Sir Bobby Robson – Gentleman star-maker

Sir Bobby Robson – Gentleman star-maker

Recently I was asked to compare the careers of the one-time England managers Sir Bobby Robson and Terry Venables. It is no easy task as both former bosses have long since passed into the realms of football caricature.

Venables has become an artful dodger of occasionally sublime tactical insights.

Robson became a beloved old man of English football whose dignity and grace under pressure united a nation at Italia 90.

But the problem with caricatures and fading memories is that they typically obscure profound truths. I’d like to return to Terry Venables at a future date, but the striking thing about Robson is that he was so much greater than the string of anecdotes that defined his public image or those stirring images, grey-suited on the touchline in Turin’s Stadio Delle Alpi in 1990.

An eye for a player

From Ipswich Town to Newcastle United and an England side that briefly achieved the impossible of uniting a fractured nation to a common cause, Sir Bobby Robson’s various teams were a constant in my formative years watching football. Nonetheless, until today, I hadn’t quite grasped that this great football man had made such an impact on so many stellar players’ careers.

That great doyen of football writers, Brian Glanville of World Soccer and Sunday Times-fame, had a long-running feud with Sir Bobby Robson based on the fact that he considered him to be a consistently lucky rather than a consistently good manager.

Certainly in the Brazilian Ronaldo at PSV and again at Barcelona, with Muhren and Thijssen at Ipswich, Lineker and David Platt for England and also with an on-side Alan Shearer for Newcastle, Robson was always able to rely upon supreme specialists to get sometimes hum-drum teams out of a hole.

But having an eye for a player – the right player too – is no small skill. Indeed, it may have been Sir Bobby’s defining character trait as a coach and manager.

I mention Platt and Lineker in this company purely because they had the same lucky quality in tournaments (Italia 90 and Mexico 86, respectively) that the manager enjoyed.

Robson won respect for his dignity in defeat as England manager. © BBC

As England boss Robson endured a rocky relationship with the press, with the public and with the likes of Glanville. But he won immense plaudits for his dignity in defeat in two World Cup Finals and for his enduring appeal as a great football man.

Like that other great County Durham Knight, Sir Bobby Charlton, Robson stood for all that is good about both English people and English football.

He was part of that particular strain of England’s post-war working class men that were raised in the first flush of a cradle to grave welfare state. Robson’s generation had access to opportunity – and real social mobility rather than the imagined kind that later generations ‘enjoyed’.

Robson’s record states that he ‘survived’ eight years in the England hot-seat – for that is how it was All Played Out (to quote the title of Pete Davies’ superb memoir of Italia 90).

As his Three Lions tenure boiled down to that winner takes all ‘one night in Turin’ semi-final, Sir Bobby was denied a World Cup final appearance by a penalty shoot-out in defeat to old foes Germany.

Hand of a rascal

Four years early at Mexico 86, Robson adroitly sought to minimise the nationalistic passions aroused by Diego Maradona’s notorious goal to consider that England had been undone by the ‘hand of a rascal’. It was a shrewd move that’s intention was drowned in waves of tendentious clap-trap that followed that ‘Hand of God’ goal.

It was Italia 90’s semi-final exit that ensures that Robson stepped down as England’s most successful manager since Sir Alf Ramsey.

But culturally Robson’s unifying impact may have been even more profound. Sir Bobby’s England team, allowed a generation of fans who had deserted football in the dark, dank 1980s to fall in love with the game anew.

For a new kind of emergent middle class TV fan, transfixed by the unfolding drama in Italy, this was football as theatre, a new national game without preconceptions.

Against a soundtrack of Pavarotti’s Nessum Dorma and New Order’s World in Motion, a nation was beguiled, united by Gazza’s tears. And Robson’s thoroughly likeable team, built in the manager’s image, briefly reclaimed the flag from the racists and set the tone for everything that has come thereafter. ‘The People’s Game’ as a marketing opportunity: Bosman, Sky TV, the Premiership and modern football.

Sir Bobby’s Italia 90 adventure was also a foretaste of a football world that though spectacular, latterly seemed to move beyond Robson in his final stop at Newcastle, the club he’d supported as a boy. That said, his record there, even now, looks incredible compared to the mess each successive regime has inherited at a club turned toxic since Sir John Hall stepped down as Chairman and sold his shares to Mike Ashley in 2007.

A  knack for the cup

Although he won titles in Holland and Portugal, where he nurtured a young Jose Mourinho as his interpreter and assistant and a young André Villas-Boas in the scouting department, Robson, was probably seen at his best in cup competition.

The cup tie format also seemed to support his knack for being ‘a lucky manager’ when required.

At Ipswich, a Suffolk town not previously considered a football hotbed (despite the earlier reign of Sir Alf Ramsay there), Robson won the UEFA and FA Cups with an increasingly attractive side in a style that recalls Sir Alex Ferguson’s transformation of Aberdeen in Scotland’s ‘Granite City’.

