Saint Bobby of Newcastle

Remembering a legend. From left: Alan Shearer, Fabio Capello, Sir Alex Ferguson, Paul Gascoigne and Gary Lineker attend the thanksgiving service for former England football team manger Sir Bobby Robson at Durham Cathedral.-AP

A memorial service in the honour of Bobby Robson was held recently at Newcastle United, where he had several impressive years in his last job as a club manager, writes Brian Glanville.

Since Bobby Robson, alas, died after a long brave fight against cancer, there seems to have been no end to the obsequies. A torrent of what you might call happy clapping a minute at a time in all the stadiums of League clubs in England; this being the new way of showing respect rather than observing a minute’s silence. A memorial service was held most recently at Newcastle United, where he had several impressive years in his last job as a club manager, only to lose t hat job to the whims of the ineffable Freddy Shepherd, then the man in dubious power. The football great and good attended that occasion en masse; Alex Ferguson, Bobby Charlton, Gary Lineker, Paul Gascoigne, in tears, of course.

There was never anything like all this after the death of Alf Ramsay who did, after all, win the only World Cup England are ever likely to win, though it is true that when he, in some bitterness, retired to Ipswich, where Bobby as England manager was living too, he’d have nothing to do with his successor.

Alf even attacked Bobby’s methods as England manager in the Press, to the dismay of Robson; there was no social contact between them. Indeed, when both were attending a match at Chelsea and Bobby offered Alf a lift home in his car the reply was, sullenly, “I came here by car and I shall go back by car.”

It was a bright young football journalist who observed to me that the torrent of praise and affection for Bobby Robson was “a Princess Di moment”. Referring to the waves of emotion, or, if you like, of sentimentality, which followed the sad death of Princess Diana and made you wonder for a time what country you were living in. Where was the supposedly traditional English restraint? As one who, for some eight years, travelled the world, and two World Cups, with Bobby and his England team, I found it hard to understand.

I think I was the only journalist to recall in print the famous or infamous “white lie” of 1986, regarding the other Robson, Bryan, captain of England whose shoulder was constantly being dislocated when he played. It went once again in Los Angeles where England beat Mexico on the way to the World Cup finals but Bobby denied it had happened. He had, he later admitted in an abysmal diary of the competition, told “a white lie.” But why? It has never been explained. Not even when some time later he and I confronted each other over his office desk in the then FA headquarters in Lancaster Gate.

Bobby, for so many years a star footballer and an England cap, a leading club manager, had been reduced to the fatuity of saying that “when a shoulder goes out easily, it goes back easily.” And then, as he himself knew fully well, comes out again.

At times, and especially at that World Cup, one was wont to see Bobby as the original man who fell into a septic tank and came up smelling of eau de cologne. In the Mexican 1986 finals, England made an abysmal beginning, losing clumsily in Monterrey to Portugal and so nearly going down there to Morocco. When, yet again, Bryan went down and off with that injury; and by then an ultra prosaic Ray Wilkins was, however untypically, sent off for throwing the ball at the referee. But this was Bobby’s luck. Forced to make changes, he suddenly found himself with a bright team good enough to reach the quarterfinals where it was undone by Diego Maradona’s notorious Hand of God goal at the Azteca stadium in Mexico City. Even if he followed that up with his spectacular slalom of a second goal.

Two years later — something which seems conveniently to be forgotten — poor Bobby became an Aunt Sally, bombarded from all sides after three pitiful displays by England in the West German finals of the European Championship. Beaten in Stuttgart by unfashionable Ireland, trounced by Holland and the Soviets. I remember Fabio Capello, now the England manager himself, asking me, after the defeat by the rampant Dutch — a hat-trick by Marco van Basten — “What has happened to the English rabbia?” The “rage” to win and save games. It looked then as if Bobby would lose his job but instead he remained to do a great deal better in 1990 in the World Cup finals in Italy. Though as he himself was heard to say after his team had reached the semifinals when they unluckily went out to Germany on penalties in Turin, “We’ve got here, I don’t know how.”

In recent times, Bobby tried to tell us that he called the tune tactically, but did he? Before the tournament, I well remember him saying that he would have no truck with sweeper defence, because English footballers didn’t like to use it. But after an opening dreary draw in Cagliari against the Irish (‘No football, we’re British’ ran a satirical headline in the Italian Press) it was well known that his players persuaded him to use a sweeper against Holland. It worked more or less, though the players were plainly unfamiliar with the tactic. And after England had squeezed home in the quarterfinal against Cameroon in Naples, reshuffling the defence after Mark Wright cut an eye, it was Bobby himself who said, “A flat back four saved us.”

Born in the North East, an outstanding schoolboy inside forward, he rather surprisingly was snapped up by the far from salient Fulham club, where he established a famous inside-forward partnership with a footballer he revered in Johnny Haynes (though he later mistrusted flair). Later at West Bromwich Albion he would become a right-half, still good enough to play for England.

Arguably he was a better club (including Barcelona) than an international manager. After a shaky managerial start at Fulham, he took over Ipswich Town which Ramsey had almost miraculously turned into an English Champion team. Things began badly. After one home defeat, a group of dropped players were celebrating. A furious Robson burst in on them and flattened the ringleader, Baxter. Gradually, things got better. Ipswich unexpectedly but deservedly beat Arsenal in an FA Cup Final at Wembley then largely using long ball tactics. Yet, later, he had the courage and initiative to switch to a more patient and elaborate game, deploying two fine, tall Dutch midfielders, in Arnold Muhren and Frans Thijssen.

Those youngish journalists who eulogised him weren’t at the 1990 World Cup when he blanked the football Press, quite guiltless of the scandalous stories about what might politely be termed his romantic life. Yet, he gave the run of England’s hotels to a novelist called Chris Davies who produced a book full of the indiscretions no football writer would have perpetrated. “Pressure?” he once addressed a group of us in a Mexico City hotel, “there isn’t any pressure. You people provide the pressure. If you people didn’t exist, my job would be twice as easy and twice as pleasurable.