On the eve of the new season, the hope and optimism are, in their own way, very entertaining to watch. There was, however, sad and sobering news this week in the form of an interview this week with Sir Bobby Robson, in which he confirmed that the lung cancer that he has been fighting is terminal, and that he has, at best, a few months left to live. Typically, Robson deals with the illness with class, grace and dignity:
I have accepted what they have told me and I am determined to make the most of what time I have left. I have been fortunate to survive this long. It is thanks to my doctors and their dedication. My condition is described as static and has not altered since my last bout of chemotherapy. They have arrested the growth of the tumours on my lungs and I have my next scan shortly. I am going to die sooner rather than later, but then everyone has to go sometime and I have enjoyed every minute. I don’t even think about it and my biggest problem today was unrelated, just old-fashioned laryngitis. I am not going to sit around at home thinking about what might or might not happen. I have always found it difficult to turn down good causes and invitations from people I know. My family and close friends have always said I should say ‘no’ more often and now is no different.
Like the vast majority of managers, Robson’s career wasn’t universally successful, and by the end of his career he gave the impression of being a bystander as the dressing room at Newcastle United span out of control, but he was often harshly treated by the press and his employers. While in charge of England, he unfairly vilified by the English press while overseeing a comparative revival in the national team’s fortunes which culminated in the national team almost securing an unlikely place in the World Cup final in 1990. He always gave the impression of being in a position, not of his own making, of having to fight these battles on two fronts, but was usually popular with supporters, who seemed to understand that he is, essentially, one of them – a lover of the game that had managed to find his way to the top of the inside of the game.
This battle had started early on in his time in charge when England failed to qualify for the finals of the 1984 European Championships, but few in the press had taken the time to appreciate just how good the Danish team that knocked them out actually were. Two years later, there were calls for his resignation after a poor start to the 1986 World Cup, but Robson’s team flourished with two excellent performances against Poland and Paraguay, and were unfortunate not to at least take Argentina to extra-time in the quarter-finals. At Euro 88, there was more bad luck, with England deserving more from their performances in their opening two matches against Ireland and the Netherlands than to lose both of them and be knocked out, and solid performances against moderate opposition at the 1990 World Cup gave England possibly the best chance that they will ever have to win the World Cup again. The FA, however, treated him poorly, often failing to offer him public backing in the face of vicious and unjustified media attacks, and telling him before the 1990 World Cup that they would not be renewing his contract.
At club level, his record is best demonstrated by this graph. His transformation of Ipswich Town into UEFA Cup & FA Cup winners, as well as regular challengers to Liverpool in the league, was remarkable, turning a small town club into genuine contenders in an era in which the big city clubs dominated all before them. Post-England, he won two successive Dutch league championships with PSV, two successive Portuguese championships with Porto and a European Cup Winners Cup with Barcelona. His return to England to manage Newcastle United could easily have fallen flat, but he took them from the bottom of the Premier League to fourth place in 2002, and to third place in 2003. Newcastle don’t look like making successive Champions Leagues again any time soon. He was, to the eternal shame of the club, sacked three weeks into the 2003/04 season. To cynics, he may looked “out of touch” by this time, but for many of us, this “out of touchness” was very much in touch. It is the spoilt brats of the Premier League who are out of touch, living in a vacuous bubble of celebrity and (often barely merited) fortune.
Robson, then, is one of the game’s good guys – one of us, and one sometimes get the feeling that there aren’t many of his type left. The word “character” is thrown around far too casually these days, but it’s no overstatement, so say that Sir Bobby Robson is, genuinely, one of the game’s great characters. With this in mind, it is probably fitting to finish with this excerpt from an interview with Shola Ameobi:
Reporter: ‘Do you have a nickname?’
Ameobi: ‘No, not really’
Reporter: ‘So what does Bobby Robson call you?’
Ameobi: ‘Carl Cort.’
A class act.