Football and the English have a connection as endless as time itself. While the game’s roots are deeply embedded in British culture, nobody has embodied its spirit better than Sir Bobby Robson.
Sir Matt Busby is one that comes to mind when you think of great British managers. Navigating a great young side through the tragedy of the Munich air disaster. And subsequently, leading the club to one of it’s most successful eras, there’s been few that have been equal to him.
Then there was Bob Paisley, who led the Reds of Merseyside to one of their most successful spells in the history of football. Winning an astounding twenty trophies in the space of nine illustrious years at Anfield.
While there is enough evidence to suggest there have been some brilliant British managers who have achieved glory on home soil, there are also those that went beyond.
Managers who dared to leave the home comforts of English football and cut their teeth in professional football amidst different cultures and countries.
Their careers and lives have been shaped by those experiences abroad and their influence is well felt in the places they’ve been at.
And no other manager or player has been so universally revered and respected, as much as one man from Durham, England, Sir Bobby Robson.
Early days in Durham
Robson’s love affair with football began at a very young age. His first love in football was with a club and a city about 15 miles away from his place of birth Sacriston in Durham County, it was Newcastle United. His family lived in a modest two-bedroom house in Langley Park, a few miles from Sacriston.
As a young boy, he was one of five children in the Robson’s house and his father often took him along to watch Newcastle and watched on, as legends like Jackie Milburn, Tommy Walker and Bobby Cowell restored the Magpies to the old first division.
Soon enough, Robson would venture into professional football and be offered his first professional contract by Fulham. As a teenager, Robson played a lot of football with Langley Park Juniors and also was part of U-18s as a 15-year-old.
Coming from a working-class background, when he was old enough, he started working as an apprentice for the National Coal Board in the Langley Park Colliery.
Community and values shaped Robson
The whole community of Sacriston was very much together and carried rich values amongst its residents, those values would come to define Robson’s career ahead.
Fulham’s offer came from manager Bill Dodgin Sr. who paid a personal visit to the Robson’s. Around the same time, Robson also had an offer from Middlesbrough which was a lucrative one.
In the end, he chose to move to London and ply his trade at Craven Cottage. He made this move despite having been an interest of his beloved club Newcastle United, however, he believed he could make a better impact at Fulham.
Even after signing with The Cottagers, Robson continued with his job as an electrician until the hectic work-balance was too much, then eventually becoming a full-time footballer with Fulham.
Following Fulham, Robson had a lengthy spell at West Bromwich Albion and a brief spell as player-manager at the Vancouver Royals in the NASL.
Due to differences in ideas at the club and a difficult situation caused by the club’s hierarchy, he returned to Craven Cottage in 1968 in a managerial position.
Robson and his first steps in management
That was where Robson’s managerial journey began.
What was seemingly a happy reunion for both parties ended all too soon, as Fulham were relegated under Robson’s watch in his first season and he was therefore sacked.
Then Ipswich Town came calling for Robson and that was where Robson truly established himself as a manager with a great pedigree.
In a spell that lasted thirteen years at the Portman Road Stadium, Robson led The Blues to success in the old Texaco Cup in 1973, which was then his fifth year in charge. In the following years, the club never finished outside the top six of the old first division.
They did, however, finish below 6th in one year, 1977-78 where they managed to soften the blow by beating Arsenal in the FA Cup final thanks to Roger Osborne’s solitary goal.
In the space of another three years, Robson tasted success once again, this time, in Europe where Ipswich Town won the UEFA Cup against AZ’67. It was an eventful campaign for The Blues, to say the least.
Memorable run in Europe
Each round presented a different challenge from opponents all over Europe. The most significant of which were French giants Saint-Étienne, who boasted star Dutch striker Johnny Rep amongst their ranks.
In a two-legged tie full of goals and some excellent goals from Ipswich’s stars, Robson’s side progressed to the semi-finals with an aggregate score of 7-2. Their 4-1 victory in the 1st leg was hailed by local newspaper Ipswich Daily as the greatest victory in the history of the club.
“There is not a person I would put one inch above Bobby Robson.” – Sir Alex Ferguson
If the journey up to the final was eventful, the final itself encapsulated the entire campaign over two legs once again.
PFA Player of the year John Wark was the star of the campaign having scored in each of the rounds and was one of many players who Robson had a profound impact on.
As revealed from the documentary of his life on Netflix, Bobby Robson: More Than a Manager, the spell at Ipswich Town played a significant part in establishing Robson as a top-class manager in the eyes of the world.
Robson and his Ipswich army
When Ipswich tasted success on the European stage, they were voted as the best team in Europe. This was not a team that was tactically outclassing everyone else at the time, far from it. However, the players that wore the colors of the club at the time played with a passion born out of their manager’s desire and hunger.
