I know he had no association with Birmingham City as such, but Sir Bobby Robson’s passing was a real shame for all football fans.
As a man of a certain age I can remember Sir Bobby as manager of a little club in East Anglia in the seventies, who played excellent football and scored great goals. Players of the ilk of Frans Thijssen, Arnold Muhren, Kevin Beattie, Eric Gates, John Wark, Alan Brazil, Paul Mariner, Paul Cooper, Russell Osman, Mick Mills, etc, helped Robson turn Ipswich Town into near title winners.
They won the FA Cup in 1978, were league runners-up in 1981 and 1982 and won the Uefa Cup in 1981. It was some achievement for a modest football club but one completed in some style. It was the way Ipswich played that marked them out. They played with style and passion and a positive attitude.
It was this that convinced the FA to appoint Bobby Robson as successor to England manager Ron Greenwood in 1982. After England’s dismal showing in Spain’s World Cup of the same year, the public were crying out for someone to emulate Sir Alf Ramsey’s fearless Lions of 1966. Ironically Ramsey also cut his managerial teeth as manager of Ipswich Town in the 1960’s, taking them to the league title in 1962. Robson though had also been an international player of some note, earning 20 caps as an inside forward.
After the bland years of Greenwood, Robson was a fresh wind through FA headquarters in Lancaster Gate. This was not a yes man. Robson was a football man – an enthusiast, a lover of the beautiful game.
His early tenure was fraught and he was pilloried by the press, perhaps unfairly, as he got to grips with a different, less hands-on role compared to club football.
He failed to qualify for the 1984 European Championships and offered his resignation but the FA declined. In Mexico’s World Cup of 1986 England needed to beat Poland in their final group game to progress to round two. Robson decided to attack and Beardsley teed up Lineker for a first-half hat-trick.
England beat Paraguay 3-0 and played Argentina in the quarter-finals. Despite being two-nil down to the ‘hand and foot of God’, Robson sent on John Barnes to attack down the left. It was a move in line with Robson’s positive nature – if we’re going down, we’re going down fighting. Lineker scored and almost equalised as England tore into the Argentinians.
Robson emerged with due credit but was pilloried once more after a disastrous Euro ’88 in West Germany. He kept his job, just and responded with his finest hour.
England qualified handsomely for Italia ’90 and got through the group stages to face Belgium in round two. The FA had told Robson his contract would not be renewed before the tournament started but Robson, far from throwing in the towel, impressed on his team the need for togetherness and fight.
In a dour match against Belgium, in which they looked second best, they dug in and a wonderful strike from David Platt in the final minute of extra time put them into the quarter-finals again, where they would face Cameroon.
The Cameroons attacked England but the Three Lions fought to a 3-2 win over the Indomitable Lions and a semi-final against the old enemy West Germany.
A deflected Andreas Brehme free-kick off Paul Parker gave the Germans the lead, against the run of play, but Lineker equalised late on to force extra time. Chris Waddle’s snap-shot looked to have won it for England but it canoned off the inside of a post and England bowed out on penalties. Robson was a hero in defeat. It was England’s best showing since 1966 and he went on to successfully manage PSV Eindhoven, Sporting Lisbon, Porto, Barcelona and PSV again. He was revered at each place he managed and even found time to nurture one Jose Mourinho.
In 1999 Robson took over at Newcastle his hometown club and guided them to fourth and third place finishes in the Premier League. Oh for a Robson now at St James’s Park.
He couldn’t remember his players’ names, he bubbled with enthusiasm like a schoolboy and he stuck to his principles of attacking football. All were reasons to why he was so universally liked.
Yet with all the pressure of top class management, Robson was a humble and pleasant man. He was humorous and generous. The only player he ever criticized was Diego Maradona after ‘that’ goal in 1986, and then only in the mildest way publicly.
It’s a cliché but Robson was an old fashioned gentleman. He was a link with a past that played the game hard but fair and shook hands generously with the winners.
Sir Bobby was one of the last of the true sportsmen, perhaps bewildered by the excesses of today’s prima donnas but optimistic about the future of the game. Because for Sir Bobby Robson it wasn’t about any individual, it was about the game, the spirit of competition, the ability to prove your worth within the rules.
For all that and more, his example will be sorely missed. That is why all of football should mourn his passing.
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