Sir Bobby Robson was grounded by his kindness. At the very end of his life, after all he’d achieved had been consigned to history, it was the last part of him left standing tall.
He’d given football all he had. Twenty England caps as a player and eight, often fraught and unpleasant, years as manager that yielded the Three Lions’ best tournament performance since 1966 at Italia ’90. Trophies at Ipswich Town across Europe and five brilliantly poetic years back home leading Newcastle United. Afterwards, what stood out most was his dignity, his enthusiasm and, above all, his humanity.
Either as the man who led Ipswich to lofty heights seen neither before nor since, the man who showed England could be a force on the world stage after the desolation and tragedy of the 1980s, the man who proved there was life in Barcelona after Johan Cruyff or the man who reconnected with his region and his club, Robson had every right to arrogance.
But that was never what he stood for. At the heart of one of English football’s finest managers was arguably its finest man, a man who kept to his values throughout every day of his life, even as they got tougher – and more painful – towards the end.
The way to remember Robson is not with his medals or because he came to his city’s aid in a footballing capacity, it is by the way he lifted the spirits of others even as his body was failing and the manner in which he helped people simply because he cared about them and their story, no matter who they were.
He died on July 31, 2009 at the age of 76. Today marks what would have been his 88th birthday. Cancer, the disease he fought five times in his final two decades on earth, could have defined him as much as any of his professional achievements, but they never did because kindness took the starring role.
In the final year of his life, having heeded a call from Professor Ruth Plummer, the oncologist who treated him at Newcastle Royal Victoria Infirmary Hospital, Robson put his name and all his efforts into a charity, the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation, in order to raise money for a new Cancer Trails Unit. That meant, while dealing with the deterioration of his health, he was making appearances, smiling, posing for pictures and signing autographs even when it went directly against the advice he was given. All because he cared about the cause and the people he was helping; because he was kind.
It is now 13 years since the foundation was created and Robson’s memory continues to drive its success. Like anything, it has evolved and changed in that time, but it speaks volumes of Robson’s legacy in Newcastle, the wider North East region and beyond, that people have been inspired to keep donating in his name, whether they support Newcastle, Sunderland, Middlesbrough or don’t even like football.
It is that inspiration that led me to write my first book on him and his five-year reign as manager at St James’s Park. I never met him, but grew to love him anyway. That was what stands out about him even now, the fact you didn’t even need to know him to understand why he was such a great man.
Every team he managed played with his trademark enthusiasm. That was the mark of the man professionally. Newcastle, though, was something different. Not only was Robson fulfilling a dream at the club he loved in the area he had left as a 17-year-old, but he was being drafted in to a club on the verge of combustion.
Having turned down the chance to take over from Kevin Keegan in 1997 – with Newcastle in the midst of a Premier League title challenge — because he was still in place at Barcelona, he inherited a squad that had been decimated, first by the loss of key players and then by Ruud Gullit’s mismanagement. After that infamous defeat at home to Sunderland in 1999, with the rain pouring down and Alan Shearer on the bench, it took all of Robson’s personality to turn things around. But he did – and quickly.
The fact he couldn’t end the wait for a piece of silverware at St James’ Park has perhaps diluted Robson’s impact at Newcastle from the outside. He was loved and adored by football generally and maybe because his success could be quantified better elsewhere, his spell on Tyneside is something of an afterthought. But there was a cultural impact that he had, one which now feels a world away and can only be emulated rather than replicated.
He tied the club to the city and the community after one of its most difficult moments in recent times. The Mike Ashley era, which is still eating the club from the inside today, has perhaps altered perspective on what Robson was met with on his return to Newcastle, but the way he knitted everything back together was indicative of what made him the person he was.
He is worth writing about, not only because of the team he produced that made history in the Champions League and almost threatened Manchester United and Arsenal’s duopoly at the top of English football, but because of his character and unique standing in the game.
Robson made Newcastle feel real again. Like a club that mattered and was heading in a direction which would reap rewards. All these years on – and with Ashley’s soulless, callous entity struggling in the midst of its own identity crisis – it can still be a joy to relive so many great memories and that is what I hope my book does. Even if the end of the professional bond between Robson and Newcastle was a rather unpleasant one that shook him to his core and made it very hard for him to move on.
It is easy for me to sit here and write about the overwhelmingly positive aspects of Robson’s personality as somebody who didn’t see them first-hand. He is remembered in the way I choose. But the facts, the stories and the developing narrative throughout this book are told through the eyes of those who were there at every level: family, players, coaches, scouts, directors and journalists all share their perspectives, and I was delighted to find my perception of Robson the man was right all along.
His last public appearance was another that summed up his lionhearted drive and desire. Days away from the end and unable to talk such was the severity of his condition, he pressed his fingernails into his hands to show his disagreement with the suggestion he couldn’t attend a charity football match at St James’ Park. He got there and witnessed the roar of thousands of fans there to honour him one final time. There could be no more fitting way to say goodbye.
Adulation was never his thing. He never understood what all the fuss was about. But Sir Bobby Robson was always happy to oblige for other people. His humility preceded him throughout his life and bleeds into the 11 chapters of the book. You didn’t have to know him to be inspired by him and I’m honoured I was able to get as close to him as I could all these years later. After all, it was his kindness which really set this journey in motion.
“Black and White Knight – How Sir Bobby Robson made Newcastle United again” by Harry De Cosemo is released on March 15th 2021 with Pitch Publishing. Pre-order now.