Terry Butcher, a player who was part of Robson’s great Ipswich side, said in the Netflix documentary, “He wanted you to be the best you could be if that meant just dangling something there for you to work on, that’s what he did.”
Butcher describes the effect Robson had on his players perfectly. For a man that has a reputation for having been one of the nicest men in football, he was also tough on his players when necessary.
This is exactly the kind of mental fortitude and philosophy that got him to any English manager’s dream job. Becoming the manager of the England men’s national team.
Leading the Three Lions
It was a good time to be an England fan. With talents across all departments of the pitch, Robson led the national team to the quarter-final at the 1986 FIFA World Cup.
There, they lost 2-1 to Argentina and Diego Maradona’s famous “hand of god”. As revealed in the documentary on Netflix, Robson said at the time about the historic handball incident:” He(Maradona) said it was the hand of God, I said it was the hand of a rascal and I’m right.”
At the 1990 FIFA World Cup, Robson and co. went again with renewed optimism and with a belief that they could go all the way. It all came down to a clash against the mighty West Germany. In their ranks, they possessed some of the all-time greats – Lothar Matthäus, Rudi Völler, and Andreas Brehme, just to name a few.
The Germans took the lead after Paul Parker deflected a goal-bound free-kick into the back of his own net. The English fought hard against the disciplined Germans and eventually found their sign of hope when Lineker equalized. The game went all the way down to penalties. Robson was quietly confident of his side’s chances in a shootout, however, it all turned out very differently.
Misses from Stuart Pierce and Chris Waddle cost the Three Lions as West Germany went on to win the world cup against Argentina.
One famous image from that semi-final defeat is one of Gascoigne in tears, which has remained long-etched in the minds of English fans.
“You can see how respected he was all around the world. He was a very open and very honest person. He was someone that would talk to you. The lads really did take to him and have respect for what he’s done not only in football but off the pitch.” – Glenn Hoddle
Robson’s spell as England coach also had two difficult moments where Robson had offered to resign. The first time, when England failed to qualify for the European Championships in 1984.
Repeated rejections from English FA
Robson offered to resign in the favour of the popular Nottingham Forest boss Brian Clough. However, given Clough’s outspoken character, the FA rejected Robson’s resignation.
The second time this happened was after England’s poor showing at the Euros in ‘88, once again Robson offered his resignation and once again it was rejected by the FA Chairman, Bert Millichip.
In his time with England, Robson developed a very close relationship with former Newcastle and Tottenham star, Paul Gascoigne. Famous for being particularly difficult to manage, because of his character, Gascoigne grew close to Robson and the pair always kept in touch even after Robson’s eventual departure from the national team.
From England to Eindhoven
Robson’s exit from the national team was a move shrouded in controversy. As revealed from his documentary on Netflix, Robson had been told that his contract with England wouldn’t be extended beyond the World Cup.
He was simply looking out for his best interests. However, the English media at the time, saw it differently. They ruthlessly painted him as a national traitor, even though that was hardly the case.
Robson signed a two-year deal and moved to PSV. In Eindhoven, having moved abroad for the first time, the move was certainly one that brought a bit of culture shock for Robson.
However, not one to back down from a challenge, he looked at the prospect of managing at PSV as a challenge and performed his duties accordingly. As opposed to most managers at the time, it was his desire to work abroad.
Until this point in his career, Robson had worked in familiar surroundings and in an English footballing culture where the manager’s word was to be followed, to the T. However, he found a different player culture in the Netherlands.
At PSV, Robson revealed, “An English pro accepts the manager’s decision. After every match here, the substitutes come and visit me.”
Falling short in Europe
An inability to meet expectations in European competitions meant that Robson wasn’t going to be around for a third year and was allowed to leave at the end of 1991-92 season.
It was nonetheless a very successful spell as the club won and retained the league title in his two years there.
Aside from the obvious talents of Romário, Robson at PSV also had the likes of Zambian superstar Kalusha Bwalya, and Gheorghe Popescu. The Romanian was signed by the club at Robson’s request, as well as Eric Gerets, who was a great servant of the club until his retirement.
Struggles and success in Lisbon
Robson’s career, as successful as it was, came with some sacrifices and immense struggles too. In 1992, before his next managerial move, he was diagnosed with cancer for the first time in his life. However, Robson did not let it affect his work and battled on to become manager of Sporting CP in 1992.
In Portugal, he met the first of the two individuals whose life and career he would come to influence the most, José Mourinho.
Robson hired Mourinho as his translator for press conferences and media duties. Pretty soon, a young Mourinho would become inseparable with Robson and began giving Robson tactical assistance.
