Bobby Robson: More Than A Manager

At the start of a new documentary about his life and career, the former England manager Bobby Robson is entertaining a film crew in his verdant Spanish garden. “Flores is flowers, jardin is garden,” he says with a beam, adding proudly as he gestures at the swimming pool: “And that is my piscina.”

This is one happy Englishman abroad, making light of his politically tricky spell as the manager of Barcelona, the crowning glory of a European footballing odyssey that began by winning titles in Holland with PSV Eindhoven, then went to Porto for more title success before the dizzy heights of taking over from Johan Cruyff at Barca in 1996.

Of course, all this followed on from one of the great nights of world and European football, that World Cup clash in Turin between Bobby’s England and Franz Beckenbauer’s Germany, the unforgettable semi-final of Italia ’90.

Jose Mourinho

It’s easy to forget that Robson, a working class son of England’s North East, spent the 1990s as a fully-fledged European. As his assistant and translator at Porto and Barcelona points out in the film: “When he was in Holland, he lived as a Dutchman, in Porto he was a complete Porto man, in Barcelona he was a total Catalunyan.” That assistant’s name? Jose Mourinho.

Throughout Bobby Robson: More Than A Manager, there are amusing clips of Robson learning and then mangling various languages in press conferences but getting his messages across each time through sheer force of passion and footballing expression. It is this remarkably successful spell in Europe that paved the way for Robson’s return to English football at the helm of the team he supported as a child, Newcastle United.

All this must have seemed a long way off in the dark days of his England management, when the press regularly hounded him and bayed for his resignation so that maverick Brian Clough could take over. After his success with  13-year spell at Ipswich (a team featuring the rarity of two star Dutch imports in Arnold Muhren and Frans Thijssen – they were voted Best Team in Europe after their 1981 UEFA Cup triumph), Robson was hired by the FA to “go and win the World Cup”. He spent the rest of the 1980s trying to do so but  failure to qualify for that great European Championship at France in 1984 nearly put paid to his tenure, as did the abject performance at the 1988 Euros in West Germany, where England lost in the group stages to the tournament’s eventual runners-up, USSR, and winners, Holland, with Robson’s own discovery, Arnold Muhren, still playing a key role.

More than a doc: with director and touchline reporter Gabriel Clarke after his visit to my BBC Radio London show

But as the new documentary shows, a few legendary World Cup performances rescued and revived Bobby Robson. As Gabriel Clarke, writer and director of Bobby Robson: More Than a Manager, remarks: “Living on those knife-edge decisions is what makes the reputation of a manager. Bobby could always seem to pull a result out when he most needed it, when he was under most pressure. He’d find a way to do something and come out smiling.”

First came Mexico ’86 when he kept faith with striker Gary Lineker and eventually paired him with Peter Beardsley, the pair combining to beat Poland and Paraguay and send England into the quarter finals to face Argentina and Diego Maradona.

For all the beauty of Maradona’s second – and winning – solo goal in that game, a goal often voted the Goal of the Century, it’s the first strike that riled Robson for years, the infamous Hand of God goal. “It was nothing to do with God,” says Bobby. “It was the hand of a rascal.” And Maradona’s refusal to show any remorse for his cheating behaviour left the Argentinian star ever tarnished in the eyes of gentleman Bobby.

“It simply went against everything Bobby stood for,” explains Gary Lineker in the film. “He hated dishonesty. But he stayed loyal to me and he made my career – my life would have been nowhere near as good without him.”

The calibre of tributes such as this power the film along. Even the matter-of-fact Mourinho can’t find a bad word to say about his mentor and the footage of the young ‘special one’ leaping about and shaking his head is certainly striking, how often and how near he was to the main action, as if drawn to the camera, even if his chief job was nominally as “translator”. 

Alan Shearer

But other contributors fulsome in their praise include Pep Guardiola, part of Robson’s treble-winning Barcelona side, Alan Shearer, Terry Butcher (whom Robson brought through as a youth at Ipswich, and made his England captain), Ronaldo (the Brazilian one, “the best Ronaldo,” as Mourinho terms him with typical niggle), Dutch coach Frank Arnessen and, of course, Paul Gascoigne.

Says Gabriel Clarke, who’s also familiar as the ITV’s Champions League touchline and news reporter: “It’s like a hierarchy of dominance in world football now – we have Mourinho and Guardiola, these galactico managers and they both learned at the feet of Bobby Robson. He’s top of the tree. And then the dominant characters of British football are also all from under his tutelage.”

Gazza it is who provides the narrative for the film’s heart, the World Cup semi against Germany in Turin. It’s painted as a connection between two Geordie lads, a father-son relationship which brought Robson pleasure and exasperation in equal measure, and it becomes the story of Italia ’90, when the sunshine and passion of European football seems finally to have seeped into Bobby’s character.

I’d forgotten that even before the tournament, Robson had said his time would be up after England’s involvement. He’d already confirmed a job managing PSV Eindhoven in Holland, for which the English press branded him a “traitor”, an accusation which apparently stung the patriot very deeply.

Somehow, that England team came together over the course of the tournament – Lineker, Waddle, Platt, Gascoigne, Mark Wright, Butcher, Paul Parker, Peter Shilton, Stuart Pearce… the names trip off the tongue now but they were far from heroic before pulling results out of the bag against Egypt, Belgium and the swaggering Cameroon, all helped by the exuberant Gascoigne’s through balls and flighted assists.

