It’s always hard to honour those legends who have left this world. How large a tribute is fitting? Are we even worthy deigning of how much is enough?
Truth be told, yes and no. Yes, we are worthy of deciding how large a tribute is fitting, but no, however large a tribute may be, you cannot quantify its largesse because to whomsoever your tribute is dedicated has done something few have been able to replicate since.
George Best stands alongside Denis Law and Sir Bobby Charlton atop a plinth outside Old Trafford, Sir Brian Clough has a national highway named after him, a pedestrian bridge at the Emirates Stadium has been christened the Herbert Chapman bridge for the legendary Englishman’s services to the Arsenal and Joe Mercer has a mosaic on a road named after him just off the Etihad Stadium.
But these tributes are accorded to the greats of yesteryear not just because of who they were, but because of who they became and what they did.
Yesterday was the death anniversary of once such legend, whose statue adorns Portman Road, the home of English club Ipswich Town.
On the 31st of July, 2009, Sir Bobby Robson passed away after a long, valiant but ultimately futile struggle with lung cancer. And a day after the third year of his death anniversary, the least we can do, as ardent lovers of the beautiful game, is say ‘thank you’ for his unforgettable contributions to the sport.
Thank you, Bobby Robson, for bringing glory to clubs your managerial presence graced on English soil. Thank you for bringing glory to Ipswich Town, one of the long-forgotten heroes of the English game.
You, Sir Bobby, gave Ipswich some of their finest days in football. Few will forget the Tractor Boys’ UEFA Cup triumph in 1981 or their FA Cup triumph in 1978, success which few have since delivered at the club.
And, Sir Bobby, while people are quick to scrutinise Jack Wilshere and the rest of the graduates from Colney or analyse the performances of Adnan Januzaj, the latest from Carrington’s production line, how many of them know that it was you who set the foundations (along with Sir Matt Busby at Manchester United) for youth academies in England?
“First of all he was beyond football a great man, one of the kindest people I ever met. He helped me a great deal when I was a young coach and I visited him in Ipswich. He took me, an unknown coach from Sweden, down into the dug-out and explained the tactics.
“The year after Ipswich won the UEFA Cup, my team Gothenburg won it and he came and presented the trophy to me. When I became coach of England I called him many times and he was always generous with his advice and helpful. It seems he was as friendly to everybody as he was to me. In fact for me, he was the special one.”
– Sven-Goran Eriksson
In the 13 seasons that Sir Bobby spent at Ipswich, he brought in only 14 (yes, fourteen) players from outside the club. He chose to rely on the stables that constantly churned players that at that time were considered to have the potential to be some of England’s finest.
Indeed, it was you, Sir, Robson, who blooded so many players who would go on to play for their country. Terry Butcher, who came face to face with Diego Maradona in that infamous Hand of God incident at the World Cup. George Burley, who later managed Ipswich Town and won them promotion to the Premier League in 2000. John Wark, so often Player of the Year at Portman Road. Mick Mills, who was Robson’s captain on the pitch.
Colin Viljoen, who played more than 300 games for the club. Alan Brazil, the youngest member of the Scotland squad at the 1986 World Cup in Spain. Brian Talbot, a veritable workhorse of a midfielder who missed little more than a dozen games during his entire career and Kevin Beattie, who was once described by you, Sir Bobby as the best player you’d ever seen.
All of them products of Ipswich’s youth programme. All of them made great because of the dedication and hard work that Sir Bobby put into them.
“It was a pleasure to know him, not only as a coach but also as a person. It was a marvellous experience. It was a very difficult season, even though we won three trophies. Despite the problems of that year, he never lost his composure and always behaved like a gentleman.”
– Pep Guardiola
You took Newcastle United to the Champions League on two different occasions. Only one other manager has done so, and none who have come after have managed to replicate what you did in the five years you spent at the club.
But the world does not just remember you for those trophies, those achievements and those players, Sir Bobby. It salutes you for the tactical genius that you were.
Total Football was a strictly Dutch phenomenon at the time you were at Ipswich, Sir Bobby, but it was you who brought it to England during a time when the long-ball game was still the norm in England.
In a time when foreign imports were few and far between in the First Division, two pioneers of Total Football came to England so that Ipswich would go about playing the game the right way.
Frans Thijssen would win English Footballer of the Year in 1981 and Arnold Muhren later achieved greatness with Manchester United.
