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Bobby Robson interview

From the Independent  newspaper Wed 21st March 2001 

Newcastle United's veteran manager draws on 50 years of knowledge in effort to restore Premiership pride to St James' Park

Not long before he died, I was fortunate enough to watch the great Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic. What does this have to do with the Newcastle United manager, Bobby Robson, you might ask, and it's a fair point, but bear with me.

Bernstein shuffled into the auditorium looking like an old man. But as soon as he picked up the baton he shed 40 years. He crouched down, leapt up, twirled, beamed, grimaced. And a similar metamorphosis overcomes Robson when he starts talking football.

On the training field 
where he belongs

I am sure he is a long way from taking his place in the celestial dug-out, but he looks creased and weary and all of his 68 years. And then he starts talking about the counter-attacking principles of Portuguese footie and behold, the eyes sparkle, the creases drop away, the hair darkens.

For Robson, football is a form of Viagra, keeping him young. Which is ironic, because Mrs Robson, the long-suffering Elsie, would like him to jack it in.

"At the beginning of last season I wasn't working in football for the first time in 50 years," he says. "My wife said, 'it'll take time, you'll adjust' but I didn't like it. Now I've got a 12-month rolling contract and the chairman [Freddy Shepherd] says it's up to me when I leave. My wife says, 'good, let's see more of the children. Let's see the world. Let's see Australia. Let's see Tahiti.' And I say, 'yes, dear, but Manchester United will be playing Chelsea that Saturday...' "

Laughter all round. We are sitting in the interview room at Newcastle's surprisingly inadequate training ground - owned not by the club but by the council, on old marsh land prone to flooding and with no indoor facilities. It abuts Durham's county cricket ground in Chester-le-Street, which was once the subject of the million-pound question on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? For Robson I have a different million-pound question. What has gone wrong with the Magpies, in freefall through the Premiership after looking like certs for a top-six finish? Is it a) bad management; b) bad players; c) stingy chairman; d) bad luck? Without asking the audience in the form of Newcastle's famously devoted fans - whose answer might be more revealing - Robson unhesitantly chooses 'd'. Managers usually do.

"We've lost young Dyer and we miss him badly. We lost Dabizas. We've had a lot of trouble with Alan [Shearer]. Gallacher's been out. We paid 7m for Corty [Carl Cort] and he's been out almost all season. And we didn't buy Cort with the intention of selling Duncan Ferguson. But he wanted to go, and the player we had lined up to replace him didn't come. Even so, in September I thought we'd be fighting for Europe. At one time, you know, we were top of the league. Then we went to second, then third, then fourth, back to third, and now we're down to 11th."

Saturday's 2-1 home defeat by Middlesbrough, in fact, leaves Newcastle 13th, but we are talking the day before that game, in the wake of Robson's grilling by local sports reporters - although in truth they are far too respectful for it to be called a grilling. They laugh obligingly at his terrible jokes (he says he might send Shearer to Africa, "where the knee grows") and obligingly refrain from laughing at his hilarious malapropisms. At Ipswich he used to enthuse about little Eric Sykes, meaning little Eric Gates. Here, he remarks that the combination of Terry Venables and Bryan Robson at Boro has lifted the club to "a safe platitude". Afterwards, I ask whether he thinks Venables should have been reappointed England coach? Heaven knows England could do with playing at a higher platitude.

"Well, they say he has all this baggage, but I don't know what his baggage is. I know he did it for two years, picked a good team and got them playing very nice football. The players like him and he imparts ideas well. And he's English. And he gets out on the training pitch with the players, like I do, like Don Howe, like David Sexton. There are some who don't. I don't like that."

Such as, just to pluck a name out of the air, Sven Goran Eriksson? "Yes, and that surprises me, because who's doing the work for him? But he's a keen student of the game. He used to come to Ipswich with his billboard [sic], you know. He's a good judge of a player and he has a style he likes and is firm about. Like a lot of people I wish we hadn't gone abroad, but in the meantime the job is in the hands of a safe, intelligent guy who is used to handling stars."

Was Robson surprised when Kevin Keegan quit? "Shocked. Stunned. I couldn't believe it. Why, when we had a game three days later? He showed no tenacity, which is odd, because as a player he was full of it. I haven't seen him since. Very few people have, you know. That's a shame. He should get out more."

The pair have healed the rift caused by Robson's decision, all those aeons ago, to drop Keegan from the England squad. "Yes, and at the time [Keegan was made coach] I thought it was a pretty good choice. The country wanted him, the press wanted him, the players wanted him. There's nothing left, is there?"

In the dog days following Keegan's resignation, many pundits made Robson top of their list of candidates to look after England in the short term. As it turned out, he also topped the all-important list drawn up by Adam Crozier of the Football Association. At teatime on 21 October, just after a 1-0 home defeat by Everton, Shepherd summoned Robson and told him the FA wanted him to take temporary charge. "I said 'oh, I'd quite like that' and he said 'yes, but we're not letting you go. We don't want you to do two jobs.' I was disappointed, and I said I thought I could handle it, but I didn't argue with him. I said to the chairman 'well, you brought me back into football and I appreciate that'."

Before his Newcastle predecessor Ruud Gullit's abrupt departure, Robson had sat at home in Ipswich wondering whether his impressive managerial CV - Fulham, Ipswich, England, PSV Eindhoven, Sporting Lisbon, FC Porto, Barcelona, PSV again - was complete. Incidentally, the list of jobs he has turned down is similarly impressive - Manchester United, Celtic, Benfica, Everton, Leeds, Besiktas, to name a handful.

