He loved the game as much as any man who ever lived

Bobby Robson in his playing days. Most remarkably, throughout his career, Robson said or did nothing that could be considered mean.-AP

Bobby Robson was a football man whose talent was elevated not just by his hard-earned understanding of the game but by his instinctive feeling for its human dimensions, writes Richard Williams.

If you wanted another name for rock ‘n’ roll, John Lennon once said, you could call it Chuck Berry. Much the same claim could be made of English football and Bobby Robson, the miner’s son who embodied so many of the better qualities identified with the game in an age before vast sums of money came along to distort and realign its priorities.

There can be little argument with the proposition that Sir Bobby, as he became in 2002, loved football as much as any man who ever lived. Ten years ago, he was 66 and had already twice fought off the depredations of cancer when he took his last significant job as a manager.

It was with Newcastle United, the club that had commanded his boyhood affections, and he was properly affronted when, after five mostly happy and successful years, he was sacked by directors lacking an iota of his understanding of or feeling for the game.

His career was a mixture of considerable successes and dramatic failures.

In the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain he is remembered as a man capable of taking on clubs enduring difficult times and restoring their fortunes. In England his name will always be associated with two events in particular: winning the FA Cup in 1978 with Ipswich Town, a much-loved backwoods club whose upper-crust owners let him get on with organising the football while they restocked the boardroom cocktail cabinet, and losing a World Cup semifinal with England a dozen years later, beaten by Germany in a penalty shootout destined to enter folklore.

Most of the bad things that can happen to football managers came his way. He was sacked several times, at virtually every stage of his career — from his first job, aged 34, and from his last, at 71.

He was once given the boot just before Christmas, when his team were at the top of their league. He was at the controls when the England team suffered a couple of its most traumatic disasters. Yet somehow the public saw beyond the results and statistics to the essence of a man who managed to display his emotions without losing an ounce of his dignity.

Most remarkably, throughout his career, Robson said or did nothing that could be considered mean. He held strong opinions and was unafraid to take the hard decisions that are an inevitable part of the football manager’s lot but his enthusiasm, fundamental kindness and decency, underlying humility and indomitable good humour marked him out as a product of those generations that grew up in the shadow of war and poverty.

He belonged with the likes of Alf Ramsey, Bill Nicholson, Jackie Milburn, Joe Mercer, Ron Greenwood and Dave Sexton, even though he eventually found himself up against younger men who grew up in a very different world.

If he was not a genius, either as a player or a manager, then he represented something more than just the highest class of honest professional. He was a football man whose talent was elevated not just by his hard-earned understanding of the game but by his instinctive feeling for its human dimensions.

In his career as a distinguished wing-half — what would now be called an attacking midfielder — with Fulham, West Bromwich Albion and England, he worked diligently to make it possible for more gifted players to express themselves. As a coach, his players did not hang on to his words as they might have done to those of a Ramsey, a Don Revie or a Brian Clough, but they respected the depth of his experience and were swept along by his passion.

No one who came into contact with him could fail to have been affected by his readiness to talk all day and all night about football with an undiminished curiosity, and his eye for a player enabled him to bring young apprentices to maturity as well as to work with some of football’s greatest names.

During 13 seasons at Ipswich, he signed only 14 players from other clubs but two of those were Arnold Muhren and Frans Thijssen, the Dutchmen whose artistry helped to begin the process of internationalisation that ultimately led to the phenomenal global success of the Premier League. And the boy educated at a secondary modern became one of very few English managers able to master the challenge of coaching big foreign clubs — including Barcelona, with whom he won three trophies in a single season.

A gift for malapropisms and an ability to confuse names became an endearing part of his legend. “Hello, Bobby,” he once greeted his England captain, Bryan Robson. “I’m Bryan,” the skipper replied. “You’re Bobby.” What, the young Newcastle forward Shola Ameobi was asked by a journalist, did his teammates call him? “Shola,” he replied. And how, the disappointed but still hopeful interlocutor asked, did his manager address him? “He calls me Carl Cort.”

Robson’s humour was not always unintentional. Bobby Charlton quotes him as saying of the full back George Cohen, whose passing was not the best, that “George probably hit more photographers than Frank Sinatra”.

It was not his record of wins, draws and losses but the recognition of his inherent generosity of spirit that wrapped him in public sympathy when it became clear that his long struggle against cancer was coming to a sad end.

His continued presence at St. James’ Park, pale and gaunt, his whitened hair now gone and his bald head covered by a rakish wide-brimmed hat, was a statement of enduring love and loyalty to a game that somehow remained, despite misadventures, worth the candle. And if dear old Bobby still loved it, for all its manifold faults and wickednesses, then so might the rest of us.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2009