFA hack within minutes of the 1990 World Cup semi-final, he was close to tears but did his best to raise a smile and wished the Germans the best in the final. What a gentleman.

In his final autobiography, 2005's Farewell but not goodbye Robson complains bitterly how the Newcastle board disrespected him and some of his players disobeyed him on and off the field, their millionaire lifestyle hard for a man who had lived through World War Two to understand. Coaching Newcastle had been his dream but it ended sourly.

He always was, as David Beckham would put it, 'professional'. The private Robson described by embedded journalist Pete Davies in his extraordinary 1990 book All Played Out was a man as angry as the rest of us with life's frustrations. Bobby felt the same way we do, but kept it hidden. But he suffered far more abuse than any of us are likely to ever see.

Players did not always rate his tactical acumen but found it impossible to dislike him. He was a parent as well as a real motivator to them, and always seemed enthralled by the game and its challenges, a football man from cradle to grave. Robson's wife once complained he ate, slept and breathed football when he was not working.

Alex Ferguson could not have put it better tonight:

"No-one in my time has shown such great passion and love for the game as Bobby."

I will remember a man of generous warmth, culturally from a different era than the one he inhabited, a victim of the media whose decency was too often mocked. He could seem to be muddling through but he silenced his enemies in the end and never stopped loving life and football.

His coaching feats overshadow his playing days: 133 goals in 583 appearances for Fulham and West Brom and four goals and 20 caps for England, including the 1958 World Cup. He was selected for the 1962 finals in Chile but inury kept him out.

- Sean O'Conor

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