Mourinho began taking a more active part in preparing the team for the upcoming opposition.With time, the trust between Robson and Mourinho grew to the point where he was no longer just an interpreter, but almost equivalent to the role of an assistant coach. Mourinho’s keen eyes for analysis proved to be a very useful asset for Robson at Sporting, Porto and Barcelona as well.
Internal problems at the club prevented Robson from exerting his full influence on the pitch. In Lisbon, he crossed paths with another young future superstar of the game in Luís Figo. The club president Sousa Cintra oftentimes signed players that were not desired by Robson.
Despite all this, he led them to a third-place finish in his first season.
Once again, failure in European competitions came back to bite Robson’s career as he was sacked in December 1993 even though the team was at top of the table at the time. Robson later admitted it was one of the most shocking decisions of his career because of how well the club was doing domestically at the time.
Moving up North to Porto
Sporting’s loss was rival club Porto’s gain and they quickly swooped up Robson and he appointed Mourinho as his assistant manager.
Here, he met the second individual whose life he had influenced the most, a young analyst who went by the name, André Villas-Boas.
Robson played a vital role in the early development of Villas-Boas. The young Portuguese impressed the Porto boss with an eye for comprehensive statistical analysis.
Robson then ensured that Villas-Boas made good on his talent and sent to him Scotland to do his coaching badges and gave him further opportunities in his career down the line.
Even though Villas-Boas was probably too young to be doing the courses, Robson’s influence helped him complete his badges smoothly. The Englishman saw in Villas-Boas a tremendous talent and laid the foundations for a career in football management for the now Olympique Marseille manager.
Much like Sporting, when Robson arrived Porto as a club were in an abject state. However, things picked up under Robson’s management and the club capped off his first season by winning the Taça de Portugal against rivals Sporting. It was a fine way for Robson to answer his critics in Lisbon.
Unfortunately, the cancer which he was first diagnosed with, in 1992 came up again and he was further diagnosed with a malignant melanoma, which forced him to miss the starting few months of the 95-96 season.
Nonetheless, Porto achieved great domestic success in Robson’s time there, winning consecutive league titles, leading a title defence even after coming back from his troubles with cancer.
Realizing the Barcelona dream
Summer of 1996 brought along another big opportunity, Barcelona club President Joan Gaspar picked up the phone to contact Robson.
Although the call was initially made to speak about the talents of Figo, Gaspar offered the Porto boss the hot seat at Camp Nou and Robson accepted even though he had signed a new contract with Porto quite recently.
One of the key conditions that Robson gave to Barcelona was bringing Mourinho as his assistant, which Barcelona duly accepted.
In a single season spell in Catalunya, Robson and Mourinho managed to win the European Cup Winners’ Cup, the Copa Del Rey and the Supercopa de España as well. But the story of that season is about much more than the trophies itself.
Robson made several excellent decisions in his spell at the club, the most significant of which was bringing in Brazilian starlet Ronaldo, from his former club PSV.
Interestingly enough, Ronaldo was not Robson’s first choice, he actually intended to sign Alan Shearer from Blackburn Rovers and Ronaldo was the second choice. In the end, a good decision was definitely made.
“I have had a lot of managers in football but the difference between all of them and Sir Bobby was his humanity and the relationships he had with the players. He was always like a father to everyone.” – Ronaldo
Barcelona in 96-97 was a star-studded team, but at the same time, it was also a team full of different personalities.
Hristo Stoichkov, Figo, Pep Guardiola, Luis Enrique, Laurent Blanc are just some of the many different international stars that had assembled at the club at the time.
In a job that had always been a dream for him, Robson carried on with his duties amidst an incredible amount of pressure from the Barcelona faithful.
The crowds in Camp Nou were used to the likes of Johan Cruyff, who played a revolutionary style of football.
Even though Robson managed to get results, it was seemingly never enough for a fanbase that saw him as an old-fashioned man and not sophisticated like Cruyff.
A young Guardiola was learning quite a bit about the tougher side of management from Robson’s methods and ways. Ronaldo who was on the cusp of becoming the best player in the world at the time also learnt quite a bit from Robson’s character.
While most managers wouldn’t necessarily be able to balance both freedom and responsibilities with Ronaldo, Robson did it and brought the very best out of his striker. The Brazilian ended up scoring 47 goals for the Catalans that season.
That night at the Bernabeu
In one of the most memorable games of all-time for the club and under Robson’s management, Barcelona faced rivals Atlético Madrid in the 2nd leg of the Copa Del Rey final.
The clash was staged at the Santiago Bernabeu. Winning at the home turf of arch-rivals Real Madrid was going to mean everything for the two sides.
The 1st leg ended 2-2 and in the second leg, Atletico started on the front foot and left the Catalans deflated with a 3-0 lead.
All three goals coming from Milinko Pantic, whose hat-trick would’ve been enough for his team but fate had other plans.
