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Obituary: Sir Bobby Robson, 1933-2009

Less than a week before he died, Sir Bobby Robson was on the St James' Park pitch, along with the majority of his best England side. For all his other achievements in a managerial career that took him to four countries, it was appropriate that his final public appearance married Newcastle United with the 1990 World Cup. Robson will be remembered for much else, but perhaps above all for his selfless service to Newcastle and England. On Sunday, the sight of an obviously frail Robson in a wheelchair was poignant. He seemed to have conquered cancer so many times, taking his life into extra time after four previous fights with the disease. This was a sign that, even the indefatigable Robson, a man who managed into 72nd year, was entering the final phase of his life.

Retirement, like everything else that preceded it, involved football. Wrapped up against the North-East cold, he was often spotted at Newcastle's home games last season, a reminder of the days when an attacking ethos produced Champions League football under a dignified figurehead. Robson was shabbily discarded by Newcastle, but his allegiance to his club persisted to the end just as, despite fierce criticism following Euro 88, he remained constant in his patriotism thereafter.

As his managerial career lasted almost four decades, it is easy to overlook his playing days. Yet Robson, who had two spells at Fulham and one at West Bromwich Albion, appeared in one World Cup, in 1958, and but for injury would have figured in a second four years later. His ankle problem allowed Bobby Moore to debut, one of Robson's inadvertent contributions to his country's cause. Robson's managerial life began at Fulham. Sacked after six months, he discovered on a newspaper billboard near the River Thames. Fulham's loss was Ipswich's gain: the 13 years Robson spent in Suffolk make him arguably Ipswich's greatest manager, despite the considerable credentials of another who gravitated to the England job, Sir Alf Ramsey.

While Robson developed an avuncular image, particularly when he became the elder statesman of Premier League managers, a lifelong love of football does not fully account for his success. Starting in Suffolk, there was ample evidence of his steel: a punch-up with a captain he deemed disruptive, Billy Baxter, at Ipswich, the omission of one he deemed surplus to requirements with England (Kevin Keegan) and the frosty relations with Ramsey were proof Robson did not prosper by bonhomie alone.

He was a pioneer in bringing the Dutch duo, Arnold Muhren and Frans Thijssen, to Portman Road, and fashioning one of the most attractive teams of their era. Having won the FA Cup in 1978, courtesy of Roger Osborne's winner, Ipswich captured the Uefa Cup three years later, though their European run might well have cost Robson a league title, which eluded him as both player and manager in England.

The national team beckoned in 1982. While European Championships brought only disappointment, with England failing to qualify in 1984 and losing all three games in the 1988 tournament, World Cups forged his reputation. In both 1986 and 1990, England started slowly, losing their captain and talisman Bryan Robson; in both, aided by a Robson rethink, they rallied and departed with reasons to regard themselves unlucky. In Mexico, before Diego Maradona's "Hand of God", there was the hand of Bobby, reconfiguring his England team around a quartet of Everton players and pairing Peter Beardsley with Gary Lineker in attack. The latter was the top scorer in a tournament that England exited due to a combination of brilliance and deception.

Four years later after two tedious draws, England became converts to a sweeper system. A new-look midfield incorporating the emerging Paul Gascoigne and David Platt displayed a dramatic flair in the manner of their victories over Belgium and Cameroon. The semi-final against Germany, from Paul Parker's deflection and Gascoigne's tears to the flawed penalties of Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle, was a cruel conclusion, but it represented England's finest World Cup on foreign soil.

It was the end, too, for Robson, already told his contract would not be renewed. No England boss has enjoyed such success in his managerial afterlife. At an age when others contemplated retirement, he ventured abroad and won four league titles, two in Holland and two in Portugal. It was a time when his impact increased, on a young Jose Mourinho who began as his translator and on a striker who became the best in the world: Ronaldo, taken by Robson from PSV Eindhoven to Barcelona, helped the Englishman win a trio of trophies in a solitary season in charge at the Nou Camp. Loyalty to Barcelona - which wasn't reciprocated - led Robson to reject Newcastle once. He did not again and five years on Tyneside was a belated homecoming. Robson revived Newcastle and Alan Shearer alike, making them challengers. Their decline dates from his sacking in September 2004, his last position apart from a spell as the Republic of Ireland's International Football Consultant.

By then, he had long been accorded the status of a national treasure, partly for his inability to remember names - he once greeted Bryan Robson by saying "morning, Bobby" while Shola Ameobi, asked what Robson called him, replied "Carl Cort".

His own name is less forgettable. Advocate of attacking football and the man who prospered by playing five defenders in a World Cup, the Geordie whose skills took him to Eindhoven and Oporto, Lisbon and Barcelona, a man born in the 1930s whose influence will be felt long into the 21st century, Sir Bobby Robson was both a great enthusiast and a great manager.

It is a sign of his ability that neither Newcastle nor England could replace him satisfactorily, but the city and the country should be united in mourning.


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