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Bobby Robson Interview 

First appeared in the Sunday Times 04.02.01


Newcastle's manager needs another season at St James' Park to fulfil his dreams. 

Robson looking for the perfect finish 

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. 

Moreover, in the midst of a season in which his injury-ravaged Newcastle United side have regularly played bewitching football one week and proved defensively banal the next, it continues to frustrate him. Wins against Liverpool and Leeds have suggested that Newcastle are, if not exactly perfect, tantalis
ingly close to being a really good team. 

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. 

If retirement this summer is highly unlikely, might it have been different at another club? "Somewhere else? Oh yes, maybe, but there's a smell of the northeast which drew me back. I've got black-and-white blood and I'll stick at it because this is the team I love. I've got a big emotional feeling about it." The shame is that he inherited a club deeply in the red in the wake of Kenny Dalglish and Gullit's transfer-market profligacy. 

Ironically, Newcastle's massive debt - approaching £80m at the last count - would have been significantly assuaged by qualification for next season's Champions League. With Robson's makeshift side still very much in contention for a Uefa place, the top three could have been a realistic target had Cort and Shearer stayed fit. "The Champions League is where the power, the glory, the money is," he reflected, a tad wistfully. "Everything that matters to footballers is contained in the Champions League. Qualifying for it means you can attract good players." Newcastle may be excluded from this nirvana but all is not exactly lost. 

In the magnificently refurbished St James' Park, they boast a stadium second only to Old Trafford, while some youngsters of real promise are emerging. Foremost among them is Shola Ameobi, a 19-year-old, Nigerian-born son of missionary parents, who was brought up in Walker, deepest Tyneside, and recently thoroughly discomfited Rio Ferdinand. "If Alan and Carl hadn't been injured, Shola would still be playing for the under-19s in front of three men and a dog," admitted Robson. "He's been up and down but you expect that. Overall, though, he's done fantastically well." 

Forced to field a rookie centre-forward still learning to hold the ball up effectively and sometimes guilty of cheap concession of possession, many managers may have been tempted to pack their defence merely to avoid defeat. Creditably, this is not Robson's way. Instead, both the manager and Mick Wadsworth, his gifted, highly inventive head coach, always attempt to outpass the opposition, often defending daringly high up the pitch. "No, I've not really thought about packing the defence," said Robson, whose side have drawn only four Premiership matches this season. "Anyway, our crowd wouldn't stand for it, their expectancy level is too great. When we were losing to Manchester United I threw three forward to try and get a point and it worked. "I've always aimed to produce teams capable of playing offensive, progressive football. I want us to create chances, to take the lead. If you concentrate on defending deep and play with just one striker you might get results for a while but, over a consistent period, you'll struggle because the ball is always going to be coming back at you." 

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."

Louise Taylor

Page last updated 24 June, 2009