"I didn't want to retire," he says, "but all the big clubs had managers. George [Graham] was at Tottenham, Alex [Ferguson] at United, Wenger at Arsenal, O'Leary at Leeds, and I wasn't going to manage Accrington Stanley, was I? So I thought I might approach Arsene or Alex and ask if they wanted me to do some international scouting for them."

He had, after all, spent a year scouting for Barcelona, whom he advised not to buy Steve McManaman. His successor as Barcelona coach, Louis van Gaal, was prepared to pay 12m for McManaman, but Robson told him to transfer his attentions to Rivaldo, then at Deportivo La Coruna. "Rivaldo wasn't known then as he is now, but I could see what a player he was. I said 'he'll get you 18 goals a year, and stick in seven free-kicks.' 

McManaman doesn't score goals. He's a cosmetic player, and he won't score you 18 goals a season and make another 25, like Figo will, or Henry will, or Beckham or Giggsy will. "But he's done better lately. I applauded his performance in the European Cup final, and I like the way he handled his personal crisis at Real Madrid. I know myself how hard it is to be abroad when things aren't going right for you."

As things turned out, of course, he never got to offer his scouting services. Gullit resigned and Robson let the Newcastle board know, through the media, that he fancied the job. "But nothing happened. At least a week went by and I thought, 'well, they obviously think I'm too old'."

He was consoling himself on a golf driving range when his mobile phone trilled. It was his wife, with the message that he wanted to hear and she didn't - that Shepherd had just called to say he was already on his way to London where he would meet Robson to discuss terms. "I thought that was strange. I could have been anywhere, couldn't I? But I jumped into the car and drove straight to London where they offered me the job."

It was not the first time he had been courted by the club he had supported since boyhood. They had tried to lure him away from Barcelona and he was tempted. Hell, he first went to St James' Park in 1946, when he was 13. He was there when Len Shackleton scored six on his debut, against Newport County. He cheered them on at Wembley in the 1951 FA Cup Final, when they beat Blackpool 2-0. "But I'd waited 18 years to get to Barcelona and I was in no hurry to leave. I'd just persuaded the club to buy Ronaldo. I had Stoichkov there, Figo, a bloody good team. Besides, you don't walk out on Barcelona. Because if you do, you have to ... pay ... back ... every ... penny ... they've ... paid ... you!"

To stop me missing the significance of this, Robson hammers his fist on the desk. "There's a clause in the contract saying so. They can sack you, but you don't sack them. Phwooh! Incredible place. I used to go out on to the pitch, and there'd be 120,000 fans there, and the back of your neck would bristle. It was like being in charge of a runaway train. It's the most pressurised job in the world. Because Barcelona represents a country. Barcelona is the army of Catalonia. They were shattered when Figo left to go to Real Madrid, to fight for another country against them. When Real Madrid beat Barcelona the whole city trembles."

Middlesbrough beating Newcastle has less impact on the Richter Scale. Indeed Robson's experiences at Barcelona leave him well-equipped to deal with relatively modest expectations at St James' Park. All the same, he faced a fiendish task just to maintain Premiership status when he succeeded Gullit 18 months ago. Newcastle were second bottom of the Premiership with one point from seven games.\par

"I said 'is there money?' and they said 'not a penny'. A little later they found me 500,000 and we bought little [Kevin] Gallacher. But morale was poor. [Stuart] Pearce went on a free [transfer] and a month later was back in the England team. Rob Lee didn't have a number. Shearer was out of favour. There was no discipline. Players were going upstairs to eat whenever they wanted, using mobile phones whenever they wanted, the whole thing needed an overhaul."

Robson won over his star player simply by restoring him to the team. "I'd never even met Alan, but he's a top lad. I could see straight away that he'd lost the movement in his game. He was playing with his back to goal and just working the 18-yard line, not coming deep and spinning, not making diagonal runs. We got the movement back, and he scored 30 goals for us last year.

"Who's going to get us 30 goals this year? You know, the chairman said when I came that he didn't think I'd be able to do it, to keep them up. He was investing in a super stadium and had visions, with respect, of Stockport and Crewe playing there every week. But from the eighth game we scored 51 points and finished 11th. By the beginning of March we couldn't go down. I saved the club, really, because if you go down will you ever come up? Look at Notts Forest. You'd have thought they'd come straight back up, but they haven't, have they?"

Newcastle's revival last season included some vital away wins, achieved, says Robson, as a direct result of his experience of continental football. "I used to watch how teams would come to Porto and play defensively," he says. "And if a team plays defensively and it's your job to break them down, you won't do it with two players, or four, or even six, sometimes you need eight going down there, and those eight get sucked in, and then the other lot get possession and they're taught how to break quickly and suddenly you're losing. You think 'Jesus Christ, we've got done on the counter-attack'. I used to watch that, particularly in Portugal where they play counter-attacking football, and I learnt from it. We went to Leicester and won, we went to Aston Villa and won..."

And now the wheels have fallen off somewhat, although I don't doubt that Robson can get Newcastle rolling again. More significantly, nor does he. As he would probably put it, he is one of life's eternal optometrists. He is certain, for example, that England will qualify for the 2002 World Cup, even though he would prefer it to be him, rather than Sven Goran Eriksson, picking the team to play Finland on Saturday.

Brian Viner

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Page last updated 24 June, 2009