With the death of Sir Bobby Robson, who succumbed today after a long and dignified battle against cancer, British football has lost a true legend. This assessment is based as much on Robson’s considerable achievements as a player and manager as it is on my own brief encounters with a man who blessed everybody he met with his enthusiasm, warmth and appetite for life.
My first meeting with Robson took place in 1979. It happened in the player’s lounge at Anfield after his Ipswich Town team – a side that upset the odds by beating Arsenal in the FA Cup final and later went on to win the UEFA Cup – had snatched a point against my beloved Liverpool. I was nine and in awe of the players I was now seeing up close for the first time, freshly showered and nursing post-match pints of flat lager. Robson, meanwhile, was in his late 40s but establishing himself as an astute, energetic and innovative English manager of rare talent.
The second time our paths crossed was nearly 20 years later. On the eve of the World Cup finals in France, Robson, then general manager of FC Barcelona, had flown in to Paris to coach a group of British football writers in a match against their French counterparts. We all expected Robson to fulfil his contractual obligations to Budweiser, the match sponsor, with not much more than a few cursory handshakes and a 30-second team talk. But rather than a veneer of distracted, disinterested professionalism, what we got was the same passion transmitted to the likes of Arnold Muhren, Paul Gascoigne, Romario, Ronaldo and Alan Shearer in the course of a long and illustrious managerial career.
Ignoring the odour of stale alcohol that lingered on our breath from a heavy night out in Paris, Robson marched into our dressing room, shut the door behind him and launched into one of his famous team talks. Fifty minutes later we emerged from that windowless cell with a collective roar and the certain pulse of invincibility pumping through our veins. Thanks to Bobby, our hangovers had gone and we felt like we could run through brick walls.
The game itself was played in a biblical downpour and the pitch quickly turned into a quagmire that made tackling a death or glory affair. With Bobby pacing the touchline throughout, barking instructions from beneath his umbrella, we played like men inspired. One particular one-touch passing move culminated with a back post diving header from a man who had no right getting airborne at his weight, and brought a cheer of delight from the man who had nurtured the talents of England’s finest in successive World Cups - campaigns, it should be noted, that succeeded in uniting a country and breathing new life into its national game.
Even with our small-sided match well won, tackles continued to fly in like our lives or, more importantly, Bobby’s reputation depended on them. My editor at the time, a mild-mannered Liverpudlian called Dave, epitomised the sudden swell of loyalty we felt towards our temporary ‘gaffer’ by foolishly attempting to tackle an opponent with his head. The challenge was heroic – five inches off the ground, no quarter asked or given.
The aftermath, unfortunately, was horrific. As Dave crumpled in agony, his collarbone snapped clean in half, Bobby dropped his brolly and sprinted onto the field. No waiting for the referee’s whistle. No concern for his expensive suit or shoes. Dave was one of his ‘men’ and that’s all that counted.
Later, as our pale-faced comrade sat in the bar wincing and cradling his arm in a sling, Bobby gathered us round. He delivered a short speech, telling us how proud he was of us all. This, from a coach who had won domestic and European titles, who had led England to brink of a World Cup final, who had been a class act throughout, even pre-1990 when the tabloids had bayed for his resignation. At the end we cheered and hugged him. Why? Because we knew how lucky we'd been to experience playing (albeit badly) for a genuine great and, more pertinently, because we believed what he'd told us. RIP Sir Bobby. Dan Davies, Deputy Editor