“No, I will not give you a bloody interview. You are taking liberties young man, now piss off.”
They say you should never meet your heroes and maybe they were right.
December 1998, and a stark-bollock freezing morning at PSV’s training ground on the outskirts of Eindhoven. I was here unannounced to try and interview Bobby Robson in his second spell as coach of the Dutch club. But Bobby wasn’t having any of it.
He had rejoined PSV in the summer after leaving Barcelona. Replacing Johan Cruyff at the Nou Camp in 1996, Robson brought in a young chap called Ronaldo and won three trophies in his first season, including the Cup Winners Cup. He failed to win the league, however, despite Ronaldo scoring 47 often ludicrously good goals.
(Ed – watch the last 20 seconds for Robson’s brilliant reaction to Ronaldo’s wondergoal against Compostela.)
Having then spent a year as Director of Football overseeing Louis Van Gaal, Robson took the chance to rejoin PSV. Recent shenanigans at Old Trafford suggest that might not have been such a bad move.
Robson had his work cut out at PSV, though, with the club losing a host of top players that summer. Jaap Stam joined Man Utd, Barcelona took Boudewijn Zenden and Phillip Cocu – the present PSV manager – while Wim Jonk left for Sheffield Wednesday.
It was not all one-way traffic. Bobby gave a chance to a kid from Heerenveen named Ruud Van Nistelrooy, who just happened to score a few goals. He always did have an eye for a decent forward.
So after a glittering managerial career with Ipswich and England, and spreading his football knowledge across continental Europe, Robson was now faced with the sight of yours truly on a cold and windy morning in Eindhoven.
Two-and-a-half years had passed since the Sunday Telegraph sports desk had given me a week’s work experience and here I was, a professional sports writer.
It hadn’t been easy arranging the trip. Normally I covered a match on the Saturday – somewhere glamorous like Crystal Palace or, if I had got the office coffee order wrong, somewhere like Hull. The bastards.
But having met a young lady at the Telegraph, I decided a weekend away would go down quite well. I’d always fancied going to Amsterdam, too. I floated the idea of a weekend off with the sports editor, who was an ex-chief football writer.
No chance. He knew me too well.
After much toing and froing, a compromise was finally reached. I would go and interview Bobby Robson, the paper would cover my costs and my editor could have my old Nintendo 64 for his kids. He knew Bobby well and told me to call his secretary to arrange the interview. Job done.
The only problem was that I couldn’t get hold of Bobby’s secretary on the phone, while almost nobody used email back then and the PSV automated telephone service was very much in Dutch.
My plan was to see Bobby after training on the Friday morning with my girlfriend joining me later that day. I flew into Amsterdam on the Thursday, went to a coffee shop as soon as I arrived, and don’t remember anything else.
The next morning I took the train to Eindhoven, got a cab to the training ground, and chanced my arm. Bobby came to the door very quickly.
It was like being back in the headmaster’s office. This was their last day of training before the game at the weekend, he told me, and then it was the Christmas break. Given Bobby’s reaction, I felt I had broken one of the seven deadly sins.
After he had forcefully closed the door on me, I looked out into the frosty wilderness. What was I going to do now? I took a deep breath and knocked on the door again. Bobby immediately opened it. I begged him for five whole minutes, telling him I’d be forever grateful and was petrified I’d lose my job.
Bobby smiled and told me to go into the room on the left. I thought he was joking. It was the changing room where the players were busy showering or using the hairdryers. I couldn’t do shorthand, and usually taped every interview. This was not a good scenario.
But within ten minutes, Bobby had taught me more about the art of managing than I had learned at any press conference on the London beat with orators such as Alan Curbishley and Alan Pardew. “Stam has gone, Cocu has gone, and Zenden,” he started. “How they expect me to win the league I do not know.”
Back then, just as now, I was hardly Jeremy Paxman. But I did manage to ask about his future plans. “Oh, I am coming back to manage in England after this season, no doubt about that,” he replied.
Still feeling a tad bleary eyed – and still scared he would throw me out – I barely realised what a good story this was. He hadn’t said this to anyone before. Paddy Barclay, the Sunday Telegraph football correspondent, later mentioned that I should have had an ‘exclusive’ byline, but I was just happy to meet the great man.
After fifteen to twenty minutes chatting, I had loads of great quotes from Bobby and was ready to leave. I thanked him and wished him luck for the weekend’s game: “That’s all you want from me, you came all this way for that?”
Well, yes, I explained, he’d given me a great story and that was all I needed. He look bemused: “Do you want a ticket for the match on Sunday, I can sort you out?”
I’d not long known this girl from the paper, but I did know she wasn’t into football in the slightest. And, given my weekends were generally taken up covering games, I definitely didn’t fancy trying to take her to a PSV match. Especially after two nights in Amsterdam.
I took a deep breath, expecting another almighty bollocking from Bobby, and explained the situation. He just smiled, patted me on the shoulder, and said he understood perfectly. What a man.