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'He felt good about Ireland without thinking about the consequences. He was very poorly at the time'

Author and journalist Bob Harris discusses Bobby Robson’s career, including his ill-fated stint with Ireland.

Bobby Robson pictured with Steve Staunton at a 2007 press conference.
Bobby Robson pictured with Steve Staunton at a 2007 press conference.
Image: Donall Farmer/INPHO

NOT MANY PEOPLE knew the late Bobby Robson better than Bob Harris.

Now 76, Harris frequently came into contact with the former Ipswich and England manager during his journalism career.

Robson trusted Harris and the pair considered each other friends.

They collaborated on several books and this year, Harris has written another on the Newcastle legend, entitled: ‘Bobby Robson: The Ultimate Patriot’.

Robson will perhaps best be remembered on this side of the water for his ill-fated stint with Ireland. In January 2006, the inexperienced Steve Staunton was appointed the national team’s manager, with the veteran coach coming onboard in a supporting role, described as ‘international football consultant’. 

The experienced coach had a recurring battle with cancer, after first being diagnosed in 1991. His increasingly poor health at the time meant he was limited in his capacity to assist Staunton. The reign lasted less than two years and was widely regarded as a disaster — Ireland failed to qualify for Euro 2008 and suffered an embarrassing 5-2 defeat against Cyprus along the way.

One of the lowlights occurred when, after the Boys in Green needed a last-minute goal to beat San Marino, Robson was asked to go on RTÉ radio show Liveline and defend Staunton. The veteran coach spent over an hour defending his younger counterpart from angry callers, unhappy that Ireland were underperforming.

“The whole thing was a mess,” Harris tells The42. “It didn’t work out from start to finish. Bob was always keen to work. He wanted to work. He wanted to stay involved in football and this offered him the opportunity.

“He had great feelings about the Irish and about Jack’s time there. He felt good about Ireland without thinking about the consequences. He was very poorly at the time.

“It wasn’t a good move. It was very sad. It didn’t do him any good. The radio programme really hurt, it made him poorly.

“But I kept my distance. It was nothing to do with me. It wasn’t even my place to offer Bob any advice, because I didn’t know enough about the set-up. But clearly in the end, it proved it was just a bad job.

It was very sad. It was the one time in his managerial life where things didn’t go anywhere near the way he wanted them to.

“It’s very difficult when you’re trying to do it on the phone and you’re ill, and you don’t know too much about the people you’re operating with. It was a shambles, to be honest.

“Even with a job like that, he would always throw himself into it and give 100% of himself always.”

And does he feel it was unfair of the FAI to ask him to go on Liveline?

“Absolutely, and he knew he did it, because he was helping to cover up for somebody else.

“It saddens me to talk about that to you even. I understand the importance of it, but Bobby had a great, great career. He was a wonderful person and that was just a bad part of it.”

bob

Harris believes the type of close relationship he had with Robson simply “couldn’t happen” nowadays between a journalist and a player or manager.

“One of the reasons is money. Managers in those days didn’t earn a great deal. It was only in his later days when he moved abroad that [Robson] earned decent cash.

“In my days of covering football and indeed all sports, we were very much more on a level — players, managers, journalists. We were all earning what was then decent money. We mixed in the same company, went to the same places, the same restaurants. The ‘exclusive’ areas in clubs didn’t exist. 

“You’d have the odd friendship, the odd journalist who would get on with a manager. I’ve still got managers I’d talk to every week. Not players these days, because I’m a bit old for that. All the players I knew have either left [football], died or become managers.”

And did Harris often find it a challenge to balance being a good journalist while also being a good person?

I was at the 1972 Munich Games. I was at Hillsborough. I was at Heysel. I was at the Olympics in Atlanta. My journalistic life quite often crossed that line from sport into news. But I never saw it as a story when a manager or player was having an affair — none of my business, none of the readers’ business.

“You can keep it separate then, and we didn’t harm anyone. Quite the opposite. It didn’t make us any less of a journalist. When the big stories came along, that’s when it counted.

