Friday, 25 September 2009

Sir Bobby Robson, gentleman of football

BOBBY ROBSON and I both played for the same football team.
The club, Langley Park Juniors, stands at the end of the road out of the County Durham village where Robson grew up. In my teens I could almost see it from my bedroom window in the hilltop village above.
Bobby joined the club in 1944 at the age of 11 and within four years was an inside-forward in the Under-18 side. He left at 17 to turn professional with Fulham.
I had five minutes as a substitute full-back in a trial game in 1972. I left with a brief word of thanks for turning up.
By then Bobby was a former England international and the (not yet very successful) manager of Ipswich. By the time I moved, ten years later, to the village of Sacriston, where Bobby was born, his Town side were the UEFA Cup holders.
Like Robson, I was in my mid-thirties when I arrived in Suffolk and began establishing roots there. He’d moved on by then, adding to his CV the Dutch league title, the Portuguese Cup and honourable defeats in the late stages of two World Cups.
More honours were to follow – the Portuguese title twice with Porto, the Spanish Super Cup, Copa del Rey and European Cup Winners’ Cup with Barcelona.
None, though – perhaps significantly – with the club he and I both supported as boys and which he was finally to manage from 1999 to 2004.
Lack of success, however, is relative. Bobby’s last three seasons in charge of Newcastle United saw them finish fourth, third, then fifth in the Premier League.
In racing terms, the subsequent five years have thoroughly franked Robson’s form. They have brought the Geordies an astonishing 11 different managers and a constant reminder of what real failure is.
The contrast between Bobby’s unfailing dignity and gentlemanliness and the undignified state of the club ever since his ungentlemanly sacking no doubt heightened the sense of love and loss felt in the North East at his death.
Despite the way our lives have entwined, I met Bobby only once, in the early 1990s.
I was sports editor of the Sunderland Echo when he brought his Sporting Lisbon side to play a pre-season friendly at Roker Park. I went to watch them train and spent half an hour standing with Bobby on the touchline.
No particular anecdote, no revealing quote, stands out. I simply remember that he was warm, friendly, interested and interesting. A man (unlike many in football) with no unnecessary airs or graces. A gentleman in all the best senses of that term.
I found him, in other words, just as everyone else seems to have done throughout his life.
I have never come across anyone who had a bad word to say about Bobby – and there aren’t too many top football folk you can say that about.
I have heard it said that he was a lucky manager, and maybe there’s something in that.
Lucky to have been given so long to learn his trade at Ipswich, lucky in the coaches he worked with. Lucky, at both his World Cups, to be forced into team changes that turned out to be crucial improvements.
But surely he earned at least part of that luck.
And it can be argued that taking England so close to the final in Italy in 1990 was as great an achievement as Alf Ramsey’s in lifting the trophy at home in 1966.
Perhaps if Robson had been a little less likeable he’d have won more trophies, as both player and manager. But then he wouldn’t have been Bobby, and he might not have won so many friends.
In his late years he moved to that hilltop village where my sister still lives.
She knows little about football and had scant idea who he was, but she too found him a warm and likeable neighbour.
Bobby’s final resting-place is barely a mis-hit shot away from the village green where I played so many kick-about games as a lad.
Despite my respect and affection for him, I found the public reaction to his death – the efflorescence of shirts, scarves and flowers at St James’s Park and on the Portman Road railings – pointless and disturbing.
I am uneasy at best about all this Dianification, whoever it relates to. There seems to have been an inflation of public mourning in recent years that feels somehow un-British.
Nevertheless, I am glad that on Saturday the two clubs I love, as he did, will unite in honouring him.
And I am glad that from now on I will watch my football from the Sir Bobby Robson Stand. It seems appropriate.


SO the government is proposing to cut £2billion from its education budget.
Their plans including “squeezing” teachers’ pay and, incredibly, axing thousands of headteachers, amalgamating schools under “super-heads”.
They say by chopping up to 3,000 posts they can save £250million a year.
Sounds a lot. Until you realise this is the same government that blew 200 times that amount in one go when they bailed out the banking business last year.

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