…servant of the game.
Much of the attention in the obituaries for Sir Bobby Robson who died today, after finally losing his many battles with cancer aged 76, will no doubt focus well in this country anyway on his tenure as England manager.
In other nations around Europe they’ll no doubt concentrate on his success with clubs in their leagues but here it’ll be that eight year period and then some Tractor Boys stuff and then the post England days abroad then home. They’ll big it up, an unlucky quarter-final and semi-final loss in successive World Cups, a load of what ifs. The problem is like those that preceded and then followed him, Robson was a very good club manager but wasn’t in reality a great manager when he stepped into the international game.
At the time, in 1982, he seemed like a good choice. He had enjoyed very good success with Ipswich Town, after a slow start he got them into the top 5 of the old First Division and only finished out of the top 6 once in the next nine seasons. During which he won the FA Cup (beating the scum) and then the old UEFA Cup. And of course England had previous with Ipswich managers, Sir Alf did pretty well for his country after winning the Championship with the unfancied Portman Road side.
But in reality he shouldn’t have been going for the England job after Ron Greenwood stood down after the ’82 World Cup. Brian Clough should have got the job before Greenwood and after him, something Robson knew himself. But of course Robson was more an FA type of man than Cloughie was or could ever be.
Like Svennis after him Robson had a pretty good qualifying record, losing only one game in 28, though that loss to Denmark cost England a place in the ’84 Euro Championship. Robson handed in his resignation to the FA, saying Clough should be given the job, it was rejected.
England qualified for the next World Cup in Mexico, which for many will be remembered for one maybe two incidents all involving a certain little fat magician. “The Hand Of God” and then that other goal that was not bad. England felt unlucky but that quarter-final defeat, to the eventual winners, glossed over what had gone before. A typical England way to head into a tournament take a manger’s favourite player even though he’s injured and a real risk and sure enough he sloped off in the that first game against the mighty Morocco holding his knackered shoulder. A nil nil draw, was followed by one nil loss to Portugal. Looked like we were doing a Jock job and going to be home before the postcards. Robson to his credit changed things and brought Beardsley in the partner Lineker, though why he picked Mark Hately to begin with was a black mark. The Boy Lineker’s hat-trick against Poland and somehow England are through. Paraguay easy in the second round and then that game.
It wasn’t the hand of God. It was the hand of a rascal. God had nothing to do with it… That day, Maradona was diminished in my eyes forever. - Sir Bobby Robson
Though why didn’t he question his ‘keeper, why was a fat midget whose hand with a bent elbow was barely above his head height allowed to reach the ball against a a goalkeeper who can jump reach fully with his arms and use his hands. A loyalty that would cost the manager again in the future but the incident allowed a great deal of glossing over.
What followed two years later was by far the lowest part of the England years. After a great qualifying run in which only one point was dropped England went to the ’88 European Championship in West Germany as one of the favourites. And then it all went wrong, as England were inept in all three group matches losing to Ireland, Holland and the USSR, though the latter two would contest the final it was by no means any consolation. The press went after the manager, even the foreign ones, asking how a team of Lineker, Beardsley, Barnes, Hoddle, Waddle, Robson etc could be so bad.
A friendly draw with Saudi Arabia followed as did more vilification and then another resignation letter. Fear of Cloughie lead to it again being rejected.
So onto 1990 again qualifying was a breeze, as they went through without dropping a goal. Yet again “England Captain” hobbled out early with an injury. England started again with a struggling draw, though it being against Ireland it was an upgrade on the previous tournament’s loss. The following game saw a major shift as 4-4-2 formation was dropped to use a sweeper, Robson claimed it was all his doing but most know it was a player revolt that saw the switch. Nil nil against Holland, again better than the defeat two years previously but it didn’t inspire any confidence. A struggle to beat Egypt in the final group game 1-0 again didn’t indicate England deserved their top six seeding but it did mean they were through to the next round.
A last second of extra time winner by David Platt, a great goal from a great delivery, meant a quarter-final against the surprise of the Cameroon. England outplayed and very lucky with some manic attempts of defending by the African side got through by two penalties by Gary Lineker the first to get to extra-time the second to win the game.
Being in the semi for only the second time again glossed over what had gone before. England finally played a decent game against the West Germans, their best performance by far. The manager’s favouritism would cost though as Shilton was still between the posts. So many had a go at Parker for doing his job of rushing the ball after Olaf Thon tapped a free kick to Andreas Brehme, it bounced off the fullback and looped over Shilton who was needlessly off his line, after all Parker was doing the blocking. Parker then put in defence confusing ball for Lineker to equalise. Chances in extra-time came and went, Waddle didn’t half hammer the woodwork, Gazza got that yellow card produced the tearsand so penalties, and most of the players couldn’t remember Shilton ever saving any.
A loss on penalties to the winners was classed as unlucky but again it glossed over what had gone before, it may have been unlucky but Robson’s side were exceptionally lucky to get that far. And so after being told by the FA before the tournament that they wouldn’t renew his contract Robson stepped down on a perceived high. The following disaster of the Graham Taylor reign did a lot to make the previous regime look a lot better than it was.
After the international game he moved back into club management around Europe, with some success. Starting in Holland with PSV Eindhoven then onto Portugal with Lisbon and Porto, then onto Spain with Barcelona and finally back to PSV. He won the Dutch Championship and Portuguese Championship twice, Portuguese Cup, Spanish Super Cup, Copa del Ray and European Cup Winners’ Cup once.
And finally had his dream move to the manage the club he supported as a child, Newcastle, bringing them a stability they’d known for so few times before and certain never since his sacking.
So R.I.P. a great servant of the game both in England, as both player – where of course he took part in that 9-3 thrashing of the Jocks in 1961 – and manager, and abroad who did it all in such a gentlemanly and dignified manner including his five fights with cancer.