“When you were covering people being killed, massacred, on terraces or apartment blocks in Munich, that’s when you find your mettle. Not talking about some guy’s love life, or when he fell down having had too much to drink.”

In Robson, Harris saw someone who was very much a kindred spirit. Both had a similar upbringing around the same era, while having a mutual love for both football and cricket.

While better known now as a manager, Robson was also a “bloody good footballer,” who represented England at the 1958 World Cup and also got selected for the ’62 tournament, though an injury hampered that ambition.

In 1968, be briefly managed Fulham, before taking over Ipswich the following year. The fact that he stayed with the Tractor Boys until 1982 gives a good indication of how successful he was there, winning the 1978 FA Cup and 1981 Uefa Cup among other achievements.

This success prompted him to accept an offer to succeed Ron Greenwood as England manager.

It started badly. The English side failed to qualify for the 1984 Euros. With Brian Clough waiting in the wings, Robson offered to resign, but the FA declined.

As a consequence, he subsequently guided the Three Lions to the quarters-finals of the 1986 World Cup, where they were beaten by a Diego Maradona-inspired Argentina.

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imago-19860622 Maradona scores the famous 'Hand of God' goal. Source: Imago/PA Images

Both Maradona’s goals will forever be etched in fans’ memories — one the infamous ‘Hand of God,’ the other a remarkable solo effort that has topped polls of the best ever scored.

“Like all of us, it was mixed feelings,” Harris recalls. “He cheated to score the goal blatantly, and refused to even admit he’d cheated at the time. But his second goal was an absolute dream, the sort of thing you count yourself grateful that you were sitting in the stand watching.

“Even Bobby [was impressed], though it destroyed his dream, and a very real dream let me tell you — if they had beaten Argentina, they would have won that World Cup.

“We both admired [Maradona] the player, but neither of us ever admired the man.” 

Robson’s best achievement with England was steering them all the way to the semi-finals of the 1990 World Cup.

Prior to the tournament, the media pressure on Robson was particularly intense. The team had disappointed at Euro ’88, failing to get out of the group stages. Moreover, with the FA not keen to renew his contract, the embattled manager had arranged to take over at PSV Eindhoven once his deal with England elapsed. This news was leaked prior to the tournament, prompting an angry media reaction, with one publication going as far as to label Robson a “traitor”.

The media pressure came about because of the war between the red tops. Newspapers were vying against each other to get the best stories, and of course it was picked up by all the other media. Not just newspapers, but radio, television, anyone who could get their hands on Bobby and give him a good shaking and say: ‘Here, look what we’ve got for you today, what a good story we’ve got.’

“He suffered terribly, but with great stoicism. He used to rise above it all. There used to be a thing about his press conferences that if you asked Bobby a difficult question and he didn’t answer straight away, you didn’t ask him another question until he’d answered that one. And he always would answer it, he was such an honest man, such a good man.”

And despite the harsh and often unfair criticism he received, Robson was not the kind of person who held grudges.

“People would treat him like crap and he would grumble about it, moan about it, ignore them for a day or two and then accept them back into the fold. I don’t know any other manager who has done that.

“The people that hurt him most weren’t the journalists, but the footballers that turned against him for a fast buck with The Sun or The Mirror. Those are the people he really despised, because he felt they were letting the side down, and you didn’t do that in his era.”

bobby-robson-and-the-england-bench Bobby Robson and the England bench. Source: James Meehan/INPHO

After the England job, Robson spent almost the entirety of the next decade abroad. Though his roles never lasted much more than two years, that is not to say they weren’t successful, and their brevity was invariably more to do with issues at boardroom level.

This period included two titles with PSV and another two at Porto. In his single season in charge of Barcelona, meanwhile, he won the Copa del Rey, the Supercopa de España and the European Cup Winners’ Cup.

