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Sir Bobby Robson

Sir Bobby Robson, football player and manager who took England to their first World Cup semi-final since 1966, died on 31 July 2009. He was 76.

He had a tough early life in the minefields of County Durham, here summarised by The Times:

Robson was one of many successful footballers of his generation from the North East of England, born in 1933 in the village of Sacriston, Co Durham, the son of a miner who missed only one shift in 51 years of work. Robson followed his father underground aged 15 as an apprentice electrician, returning to a house without a bath or indoor toilet, before heading out to follow “the sporting passion that was to raise me to the surface once and for all”.

That passion, of course, was football. The Independent describes his breakthrough into the professional game:

Of course, Robson’s ultimate salvation was football. It was both his obsession – later he would describe it as his drug – and what he did best. After starring at schoolboy level, he was given trials by Middlesbrough and Southampton, both of whom rejected him. Nothing daunted, the 15-year-old inside-forward continued to impress and two years later a posse of clubs was hunting his signature. Robson chose Fulham, enlisting with the Londoners in May 1950 and making his First Division début within a year.

His success continued through the 1950s, culminating in a transfer to West Bromwich Albion in 1956 which saw him develop his natural talent in a more thoughtful direction, as the Daily Telegraph explains:

At Fulham, Robson had not been one to pay much attention to the finer points of team talks – indeed, he was partially deaf in one ear, a condition that meant he was never called up for National Service. At West Brom, however, he met Don Howe, later to become an influential coach himself, who persuaded him to take a coaching course with Walter Winterbottom, then the England manager. Robson’s own understanding of the game improved, and while at the Hawthorns he was picked for England 20 times, scoring four goals. He played in the 1958 World Cup, and would have played in the tournament four years later but for injury.

By the time of the 1962 World Cup, his relationship with West Brom was turning sour – here’s the Independent again:

During his Midlands sojourn he had supplemented what was then a paltry income for a married man with two (later three) sons by coaching schoolboys. But with the lifting of football’s maximum wage restrictions in 1961, the way was clear for clubs to reward their players more handsomely. Some did, Albion didn’t and Robson demanded a transfer, returning to Fulham for £20,000 in August 1962.

The Sixties was a barren decade for Robson, as the Times describes:

Robson returned to Fulham in 1962, but, as he recalled, his playing career “fizzled out”. He had won no trophies and was especially disappointed to miss out on the England World Cup adventures of 1962 and the triumph in 1966. Life felt insecure. In contrast to today’s football stars, he had not earned much; even when he was an England international, Robson had not owned a car. He began to do more and more coaching, including the Oxford University team. By 1967 he was ready to try his hand at management and after a spell as a player-coach in Vancouver, Canada, he went back to Fulham again, this time as manager. But he was forced to sell players and, not surprisingly, could not deliver success on the field; after only nine months, he was sacked.

Better times lay just ahead, though, when Robson joined Ipswich Town as their manager in January 1969, quickly establishing a rapport with the owners, the Cobbold family – described by the Independent as “generous-spirited” and characterised by the Times as people “for whom the definition of a crisis was a shortage of white wine in the board room”. It wasn’t all plain sailing, though (Independent):

Robson began by presiding over several disappointing seasons at the wrong end of the First Division. He had inherited a weak side and there were confrontations with players, including one bout of fisticuffs, as he settled in. When a vocal minority of Ipswich fans demanded his sacking, Robson feared the worst. Instead, the board persevered with their man, and, gradually, the tide turned. Despite not having the cash to compete on equal terms with rich clubs, he assembled a first-rate team, built around the likes of Mick Mills, Kevin Beattie and Allan Hunter. In 1973 they finished fourth in the table, equalling the feat in 1974, then improving to third in 1975. Thereafter they finished out of the top six only once in a decade, missing the title only narrowly on several occasions.

Brian Glanville in The Guardian describes the development of Ipswich’s tactics as Robson built his team:

Robson’s years at Portman Road were marked by two distinct periods. Initially, Ipswich played the kind of long-ball game at that time espoused by Liverpool. But Robson changed to a more deliberate and intricate style after he had signed two fine Dutch midfield players, Frans Thijssen and Arnold Mühren. These two, with their technical ability and passing skills, imposed a quite different pattern on the team, which proceeded to win the FA Cup in 1978, beating Arsenal 1-0, and the Uefa cup in 1981, beating AZ Alkmaar 5-4 on aggregate. Mühren, however, would later write scathingly of Robson and his alleged tactical ingenuousness.

