The Football Association couldn't have picked a more deserving person to honor than the former England manager as part of its 150th anniversary celebrations.The decision by the English FA to honor the late Sir Bobby Robson with a National Football Day bearing his name is great news. In a generation when a top-class English manager is a rarity (there are currently only four English gaffers in the Premier League and not one of them manages a club in the top half of the table), Robson is recalled as one of the best of all time. Indeed, none other than Scottish legend, Sir Alex Ferguson, described the affable Geordie, who died of cancer in 2009, as the best manager England has produced since he came south of the border in 1986.
Personally, I was privileged to speak with Robson on several occasions, notably during England’s close encounter with greatness at the 1990 World Cup in Italy when the nation made it to the semifinal. Subsequently, I’ve interviewed coaches of numerous national sides and I can honestly say that he remains the most charming and accommodating I’ve ever met.
Speaking in that slightly throaty brogue that’s typical of those from the northeast of England, Robson had an avuncular quality that instantly put me at ease. And, judging by the informality that I saw between the manager and his players at the England training camp in Cagliari it seemed his squad felt the same way. Incidentally, in those days security around the England team did not have the Stalag 13 overtones it has today, with the result that reporters had the kind of casual access to the players and staff that the media of the 21st century can only dream about.
Despite his relaxed manner, however, I don’t necessarily think Robson had the gift of the gab, and that was certainly evident to me on camera. As a reporter with the BBC I can remember an encounter part way through Italia ’90 when I was struck by how hesitant he seemed once the red light went on and how often he struggled to choose the right words.
At the time his England reign was due to come to an end once his team went out of the tournament, so I asked him who he believed should succeed him at the helm. Well, his response was filled with so many pauses, false starts and stumbles as he sought an appropriately diplomatic response that the sound bite was more like a cryptic crossword clue and almost impossible to edit.
Mind you, in that sense, he may have been ahead of his time, foreshadowing the wariness with which his successors would later view the media by mastering the art of the non-answer. Either way, by accident or design, it was clear he was not in the business of willingly feeding us storylines. And, in hindsight, one has to admire the charming if wily way in which he ensured he gave nothing away.
All that being said, when he wasn’t being professionally evasive he could hit the nail on the head like few others, often coming out with a classic turn of phrase that essentially cut to the chase, such as when he described the brilliant but slightly demented England midfielder Paul Gascoigne as “Daft as a brush”, and when he dubbed his inspirational and resilient England captain Bryan Robson “Captain Marvel”.
His communication skills were certainly refined enough to travel, as his post-England career took him on a successful tour of three foreign countries – to the Netherlands, where he won the Eredivisie twice with PSV Eindhoven; to Portugal, where he won two league titles and the Portuguese Cup with Porto; and to Spain where he lifted the Kings Cup and European Cup Winners Cup with Barcelona. Evidently then, Sir Bobby could clearly speak the language of soccer to those who mattered with eloquence, directness and authority.
So, Aug. 10 will become Sir Bobby Robson Day to commemorate a true legend of the past and in whose name the FA hopes to fashion the game’s future by promoting the development of soccer at the grassroots level. And, though I can’t pretend to have known him well, what I can say from the brief time that I did spend with him is that they couldn’t hope to honor a nicer, more deserving guy.