Sir Bobby Robson: Brave Player, Great Coach… But Most of All a True Gent

sirbobbyrobsonBookCoverToday is Bobby Robson day.

It is five years since Sir Robert died.

The FA has established an annual tribute day to remember the great man and also support the Bobby Robson cancer trust.

Read below the fine tribute his official biographer Paul Hayward wrote in 2009. And for the whole story we recommend you buy the book (ISBN 978034 082 23477).

Sir Bobby Robson: Brave Player, Great Coach… But Most of All a True Gent.

by Paul Hayward, Sir Bobby Robson’s Official Biographer

One word captures the people’s view of Sir Bobby Robson. He was easily and universally recognised as a gentleman, which was no small feat in a sport with an increasingly wonky moral compass.

The two elder statesmen of our national game have been the two Sir Bobbys: Charlton for his achievements on the field and his ambassadorial aura, and Robson for his endless love of coaching and being around players.

Sir Bobby Robson and his wife Elsie.

Robson’s nirvana was a 7am alarm call and a cup of tea with his beloved wife Elsie followed by a long and intense session on the training pitch. The medical records are unavailable, but many suspect he was born in a tracksuit.

He could be profound, fierce, angry, sad, insightful and entertaining in a single answer. Often he would illustrate his point by turning the kitchen into a training pitch.

With a fine comic sense and an actor’s gift for delivery, Bobby would set off on a tale about how, on foreign trips, he would write the name of the Ipswich team hotel on the shirt cuffs of chairman John Cobbold, who was partial to a wander and a drink.

Then he would recall how the great Corinthian of the boardroom would tell him after a defeat: ‘Bobby, today it wasn’t our turn, but we’ve given the other team the pleasure of winning. That’s something.’

Robson would chuckle at that. The idea of losing charitably was anathema to him, because behind the avuncular exterior he was demonic in pursuit of success. Yet he also understood the value of civility and honour in an industry of careerists and carve-ups.

One morning I arrived at his London home to find him frantically calling a local radio station and failing to get through. He said he had been ringing for almost an hour but had succeeded only in listening to countless bars of Mozart.

‘Why?’ was the obvious question. It turned out that a stranger on a bike had stopped him in the street the day before and told him that if he (Sir Bobby) called the radio station and vouched for the celebrity sighting, a sum of money would go to charity while the cyclist would be eligible for a £1,000 prize draw.

On the back of this chance collision with a stranger, Robson was quite willing to spend the whole morning trying to report the meeting so the charity would get its money and the young man would have a chance of scooping the pot.

Bobby Robson playing for Fulham in 1953.

Walking 100 yards with him would take an hour, because builders would come down from scaffolding and taxi drivers would halt to salute him. Sure, they admired his achievements on the football field, but the deeper attraction was his decency, his consideration for others.

He had an ego like the rest of them. No manager could survive almost 40 years in the dugout without one. There was a hardness about him, too: a product, perhaps, of his early years below ground in the Durham coalfields.

He could be severe with players or journalists who crossed him. He also had a keen sense of his own market value. An initial offer of £400,000 a year in 1999 to manage Newcastle was rejected on the grounds that Alan Shearer was then earning around £3million. As the negotiations opened, Robson would not allow his love for the club to override his professional pride.

Acquisitive though he was, he would never trample on others to reach the top, or forget that manners are one of the simplest and most lasting measures of a man. In one sense, his was a career of nearmisses.

As a player he spent most of his 17 years among the rakes and rogues of Fulham: a fun-loving club where an injured player would be turfed off the treatment table to accommodate a team-mate’s greyhound who needed urgent physio for a race at the weekend.

Robson guided England to the semi-finals of the World Cup

With England, Robson was injured before the 1962 World Cup, which opened the door to a certain Bobby Moore, and looked back with anguish at his narrow failure to make the victorious 1966 squad. His 20 caps were no consolation as Moore lifted the trophy.

Robson said: ‘I confess I gritted my teeth and shook my head. I was in the top division with Fulham. I felt I could handle anyone. I could have played that day in 1966.’

As England manager he survived eight years and was denied a World Cup final appearance by a penalty shootout in the semi-finals of Italia 90.

In 1986 in Mexico, he preferred to ascribe Diego Maradona’s infamous goal to the ‘hand of a rascal’. But after tolerating vicious personal abuse with characteristic grace, he left the England job as the country’s most successful manager since Sir Alf Ramsey, by virtue of that World Cup semi-final.

The pattern was repeated in large parts of his managerial career. At Ipswich, where he worked miracles in a sleepy Suffolk town, he won the UEFA and FA Cups but missed out several times on the English league championship.

At Portman Road, he was the unofficial lord of Suffolk, running the club from top to bottom while the Cobbolds sipped their gins and tonic and upheld sporting values from a vanished age.

He won league titles in Holland and Portugal, but finished second with Barcelona in his only year at the Nou Camp (1996-97).  Typically, though, he assembled a Barca side who scored 137 times and won two cups. Another of Robson’s enduring legacies is his devotion to adventurous, attacking football.

Robson lifts the UEFA Cup
Robson lifts the UEFA Cup

For him, football had a duty to excite. His teams expressed his character: energetic, fun, indefatigable. He was too proud to admit it publicly, but his time at Newcastle United scarred him to his bones.

When chairman Freddy Shepherd sacked him four games into the 2004-05 season, it’s no exaggeration to say Robson entered a period of bereavement. Many of us wondered whether he would ever recover from being first undermined and then fired by the club he had queued to watch as a small boy with his father immediately after the war.

‘I’ve been sacked for finishing fifth,’ he would complain. ‘Fifth! In my last three seasons there we finished fourth, third and fifth!’
He left it to others to point out that Newcastle then came home in 14th place in Graeme Souness’s first season in charge.

Robson’s five years on Tyneside cast an unflattering light on the modern footballer and he was frequently bemused by the antics of Kieron Dyer and Craig Bellamy, who got into a fist fight with Sir Bobby’s No 2 in a departure lounge on the way to a European game. He was baffled by the superstar lifestyle, the egocentricity of some modern players.

Robson, after all, had travelled home by train and bus after playing for England in front of 80,000 spectators at Wembley. He vividly remembered having to take his shoes off to ease his blisters as he limped the final few yards from the bus stop after scoring for England against Scotland in 1961.

It was not that he romanticised the era of dubbin and modest wages. More that he always thought the game was more precious than any material gain it might bring. Though the Newcastle experience broke his heart, retirement was unthinkable. It would have separated him from who and what he was.

And yes, he did occasionally struggle with names, however much he objected privately to people thinking he muddled them up. Once or twice he called me Peter. But I didn’t mind. He could have called me anything. To me he represented most of what is great about football. More importantly, he was an inspiration as a man.


Sir Bobby Robson, 1933 - 2009.
Sir Bobby Robson, 1933 – 2009.

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