Sunday, 31 July 2011

Sir Bobby Robson: the loss of football's great gentleman who touched the hearts of so many

Achieving universal popularity is not at all easy. Not only do your interests, aims and desires have to chime with people from wildly varying backgrounds, but you have to maintain a very public sense of actually caring about each and every person you meet. This is a challenge even for the most skilled of PR operators. Yet Sir Bobby Robson was no PR man; he didn't need an entourage of assistants, or any notes or guides on how to act to make him look good. He achieved respect from his peers, success in the field, and a legacy that will long outlive him through his tenacity, dedication, humility and sheer talent. A working class hero, Robson's footballing career took place alongside employment as an electrician and colliery worker.

Netting 68 times for Fulham in 152 games in the early 1950s, a club described by the inside-forward as a "nice, sociable club" but not one capable of challenging for honours was a highlight of his playing career. His 56 goals in 239 games for West Bromwich Albion also constituted a purple patch for Robson, between 1956 and 1962. 20 England caps followed, as well as four strikes against France, Scotland and Mexico, but it was in management where Robson really cemented his reputation as a winner, and a man of the people. The farming lands of Suffolk proved fertile ground for Robson from 1969-1982; victories over Arsenal in the 1978 FA Cup Final, and AZ Alkmaar in 1981, in the UEFA Cup, made Robson a deserving recipient of his towering statue outside Portman Road.

England followed for Robson, and his and the Three Lions' failure to qualify for the 1984 European Championships was forgotten as the then 51 year old went on to manage England to two of the most famous, enigmatic, legendary defeats in the country's international footballing history. The first of these was in the Quarter Final at Mexico '86, where England were cruelly denied by Maradona's now infamous 'Hand of God' goal, which followed arguably the greatest strike in the history of the sport. The next tragedy was Italia '90, where Robson led England to their greatest finish in the World Cup since their 1966 triumph. Devastation followed as West Germany progressed on penalties, but in the minds of most England supporters, the tournament will long live in the memory.

Robson achieved tremendous success by moving into continental management, taking over PSV Eindhoven, Sporting Lisbon, FC Porto and FC Barcelona respectively between 1990 and 1999, picking up two Dutch league titles, two Portuguese top division crowns and a domestic cup trophy, before striking the big time with Barcelona. In one season, largely courtesy of the ingenious signing of Ronaldo, Los Cules won the European Cup Winners' Cup, Spanish Super Cup and Spanish Cup, with Robson being voted European Manager of the Year for 1996-1997. Geordie Robson returned to the promised land in 1999, taking over as manager of Newcastle United. After a slightly uneasy start, he took the Magpies to the Champions League in 2002, securing successive top five finishes.

With these magnificent achievements in mind, it was never likely that the respect, adoration and popularity built up by Robson during his early and latter managerial career would ever fall. Yet whilst football supporters may respect figures such as Arsene Wenger, Sir Alex Ferguson, and Jose Mourinho, they may feel little to no affection or emotional attachment towards them unless of course they happen to support the clubs managed by these three. Sir Bobby Robson was truly loved, and taken from us far too soon at the age of just 76. Having previously fought off cancer and other threats to his life as British football’s lauded elder statesman, Robson’s lung cancer was diagnosed in 2007 as terminal.

Whilst everyone knew that sooner or later this Geordie fighter would leave us, nothing could prepare for the day when Robson’s smiling face and passion for football would be lost from the world. The launch, in 2008, of the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation, and Robson’s heroic dedication of his final years to fighting for others experiencing the devastating disease, ensured his untouchable status as a true gentleman. By the end of 2008 the charity had earned £1million, a testament to the man who founded it, and by 2011 has raked in more than £2.5million to aid the battle against lung cancer.

When Robson passed away, peacefully at his home in County Durham, the world’s footballing flag flew at half-mast. Few of us knew Robson, but we all felt as though we did. His popularity surpassed generations, and by the time of his passing nobody could have found anything negative to say about him, no matter how hard they may have tried. Knighted in 2002 for services to football, Robson’s tributes know no end. One of thousands of fitting tributes came from close friend Michael Parkinson: “Robson will be remembered long after the present lot are old bones. By his decency, his humour, his love of the game's traditions and origins and confusion at what it had become, he made present day football look what it is – shabby by comparison. I can think of no more fitting epitaph.” Neither can I. Gone but never, ever forgotten.

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