Sir Bobby Robson: a knight badly maligned

NORMAN GILLER takes Fleet Street to task as he remembers his old friend Sir Bobby Robson, the former England, Ipswich and Newcastle manager

As the plaudits, praise and applause poured out for the life of Sir Bobby Robson yesterday, I wonder how many Fleet Street football consciences were more than somewhat troubled?

Few managers in football history had to endure the sort of searing criticism aimed at him during his tempestuous tenure as England manager.

Sir Bobby, an old pal of mine from back in his playing days with Fulham, found a colourful way to describe it: “I had my testicles pulled apart in the tabloid war.”

So true. The Sun and Mirror were so locked into their circulation battle in the 1980s that they were prepared to sacrifice Robson on the altar of sales.

The Sun, in particular, was vicious to the point of cruelty. Making no secret of the fact that Brian Clough was the man they wanted to see in the manager’s chair, they gave away “Robson Out — Clough In” badges, and held phone-in polls to prove that Bobby was about as popular as rabies in a dogs’ home.

Robson had to wake up to 96-point banner headlines like PLONKER!, and IN THE NAME OF GOD GO! Then, after a 1-1 draw with Saudi Arabia, the thick black headline screamed, IN THE NAME OF ALLAH GO!

Bobby emerged as the winner and Fleet Street the loser as he somehow managed to smile his way through the headlines of hate to win respect as one of England’s finest managers, steering the national side to the World Cup quarter-final in 1986, when they were beaten by Argentina and Diego Maradona (“It wasn’t the ‘Hand of God’,” Robson accurately described his side’s infamous demise, “it was the hand of a rascal. God had nothing to do with it.”), and then going out on penalties to Germany in the semi-final four years later.

There are some football reporters, headline writers and editors among my brethren out there who should be hanging their heads in shame.

Remarkably, Bobby never held it against them and as the avalanche of obituaries have proved, he won a place in hearts and minds as a true legend of the game he loved so much.

I have rarely known anybody so passionate about football. Back in 1968, I stood with him on the Craven Cottage pitch minutes after he had been sacked as Fulham’s manager. He was telling me how much Fulham meant to him when he suddenly burst into tears.

It shows the change in reporting demands in that to save Bobby embarrassment, I made little of his breakdown in my broadsheet Daily Express report. The tabloids today would have splashed it on their front pages, no doubt with the headline TEARS OF THE CLOWN.

To his final day, Sir Bobby was unable to understand why the papers could be so malicious and mischief-making.

Wouldn’t it be fitting if in memory of this true gentleman of football we went back to the days when the game was reported without the poison of personal abuse. This old hack won’t hold his breath.

Steven Downes adds: I have a fond memory of being able to meet Bobby, a decade or so ago, before his knighthood, when I was working on a Channel 4 sports documentary strand with Greg Dyke, producing a half-hour looking at what had, by then, already become “The Impossible Job”.

The programme’s focus was very much on the strained relationship between the England manager and the British Press, and our other interviewees included Robson’s successor Graham Taylor and Brian Alexander, who when sports editor at The Sun had overseen the notorious Swedes v Turnip back page.

What was notable was that while several football figures were distrusting to the point of paranoia about the press coverage that they received, Robson’s reaction was much more measured and discerning.

Smiling and positive despite having recently had surgery after his second dose of cancer, Robson admitted that, unlike those who say that they “don’t read the papers”, he definitely did, and that the criticism often hurt him personally. But he distinguished between those reporters he liked and whose opinions he respected and those who, as he saw it, tried to concoct a story where there was none.

But above all, what irked him, Robson said, was not the personal attacks but what he saw as a disloyalty to the England team, and to the country he loved. Bobby Robson was always a true knight of the realm.

Sir Bobby Robson’s final public appearance was at his beloved St James’ Park last weekend, wheelchair-bound, at a football match to benefit the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation, a cancer charity established in his name.

For more details about the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation, and how to make a donation, click here

View the presentation of the BBC’s lifetime achievement award to Sir Bobby in 2007 by clicking here

Read previous Norman Giller columns by clicking here.

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