The rallying cry
In the second half, Robson’s rallying cry to his team was to play with pride, integrity and passion. Popescu and Blanc were taken off for Pizzi and Stoichkov.
Ronaldo settled Barcelona nerves with an early brace in the second half. Another Pantic goal had made it seem like mission impossible as Atletico now had a 4-2 lead.
However, Barcelona’s determination to come back was portrayed in the most astonishing manner by Robson’s men.
Goals from Figo, Pizzi and another one for Ronaldo meant that Barcelona lifted the Copa Del Rey. And in doing so, added another trophy to their list of achievements.
Months before this unforgettable night, Robson had a very attractive offer to come back to England.
The club of his heart, Newcastle United wanted him and travelled across the seas to Catalunya to meet with Robson. And although Robson gave in to their efforts initially and agreed to move to Newcastle, he couldn’t go through with it.
Josep Lluís Núñez, Barcelona President, at the time, had voiced his support publicly for Robson. He was under pressure from the media and fans at the time and the President’s support helped.
However, what he didn’t know was that the president had some very different plans for him altogether.
Disappointment and departure in Barcelona
The Barcelona board had decided that Robson would be stepping down as the manager. Ajax manager Louis Van Gaal would be taking the reins in his place.
Robson’s wife Elsie Robson revealed, in the Netflix documentary, that had he known about Barcelona’s plans, he probably wouldn’t have continued at Camp Nou.
This was a hugely disappointing situation for Robson. He had hoped to manage Barcelona for another year after getting assurances that he would manage for two years. Eventually, his frustrations grew and he left Barcelona, to once again return to PSV.
There he crossed paths with another young exciting talent, Ruud Van Nistelrooy. It was only a short-term deal for Robson with PSV. However, he ended the year on a positive note.The club ended up winning the Johan Cruyff Shield and qualified for Europe on the final day.
Robson would later recommend Martin Ferguson, Manchester United’s European Scout to sign Van Nistelrooy.
After a brief spell with the English FA’s technical department, Robson once again returned to management at Newcastle United. The club had just parted ways with Ruud Gullit after the Dutchman’s resignation.
Robson’s reunion with the Toon
With Robson’s arrival, there was a sense of stability at the club once again, after two mid-table finishes in two years, he took them to Europe once again in his third year. The club qualified for Europe after finishing fourth that year, a great turnaround in form.
In the year 2002, Robson was granted a knighthood in recognition for his services to the game of football and in the year 2003, he would be inducted into the England Hall of Fame for his managerial success.
All good stories must come to an end though, sadly, and Robson’s time at Newcastle came to an end after just four games into the 2004/05 Barclays Premiership season.
The Toons had taken two points from those matches and had lost points from winning positions in three of those games.
Coupled with disagreements between the board and Robson over a number of high-profile signings, there were several reasons to end the relationship between the club and Robson.
Proudest moment of his life
Nonetheless, the people of Newcastle continued to hold Robson close to their hearts and in March 2005, he became an honorary freeman of the city of Newcastle. He described this as the “proudest moment” in his life.
The years following were particularly difficult for Robson as his cancer worsened. In 2006, after stepping down from his consultancy role with Ireland, he had two operations in the space of four months to remove tumors from his lungs and his brain. The operations left him partially paralyzed.
In 2007, Robson was diagnosed with cancer for the fifth time in his life and later that year was given the lifetime achievement award by BBC at their annual ceremony.
“He called me his Captain Marvel and it stuck for the rest of my playing career.” – Bryan Robson.
In 2008, Robson started the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation, a charitable organisation to help with prevention of cancer. It is one of the world’s most advanced centers of research around the world now.
The battle comes to an end
Robson’s battle with cancer came to an end in 2009, at the age of 76 on the 31st of July. Tributes poured in from around the world and at his memorial service, many of his closest players and professional friends spoke about the influence he had on football.
Never a man whose career would be defined by tactical nous or revolutionary football, but by something much more important. A powerful ability to get the very best out of his players. By making them feel like the very best. That is what he did better than anyone, and in the end, that is how he shall be remembered.
Robson, in his book about Newcastle, My Kind of Toon wrote this –
“What is a club in any case? Not the buildings or the directors or the people who are paid to represent it. It’s not the television contracts, get-out clauses, marketing departments or executive boxes. It’s the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city. It’s a small boy clambering up stadium steps for the very first time, gripping his father’s hand, gawping at that hallowed stretch of turf beneath him and, without being able to do a thing about it, falling in love.”
There is perhaps nothing that can better define the kind of person he was. The way he thought about football and those that are impacted by it.
From Craven Cottage to Camp Nou, to St. James’ Park, he won hearts everywhere and remains an inspiration to many even today.