There are some coaches in football that have a positive effect on players; that have ideas of how the game should be played, and encourage their teams to buy into their philosophy. Then, there are the legends; the ones who have a fundamental, long-lasting influence on the game.
One of those legends was Sir Bobby Robson. Today, 31st July 2014, marks the fifth anniversary of his death at the age of 76.
I vividly recall the day in 2009 that news of Robson’s death broke. It shook the footballing world. I remember the opening day of the 2009-10 League One season, at a match between Oldham Athletic and Stockport County; there was a minute’s applause before kick-off, then both sets of supporters gave a rousing rendition of “Bobby Robson’s blue & white army.”
Robson had never played for or managed either club, but such was the mark that he had on the game. He was born in February 1933, in the village of Sarniston, just north of Durham. Robson’s love of football was first kindled as a supporter of North-Eastern giants Newcastle United, and after beginning life as an electrician’s apprentice down a local mine, he was signed in 1950 by Fulham manager, Bill Dodgin.
Robson played as an inside-forward, scoring 68 goals in 152 appearances, before earning a move to West Bromwich Albion in 1956. There he played 239 times, mainly as a midfielder, scoring 56, before returning to Fulham in 1962, where he made another 192 appearances, grabbing 9 goals.
His first managerial post came with the Cottagers in 1968, taking over a poor side that was battling the drop. He was unable to stop the West Londoners’ struggles, and they were relegated in the 1968-69 season. Robson discovered news of his dismissal not from the club, but from reading an Evening Standard headline.
Nevertheless, he moved on to Ipswich Town in 1969. It was in Sussex that Robson really made his name; in 13 years, he consistently finished in and around the top 6 of the league, won the FA Cup with a 1-0 win over Terry Neill’s Arsenal in 1978, and clinched a UEFA Cup title with a 5-4 win over AZ Alkmaar in 1981.
During his time at Portman Road, Robson earned a reputation as a tactical genius; he was a strong advocate of what is now known as the quintessentially English 4-4-2, but it reaped results. He keenly developed home-grown talent, with the likes of Terry Butcher, George Burley and Brian Talbot all being graduates of Robson’s methods.
After his stint with Ipswich ended, Robson embarked on a topsy-turvy career as England manager, which began with failure to qualify for the 1984 European Championships. He offered his resignation, but the FA rejected it, and that was a decision which proved astute.
In 1986, Robson led the Three Lions to the World Cup in Mexico, where they were robbed in the quarter-finals by Argentina after Diego Maradona’s infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal; Gary Lineker also picked up the Golden Boot.
Then, at Italia 1990, his side went one step further, before crashing out on penalties to, naturally, the West Germans. Robson left the post acrimoniously, but it is often forgotten that he remains the only coach to lead England to a World Cup semi-final on foreign soil.
Afterwards, Robson joined PSV Eindhoven, where he won the Eredivisie title in 1991 and 1992, but was sacked soon after amid reports of fractured relationships at the club.
His next stop was at Sporting Lisbon, where he first teamed up with a young Jose Mourinho. He moved quickly on to Porto, taking Mourinho with him as assistant, winning the Portuguese Cup and two league titles, whilst also having his first dealing with a 16-year old Portuguese by the name of Andre Villas-Boas.
In 1996, Robson replaced football legend Johan Cryuff at Catalan giants Barcelona, again taking Mourinho with him as assistant as the two developed a close coaching bond. There, he signed a player that would go on to become one of the world’s greatest – Brazilian (or ‘fat’) Ronaldo – and in one season, won three domestic trophies.
In September 1999, with Newcastle rooted to the bottom of the Premier League, Robson fulfilled his boyhood dream of managing the club he supported as a boy. He remained there until his sacking in 2004. He was knighted in 2002 for services to football.
Later in life, Robson set up the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation, a charity committed to the beating of cancer. He had battles with cancer in 1992 and 1996, before twice beating the disease in 2006. His diagnosis with lung cancer in 2007 was sadly terminal, and he died two years later.
Undoubtedly, Robson’s career had its ups and downs, but he is perhaps remembered more for the legacy he left behind. The man from the North East had a unique ability to look at the bigger picture, not getting hung-up on individual results. He was also renowned for placing faith in players’ and coaches’ potential.
Although markedly different in style, Mourinho learned much of his trade from Robson, before going on to enjoy unprecedented success himself. Today, ‘the Special One’ is indisputably one of the greatest reactive managers in the game, able to pull off results in huge games like no other. His analytical, scientific approach to the game, and his ability to encourage that characteristic grit and determination from his players, comes Robson’s influence.
Likewise, Andre Villas-Boas’ journey into coaching started when he approached Robson as a 16-year-old boy. Robson guided Villas-Boas in earning his coaching badges, before, almost in a chain reaction, AVB became the protégé of Robson’s protégé – Jose Mourinho.
Another coach heavily influenced by Robson was Frank Arnesen, who in turn took Brendan Rodgers under his wing at Chelsea. The exciting revolution which Rodgers now has going at Liverpool is something to behold. Sven Goran-Eriksson was yet another young coach who, unlike Mourinho, Villas-Boas and Rodgers, adopted Robson’s love for 4-4-2, using it throughout his stint in the England hot-seat.
And perhaps most markedly of all, Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola was a component of that Barcelona team in 1996. Although Guardiola is undoubtedly a loyal tactical disciple of Cryuff, he learned much of his behaviour towards results, fair play and man management from Robson; and if he’s allowed to complete his ‘Pep Project’ at Bayern, Guardiola will surely come the closest to recreating Total Football that the modern game will see.
So, although the adherence to 4-4-2 is regularly derided as outdated and limited today, Robson’s visceral, philosophical approach to the game has left a large impression on some of the biggest managers in the modern game.
Aside from that, his lessons have influenced the two most exciting projects that are now redefining football philosophy – those at Bayern Munich and Liverpool.
Today, the FA celebrates Sir Bobby Robson Day, focused on participation at every level of the game, five years after Sir Bobby passed away.
There was indeed only one Sir Bobby Robson.