Sir Bobby Robson (1933 – 2009)

1 Aug

Sir-Bobby-Robson-Newcastle-2002_2341030

Sir Robert William “BobbyRobson CBE (18 February 1933 – 31 July 2009)

I’m willing to bet that most of you reading this post will be unfamiliar with the life of Sir Bobby Robson, but you will have no doubt seen the news of his death early yesterday morning, after a long and courageous battle with cancer. For the uninitiated, Sir Bobby Robson was a giant within the world of football. He both played for and managed England, as well as being a very successful manager at Ipswich Town, PSV Eindhoven, Sporting Lisbon, FC Porto and Barcelona. Bobby’s managerial CV read like a ‘who’s who’ of European football at the time, and Bobby was special to many, many football fans all over Europe.

Bobby Robson was a special man to me, too. He managed the England football team during the Italia 90 World Cup, where we came within inches of making the final. This was my first real memory of football. I was 8 years old, and on holiday with my family during the tournament. I would sit with my father watching the matches late at night after my mother and sister had long since gone to bed. We were holidaying on a cramped narrow boat, and the television was of extremely poor quality; none of the HD ready 50 inch monsters many of you will be used to today. Static crackled across the screen. I remember sitting with my dad, squinting through the interference, absorbing the almost impossibly green Italian pitches as England battled their way to the semi-finals. From what I remember, my father used this as an opportunity to teach me the rules of the game. After having the offside rule explained to me for the ninth time, I feigned understanding, knowing that I was never going to get my head around it, no matter how many salt shakers my father employed in an attempt to educate his son to the intricacies of the beautiful game.

bryan_robson_1986_460_460x300Every so often the camera would cut to a greying man in a suit, conspicuous amongst the line of tracksuit-clad players on the bench. He watched intently, occasionally getting up to shout instructions to the team or mutter some tactical information to his support staff. This was my first introduction to Bobby Robson, and something about the man made me instantly warm to him. Perhaps it was my father telling me he was from a very similar part of the world to my family. Being on holiday, hundreds of miles away from home, and realising this man – this manager of England – was from my part of the world, made me fizz with pride, and only served to make me feel closer to both the man and the team. I was inconsolable when England failed to make the final, and I hardly remember anything else about the whole family holiday, much to my mother’s dismay.

For a young boy growing up, there could be few better role models than Bobby. He tackled everything with the qualities his parents instilled in him as a boy: honesty, enthusiasm, good humour and lots of hard work. He often spoke with pride of how his father only missed one shift in 51 years as a miner. Bobby used all of these qualities to fight the devastating illness that finally caught up with him. First diagnosed with cancer in 1991, Bobby refused to succumb, enduring intensive treatment and major operations as he battled to continue his work as a world-class manager. Despite suffering from numerous life-threatening tumours in the years that followed, Bobby carried on working where other men would have simply surrendered to their fate.

And he did it, too. Many people were unaware of Bobby’s battle. He was from a time when you didn’t sell tales of your private life to the highest bidder, or allow television cameras to intrude into the lives of your family for profit. He just went about his business quietly and enthusiastically, successfully managing many top European teams throughout the nineties. At PSV Eindhoven he worked with the Brazilian legend Romario. After moving to Sporting, he worked alongside a young Portugese interpreter by the name of Jose Mourinho, and imparted to him many years of managerial experience. He then went to Porto, where he nurtured the talent of another legend of the game, Luis Figo. In 1996 he accepted one of football’s top jobs, becoming manager of Barcelona, where he was again joined by the young interpreter Mourinho. In fact, Bobby made Mourinho’s move with him a condition of his employment. He certainly had an eye for talent – a point proved by the signing of the Brazilian striker robsonMOS0107_468x316Ronaldo, arguably one of the greatest natural talents to ever play the game. One glance at the websites of any of these great teams today will show you how Bobby was regarded by those in the game. I’ll let you go and do that yourselves.

In later years, as I was finishing school and starting university, Bobby Robson took charge of the team he had supported as a boy. My team. Newcastle United. I mentioned earlier that Bobby was from a similar part of the world to my family. The son of a coal miner, he was brought up in the village of Langley Park, and regularly travelled with his father and brothers to Newcastle’s stadium, St James’ Park, often walking many miles for the privilege. It is a cliché to say it, but the man bled black and white. When he became Newcastle manager it felt as though, for the first time in years, Newcastle was in truly safe hands. He was keen to teach his young, over-paid players about the merits of hard work, at a time when many of Newcastle’s players seemed content to put in lazy performances in exchange for vast quantities of money. Famously, he once took his whole squad to an open air mining museum in County Durham in an effort to teach them about real work. As Bobby later recalled, “They didn’t like it. I quite liked it. It was a good idea.” In his last three seasons in at the club, he guided the team to 4th, 3rd and 5th place finishes. What Newcastle would give for that kind of stability now.

I was touched yesterday by the numbers of people queueing up to pay their respects to Bobby after the news of his death broke. From former team mates and world class managers to the ordinary man on the street, everyone seemed to want to pay their respects and tell their own personal anecdotes about the man. The words “gentleman” and “legend” are bandied about too much nowadays, often in reference to people who arguably don’t deserve such epithets. But Bobby was both, and the world is now a poorer place without him. I’ll leave the final word to Alex Ferguson:

“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. His character was hewn out of the coal face, developed by the Durham mining background that he came from. His parents instilled in him the discipline and standards which forged the character of a genuinely colossal human being.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Gan canny, Bobby. You’ll be greatly missed.

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