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Six of the Best – Reasons to love Sir Bobby Robson

This week sadly marks the 10th anniversary of the death of Sir Bobby Robson. Today we select six reasons why he came to be so adored by the public, focusing in particularly on the impact he made in his England reign as he rode the storm to become a national treasure…

A fan at heart

After England were eliminated from the 2006 World Cup by Portugal on penalties in Gelsenkirchen, Sir Bobby Robson and the broadcaster Barry Davies bumped into each other on the way out after attending the game as spectators. After being asked by Robson how he was, Davies informed the 73-year-old former England manager he was very well. “Wish I was,” replied Robson.

His answer had nothing to do with his health. Sixteen years on from the end of his England managerial reign and now a knight of the realm who had fought several battles with cancer, Sir Bobby was still taking England’s disappointments to heart. Davies wrote in his autobiography: “I felt guilty for what had been a standard response, for in his eyes no one could feel well having just watched England lose in the way they had.”

A beaming smile on Bobby Robson’s face after England beat Denmark in a friendly in September 1988.

The simple fact was that Robson loved England. Every result mattered, with his passion not limited to his years as player and manager. During his successful spell as Ipswich Town boss he would regularly go and watch England play and bemoan how so few of his managerial counterparts did likewise. In later years he would perform punditry work and seemed as desperate as any fan for the side to succeed, such as when he was analysing the crunch World Cup qualifier away to Italy in 1997. His days as England manager may have been over, but he remained a fan at heart.

Even when he was at the England helm, Robson could still identify with how the average man in the street felt. After the nerve-jangling win over Cameroon that sent England through to the last four of Italia ’90, Robson was beaming with delight as he gave a TV interview. “I’ve had 17 heart attacks. I feel 92,” he said. “I wish I was home because they tell me people are dancing in the streets. I’d like to be home to be dancing in the streets with a lot of our supporters tonight.” It was Robson at his patriotic and charismatic best.

His jig of delight

Italia ’90 was to mark the end of Robson’s years as England manager. After a rollercoaster reign in which he’d endured his fair share of press criticism, suddenly he was getting the hero treatment after becoming the first man to lead England to a World Cup semi-final on foreign soil – and then so nearly making the final after pushing West Germany all the way on a night of pain and pride.

Dressed in his grey suit, Robson was kicking every ball on the touchline and his passion was clear to see. In a tournament perhaps remembered more for lasting images than scintillating matches, Robson left his mark on the competition. He would embrace Paul Gascoigne after England overcame Cameroon in the last eight, before the agony was evident in Robson’s face as he saw his side lose on penalties to West Germany. His reaction illustrated just how close England had come and he would dwell on what might have been for the rest of his life.

But perhaps the lasting memory of Robson from that momentous summer in Italy was his reaction when David Platt scored a joyful late winner against Belgium in the last 16. Robson had been through so much during his reign and now he was given a moment to savour. As England fans in the stadium and back home rejoiced, Robson danced a jig of delight on the touchline. It’s hard to imagine some of the other England bosses over the years doing that and such a reaction further endeared Robson to the English public.

A refusal to give in

It’s in the English psyche to love those who get off the floor and fight on when the odds are stacked against them – and Robert William Robson was the prime example. Whenever England seemed to have reached a new low point under him, they would dig deep and surprisingly pull results out of the bag – while the manager also refused to give in when all seemed lost. We will save assessing his tactics and team selections for another day, but his positive record as England manager was aided by the presence of players carved in his own image when it came to giving everything for the cause – such as Terry Butcher playing on against Sweden in 1989 while covered in blood.

On a frequent basis England looked down, but would then respond in style. After the crushing 1-0 home defeat by Denmark in a vital Euro ’84 qualifier, England restored pride with an excellent 3-0 win in Hungary to stay in with a shout; Robson endured chants for his dismissal when England lost 2-0 at home to the Soviet Union in June 1984, but eight days later they recorded a famous win in Brazil; England suffered three successive defeats in the summer of 1985 but responded by scoring 14 goals in the next four games; they looked set for a rapid exit from the 1986 World Cup, but the mood was transformed with successive 3-0 wins over Poland and Paraguay; and, after being whitewashed during Euro ’88, England were unbeaten until May 1990 and qualified for Italia ’90 without conceding a goal.

All smiles after England beat Paraguay 3-0 at the 1986 World Cup.

And then we come to that 1990 World Cup. Those who did not live through it may find it hard to grasp why England’s squad returned home to such a rapturous reception after finishing fourth. But it has to be put into context, with English clubs having been banned from Europe for five years and the game’s reputation dragged through the gutter. Expectation was fairly low after England had flopped at Euro ’88 and Robson had put up with some vitriolic press coverage (more on that later).

