Hall of Heroes: Sir Bobby Robson

Image: Les Lee/Express/Getty Images

Sir Bobby achieved so much in the game that it is difficult knowing where to start. I’d, therefore, like to begin by telling the tale of the time I met the great man in person which was indicative of why he was held in so much affection throughout football.

I worked for many years as a Customs Officer at Gatwick and in the summer of 2001 saw Bobby and his wife approaching the green channel on their return from holiday. We had just been promoted to the Premier League and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to have a quick chat with the great man about what he thought of our prospects. As I pulled him over to an examination bench I explained that I was fairly satisfied he was aware of the Customs regulations and that my main purpose was to get an autograph for my son and to have a very quick chat. An air of resignation came over his wife’s face as Bobby said he was only too happy to oblige. Bobby was at the time manager of his beloved Newcastle and he explained they had a fair wait for their connecting flight north. I told him I was a massive Fulham fan and apologised that I had been too young to see him play for the club or remember his ill-fated spell as our manager. It was clear from his response that he still held Fulham in great affection and was eagerly looking forward to bringing his team to the Cottage that season. The topic quickly moved on apace as I asked him his views on some of our players such as Toon old boy Lee Clark. By that time his wife had headed towards the exit with their baggage trolley in the vain hope he would follow. Bobby, though, was in his element and carried on chatting with me (a humble fan) as though we were two mates propping up the bar in the local. By this time a couple of colleagues had joined the conversation and it was a while before Bobby reluctantly headed for the exit to join his ever-patient wife. The experience remains vivid in my memory and epitomises the passion Bobby had for football as well as demonstrating his innate human kindness.

It was indeed fortunate and a tribute to Fulham’s scouting network at the time that Bobby started his playing career with us. He was just 17 when our manager Bill Dodgin made a personal visit to his family home to persuade him to sign. Bobby was obviously impressed and turned down the advances of Newcastle and Sunderland in the belief he’d be offered more opportunities with Fulham. He was proved right as he was given his debut in a 2-2 draw at Sheffield Wednesday in April 1951 not long after he turned 18. The following season was a huge disappointment for the club as we finished bottom and returned to the Second Division after a brief three-season sojourn in the top flight. On a personal level, it was a much brighter campaign for the young Robson as he made 16 appearances and notched 3 goals to boot.

The following season saw Robson firmly establish himself in the side in an inside forward role, which would be commonly perceived as an attacking midfielder in today’s parlance. Bobby scored 19 goals in his 35 games and he linked well with the gifted Bedford Jezzard who banged in an incredible 35 goals. Johnny Haynes was just breaking through and by the following season, these three players would form the fulcrum of Fulham’s attack. The three contributed 68 goals between them with Jezzard leading the way with 39. Robson’s 13 were not too shoddy as we knocked in 98 goals in the season. The pity was that 85 conceded meant we were no more than upper mid-table.The following season saw Robson finish joint top scorer with Jezzard on 23 but again the club struggled to prevent goals at the other end as we finished well off the pace. Robson was making a very good impression though and the club had many suitors for his signature. 1955-56 was an improved campaign but we were some way short of the promotion positions when we accepted a £25,000 offer from West Brom in March 1956, which was a club record fee for the Baggies at the time. It wasn’t unusual for Fulham to sell their star players although ultimately the loss of Robson didn’t affect us too badly as we managed to achieve promotion three years later with the imperious Johhny Haynes leading the way. As for Robson, his move was undoubtedly a personal success. Although West Brom didn’t win any trophies in his stay he did acquire 20 full England caps, scoring twice on his debut against France in 1957 and being selected for the squad for both the 1958 and 1962 World Cups. He was Albion’s top scorer with 24 goals in 1957-58 and ended up as club captain in his final two seasons at the Hawthorns. However, in the Summer of 1962, he had a disagreement with Albion’s chairman about his wages and was lured back to the Cottage.

