It has been a very sad day for football on the eve of the new season. We have lost one of us. It is, perhaps, a reflection of the hole in the heart of English football that we should mourn a football man whose greatest single attribute was nothing more or less than a sense of common decency. It is football’s loss and our loss that we may never in a quite literal sense see his like again. Rob Freeman, who supports Ipswich Town, takes a moment to remember Sir Bobby Robson.
Sir Bobby – it’s always seemed a little churlish to refer to him by just his surname – was simply put, one of the greatest men to ever contribute to the game. He made an impact as a player, a manager and as a man. His playing career often gets overshadowed as a result of the achievements he had as a manager, but as an inside forward and wing-half for Fulham and West Bromwich Albion, Sir Bobby scored over a hundred goals in over five hundred games in a domestic career that spanned 18 years. He made his international debut for England against in 1957, scoring two goals in a 4-0 victory over France at Wembley. It would be the first of 20 caps that would also take in three appearances at the 1958 World Cup, and only an injury picked up in a friendly prior in a club game in Lima on the eve of the tournament prevented him from playing in the 1962 World Cup. After returning from Chile, he never played for the national side again.
In 1967, Sir Bobby made his first steps in management, as he became the player-manager of Vancouver Royals, for their debut season in the North American Soccer League, however, with half of the squad based in San Francisco due to a joint-ownership arrangement, Sir Bobby was unhappy with his time, and when Fulham came calling early in 1968, Sir Bobby was appointed manager. Despite signing Malcolm Macdonald for the club, Sir Bobby found his first attempt management in the English game hard going, and ten months after joining, Fulham sacked him, with Sir Bobby only finding out about his dismissal from an Evening Standard board outside Putney Station. There was no indication of what was to follow.
At Portman Road, Ipswich Town were managerless, with Bill McGarry having recently taken over at Wolverhampton Wanderers, and Sir Bobby (at the time working as a scout for Chelsea) was appointed manager. The effect he had on the club is still felt today. Sir Bobby realised the importance of a youth system, and a great scouting network and as a result he developed and utilised it, like few before him, with just fourteen players in his thirteen year Ipswich career signed from other professional clubs. This enabled a club, with few other resources, to consistently challenge in the top half of the table. In 1973, Sir Bobby won his first silverware, the Texaco Cup – a cup for clubs in England and Scotland who had just missed out on qualifying for Europe, and with the club also finishing fourth, it meant that they had qualified for the UEFA Cup for the first time in their history, and the first European qualification for the club since they had won the League under Sir Alf Ramsey in 1962. Sir Bobby guided Ipswich into Europe in all but one season, knocking out seasoned campaigners such as Real Madrid, Lazio, Feyenoord and Twente, and beating Barcelona at Portman Road two years running. In 22 ties, Sir Bobby’s Ipswich were unbeaten at home.
Each year, the team appeared to grow stronger, finishing in the top six every year between 1973 and 1977, and the youth policy had produced two FA Youth Cup wins and also talents such as Brian Talbot, Kevin Beattie, Eric Gates, George Burley, John Wark, Russell Osman, Terry Butcher and Alan Brazil. In 1978 the club finished in a lowly 18th place, but provided Sir Bobby with his first major silverware – the FA Cup, defeating the strongly fancied Arsenal 1-0 in the final. The league place that season was merely a blip, with Ipswich returning to the top six in 1979 thanks to the addition of Dutchmen Frans Thijssen and Arnold Mühren to the squad and 1980 saw the club in the top three, and then came 1981 – arguably the greatest, but most heart-breaking season in the club’s history. Silverware came again, in the shape of the UEFA Cup, with Köln, and French champions to be Saint-Étienne both beaten on the way to the final. The latter, featuring several French Internationals including Michel Platini and Patrick Battiston, as well as Dutchman Johnny Rep were thumped 4-1 in France. The final (then a two-legged affair), saw Sir Bobby’s side victorious over AZ of the Netherlands. By then though, the UEFA cup was almost a consolation, as Ipswich’s League and FA Cup challenges fell away towards the end of the season, as their success on so many fronts brought them too many games – the club played 66 over the course of the season, including four games in eight days one of which was the UEFA Cup semi final in Germany over the Easter period). These games, and the inevitable injuries they bring, saw a much fresher Aston Villa side beat them to the title by four points, and Manchester City beat them in the FA Cup semi-final. 1982 saw less success – Ipswich were runners-up in the league again, but never challenged a dominant Liverpool, and the defence of the UEFA Cup saw the club fall at the first hurdle to Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen. And in May of that year, Sir Bobby announced his departure at Ipswich, to take over as Ron Greenwood’s successor as manager of England.
Sir Bobby’s tenure as England saw mixed fortunes, and combined with the tabloid press becoming more expectant, times weren’t always great for the new England manager, but he took the Nation’s team to heights not seen since 1966, and indeed not seen since. Sir Bobby’s first squad was controversial for the omission of Kevin Keegan from the squad – an omission that appeared to have roots in a clash between Ipswich and Southampton at the Dell in 1980, where Terry Butcher was sent off for a second yellow card, after Keegan allegedly tried to talk referee Brian Stevens into showing Butcher a second yellow card after a foul. Sir Bobby stated after that match that he would never want a player of his to act in that manner, and stayed true to his word. Sir Bobby’s first qualifying campaign ended in failure, as England failed to qualify for Euro 84, beaten by just a point by the eventual semi-finalists Denmark – the defeat by the Danes at Wembley would be Sir Bobby’s only loss in a qualifier. Two years later, Sir Bobby would guide the National team to the World Cup in Mexico, without losing a game. And despite a difficult start to the group stage, where England drew with Portugal, and lost to Morocco after Ray Wilkins was sent off, England would go on to reach the quarter-finals, only to lose to a Diego Maradona inspired-Argentina. Maradona arguably scored the greatest goal of all time, as well as the most controversial – punching the ball past Peter Shilton, with what Maradona claimed was the Hand of God. Sir Bobby’s was less than impressed with such a claim: “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.”