“In my 23 years working in England there is not a person I would put an inch above Bobby Robson. I mourn the passing of a great friend, a wonderful individual, a tremendous football man and somebody with passion and knowledge of the game that was unsurpassed.
“The world, not just the football world, will miss him. Let’s hope it won’t be long before another like him turns up because we could never get enough of them.”
– Sir Alex Ferguson
It was the same tactics that you used with England, with great reward. Few managers can boast of just one defeat at international level but you did so at a time when international matches included little else but championships and their qualifying runs.
It was genius that saw England make it through to the quarters of the 1986 World Cup. It was another form of genius that saw them exit the tournament at the hands of Diego Maradona. The same genius, Sir Bobby, that saw your country drop just one point in qualification for Euro 1988 and smash records when they walloped Turkey 8-0.
The same genius that guided England to a place at the World Cup in 1990 without conceding a goal, and do so successfully at the tournament proper. How many managers, Sir Bobby, can successfully lay claim to successfully stopping Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten. You, sir, most certainly can.
Had it not been for England’s oh-so-long streak of succumbing on penalties, it would have been England, and not West Germany, taking to the field in Rome. Nevertheless, Sir Bobby, you are only the second manager since the legendary Alf Ramsey to take England to the semi-finals of a World Cup that was held on foreign shores.
“I played with him in the early 60s and he was a marvellous player. He was so in love with the game in every way and he will be missed by all those who love the game. He was proud of where he came from. In the north east there was always an in built work ethic and in football terms he had that ethic. He knew how to get the best out of the efforts he put into it.”
– Sir Bobby Charlton
Speaking of foreign shores, Sir Bobby, you are only the second manager after Brian Clough who has stamped a name for English managers outside Merry Olde England. You achieved success in some of Europe’s harshest theatres of war: at PSV Eindhoven, where you won two Eredivisie titles, at Porto, where you won the league twice and added to it a cup triumph, at mighty, mighty Barcelona, where you won the King’s Cup, the Super Cup and the Cup Winners’ Cup.
And you did all of this while sticking to your principles. Sad it may be that you were only acknowledged for it after you left this world, but that you were conferred the FIFA Fair Play Award in 2009 for being a thorough gentleman and showing your opponents the respect they were worthy of means you will be remembered fondly for ever more by the footballing fraternity.
You won titles throughout Europe, Sir Bobby, and you did it while caring for your players, by understanding them, by showing as much enthusiasm in the dugout as they did on the pitch, and by putting in as much hard work off the training ground as they did on it.
For all this and more, Sir Bobby, I thank you. But your greatest fight was not on the football pitch, was it? It was a fight that you fought with yourself on five different occasions and emerged victorious four times.
You beat cancer, Sir Bobby. And then it came back, and you beat it again, and again, and again. You defeated bowel cancer in ’92, overcame melanoma in ’95, a lung tumour was banished in 2006, and even when that horrible disease threatened to attack your brain at the same time, you defied it, and like the gladiator you are, fought it head on with a smile on your face and the steely glint of resolve in your eye.
“Bobby Robson is one of those people who never die, not so much for what he did in his career, for one victory more or less, but for what he knew to give to those who had, like me, the good fortune to know him and walk by his side. My thoughts and embraces go to all his loved ones.”
– Jose Mourinho
But alas, Sir Bobby, cancer is not a disease that is merciful. Cancer reappeared in your lungs in 2007, and you knew then, sir, that your race was run.
But even then, even then, sir, you did not give up fighting the good fight. With your last breath, you vowed to fight till the very end. Your foundation, the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation, has now totalled more than £5 million to aid in the fight against cancer. Alan Shearer, Niall Quinn and so many others have answered your call to fighting this dreaded disease, and they and many more will continue to battle on.
The footballing world mourns your passing, Sir Bobby, but they have ensured that you will never be forgotten. Outside Ipswich Town in a statue of you, forever meant to honour your deeds for the club. There is another one at St. James’ Park in Newcastle. You’re a member of the English Football Hall of Fame (but you already know that) and whenever players of Ipswich Town do take to the field, they will do so knowing that the North Stand of the club has been renamed in your honour.
The same honour with which you were bestowed the title of honorary president at the club in 2006, if you remember, sir.
For all of your contributions and more, I really wish there was more I could do. But words, such a far cry from the actions you performed, are all I can offer. What you have done has gone down in the annals of the game and will live long in the memory of all those who love the beautiful game of football.
Because there’s only one Bobby Robson.