He was to remain at the Cottage for another 5 seasons, this time in a more defensive midfield role. He called time on his career in May 1967 with Fulham still a top-flight club thanks to a series of Houdini like escapes of which Robson was an integral ingredient. He made a total of 370 appearances for the club over his two spells with the majority of his 80 goals scored during his first spell. With this sort of record, I’m sure the older generation of Fulham fans who actually saw him play for the club would only have good things to say about him.

When his playing career ended he went to Canada to coach the Vancouver Royals but a few short months later was lured back to the Cottage as manager with the club in a familiar position at the bottom of the table. Fulham had played Russian Roulette through much of the 1960’s and it was Robson’s misfortune that when he took over the bullet was this time very much in the barrel. It must’ve been difficult for him to exert too much authority on men who had been colleagues just a few months earlier although it would’ve stretched the powers of even the most experienced manager to have saved us that season. Relegation was treated casually by the club’s hierarchy. Tommy Trinder famously said there was no point changing the flags of the first division clubs flying by the river as they would only be in the second division for a year. His words were prescient for the wrong reasons as we suffered another relegation 12 months later. By this time Robson was long gone as he was sacked in October after a poor start to the season which would have come as little surprise to fans who’d seen star forward Allan Clarke replaced by the unloved Frank Large amongst other uninspiring signings. If the story was true that Robson found out about his sacking from an Evening Standard billboard at Putney Station then it summed up the shoddy way the club was run at the time.

Fortunately, Robson’s nascent managerial career wasn’t harmed by this humbling beginning and his second job was the perfect fit for him. Ipswich Town were run by the Cobbold family who had the reputation for patience and not interfering too much in the football side of the club. It meant Robson was given time to build a team that held it’s own pretty comfortably in the top flight throughout the 70’s. He won the FA Cup in 1978 and the UEFA Cup in 1981 and was incredibly close to taking them to the League title in 1980. His reputation was that high that there were few dissenters when he got the England job in 1982 although many fans were still clamouring for Brian Clough to be given the role. Robson demonstrated his honourable nature when he offered to step down for Clough after we didn’t qualify for Euro 1984. The suits at the FA turned him down flat and he restored his reputation at the 1986 World Cup when the Lineker effect got us all excited prior to the intervention of the Hand of God. Euro ’88 was another huge disappointment though and the press were very strident in their criticism of him. It was possibly this reason that the FA did not try and extend his contract beyond the World Cup of 1990 which ultimately proved our finest achievement since 1966. With Lineker still banging them in and the precocious Paul Gascoigne pulling the strings we grew steadily into the tournament. Robson had even seemed to grasp the fact that the only way we’d win anything was to have a Fulham player at right back. Okay so Paul Parker had moved to QPR by then but he was still one of our own. We were desperately unlucky to lose to the Germans on penalties to deprive us of our chance of revenge on Maradona and Co and Robson left the job with his reputation well and truly restored.

Credit: Fulham FC

Robson had already signed a contract to manage Dutch club PSV Eindhoven and so began a very successful whistle-stop decade around the continent. Two Dutch titles preceded a short spell at Sporting Lisbon before a trophy-laden stint at FC Porto. Spanish giants Barcelona came calling and in his season there, he won the Spanish Cup and Supercup, as well as the European Cup Winners Cup. Robson had another stint at PSV before coming home for a technical position with the FA. However, when Newcastle sacked Ruud Gullit in September 1999 with the club bottom of the league, Robson at last, got a chance to work for his beloved Toon. He began in style with an 8-0 win over Sheffield Wednesday and over the next 4 or 5 years restored Newcastle to the upper reaches of the Premier League where a club of their stature should regularly feature. He was the victim of a short-sighted sacking in August 2004 since when Newcastle have achieved precisely nothing bar unreserved contempt for their current owner. If Robson was bitter at his treatment he never let it show; the man had far too much class for that. This was demonstrated by the unfussy way he handled his frequent bouts of poor health prior to him succumbing to lung cancer in 2009 at the age of 76. His loss was mourned universally by the game which was a tribute not just to his success in football but to the fact that he was such a lovely man. Fulham were honoured and privileged that such a fine servant to the game spent much of his playing career with the club.