FSF National Council member, Newcastle United season ticket holder and England regular Kevin Miles pays tribute to Sir Bobby and explains just why he was such a popular figure amongst fans.
Sir Bobby Robson achieved a great deal in football, at the highest levels. A popular player with Fulham and West Bromwich Albion, he won 20 caps for his country; as a manager he enjoyed success with clubs in England – notably Ipswich Town and Newcastle United – and abroad, at PSV Eindhoven, Sporting Lisbon, Porto and Barcelona. And of course as manager of England, he was one penalty shoot-out away from a World Cup final that many felt England could have won.
Throughout a long career in the game, Bobby Robson’s achievements won the respect and admiration of players and managers, coaches and administrators, directors and fans. But it was his qualities as a man that won him friends everywhere he went, and a reputation as one of the game’s true gentlemen.
Bobby knew how to win a game of football, but he also understood the right way to lose; he epitomised sportsmanship. How many other managers in the modern game could suffer the injustice of Maradona’s ‘hand of God’, or the crushing disappointment of that 1990 semi-final exit, and greet the world with a rueful smile and generous words?
Bobby Robson’s enthusiasm and passion for the game of football was infectious, and his eye for a talented player, often at bargain prices, stood him in good stead throughout his managerial career – ask any Ipswich fan whether Arnold Muhren and Frans Thijssen represented good value for money. The style in which his teams played, schooled in his belief in a slick, passing game, won him admirers even among rivals.
His knowledge of the game was impressive. I remember interviewing him for a BBC radio documentary which compared Newcastle United and Schalke 04 of Germany. It was hardly a surprise that he knew everything there was to know about the Toon – not only was he managing the team, he’d been a life-long fan – but I’d hardly anticipated his awareness of Schalke 04. He had never managed in the Bundesliga, but he knew their coach, their players, their stadium, and even the club’s working class roots and mining traditions. He shared an admiration for their pricing system that allows young fans to go to games, and expressed his firm belief that football needed to encourage future generations.
Sir Bobby, for all his elevation as a peer of the realm, was known for the fact that he always treated everyone he encountered in the same friendly, polite, jovial and respectful way; not for him a different persona for those of rank, and contempt for those “below”. My work took me more than once to PSV Eindhoven long after Bobby had moved on, and he was remembered with genuine affection by everyone there, where he’d always, they told me, made time to stop and chat with everyone on the staff.
One employee, who occupied a fairly humble role dealing with fans’ safety at the ground, told me of how Bobby would always pass the time of day, even if he couldn’t always remember his name. During one such chat as their paths crossed in a corridor, the staff member complimented Bobby on his obviously brand new shiny shoes. Bobby thanked him, said he was glad he liked them, and asked what size shoe he took. On finding out that they both took the same size, Bobby immediately took off the shoes and presented them to the lowly club colleague as a gift, before padding off down the corridor in his socks.
Football took Bobby far and wide, but he always remained fiercely proud of his north-east roots, and described his appointment as Newcastle manager in 1999 as “coming home”. Many of us who supported the club through the nineties fervently wished that he had taken over from Kevin Keegan the first time Keegan left us; it was a measure of the man that the only reason he didn’t was because he’d given his word to Barcelona. Even then, he gave us reason to be proud to be Geordies.
It’s perhaps ironic when one sees the present plight of Newcastle United that when Bobby was sacked as manager, we’d finished the previous season in his charge in fifth place in the Premiership. Bobby would be the last one to suggest that anyone should keep a job for sentimental reasons – he knew more than most that football is a results-driven game – but I think it’s fair to say that the beginnings of Newcastle’s latest on-the-pitch decline can be traced back to when Bobby left.
As a man, Bobby Robson was generous with his spirit, his enthusiasm and his time, always striving to sign every autograph and pose for every photo. He was among many other things a patron of the north-east based charity Show Racism the Red Card, not only attending events himself, but also encouraging and sometimes cajoling his players to get involved.
In recent months, while suffering from the return of cancer that he’d fought off five times, Bobby set up the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation to focus on the early detection and treatment of cancer, and clinical trials of new drugs to beat it. It is entirely in character that rather than conserving energy or basking in his well-earned celebrity and goodwill, he dedicated his last months to the welfare of others after he’d gone. His last public appearance was in front of 33,000 fans at St. James’s Park, at the commemoration of the Germany v England 1990 World Cup semi-final held to raise fund for the Foundation.
Bobby Robson leaves behind thousands of friends, and millions of admirers. No doubt there will be further tributes and monuments to his name and his achievements, to add to the statue outside Portman Road, and the bronze bust in St James’s Park. For many of us however, the living legacy that is the work of his foundation, his own chosen cause, is as fine a testament as there could be.
Bobby Robson was not a saint, nor was he a miracle-worker. As a player and a manager, he didn’t win every game. But he always did his best, to the very limit of his considerable abilities, he competed with a sporting spirit, and he treated everyone as equals, and with courtesy. He won respect even among rivals in this tribal sport that is football; for those of us who were part of his tribe, he made us proud to be Geordies.
Sir Bobby Robson. RIP.
More information about the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation can be found via their website at www.sirbobbyrobsonfoundation.org.uk, and donations can be made by clicking here.