Unlike Ferguson though, Sir Bobby never claimed the English league championship and that places him in a lesser rank to the Scot, to Brian Clough and also to Bob Paisley. Sadly, it has also seen his overall football impact as a team-builder and talent developer somewhat downgraded also.

Like Ferguson at Pittodrie, Robson ran Portman Road as his own domain – aided and abetted by the Old Etonian Cobbold brothers’ indulgence. His teams were greatly underrated – despite being famously bested by Ferguson’s Aberdeen at Pittodrie in a game that remains a formative football memory for me.

The First 90 Minutes Bobby Robson Ipswich Town Documentary 1982

Football that fans would want to pay to watch

Robson won league titles in Holland with PSV and in Portugal with Porto, where he also managed Sporting.
However, he lasted just one year in Catalonia due to the harsh evaluation of his Barcelona side finishing second in the title race (1996-97). What’s less reported now though is that in doing so, Robson’s Barcelona scored 137 times and won two cups. It was a period that undermined Robson’s lifelong devotion to entertaining, dynamic football. That is football that fans would want to pay to watch.

Sir Bobby Robson, is in point of fact an inadvertently pivotal figure in the development of post-war football in Europe. There is a lineage that stretches through his playing career at Fulham, where he was managed by and later replaced Vic Buckingham (the so-called Godfather of ‘Total Football’ at Ajax) to the present day. It is expressed as part of a continuum of ideas that stretches from Buckingham’s beloved 1953 ‘Mighty Magyars’ of Hungary, through Ajax, Michels and Cruyff and onto the present day at Barcelona, where, as a boss, Robson coached both Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique.

It is widely said that things ended badly for Robson at his local club Newcastle as time and context conspired against him. Sure, Robson had little connection to the modern day millionaires of the Sky Premiership era, nor the suits that swarmed around them at St James’ Park.

However, his record isn’t half bad there either, and my memory is that Newcastle arguably always boxed slightly above their weight under Robson, sometimes playing some stirring stuff. They were not disgraced in the UEFA Champions League when they twice played at that level under the manager.

As is reported in an excellent summary Bobby’s Books’ Bobby FC the manager bemoaned his sacking at the hands of Freddie Shepherd saying:

‘I’ve been sacked for finishing fifth. Fifth! In my last three seasons there we finished fourth, third and fifth!’

As the rot set in thereafter Newcastle limped home in 14th spot in Graeme Souness’ first season in charge.

Sir Bobby may be universally loved as a man although his toughness, as Brian Glanville attests, evinced itself often enough. And he could certainly bear a grudge. Sacked by Eric Miller in his first managerial role at Fulham after 10 months, Robson is said to have remarked: “It just goes to show how well he could handle pressure,” when the ‘hatchet man’ later committed suicide.

As a manager, Robson was slightly disparaged by Brian Glanville and also by former player Arnold Muhren who was apparently critical after the fact. By implication Muhren appears to have tried to take credit for the less direct change in style that Ipswich adopted following the signing of the Dutch midfielder and his compatriot Frans Thijssen.

But even here, Robson comes up smelling of roses as a man ahead of his time. Not only did Ipswich adapt their style to embrace European competition, he also sought to create a new team that blended British grit and dynamism with continental composure. Arnold Muhren and Frans Thijssen, it is worth recalling, were attracted to Ipswich long before continental marquee stars became the English game’s norm.

For all the humorous anecdotes about Robson, and specifically those that relate to his hopeless facility for remembering his own players’ names, he was an extraordinary football manager.

If you take his recruitment record alone at Ipswich it is clear to see that he was both a singular talent developer and a master team-builder – and specifically so when Ipswich’s provincial resources are taken into account.

The stats report that Bobby Robson signed just 18 senior players in 13 years at Portman Road. That is an incredible statistic.

But there was no need to buy players when the manager could rely upon his production line of homemade internationals, among them Terry Butcher, Paul Mariner, Kevin Beattie and Mick Mills of England and the Scots George Burley, John Wark and Alan Brazil.

Outwith his roles with England and Ipswich, the tale of the tape is arguably even more impressive.

Romario, the Brazilian Ronaldo, Luis Figo, Hristo Stoichkov, Malcolm MacDonald, Luis Enrique, Pep Guardiola, Craig Bellamy, Jonathan Woodgate, Fernando Couto, Luc Nilis, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Vitor Baia are all players who were either signed by or notably flourished under Sir Bobby Robson.

As greatest hits compilations go that is a very imposing list. Make no mistake, Sir Bobby Robson is entitled to a box set that is all his own when it comes to the players he ‘made’ and the highlights and memories he left behind of a career spanning some 59 years in football.