But England rolled their sleeves up and refused to submit, not accepting a game was over until the final whistle was blown. They had a ‘winner’ disallowed in the dying seconds against the Dutch; David Platt hooked home the only goal against Belgium in the closing moments of extra-time; and they equalised late in the game against Cameroon in the quarter-final and West Germany in the semi-final (plus Italy in the third place play-off).

There are those who’ve dismissed England’s run in that tournament as lucky, but you also make your own luck and they would be rewarded for never giving in. England had struggled against Cameroon, but they had managed to do what Argentina, Romania and Colombia couldn’t earlier in the tournament – get back on level terms against them after falling behind (before triumphing in extra-time). It’s open to debate just how good England’s 1990 World Cup side was, but in terms of guts and a refusal to accept defeat it ranks among the best we’ve ever had.

Riding the storm

It goes with the territory that criticism will come the way of England managers if results do not go to plan. But the extent of it can be well over the top and several incumbents have had to endure personal attacks in the tabloid press. Robson would find the going particularly tough but he refused to bow to calls for his departure, amid a national obsession that Brian Clough should get the role instead.

Even after his first game away to Denmark in September 1982 Robson had gained an unwelcome insight into how tough the job would be, as there was a media furore over his decision to axe Kevin Keegan without telling him directly, the match was overshadowed by hooliganism and England struggled against their lively hosts in the 2-2 draw. Managing England in the 1980s was never going to be easy, as Robson had to contend with the consequences of the ‘English disease’ problem deepening on the terraces (there was a genuine fear that England would be expelled from major tournaments); he was involved in a constant battle to get the domestic schedule altered to benefit the national team; and he inherited an ageing England squad in need of rebuilding, making for a difficult first couple of years as his transitional side were edged out by Denmark in a bid to qualify for Euro ’84.

Robson had gone from the footballing tranquility of managing Ipswich and working for the Cobbold family to operating in a piranha tank, where challenges would always arise. And topping the list of woes was the press coverage. He found himself caught in a tabloid circulation war as both The Sun and the Daily Mirror saw ‘Robson out’ stories as fair game. A lesser man would have decided it wasn’t worth it and walked away long before his eight-year stint ended.

Robson had to endure some particularly vitriolic press coverage after drawing away to Saudi Arabia in November 1988.

But not Robson, who appreciated what an honour it was to lead his country. “It’s what I gave up a pleasant way of life for,” he said. Although there were disappointments in his reign – most notably the defeat by Denmark in Euro ’84 qualifying and a pitiful display against the USSR as England crashed out of Euro ’88 without a point – Robson could point out that the statistics did not justify the ongoing hysteria, which intensified after that cruel summer of 1988. In the present day he may well have been shown the door, but this was an era was the likes of Howard Kendall and Alex Ferguson were given time to turn things around at club level. Robson duly fought on.

They lost just once in 28 qualifying matches under him (having been beaten three times en route to the 1982 World Cup under Ron Greenwood) and conceded only six goals in those games; they were unbeaten at Wembley from 1984 to 1990: and, discounting games at major tournaments, they suffered defeat just three times in his last five years as manager. Although the positive statistics included seeing off minnows in qualifying games, England also held their own against strong opposition. They would record a notable double against Yugoslavia in qualifying for Euro ’88 and achieve impressive away friendly wins against Brazil, Spain and the USSR during his reign.

But this never silenced the doubters and he would feel at times like he couldn’t win. Robson’s mistrust towards the press pack grew deeper when it became apparent shortly before Italia ’90 that he was to soon leave after the tournament for PSV Eindhoven, having received no assurances he would have his contract extended as England manager. After all the fight he had shown to stay in the role when sizeable sections of the press had demanded he go, to then be branded a “traitor” was most unfair and he was seething over the hypocrisy of it all. At a particularly stormy press conference he vented his fury over the “garbage” printed about him.

It summed up what Robson had been through, but he would bow out a hero a few weeks later. It is worth noting tributes would be paid after his death by a number of those whose bylines accompanied some extremely critical stories during his reign – as well as the papers at the forefront of the ‘Robson must go’ campaign.

His bond with Gazza

Robson forged close relationships with a number of his players, such as his captain and namesake Bryan Robson. His willingness to put his body on the line in even low-key friendlies would strike a chord with his manager. But the most touching relationship of all would be with another member of the North-East set in Paul Gascoigne.

It was only in the closing stages of Bobby Robson’s reign that Gascoigne established himself in the starting line-up, after the manager had previously expressed reservations about whether the midfielder was ready to make the step up. But that didn’t prevent a strong bond being forged. The two men were united by a passion for the England cause and Robson would come to appreciate the impact Gascoigne could make. That would be the case at Italia ’90, Gascoigne creating vital goals in three successive games en route to the semi-final.


