Sunday, 2 August 2009

Bobby Robson

I was saddened to hear about the death of Bobby Robson on Friday. There’s been some emotional and poignant tributes paid to him over the last few days which I certainly agree with. What I have found interesting though, is how people's perceptions and opinions of one person's career can change and evolve quite drastically over a period of time. This is something that I think is true of Robson's career.

The admiration and respect that the football world is currently showing for Bobby Robson has definitely taken some time to develop. It's as if his sheer longevity in the game eventually showed people his real talent as a football manager and his qualities as a person.

When I first got into football in the mid 1980s Bobby Robson was the manager of England. I can pin point the moment that football suddenly became important to me and that was the World Cup in Mexico 1986. That World Cup along with the following World Cup in 1990 represented the roller coaster ride of watching England under Robson.

In 86 England went out to Argentina in the quarter finals due the brilliance and cunning of Diego Maradona, but I remember watching the game and thought England acquitted themselves quite well in that game and the tournament overall. This was something of an achievement when you take into consideration the terrible start England made, losing to Portugal and drawing with Morocco in the opening two games.

The next tournament involving England was Euro 88 in the old West Germany. This was a total disaster for England, losing all 3 games in the group stage. England were a little unlucky to lose to the Irish, and played quite well against the Dutch in the second game.

The real difference was that the Dutch had Marco Van Basten who scored a brilliant hatrick The final game against the USSR was terrible but we were already out at that stage.

The abuse that Robson received during that tournament was incredible, the pressure on the England manager position was just as great then as it is now. Robson did well to hang on to his job after those results and it was arguably the lowest moment of his England career. When I think back to that year it makes the tributes made over these last few days seem even more remarkable!

Robson survived to lead England to the World Cup in Italy in 1990, which turned out to be a watershed moment for English football in so many ways. I look back at that tournament as being almost like year zero for English football. For me the modern experience of football in this country begins with that tournament. I also think it was a watershed moment for Bobby Robson.

Italia 90 wasn’t a great tournament in terms of the football, England played a dreadful 0-0 draw with the Republic of Ireland in Sardinia in the first game, drew 0-0 with the Dutch in the second game, which wasn’t too bad and then beat Egypt to progress to the next round.

At the time people knew Robson was standing down after the tournament, but if people were being honest there was no great clamour for Robson to stay on. It was almost as if familiarity breeds contempt and people were happy for Robson to stand down.

In the second round, England beat Belgium with a last gasp extra time winner from David Platt before being totally outplayed in the last eight by surprise package Cameroon. England somehow managed to scrape through 3-2. This set up a Semi final against West Germany! I remember thinking we’re one game away from the World Cup final this is amazing!

That Semi Final was the type of game that reminds England fans that every so often England can compete with the very best in the world at football. It was one of England's best performances under Robson. At times during that game we outplayed the Germans who were probably the best team in the world at the time.

Again we all know how the Semi Final finished, Gazza’s tears, the penalty misses from Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle. Things were never the same for anyone after that game. Robson’s reputation was enhanced, after all the ups and downs he wasn’t that bad after all!

England had gone out as heroic losers, football was suddenly fashionable and respectable! The BBC had Pavarotti’s Nessun Dorma as its theme tune, football was now even cultured! For me Robson will always be associated with this 'rebirth' of English football.

After that World Cup Robson went on to manage in Holland, Portugal and Spain, and this is when the respect, feelings and admiration that have been shown for Robson over the last few days really started to develop.

Robson was hugely successful in Holland and Portugal, winning titles with PSV and Porto. For me it showed that even after the pressures of managing England he still had a great desire and motivation to continue in the game.

Also from a personal point of view it was good to see an English manager going abroad and being successful. Before Italia 90 English clubs had been banned from Europe for 5 years, it was important that English football culture could still be seen to be successful on the continent.

This was certainly true when Robson was appointed manager of Barcelona in the 1996. To manager a club like Barcelona was almost some kind of recognition that this was a man who was highly respected and valued in world football. It was good to see someone representing English football abroad and being successful. I’ve read a few comments from ex players he managed in Spain and Portugal, and I felt some sense of pride that they spoke so highly of him.

At Barcelona he only lasted one season, but that was more a result of the internal politics of the club. He eventually returned to English football in 1999 taking over at Newcastle. At the time I thought it was great to see him back in English football.

It was almost 20 years since he’d last been a club manager in this country and looking back it did an excellent job, getting Newcastle into the Champions League. How Newcastle fans would love to have him now, pity the club sacked him when he suffered a poor start to a season a few years back.

After hearing all the tributes paid to Bobby Robson over the last few days, and looking back at my own memories of him as a football fan, the thing that I can admire most about him is his passion and enthusiasm for football. The word 'enthusiasm' seems to crop up time and time again in people's thoughts, and this enthusiasm must surely explain why he stayed in the game for so long.

Football has changed so much since he began his career in management back in the late 60s. Not everything has changed for the better, but it didn't seem to have put him off the game. To his credit he seemed able to adapt and accept the changes in football.

Bobby Robson’s death is certainly the end of an era, but overall I will always have fond memories of his personality and his time in football.

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