Sir Bobby Robson CBE (18 February 1933–31 July 2009) remembered

July 31, 2012 in Europe, Features, La Liga, Premier League

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Three years ago today, British football lost a legend of the game and a true gentleman. Seventeen years after first being diagnosed, and following a lengthy and courageous battle, Sir Bobby Robson finally succumbed to that most indiscriminate and pernicious of diseases - cancer. Just five days before falling asleep for the final time, ravaged by an illness that had already claimed his eyesight and was slowly taking his life, Robson defied the doctors treating him to make his last public appearance at a testimonial games held in his honour at, fittingly, St James’ Park in Newcastle, where almost 30,000 emotional fans showed their appreciation. Soon after, he left behind his wife of more than fifty years, Elsie, the lady to whom he was devoted, and sons Mark, Andrew and Paul.

As a young man growing up in Suffolk, I had both the pleasure and privilege of regularly attending Portman Road to watch Robson’s Ipswich Town team during the seventies and early eighties. Memories of those times are still vivid, and it takes very few powers of recollection to close my eyes and remember teams of the calibre of Lazio, Barcelona, Feyenoord and St.Etienne being systematically taken apart on amazing European evenings. The performance of striker Trevor Whymark, who once spanked four past a hapless West Brom, is one occasion that still makes me smile; the best, though, was yet to come, and I had to wait until one sweltering day in the late spring of 1978. On that day, May the 6th, I watched from the tunnel end at the old Wembley as Bobby Robson - as he was back then - guided Ipswich to the only FA Cup win in their history.

In 1982, thirteen years after joining Ipswich, the Football Association came calling and made Robson an offer he tried to, but couldn’t, refuse; the England manager’s job. Failure to qualify for the 1984 European Championships saw Robson tender his resignation which was refused by then FA chairman Bert Millichip. Worse was to follow for gentleman Bobby, who lead England to the 1988 European Championships only to see his side lose all three games, the first of which was a 0-1 defeat to the Republic of Ireland. For the first time in my life, I remember being disgusted by a back page headline calling for Robson to be sacked. In the face of horrendous tabloid vilification Robson kept his job, and, two years later came Italia 90, the culmination of which was Gazza’s tears and gallant failure following a semi-final penalty shoot-out.

Robson knew the game was up and jumped before the FA pushed him, and so began the next chapter in his football life and the first of five distinguished spells in European club management. Two Dutch titles with PSV Eindhoven preceded an unhappy eighteen months at Sporting Lisbon, where, for a time Robson was assisted by one Jose Mourinho. There, a fractious relationship with the club president saw Robson sacked before Christmas 1993. Rivals Porto immediately snapped up the unemployed Robson who quickly turned around the fortunes of the ailing  club with a Portuguese cup win in 1994, this was soon followed by back to back championships. During his time in charge at Porto, Robson was to suffer the first of five episodes of the cancer that would eventually kill him.

Barcelona, impressed by his work in northern Portugal, then lured Robson to the Camp Nou, where, again, he was assisted by Mourinho. Domestic and European success soon followed, as did the accolade of European Manager of the Year for 1996-97. Internal politics - it was ever thus at FC Barcelona - forced a reluctant Robson to become General Manager, a non-job he hated and retained for less than a year before returning to the north-east to take charge at Newcastle United in 1999. Successive top five finishes for the Toon weren’t enough for the demanding chairman Freddie Shepherd, who sacked Robson after an indifferent start to the 2004 campaign. A year later, Robson, still massively popular with the Newcastle supporters, was granted the Freedom of the City of Newcastle in recognition of his efforts.

Knighted in 2002 for services to football - he had previously been awarded a CBE for the same reason - ill health continued to pursue Robson with each diagnosis progressively worse. Continuing to work well into his seventies, Robson eventually retired from the Football Association of Ireland, for whom he had been working as International Consultant, in 2007. It was to prove his last job in football, because that year cancerous nodules were detected in both lungs - the fifth, and ultimately final, diagnosis. Surrounded by close family at his County Durham home, Sir Bobby Robson passed peacefully away on July the 31st 2009. My tears that day for a man who transcended the cynical and exploitative world of professional football were genuine and many. Football will never see his like again.

Sir Bobby Robson did not die in vain, for the last two years of his magnificent life, he dedicated his time and what remained of his rapidly diminishing energy to the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation, a cancer charity created to fund research into the early detection and treatment of the insidious disease that helped itself to his body. To find out more, or to see how you can make a difference by donating, visit