Bobby Robson is one of England’s greatest soccer managers. In a career that spanned over four decades, Robson would manage professional clubs such as Fulham, Ipswich Town, PSV Eindhoven, Sporting Lisbon, Porto, Newcastle United, and the pinnacle for any Englishman, the English National Men’s Team.
It could be argued that the beautiful game has lost some of its shine and luster in the modern soccer era. Soccer and its new wave of money men are so consumed by greed. As consumers, we have almost become immune to the exorbitant ticket prices, transfer, and agent fees. Although it shocked the world, the emergence of the proposed breakaway Super League didn’t come as a complete surprise to anybody.
Despite the game constantly changing, Bobby Robson never lost sight of what the beautiful game stood for. Football was a game for the people, a game that was meant to be enjoyed. Football for him was never about money. It was about passion. Remembered for that cheeky twinkle in his eye and his pleasant manner with all people, Bobby Robson was revered across the world and recognized as one of football’s most incredible gentlemen.
Where Did It All Begin For Bobby Robson
Sir Bobby Robson was born in 1933 in Sacriston, County Durham. Robson grew up in a Newcastle United mad household, the fourth of five sons, regularly attending games at St James Park. Robson’s early heroes were the great Jackie Milburn and Len Shackleton. Being a footballer is all Robson wanted to do. Soccer was in his blood.
Robson started playing football at an early age playing for his local team Langley Park Juniors. It was here, aged 15, that would begin to attract some professional interest. While studying as an electrician’s apprentice, Robson was offered three professional contracts with Middlesbrough, Fulham, and his hometown club Newcastle United. Perhaps surprisingly, Fulham persuaded him to join, with Sir Bobby moving to West London in 1950. Playing as an inside forward, Robson would make his first-team debut for Fulham later that year.
Soccer Playing Career
Bobby Robson enjoyed a successful playing career that would span over 18 years and made 583 senior appearances. He had two spells with Fulham, a highly successful period with West Bromwich Albion, and finished his playing career in Canada with the Vancouver Royals.
Robson scored a total of 133 goals and would represent England twenty times.
In Canada, Sir Bobby Robson got his first taste of football management when he became the player/manager of the Vancouver Royals. After a season of managing in Canada, Robson returned to the United Kingdom to take his first English management position with Fulham. Lasting only six months at Fulham, Robson was offered the opportunity of a fresh start with Ipswich.
Soccer Management Career
It is with Ipswich that Sir Bobby Robson would go onto make his managerial breakthrough.
Taking the job in 1969, former manager Jackie Milburn described the club as “a club only going one way, and that was down.” However, Robson was quick to acknowledge that the Ipswich owners had taken a gamble on his appointment “as he had no real credibility and was a young green-horn that they were willing to take a chance on.”
Robson was considered a manager ahead of his time. Realizing that his Ipswich side was full of grizzled veterans who were well past their best and with a limited budget, he decided to look at the youth set instead of spending all of his time with the first-team squad up. Robson’s blueprint required patience and backing from his owners. After a first few solid years, things started to take shape in the 1972-73 season when he guided Ipswich Town to a fourth-place finish in the First Division and qualification for Europe for the first time since 1962.
Did you know another great England soccer manager, Alf Ramsey also managed Ipswich Town?
Investing Time In Youth Team Players
By 1974-75, Robson was starting to see the fruits of his investment in youth pay off. Developing a team that was easy on the eye and played fast, Ipswich was blessed with talents such as Mick Mills, Allan Hunter, George Burley, Brian Talbot, Bryan Hamilton, Colin Viljoen, Kevin Beattie, and future club legend John Wark.
The same season saw ‘The Tractor Boys’ compete on two different fronts in the league and FA Cup. Unfortunately, they suffered a semi-final defeat in the FA Cup and missed out on the top spot by 2 points.
