By PATRICK COLLINS, SJA President
England lost a football match, and the usual suspects formed an orderly queue. Roy Keane – he of the tender heart and kindly word – castigated the manager’s man-management. “He knows Harry (Maguire) has had a tough time on and off the pitch. A pat on the back would have helped him.”
Maguire had just been sent off for his second bookable offence inside the opening 31 minutes.
Jamie Redknapp gave the matter deep tactical consideration. Jack Grealish was the answer. “Just throw him on. Get him to do something,” said the sage. Easy. If only the manager had the wit to see it.
And social media erupted in predictable outrage. Some said the manager must go, others insisted he should never have had the job in the first place.
As Gareth Southgate prepared himself for the critical onslaught, the mind returned to another decent, talented man who endured his share of similar batterings more than thirty years ago.
Football writers of a certain age will recall mid-winter Saturday evenings in Suffolk, when they would gather in a shivering bunch outside the Ipswich dressing room, waiting for Bobby Robson. Their plan never varied. Bobby would emerge in club blazer, hands dug deeply into his pockets, head bowed, staring at his shoes.
Somebody would ask a mild question and receive a mundane answer. Then, by previous agreement, we would say nothing. The silence would hold for ten, fifteen seconds. Then in he would plunge, eyes burning, shoulders rolling like a fighter.
When Bobby was into his stride, the back pages wrote themselves. Yet slowly we realised that he was not only supplying us with stories, he was giving us a far deeper understanding of matches and players. Although the suggestion would have amused him, Bobby was educating us.
In truth, we thought he would never leave that extraordinary football club. He enjoyed working with his young players. He relished the fact that John and Patrick Cobbold, the thirsty Etonians who presided over the hospitable boardroom, allowed him to run the club precisely as he pleased. And he recounted, with some relish, the memorable remark of Lady Blanche Cobbold, daughter of the Duke of Devonshire and mother of the chairman.
In 1978, Bobby led Ipswich to victory in their first FA Cup Final. At the pre-Final reception, Lady Blanche was asked if she would like to meet the Prime Minister. “Actually,” she said, “I’d rather have a gin and tonic.” Bobby loved the tale, but then, he loved the Cobbolds, and he needed something extraordinary to take him away from Ipswich.
It arrived with the FA’s offer of the England job. In his new book about Robson – his sixth – Bob Harris suggests that his acceptance was due to a mixture of patriotism and ambition. Certainly Robson was ambitious, and he was probably patriotic, but the book’s title – Bobby Robson: The Ultimate Patriot – conjures visions of a flag-waving, anthem-bawling caricature which many will struggle to recognise.
What is beyond dispute is that, for much of his eight years as national manager, Robson received some desperately unfair treatment from sections of the media, from managers who coveted his job, and from clamorous sections of travelling England fans who took their cue from outrageous headlines such as “Go! In The Name Of Allah, Go!”, which followed a poor performance against Saudi Arabia.
Robson was never the most self-confident of men, and he was undoubtedly wounded by the abuse. But he stuck by his beliefs, enjoyed the backing of important people at the FA, and delivered England a semi-final place at Italia ’90, one which might have been even better but for an ill-struck penalty.
It was during that riveting tournament, and certainly during the days and months which followed, that Robson was installed as a national treasure. Harris describes his short journey through the Heathrow terminal on his return from Italy, and how Robson was surprised when: “people and staff applauded him all the way through the terminal to the baggage reclaim carousel … He found it embarrassing and touching.”
But Robson had decided to leave even before the tournament began and, for a man who had always seemed so essentially English, his career took off in some brave and exciting directions. Within the next nine years, he enjoyed rewarding spells at PSV Eindhoven, Sporting Lisbon, FC Porto, Barcelona and, finally, back in his native North-East at Newcastle. With its incessant boardroom chaos and absurd expectations, it was a job he should never have taken. But, typically, he gave his best, even as his health was disintegrating.
Bobby became that rarest of English public figures, a man who was genuinely loved. His knighthood met with universal approval and his charity, the Bobby Robson Foundation, raised millions for cancer research. He died in July 2009, widely mourned and hugely respected.
Harris records his career match by match, and spares no superlatives. He admits no flaw or fault in his subject, and leaves no slight undefended. The football press in general – “the media mob” as he calls them – receive a rare old battering for criticism of the manager, with many being mentioned by name.
“You’re never appreciated until you’re gone, and then people say ‘Oh, he was OK’ Just like Picasso”
Those of us who covered Robson’s career have marginally less rose-tinted memories. Like the rest of us, Bobby had his share of faults and made many a misjudgment. But his love for the game was warm and unswerving and, like Bill Shankly before him, he could never truly understand those who did not share that passion.
Then there was his way with a phrase; often mangled, frequently memorable. I loved his summary of England’s tough World Cup match against Cameroon in 1990: “We didn’t underestimate them. They were a lot better than we thought.”
And his message on retiring: “I’m here to say goodbye – maybe not goodbye, but farewell.”
But best of all was his defence of his own, under-appreciated profession: “If you are a painter, you don’t get rich until you’re dead. The same happens with managers. You’re never appreciated until you’re gone, and then people say: ‘Oh, he was OK’. Just like Picasso.”
Utterly perfect. Utterly Bobby Robson.
Bobby Robson: The Ultimate Patriot, £20, deCoubertin
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