Bobby Robson: The Gentleman and the Giant of English Football

Matthew Crist by Matthew Crist / 07 June 2018, 09:32

For a certain generation Bobby Robson was the last of the game’s true gentleman, but despite the dad-like demeanour and pleasant public persona he remains one of the greatest managers of his time both at home and abroad who led England to within a kick of the World Cup final.

While British players had become a valuable commodity on the continent throughout much of the 1980s and 90s the concept of a coach from these shores pitting his wits against Europe’s greatest was pretty much unheard of; but Robson was one of the exceptions.

Born in Sacriston, three miles north of Durham on February 18, 1933, Robson worked in the mines as an apprentice electrician while attracting the attention of Newcastle United as a schoolboy but eventually began a stellar playing career in the capital with Fulham where he would make 152 appearances and score 69 goals in six years.

A then record fee of £25,000 would see him move to West Bromwich Albion and it was while playing for the Baggies that Robson was called up for the first of 20 England appearances in 1957, scoring twice in a 4-0 win over France on his debut.

Trips to both the 1958 and 1962 World Cup would follow but the impressive inside forward failed to make an appearance at either competition, eventually moving back to Craven Cottage on his return from Chile where he would play until his retirement in 1967.

His first foray into English club management was also at Fulham, taking charge of the struggling side for just ten months before being relieved of his duties – at this stage few could have predicted the career which was to follow.

Having been named the new Ipswich Town boss in 1969 Robson began transforming the “Tractor Boys” from something of a long ball outfit to a more fluid and fast-paced side while becoming one of the first managers to employ the services of foreign players when he brought Dutch duo Frans Thijssen and Arnold Mühren to Suffolk.

His efforts paid off in 1978 when Town defeated Arsenal at Wembley to lift the FA Cup and even greater success was just around the corner when, having been in contention for the title for much of the season until a late collapse, the UEFA Cup provided ample consolation in 1981.

Robson’s efforts at club level saw him rewarded in the best way possible when he replaced Ron Greenwood to become the national team manager in 1982 having twice rebuffed the advances of Barcelona and so would begin something of a roller-coaster ride for both the new England boss and the country’s long suffering fans.

Failure to qualify for the 1984 European Championships was followed by a memorable World Cup two years later in Mexico which would see England reach the quarter-finals only to be defeated by Argentina with a little help from the brilliance of Diego Maradona and his notorious "hand of God."

A miserable European Championships in 1988 resulted in Robson’s men returning from Germany having lost all three group games to more savage treatment at the hands of the nation’s tabloid newspapers as his future hung in the balance.

But just two years later the somewhat erratic progression continued when, after a slow start, England reached the semi-finals of a World Cup for the first time ever on foreign soil only to crash out on penalties to West Germany; though the relative success of Italia ’90 was tainted by the nature of Robson’s departure.

After the Football Association had made it clear they would not be renewing his contract in the build-up to the tournament Robson announced his intention to join PSV Eindhoven the following season, another call which far from endeared him to the press.

At Eindhoven Robson won the Eredivisie twice in two years only to be sacked before heading to Portugal where a stint at Sporting CP was followed by two league titles and a domestic cup with Porto.

Aged 63 Robson finally got the top job at Camp Nou in 1996 bringing a number of star names to Catalonia which culminated in his side winning the Spanish cup, the Spanish Super Cup and the European Cup Winners' cup in a single season before being named European manager of the year.

His final job in England came at his hometown club of Newcastle United in 1999 but it was pretty clear that he was joining a team in turmoil and despite an impressive start, which saw him win his first game in charge 8-0 against Sheffield Wednesday, he departed the club five years later with the Magpies in meltdown.

Although often lampooned by the press for his perceived tactical inadequacies while gaining something of a reputation for snatching glory from the jaws of calamity Robson, who died of cancer aged 76 in 2009, remains the man who took England closer than any other manager to a World Cup final since 1966 as well as being one of the most liked and respected men ever to have graced the game.

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