First Silverware For Bobby Robson
In 1977-78, Ipswich and Robson would finally get their hands on silverware. After a poor campaign where Ipswich finished in 18th, Ipswich Town reached the FA Cup final where they met high-flying Arsenal.
Heading into the final as heavy underdogs, Ipswich put in one of their best performances under Sir Bobby and managed to win the cup final 1-0. The victory validated Robson’s work and rewarded the patience and faith that the Ipswich board had put in him. Managing to get a police escort back to his home – Robson reflected that on the night of winning the final –
In 1981 more success followed when Ipswich Town won the UEFA Cup thanks to a 5-4 aggregate victory over Dutch side AZ Alkmaar.
Bobby Robson Becomes England Manager
1982 was Robson’s final season in charge at Portman Road after Ron Greenwood’s resignation following the 1982 World Cup. The English National Team job was offered to him.
Speaking of his time at Ipswich Town, former England and Ipswich defender Terry Butcher stated that, He made you feel so good about yourself and your job. You went out there and wanted to do it for him. Club legend John Wark described Robson as a “father figure,” exclaiming that “he had a huge influence on my career.”
Robson’s time with England was largely successful, but the gentle Geordie would have an abysmal relationship with the English media. Managing England over eight years from 1982 – 1990, Sir bobby only suffered one defeat in 28 qualifying matches. Unfortunately, this one defeat denied England qualifying for Euro 1984 tournament. On his failure, Robson offered his resignation, but the FA rejected it. Nevertheless, England qualified for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, and after a turbulent start to the tournament, Robson led England to the quarter-finals, where they faced Argentina.
1986 World Cup
Played amongst the backdrop of England’s invasion of the Falkland Islands, the quarter-final clash was one of the most eagerly anticipated World Cup matches in history. The game will be remembered for football infamy after England was knocked out 2-0 by Maradona’s Hand of God goal. Diego Maradonna scored the second. It’s one of the most iconic goals in soccer history.
Reflecting on the aftermath of England 1986 exit, Sir Bobby Robson held nothing back when describing the circumstances that had led to England’s exit,
Robson would take England into Euro 1988 tournament. The team couldn’t perform at their best and were knocked out in the group stages.
Following England’s early tournament exit and a shocking 1-0 defeat to football minnows Saudi Arabia, his relationship with the English media significantly again soured, and one headline after the defeat read, “In the name of Allah, go.”
Did you know, Bobby was in constant contact with the great Brazilian soccer manager Tele Santana in the lead up to the 1986 World Cup? Brazil did not make it to the semis.
Bobby Robson Resignation
Again, he offered his resignation. His request was once again declined.
Growing tired of clashing with the media, Robson informed the Football Association that the 1990 World Cup would be his last tournament. He would leave the role to take up an opportunity with Dutch side PSV Eindhoven. Accused of being a traitor by the media ahead of the tournament, Robson would sue the Today newspaper for defamation of character.
Despite the media pressure and carrying the strains of a nation, Robson would lead England to the World Cup semi-finals, their best performance since 1966. However, they would heartbreakingly lose to West Germany on penalties. Reflecting years later on England’s gutting defeat, Robson would state: “Not a day goes by when I don’t think about the semi-final and all of the other choices I might have made.’
Many of England‘s star players who Sir Bobby managed have stated how he shaped their careers, Gary Linekar said.
“I was convinced I would be left out because I had not had a great start to the World Cup. Bobby made my career what it was. For some reason, he stuck with me, and I’ll be eternally grateful to him for that. My life would have been nowhere near as good as without that.”
Paul Gascoigne exclaimed the effect that Robson had on his England career,
“Talk about a father figure; the guy was phenomenal for me. When I saw Bobby, I knew I was safe.”
Managing Soccer Overseas
After the World Cup, Robson would enjoy a successful period in Holland winning back-to-back Eredivisie league titles.
From Holland, he moved to Portugal and took the Sporting Lisbon job. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out. Robson regularly clashed with senior board members and was sacked just after a season. However, all was not lost at Sporting Lisbon as he would hire an assistant named Jose Mourinho.