“Everywhere he went, he won trophies,” Harris says. “Barcelona perhaps is the best example. He went there, signed a two-year contract. After six months or so, we all knew that they’d screwed him. They’d signed him on a two-year contract, but they were going to replace him with Louis van Gaal after one year. I told Bobby and Bobby wouldn’t believe it. He said: ‘No, no, see how we do at the end of the season. See how many trophies we win.’ He won three out of four trophies and had a phenomenal season. And they still brought in Louis van Gaal.

Bobby couldn’t walk out, because his contract would have penalised him. It was something like £2 million if he’d walked out on the job. And £2 million then was like £10-15 million now. Of course, he couldn’t afford to do it and he said: ‘Why should I? I’ve signed a two-year contract, they want me to go and look at the best players in the world, anywhere I want to go, carte blanche, recommending players to them.

“He said: ‘By the time I’ve done a year of that, I’ll have so much more knowledge to be able to go to any job I want to in the world.’ And he was right. He picked up on players, who could do what and where, who he could and couldn’t sign. He had a year’s learning and he was so good at the job that they pleaded with him to stay and carry on doing it. It was quite remarkable.”

In September 1999, Robson fulfilled another long-held ambition, taking charge of hometown club Newcastle United. And by the Magpies standards, it was a highly successful period, and one they have not been able to replicate since. He steered them away from the threat of relegation in his first season, before guiding them to fourth, third and fifth-place finishes in the top flight.

He also memorably oversaw a Champions League campaign in the 2002-03 season, as they remarkably got through the first group stage, despite losing their opening three matches.

“The ground is right in the centre of the city, it is the heartbeat of the community. The world revolves around Newcastle United FC. And you can imagine what it was like.

“You can walk from St James’ Park into the city centre comfortably, and the place was just bouncing. He brought an urgency to the city, a vibrancy, it was really amazing.”

Source: Newcastle United Videos/YouTube

Despite this success, Robson was harshly dismissed as boss just four games into the 2004-05 season. Harris felt he was let down not just by the hierarchy, but also some players who were making trouble behind the scenes. Tellingly, the club have never been the same force since his departure and were relegated from the Premier League in May 2009, just two months before Robson’s death from lung cancer.

“Yeah, the players were naughty,” Harris says. “He brought together a young group. In typical Bobby Robson fashion, he didn’t want to build a team for him. He wanted to build a team for the future. Something he could leave and a good manager could take on and carry on and win things, not just for one or two seasons, but for decades, like the great clubs have done — the Liverpools, Man Uniteds and Man Citys.

“That’s what he wanted and the players couldn’t understand being rotated. It was a new system then, and one Bobby embraced.

“People like Alan Shearer couldn’t play three games a week, he was too old. His limbs were creaking, he’d been kicked from pillar to post, and he needed protecting. But when Bobby left him out, he made gestures at him from behind the bench. Grow up, Shearer. He has done fortunately. And I think now he’d be the first to praise and laud Bobby Robson.”

Robson was knighted in 2002 and inducted into the English football Hall of Fame the following year. In 2008, he launched the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation, a cancer research charity that has raised millions and which he worked on tirelessly up until his death, just under a year after being diagnosed with terminal cancer.

“I am going to die sooner rather than later,” Robson was quoted as saying in the knowledge that his life was coming to an end. “But then everyone has to go sometime and I have enjoyed every minute.”

I would say that he was the last of the breed,” adds Harris. “Ipswich did so well. Look at their record in European and English football when he was there. He ran the club from top to bottom with a female secretary, an assistant manager and a bloke in the office. And that was it. Now you have 150 people running a club like that. You can imagine the pressure. He worked from dawn til dusk and beyond.

“He had a family with three boys. He spent little time with them. When he wasn’t working at home, he was travelling abroad to watch players and teams, to gain experience, to talk to other coaches. He was a remarkable man. I think about him pretty well every day. And I’m a journalist, he was a manager. I think that tells you a lot about him and perhaps a lot about me as well.

“A wonderful man, and it was a joy writing the book. I’ve written 25-30 books, and I’ve never written a book that quickly. I just sat down and couldn’t stop writing.”

Bobby Robson: The Ultimate Patriot is published by deCoubertin Books. More info here.

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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