Using previously unseen archive film from FIFA’s vaults in Switzerland (they film every World Cup match with 10 cameras), the film focuses solely on Robson for the penalty shoot out, his face and shoulders crumpling as first Pearce then Waddle mIssed (“in training, he would score penalties with his eyes closed,” runs Bobby’s own voice over) sealing the defeat and setting a certain unwanted English tradition. It’s still a poignant and painful memory, simply because that England side had started to play brilliantly. Robson is adamant in reflection: “If we’d won that shoot-out, I’m convinced we would have gone on to win the World Cup for England for a second time.” And one feels inclined to agree.

Laughs Gabriel Clarke ruefully: “Every time I watch it and every day I was editing it, I still kept thinking England might just win it this time, that Bobby would surely come up with a tweak to do it. That’s why I chose to focus just on him. It’s a picture of resignation and powerlessness accepted with enormous grace – what more could he have done?”

For England fans, that low point at Italia ’90 remains also a kind of high point. But for Robson, it was merely the launch pad to reboot his spectacular career in club management – let’s not forget his Ipswich side had won the FA Cup and UEFA Cup and finished runners up in the league twice. We should also recall the British insularity during that time – British clubs were banned from Europe post-Heysel and only returned in 1990, and there was a growing interest in Italian Serie A sparked by Gascoigne’s transfer to Lazio in 1992, but little else. This prohibited fans from truly appreciating the feats Robson was achieving as the 90s rolled on. Two successive Dutch titles at Eindhoven, a Portuguese cup then two titles totally transforming Porto, before the appointment at Barcelona. It’s quite amazing to imagine an English coach at such a European summit right now – despite the influence of European managers and players on our Premier League, rarely is it two-way traffic. As Clarke notes: “It’s actually shocking to realise Bobby Robson is still the last English manager to win a European trophy, the Cup Winner’s Cup with Barcelona in 1997.”

Robson’s Barcelona team drips with memories of legends – Stoichkov, Guardiola, Laurent Blanc, Ronaldo, Luis Enrique, Luis Figo. The film rightly spends plenty of time exploring this adventure, pitching Bobby right in the middle of typically volatile Catalan storm of politics and football, buffeted by fans still mourning Cruyff and power struggles between Presidents Josep Nunez and his vice Joan Gaspart. The latter speaks with touching warmth and regret about the man he only refers to as “SirBobby”.

Guardiola is effusive in his praise, about how Bobby would attack the buffet with a delight in sampling new foods, how he himself learned how to be calm with media and managerial pressure and how Bobby was “the nicest person I ever met in my life.” It’s a period from which we gasp at the sheer unstoppable power and accuracy of Ronaldo, who scored 47 goals in one season for Robson – one electric dribble against Betis is hypnotic, and Robson’s own, fan-like reaction becomes the focus of the goal’s celebration – before being transferred to Internazionale of Milan, a move which seems to have saddened both manager and player. “I had so much more to learn from Robson,” says a downbeat Ronaldo amid his warm reflections here.

For the film’s director, the respect they still have for Bobby Robson at Barcelona is overwhelming. “We wanted to show that 96-97 season because it’s largely uncharted, despite them winning a treble. It’s probably Bobby at his peak, though that largely went unnoticed by British and European audiences,” says Clarke. “Most of the footage we show has rarely been seen and that’s due to Barcelona granting us access to their archive, much to our surprise. They simply said: ‘Anything for Sir Bobby’. He is deeply loved and respected there.”

The film is titled Bobby Robson: More Than a Manager, a play on Barcelona’s own motto of being Mes Que Un Club. The portrait is one of warmth and admiration, with the biggest tributes being about what a fine man he was, what a good person and a fighter, one who beat cancer four times before finally succumbing at 76, in 2009. And indeed his charity work may be his greatest legacy, the Sir Bobby Robson cancer unit in Newcastle remaining a pioneering centre of excellence in its field and the Bobby Robson Foundation still raising millions of pounds every year.

The film was screened around the UK last week at a unique hat-trick of venues: St James’ Park, Newcastle, Wembley Stadium and Ipswich’s Portman Road. There are now plans for European showings in Porto, in Holland and, of course, at the Nou Camp. 

It’s an unusual release pattern for a documentary, but then, as you realise watching the film, Bobby Robson was no ordinary football manager. And for me, amid all the tributes, it’s something Gary Lineker says near the end that hits home most. After seeing his work building up Ipswich, orchestrating those iconic England moments of brave defeat, triumphing around Europe and then restoring pride and dignity back at Newcastle, Lineker suggests, perhaps surprisingly, that Bobby Robson is: “The greatest English football manager of all time.” 

Gabriel Clarke agrees. “It wasn’t for me to put words in anyone’s mouth but the willingness of Mourinho, Pep, Sir Alex Ferguson, Ronaldo, Gary Lineker to give us their time spoke volumes. And while Alf Ramsey won the World Cup for England, it’s the sheer variety of achievement that marks out Bobby Robson’s career. No English coach has done anything like it, before or since. And wherever he went, Bobby left the impression of being cherished by the players, fans, and even chairmen. He might have expressed himself through football but the communication and connection he had with people all over Europe was down to his personality and warmth as a human.”

Bobby Robson: More Than A Manager is on release in selected UK cinema and digital download from June 1. Additional screenings can be requested on ourscreen.co.uk. 

This article features in the current issue of The New European