Sensing an opportunity, Porto approached him to become their next soccer manager. Robson would accept the job, and the two would enjoy a period of success, guiding the Portuguese side to two successive titles and the Portuguese Cup.
In 1996, Robson was approached by Barcelona to take over as manager, replacing outgoing icon Johann Cruyff. He would accept. Speaking ahead of his appointment and the daunting shoes he had to fill, Sir Bobby famously said,
Robson would show his eye for talent as he bought in football sensation Ronaldo for USD 20 million. Inspired by Ronaldo, Barcelona in the 1996-1997 season would win a treble, winning the Copa del Ray, Spanish Super Cup, and the European Cup Winners Cup. Despite his success, Robson was replaced by Dutchman Louis Van Gaal and was moved upstairs into the Barcelona boardroom.
Reflecting on his removal – Robson would state to the Spanish press that,
“If you are a fantastic painter, you are never rich until you are dead. And I think it’s the same with managers. You’re never appreciated until you’re gone.”
Speaking of his time at Barcelona, Pep Guardiola would describe Robson’s influence on his career.
“I learned a lot from him in that period. I thought I wanted to become a manager. How he handled that situation was incredible, I admire him a lot. It doesn’t matter what the media say. When everybody pushed him, he always tried to be calm.”
Taking Over Newcastle United
In 1999, Robson finally took the job that many thought he was destined to manage his beloved Newcastle United.
Marooned at the bottom of the table, in his first home match in charge, he would lead Newcastle to an 8-0 victory over fellow strugglers Sheffield Wednesday. His first task was to bring back star striker Alan Shearer who had been left in the cold by former boss Ruud Guillet.
Speaking of Robson, Shearer stated:
“If it weren’t for him, then I would have left the football club. I wasn’t getting on with the previous management. He knew straight away what made me tick. He saved Newcastle, and he also saved my career.”
Robson would guide Newcastle United to an 11th place finish in his first season and lead the Toon Army to 3rd and 4th place finishes securing consecutive Champions League qualifications.
If you are interested in another Newcastle United legend, check out our article on Colin Veitch.
The Final Years
In 2004 amid a poor start to the season and rumors of a dressing room fall-out, he was relieved of his duties and would never go onto manage again.
All through his life, he would battle a myriad of health issues. He overcame bowel cancer in 1992, malignant melanoma in 1995, and in 2006, Robson overcame a tumor in his right lung and a brain tumor.
Sadly another cancer diagnosis was to come in 2007 in the form of lung cancer, and this time it was considered terminal.
In March 2008, his family launched the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation. The Foundation initially raised over £1 million, which helped fund equipment for the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle upon Tyne.
With his health rapidly deteriorating, it was announced that on the 31st July 2009, Sir Bobby Robson had died at the age of 76.
Bobby Robson Tributes
After his death was announced, tributes from across the world poured in.
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson called him a “great friend, a wonderful individual, and tremendous football man.”
Gary Lineker claimed, “It is a sad day and a great loss. He was a wonderful man and will be deeply missed by everybody in the country. I never played for a more enthusiastic man. He gave so much to the game.”
His friend, the broadcaster Michael Parkinson, said of Robson, “Robson will be remembered long after the present lot are old bones. By his decency, humor, 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.”
Gone but never forgotten, Sir Bobby Robson has left an undeniable mark on the football world. Robson lived and breathed football. It was his passion, his life. So, as we bring this article to a close, I will leave you with words from the great man himself who sums up what football is all about so perfectly.
“What is a club in any case? Not the buildings or the directors or the people who are paid to represent it. It’s not the television contracts, get-out clauses, marketing departments, or executive boxes. It’s the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city. It’s a small boy clambering up stadium steps for the very first time, gripping his father’s hand, gawping at that hallowed stretch of turf beneath him and, without being able to do a thing about it, falling in love.”
Main Image: Rob Croes