First appeared in the Sunday Times 04.02.01
PERFECTION has been described as a
flame that several touch but few can hold. After his dalliances with
ultimately elusive glory while managing England in the 1986 and 1990 World
Cups, Bobby Robson understands the analogy.
Unfortunately they also have a chameleon side to their character and struggle to maintain consistency. It is a flaw evidenced by a failure to keep a clean sheet since September, thereby prompting embarrassing home defeats to Charlton, Everton and, horror of horrors, Sunderland. "We're moving in the right direction, we've improved. But we can't get the conveyor belt running smoothly. It's continually stuttering or stopping," explained Robson on Friday, his voice a little hoarse in the wake of an hour-long first-team "de-brief" spent deconstructing Wednesday's 3-1 reverse at Chelsea. "When I took over from Ruud [Gullit] last season I had 13 players injured. I thought, 'Next year we won't have this; we'll have better training, better treatment, better preparation, take more care, pay more attention.' Well, we've done all that but we still haven't stopped the injuries."
Newcastle have duly spent most of this season without not only their injured £22m strike force of Alan Shearer and Carl Cort, but Nikos Dabizas, Robson's best defender. "We paid £7m for Cort," explained the manager. "But he's barely played. Imagine if Arsène down at Arsenal had lost [Thierry] Henry for five months or [Jimmy Floyd] Hasselbaink had only played two matches for Chelsea? "The injuries have meant we're not as advanced as I'd have liked us to be and with the purse strings being closed, with no access to money, I couldn't buy the one or two players I needed when we hit those snags."
Occasionally, the snags have provoked rare
depression in Robson. "Sometimes I think 'Why shouldn't I be on the
first tee in Hawaii'," said a man considerably in credit on his
transfer dealings. So will he renew his one-year rolling contract and remain
at St James' next season? "If my mood is right and my gut reaction
says so, then yes. I'm here because I love it very much but I've never
stopped solving problems from the day I came. I'd like those problems to be
lessened and to enjoy my job," he said.
Having driven to Southampton to watch last weekend's FA Cup win against Sheffield Wednesday - "I only got there with 10 minutes to spare because the M27 was blocked off; can you believe that, on a Saturday?" - Robson trusts his players will reward such assiduous homework with a win against a team managed by a man who knows all about touching perfection but tantalisingly failing to sustain it. "I'll enjoy seeing Glenn," said Robson. "I gave him most of his England caps and we had good times, particularly in 1986 when he came into full form. He was always a player you had to build around, though. "He had some great qualities and some small limitations; you had to protect those limitations to let him use his quality. He needed strong people alongside him, he was at his best next to Peter Reid. Peter dug it out for him and Glenn added the gloss. "They were a near-perfect combination."