The English national press had been less than impressed with the beginning of the campaign in Mexico, and despite England’s late rally and quarter-final finish, Sir Bobby was clearly not forgiven, as the Tabloids would begin to take criticism from the constructive to the downright cruel, as it often descended into personal abuse. Sir Bobby’s occasional confusion over names and places was highlighted after England’s first friendly after Mexico 86, when after a defeat to Sweden in Stockholm, Sir Bobby had mistakenly made reference to the opponents being a ‘Strong Danish team” and the occasions when he would get player’s names wrong – most notably referring to his namesake Bryan Robson as “Bobby”. Sir Bobby handled this and the more vicious criticism with nothing less than dignity. Despite this type of criticism, England qualified for Euro 88 unbeaten. The performance in West Germany didn’t match the qualification, however, as England went home after the first round, with three defeats out of three. Sir Bobby stayed resolute and remained in the job and guided England to the 1990 World Cup in Italy, despite calls from the tabloid press for him to quit (“Go! In The Name Of God, Go!” screamed the back page of The Sun). What happened in Italy didn’t just prove the press wrong, but it also helped turn the nation’s view of football from a hooligan-strewn irrelevance, to a sport that was popular once more. England once again started slowly, with draws against the Republic of Ireland and the Netherlands (albeit with a late disallowed goal in the latter), but a Mark Wright headed gave England a win over Egypt, which meant that Sir Bobby’s side won the group. This saw them squeeze past Belgium with a last minute extra-time winner from David Platt and a 3-2 win over Cameroon in a game of three penalties. The semi-final with Germany would eventually feature three times as many spot kicks, and not a little bad luck, as Chris Waddle hit the woodwork twice (not that his decisive penalty was as close) and Andreas Brehme’s opening goal was fortunate given that it took a wicked deflection off Paul Parker. The performances and the fact that Sir Bobby’s guided the side to the semi-final (England’s best performance in a World Cup on foreign shores) helped the game improve it’s reputation in the nation’s consciousness, and enabled Sir Bobby to leave the England job on a high at the end of his contract.
With the World Cup out of the way, and at the age of 57, Sir Bobby did not retire, as many in his position would. Instead, he took on a brand new challenge, going back to club football, with PSV in the Netherlands. Sir Bobby attracted criticism as the decision was announced before England departed for Italy, but this clearly didn’t affect England in a negative way. Sir Bobby’s time in Netherlands was mixed, as he took time to adjust to the Dutch style of tactical debate between players and manager, and frustrations with the work ethic of star player Romário. Despite these, Sir Bobby won the Eredivisie title in both of his seasons with the Eindhoven-based club.
In 1992, after leaving PSV, Sir Bobby moved to Lisbon, where he became head coach of Sporting, who at the time were, in Sir Bobby’s words “… a terrible state”. Despite an interfering chairman, Sir Bobby’s first season at Sporting saw the club finish third and the following season he went one better. In December 1994, with Sir Bobby having guided Sporting to the top of the Portugese Liga for the first time in fifteen years, he was controversially sacked by President Jose Sousa Cintra. Sir Bobby was not out of work long, as he was snapped up by Sporting’s league rivals Porto – alongside his translator, and assistant manager Jose Mourinho. Sir Bobby’s time at Porto was much more successful, as his two full seasons saw him win two league titles. After the second title, what began as an approach from Barcelona for Porto’s star player Luis Figo, ended up with Sir Bobby and Mourinho becoming the Catalan giant’s new management team.
At Barcelona, Sir Bobby’s biggest signing was Ronaldo, who helped Barcelona capture three cups, including the Cup Winners Cup, which saw Sir Bobby being voted European Manager of the Year. Despite this, Sir Bobby was moved upstairs, and effectively replaced by Louis Van Gaal, and left in 1998, in order to coach PSV for a season. Unable to replicate his success of his first spell, Sir Bobby returned to England, becoming manager of Newcastle United in 1999, winning his first English club game in seventeen years, by a scoreline of 8-0 over Sheffield Wednesday. After a couple of years of uncertainly since Kevin Keegan had departed as manager, Keegan brought stability to the club, guiding them into the top five three years in succession, and also saw them enter the qualifying rounds of the Champions League. A poor start to the 2004-2005 saw him replaced as manager, though the consensus amongst Newcastle fans was that the decision had been taken far too early in the season, as the club had only played a handful of games. Sir Bobby’s final role in football was as an Football Consultant to the newly appointed Republic of Ireland coach Steve Staunton in 2006, however, due to treatment for a brain tumour, he was unable to give as much as he would like to the role, and stepped down after less than two years in the role.
Sir Bobby has suffered through ill health and has battled with cancer with characteristic bravery having being diagnosed with cancer on five occasions since 1991, when he was first diagnosed with bowel cancer. Sir Bobby also battled against melanoma, tumours in his lung and his brain, before succumbing to lung cancer this morning. Since his diagnosis with lung cancer, Sir Bobby devoted his time to fighting cancer, and formed the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation, a charity which will fund Sir Bobby Robson Cancer Trials Research Centre, in the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle upon Tyne and elsewhere in the North East of England.
Sir Bobby will be sadly missed by everybody in football, and Ipswich Town First, the Supporters Trust summed up the feelings that most will feel in their tribute to him, when they said “Thank you Sir Bobby. We love you.”