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Film review – Bobby Robson: More Than a Manager

The World Cup may be over but those experiencing football withdrawal symptoms should check out the new film Bobby Robson: More Than a Manager. It is a touching celebration of the treasured former England boss and acts as a reminder of the impact he made on so many people throughout his life…

Watching England from 1982 to 1990 under Bobby Robson was an emotional rollercoaster. And the new film Bobby Robson: More Than a Manager is much the same, with joy and pain interspersed. It contains no shortage of moving moments from Sir Bobby’s life: the messy way his managerial roles with England, Barcelona and Newcastle United were brought to a close; the feeling of hurt over England losing to the ‘Hand of God’ in the 1986 World Cup and then on penalties to West Germany in the 1990 semi-finals; the hostile media coverage he had to contend with through much of his England reign; and, most poignantly, the series of cancer battles he endured in the closing years of his life, with the last sadly representing one challenge he couldn’t win.

“I know he didn’t want to die. I know for a fact he did not want to die. Some people will accept death, but he felt he was being robbed,” says his widow Lady Elsie, in one of the film’s most emotive moments. It’s a reminder of how much Sir Bobby had to live for and his zest for life, that boundless enthusiasm being as evident when managing Newcastle when he turned 70 as it had been in his younger days at Ipswich Town. And that infectious personality meant he became loved by millions of people.

Enduring affection

That love is confirmed by the contributors to this film. A stellar set of talking heads conveys the esteem Sir Bobby will forever be held in by football’s great and the good. From Sir Alex Ferguson and Gary Lineker to Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho, the enduring affection is evident throughout. Ferguson recalls how helpful Robson was as a young manager and he takes Newcastle to task for their decision to axe Robson in August 2004. “I don’t think there was a person in this world who could understand it,” he says.

Terry Butcher hails his former Ipswich Town and England manager as being “miles ahead of his time”. Guardiola describes Robson, who he played under at Barcelona, as “one of the nicest persons I’ve ever met in my life”. And Lineker credits Robson for having “made my career what it was”, for persisting with him after failing to score in the opening two games of the 1986 World Cup – being rewarded by Lineker finishing as Golden Boot winner.

Robson’s England reign doesn’t dominate the film, but is still afforded plenty of attention. It was a job that ended with him bowing out as a national treasure in 1990 – the last man until Gareth Southgate to lead the side to a World Cup semi-final – but it wasn’t always so joyous. Caught in a tabloid war, the media coverage haunted Robson and culminated in him being called a “traitor” for agreeing a deal before Italia ’90 to join PSV Eindhoven after the tournament – despite the fact his England contract was very unlikely to be renewed. “They were barbaric. They used to sit outside the house just waiting for anything. As a woman and wife of Bob it was very hard,” recounts Lady Elsie, the pain of that era clearly never forgotten.

But that tournament saw the nation embrace Robson, as well as rising star Paul Gascoigne. There would be a lasting bond between the two North-Easterners following Italia ’90. Gazza’s emotions are vivid as he recalls the pair having one final encounter just days before Sir Bobby’s death, at a rematch of the Italia ’90 semi-final in aid of the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation. “The guy was phenomenal for me,” says Gazza, the love for his former manager as strong as ever.

The film avoids running through Sir Bobby’s life chronologically, instead beginning in 1995 when a malignant melanoma was diagnosed. “You need an operation yesterday,” Robson recalled his surgeon telling him, to underline the severity of the diagnosis. Retirement would have been the logical option for most given there was uncertainty over whether he would survive, but not Sir Bobby. A year later he took one of the biggest jobs around – managing Barcelona.

His spell at the Nou Camp is covered in some depth, recalling how Robson walked into a “political storm” when he replaced Johan Cruyff as manager; how he spent big to sign Ronaldo, who contributes to the film; and how, despite winning three trophies including the European Cup Winners’ Cup, he was moved upstairs at the end of his first season as Louis van Gaal was brought in.

In 1999 Sir Bobby headed home and soon took a job close to his heart as manager of boyhood club Newcastle. It was the last managerial role in a lengthy career that saw him win major honours with clubs in England, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain, as well as leading his country for eight years. But this film does not restrict itself to the managerial years. “There was nothing in my life better than walking out at Wembley,” he recalled about his playing career, in which he appeared 20 times for England.

A fan at heart

One thing the average fan can particularly identify with Sir Bobby for was his sheer love of football. As a boy he would arrive at Newcastle’s matches three hours before kick-off with his father. And that football passion persisted throughout his life. Gascoigne recalls Robson as having been “obsessed with football”. Although home was the one place where football talk was largely off-limits, Lady Elsie knew full well just how passionate he was about it. “Nothing was as urgent as speaking to someone about the game,” she recounts. The presence of family members in the film adds welcome insight into the real Sir Bobby.

For all the joy he brought through football, Robson sought to leave an arguably greater legacy. The creation of the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation 10 years ago has proved a tremendous success, with Sir Bobby – whose opinions are shared throughout the film via archive interviews – expressing hope at the time that other people could benefit from this vital research into cancer.

It’s lasting proof of the impact Robson had. He was first and foremost known as a football manager, and an acclaimed one at that; but, he was more than that. He was loved for who he was, for his infectious enthusiasm and decency. Sir Bobby really was more than a manager and this film more than does justice to his life and legacy.

  • Bobby Robson: More Than a Manager is directed by Gabriel Clarke and Torquil Jones. It is out now on DVD, Blu-ray and in digital format. For more information see here.

englandmemories View All

Blogging about the history of the England national football team, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s.

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