Success led him to the England job in 1982. Opinions in the obits are mixed as to his early fortunes: the Independent live up to their name by describing his start as “solid”, whereas the other obits are less forgiving, reflecting the press views at the time:

Robson’s time as manager was, more than that of his predecessors, characterised by the press’s disenchantment with his performance. This began when the team failed to qualify for the 1984 European Championships, and by 1986, when he took England to the World Cup in Mexico, he was under severe pressure from the media. (Daily Telegraph)

Worse was to come in the run-up to Italia ’90, as Brian Glanville and the Telegraph describe:

Four years later in Italy, Robson again found himself pilloried by the newspapers. Not only had England performed wretchedly in the 1988 European Championships, but details of an alleged love affair had also surfaced, and the FA had crassly announced that whatever happened in the World Cup, Robson would be replaced at its end. Normally a genial man, for much of the tournament Robson wore the air of a man under siege.  (Daily Telegraph)

He had already announced his decision to resign before the tournament ended since the Football Association, after tabloid stories about his private life, had made it clear his contract would not be renewed. The capacity of the senior international committee, however, may be assessed from a subsequent remark by their chairman, Peter Swales of Manchester City, who said he was glad that England had not won the World Cup because that would have meant Robson remaining in the post. (Guardian)

Hardly surprising that his relationship with the media was tetchy, as the Guardian relates:

Ever thin-skinned in the face of criticism – “Pressure? What pressure?” he once asked a press conference in Mexico City in 1985. “You people provide the pressure. If you didn’t exist, my job would be twice as easy and twice as pleasurable” – Robson responded poorly to the customary savaging by journalists, but was held in high esteem by players and fans alike, particularly during his years in charge of the terminally dysfunctional Newcastle United in his native north-east.

After England, Robson found success in Europe with a string of clubs:

In 1991 and 1992 he guided PSV Eindhoven to the Dutch title. The next year he was appointed coach at Sporting Lisbon (where he worked with the young Luis Figo), but was sacked after a season. He was quickly snapped up by their rivals Porto, who for some years had been in the doldrums. Robson turned the club around, steering them to the championship in 1994 and the Portuguese league and cup double the next season. (Daily Telegraph)

Even a series of fights with cancer failed to overcome Robson’s dogged pursuit of success. Here’s the Independent again:

After undergoing a second cancer operation in 1995 (the first had been in 1992), Robson recovered rapidly and turned down the chance of managing Arsenal. Still, though, his drive remained strong and a year later, aged 63, at last he accepted an invitation from Barcelona. [He’d already been approached when manager of Ipswich.] In his first term, despite the recruitment of the star Brazilian striker Ronaldo, the side made an uncertain start and as the pressure of colossal expectation mounted, Robson ran into political problems with the autocratic club president Josep Nuñez. By New Year 1997, the Ajax coach Louis van Gaal had been lined up to replace Robson at season’s end, but the Englishman embarrassed his employers by inspiring his men to double glory, Barcelona beating Paris St-Germain to lift the European Cup-Winners’ Cup and Real Betis to take the Spanish Cup. Now he was impossible to sack, so when van Gaal arrived for 1997/98, Robson as shunted “upstairs” to become director of recruitment, a glorified chief scout, a post he held for a year before taking over again at PSV.

A dream job came along in 1999 (the Times):

Robson, who had proved to be the most successful England manager since Sir Alf Ramsey, returned to England in September 1999 to take the helm of Newcastle United. It was an emotional appointment for a club with huge and fanatical support and fierce regional pride which had suffered decades of disappointment.

“When, as Newcastle manager, I looked across the banks of faces at St James’s Park, I saw my dad,” he said, “every fan out there was my dad.”

[But relations with the board were soured early on over salary and transfers, among other things:]

Nor did Robson always find it easy to understand how to manage and motivate Premiership footballers whose hugely wealthy lives, lived far apart from the fans, were so vastly different from the world in which he had grown up. On one occasion a young Newcastle star asked Robson to order the team bus to be turned round on the way back from a match because he had left a pair of diamond earrings in a stadium dressing room. More seriously, players began openly to defy his coaching decisions.

Having announced that he would manage the team for one more year, in August 2004 Shepherd sacked Robson just four games into a new season, leaving him “angry and bitter”, as he described in his autobiography, Farewell but not Goodbye.

A final footballing job saw him appointed by the FAI as a consultant to Ireland manager Steve Staunton, but charitable interests outside the game were taking up more of his time towards the end of his life:

Robson stepped down from his Irish role in November 2007, and in March 2008, as he launched a foundation at Newcastle’s Freeman Hospital to help in the fight against cancer, he spoke of battling the disease for the fifth time. Already the new charity has raised more than £1.3m and he was still campaigning for it indomitably on Sunday [26 July 2009], when he attended a fundraising game, a re-run of the 1990 England-Germany semi-final, at St. James’ Park. (Independent)

(Sir Robert William Robson CBE, born 18 February 1933 in Sacriston, Co. Durham, died 31 July 2009 in Co. Durham)

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