The Bobby Robson enigma

Roll back the years, and we find Bobby as a fine, young teenaged footballer in his native North East, much coveted by major clubs, though somewhat surprisingly it would be London’s Fulham, hardly a great force, who were lucky enough to acquire him, writes Brian Glanville.

Bobby Robson, you might say, died in the odour of sanctity, almost a kind of latter day saint. Succumbing at last after his long, brave fight against cancer, which he had beaten off four times over the years. And which had not prevented him, in his last managerial job with Newcastle United, splendidly reviving his famous club — a North Easterner himself — three times taking them to the top five in the top division, after chaos under the previous reign of Ruud Gullit. Dutch star and irreducible egoist.

Yet, to those of us who had been at two World Cups and a European Nations final tournament with Bobby, there were mixed memories. I can still remember him sitting in the lounge of a Mexico City hotel and telling the assembled Press, “Pressure? There isn’t any pressure. You people provide the pressure. If you people didn’t exist, my life would be twice as easy and twice as pleasurable.” And matters would reach a head at the World Cup finals of 1990 played in Italy.

Shortly before they began, Bobby had been attacked maliciously in certain popular newspapers for alleged “romantic” misdemeanours; he was always well-known as a ladies’ man. But these had they happened at all had happened way back in the past, and there was no genuine need to resurrect them.

Bryan Robson, the captain of the England team, had also been under attack, though in his case it has to be said that there was no smoke without fire. His escapade had taken place some months earlier, soon after the England team had played a kind of exhibition match in the town of Aylesbury. The consequence of all this was that when the squad got to Cagliari, on the island of Sardinia, where it had to play its group games — clearly a decision prompted by the hope of isolating England’s notorious hooligan fans — the squad imposed what the Italians call Press Silence. No talking to the Press.

This was extremely unfair to the football reporters, none of whom was guilty of publishing such stories, which had all been purveyed by the news journalists. The irony being that while Bobby snubbed the football writers, he naively gave free rein in England’s various hotels to a novelist called Pete Davies who has writing a book about the World Cup, in which he duly published indiscretions which regular football writers would never have done.

Roll back the years, and we find Bobby as a fine, young teenaged footballer in his native North East, much coveted by major clubs, though somewhat surprisingly it would be London’s Fulham, hardly a great force, who were lucky enough to acquire him. There he would establish, as an inside-right, a famous partnership with Johnny Haynes, Fulham captain and icon. Even after Bobby had left Fulham for West Bromwich Albion, the two were England’s inside-forwards in the 1958 World Cup Finals in Gothenburg, Sweden, though truth to tell they had a thin time of it, as did the team at large. Bobby won 20 England caps!

On retiring he was appointed manager of Fulham but things went quickly awry and he did not survive for long. He was, you might say, reborn as a manager at Ipswich Town, where he was in charge from 1969 to 1982.

A club which had been inspired by Alf Ramsey, who was also Bobby’s predecessor as manager of England, was in uneasy condition. When the team lost a home game, several of the players who hadn’t been picked were celebrating. An enraged Robson burst in on the festivities and knocked the ringleader, Baxter, down. He was never lacking in physical courage.

One thinks of the dire evening at the Olympic Stadium, in Rome, where Ipswich played a UEFA Cup match against a vicious Lazio side, whose defender Oddi had, in the first leg at Portman Road, already and brutally kicked the Ipswich striker David Johnson in the genitals. Now they — possibly drugged — literally attacked the Ipswich team and, when the players came off the field, Giuseppe Wilson, Lazio’s half-English captain, knocked down the Ipswich ’keeper David Best in the players’ tunnel and was kicking him when Robson intervened and dragged him away. In his years at Ipswich, he had a great triumph in the FA Cup Final of 1978 beating Arsenal, the favourites, at Wembley 1-0.

In those days Ipswich were playing the long ball game, but Bobby had the courage and initiative eventually to modulate his tactics to a more measured gradual approach, exemplified by two tall, lean Dutch midfield men in Frans Thijssen and Arnold Muhren. In his last two seasons, Ipswich were twice runners-up in the Championship and won the UEFA Cup.

In 1982 he succeeded Ron Greenwood as manager of England and had a dire first season, knocked out by Denmark from the eliminators of the European Nations Cup, drawing undeservedly and ineptly in Copenhagen, losing by a penalty at Wembley. Yet, he did get England to the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico, where the notorious Hand of God of Diego Maradona undid them in the quarterfinals.

On the way there, however, there was the strange phenomenon of Bryan Robson’s shoulder. It was well-known by the time England met Mexico and beat them 3-0 in a pre-World Cup friendly in Los Angeles, that Bryan’s shoulder had been dislocating more than once. It did so again in Los Angeles, but Bobby maintained with what he later, in a dire World Cup diary, termed “a white lie”, that the shoulder hadn’t gone out. He had also asserted, fatuously that “when a shoulder comes out easily, it goes back easily.”

So Bryan played in Monterrey in both England’s dismal opening games — beaten by Portugal, hugely lucky to draw 0-0 with Morocco — only for the shoulder to slip out again in the latter match. In which Ray Wilkins, in sterile form in midfield, was sent off the field. So Bobby, under player pressure, had no alternative but to revolutionise the team without either player; and England went on to contest that ill augured quarter-final at the Azteca Stadium. To this day, we don’t know the true story behind Bobby’s strange decision to persist with Bryan, and can only hazard a guess. He wouldn’t tell me when to my surprise he consented to a one to one interview in 1989 in his Lancaster Gate office.

There was no shame at all in going out to Argentina, but when it came to the European finals in West Germany in 1988 disaster ensued; even if things had looked so promising when, in the eliminators, England had unexpectedly thrashed Yugoslavia 4-1 in Belgrade. England supinely lost all three games, the first to humble Ireland, the others to Holland and the USSR. Bobby was reviled, but he still kept his job.

On to the 1990 World Cup Finals, before which Bobby swore he would stick to a 4-4-2 formation, because English players didn’t like sweeper defences. What happened?

After a dreary 0-0 draw with Ireland, England’s senior players persuaded Bobby to use a sweeper against the Dutch. England were the better team though the defenders clearly had no real idea of how the system worked. And when in Naples in the quarterfinals against Cameroon, an eye injury to centre-back Mark Wright caused England to abandon the sweeper co-formation, Bobby remarked next day, “A flat back four saved us.”

He was bitterly and justifiably distressed when Alf Ramsey, living only a few streets away from him in Ipswich, not only would have nothing to do with him but even attacked his England managership in the Press. Sacked by England, then by Birmingham City, Alf in those latter years was himself a deeply bitter man.

Resigning from the England role after the 1990 World Cup, Bobby would work abroad with PSV in Holland, Sporting Lisbon and Porto in Portugal, Barcelona in Spain. He brought them the astonishing, prolific Ronaldo, but was eventually kicked upstairs into a secondary role; the fans had disapproved of his tactics. Already he was embroiled in his brave fight against cancer; though it would not stop him regenerating Newcastle United. Another club which sacked him; and have gone downhill ever since.