Robson and Gascoigne embrace after England reach the 1990 World Cup semi-finals.

And then came that clash with West Germany, when Gazza’s heart was broken as he realised he would miss the final should England get there. Robson could feel the player’s pain as the tears flowed and he would comfort him ahead of the penalty shoot-out. “You’ve got your life ahead of you. This is your first,” he told him in relation to the World Cup, while also hailing the contribution the player had made during the tournament. Neither man could have envisaged at that point that Gascoigne would never play another World Cup finals match, adding poignancy to their conversation.

The bond between the pair was visible until the very end. Sir Bobby made his final public appearance just days before he died at the Sir Bobby Robson Trophy match between England and Germany legends at St James’ Park, Newcastle. It summed up Robson’s tenacity that, despite being advised not to attend due to his deteriorating health, he insisted on making it to the match. He was rewarded by receiving a standing ovation prior to kick-off, at what would be his final public outing. His son Mark recalled Sir Bobby saying on the way home: “How did Gascoigne play?”

It was an emotional moment in the excellent More Than a Manager documentary and underlined the relationship between the pair. Even at the very end, Robson was still concerned about his players – especially Gazza.

A man of decency

Sir Bobby Robson was a great manager, who won major trophies with clubs in several countries. He also came perilously close to leading Ipswich Town to the First Division title and England to World Cup glory. The struggles his successors endured in both roles – Ipswich went into decline and were relegated in 1986, while England failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup – would act as a reminder that what Robson achieved should not have been taken for granted.

But he was arguably even greater as a man. He showed resilience during some extremely difficult times and emerged smiling. He would find during his England reign that selecting the side and deciding on the formation was the easy part. Ensuring the team could still compete in international competitions and contending with the impact the yobs were having took up more time than he would have liked, as he continually had to stay diplomatic. He wrote in 1986: “I had been told, when I took the job as England manager, that it was more than simply looking after a group of footballers, that it carried added ambassadorial duties and that when I signed my contract I would be joining the diplomatic service.” He would soon realise how true this was.

Robson addresses his players ahead of extra-time during Italia ’90, a tournament that saw him and his players win admirers for their refusal to give in.

Dignity was shown after two painful World Cup exits, with both matches still regularly dissected even now. The first was particularly hard to stomach against Argentina in 1986. Robson said later he clearly saw Maradona punch the ball into the goal. He would find it baffling that, if he could see this from the touchline, the officials failed to spot it from a much closer position. Robson was seething about the injustice of it all and had to try and keep his composure when questioned about it afterwards. While he would always state his admiration for Maradona as a player, he would feel less respect for him as an individual over his actions – which went against Robson’s very English belief in fair play. Four years later Robson would see England come even closer to glory.

He would earn plenty of respect within the game. Robson was a proud Englishman, but he was not some little Englander who had no respect for foreigners. Good relationships were built with opposite numbers such as Franz Beckenbauer, while Robson would be disgusted by the antics of a section of those who were supposedly cheering on the side as the hooligans continually made headlines. He was particularly appalled by some individuals declaring England had not beaten Brazil 2-0 in 1984 but 1-0, as they were going to ignore the goal John Barnes had scored on the basis of his skin colour.

Everything about Robson’s personality would, with time at least, make him universally loved. He’d come under fire during his England years for occasionally getting names wrong – he accidentally referred to Sweden as ‘Denmark’ in one press conference and this was used as ammunition against him – but now his idiosyncrasies added to the magic of the man. There would be no shortage of amusing stories, such as the time in Mexico that Glenn Hoddle was singing The Heat Is On and Robson assumed he had said “the heaters are on” and started checking them! There was rarely a dull moment when Sir Bobby was around.

And he was a man of the people. During the 1986 World Cup a female pensioner would ring Robson’s hotel room to wish the team luck; rather than slamming the phone down and reprimanding the hotel staff for letting the public pester him, Robson happily chatted away with her. Although his relationship with Sir Alf Ramsey was not always smooth, it was Sir Bobby who offered to pay for him to receive private treatment in the final stages of his life. The esteem Robson was held in by the sporting world was evidenced by the length of the standing ovation when he went up to receive his Lifetime Achievement Award at Sports Personality of the Year in 2007, in a particularly emotional moment.

But the establishment of the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation after he had continually fought cancer was perhaps his greatest legacy. He wanted to help other people and that sums up the man. He touched many hearts and remains sadly missed a decade on. Thanks for the memories Sir Bobby.

englandmemories View All

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

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