Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Sir Bobby Robson - A Thoroughly Decent Chap (1933-2009)

Yer Keith Telly Topping has returned, dear blog reader, from a short family holiday in North Yorkshire (Harrogate, if you're taking notes). He returns, as ever, to cast his jaundiced and unimpressed eye across the vile corruption that is the state of British TV and in the vague hope that some of it is going to be, you know, watchable. But first, I suppose it's probably beholden upon me to make a comment on the major news story of the six days that I was away, namely the death of Sir Bobby Robson. A lovely man - I met him twice and he could not have been nicer on either occasion. It's a story that you'll hear repeated time and again by almost everyone he ever met - Sir Bobby was, or at least seemed to be, a gentleman in every sense of the word. Someone who inspired great respect and admiration from the most unexpected quarters. Some glake, whilst I was away, commented in my hearing upon what he considered to be the ludicrousness of the death of 'some footballer' receiving 'all this media attention' and I nearly lamped him on general principle. If Michael Jackson can be lavished with virtual blanket coverage for an entire week for his passing then I think a man who appeared to represent some dying values in British life is entitled to a couple of days of warm appreciation from those whose lives he touched, however marginally. It might be crassly sentimental nostalgia but, I believe, it's true to say that we shall not see his like again. And that's a pity really because the world would probably be a much better place with a few more chaps like Sir Bobby Robson in it. The Daily Telegraph's Henry Winter - a journalist whom I genuinely admire - began his tribute to Robson with the bitter comment that 'Football lost more of its soul yesterday,' before explaining that 'a sport hardly blessed with statesmen instantly becomes a poorer place.' Damn straight. Steven Howard in the Sun appeared to be equally aware of Robson's symbolic stature: 'Everything about Bobby Robson was a little sepia-tinted, a reminder of the good old days when there was respect and honesty and an eagerness to help one's fellow man.' The obituary in The Times was content to allude to the 'tensions between Robson, the product of a proud, self-disciplined working-class background, and the modern generation of multimillionaire players.' Only the Guardian's Brian Glanville provided a sour note, speaking of Robson as being 'Ever thin-skinned in the face of criticism,' and including a - very unwelcome and unnecessary - allusion to 'what might euphemistically be called a hectic romantic life.' Not cool, Brian. Not cool at all.

Inevitably I have two cynical observations to make about some of the coverage of Bobby's death. The first one, actually, isn't really cynical now I come to think about it, it's more curious; I was surprised that most of the media focus has been on Newcastle (I mean, I'm doing it myself with the picture that I'm using to illustrate this story). They're my team and I love 'em to bits - even when they do stupid things, prove unsellable and get relegated - but let's get this into some perspective, here: Bobby Robson managed Newcastle (a team that he had supported since childhood) for five years right at the end of his career - three of them were quite successful (consecutive top five finishes, good runs in the Europe and one FA Cup semi-final). But, they didn't actually win anything during his time there - just as they haven't under any of their ten managers before him and the six since. His record at Newcastle, in fact, is almost identical to that of Kevin Keegan during his first spell at the club in the early 1990s. Compare that with Ipswich Town, for example, where virtually everything that has ever been won at Portman Road was achieved whilst Bobby was managing them. There is a club that he built almost single-handedly and, rightly, there is a statue to his memory outside the ground. One which has - I am assured by friends in Suffolk - been the focus of plenty of floral and other symbolic tributes over the last few days. Hasn't, seemingly, attracted much wider media coverage, though. So, whilst I admired the man greatly, I won't be signing any Internet petitions to get a statue to him outside St James' or, the latest one to do the rounds, to have one of the stands at Newcastle renamed in his honour. I think Joe Harvey and Stan Seymour might, just, have slightly more authentic claims to the title of 'Newcastle's Best Ever Manager' as many have called Sir Bobby over the last few days. Nevertheless, that's all a relatively minor issue and I was, undeniably, moved by Lady Elsie's comments on seeing the 'overwhelming' temporary shrine at the Leazes End earlier in the week. Okay, so we might - in our grief - have hijacked someone else's moment of reflected glory but, it seems, at least we've done it tastefully. Three cheers for our side for once.

My other - and far bigger - problem with the media coverage of Sir Bobby's death, however, is the wholly sickening quasi-deification of the man by some members of the tabloid press. Men who, let us remember, never had one decent word for the bloke when he was England manager. Particularly galling in this regard was a 'squirting salt-water in the eyes' piece of pure ham by professional Little Englander Curly Jeff Powell of the Daily Mail. In his latter years Sir Bobby might have been recast in the role of a genuine national treasure, but during eight years as England manager in the 1980s he was given a daily fisting by an increasingly demanding and negative tabloid scum press. The Sun, let us not forget, was handing out badges demanding that Robson be sacked as early as 1984 and again during the initial stages of the 1986 World Cup finals. But it was in the period following a disappointing European Championship in 1988 that the newspaper campaign to oust him became most hateful and most personal. The other tabloids followed suit and in the run-up to the 1990 World Cup, despite England successfully negotiating a difficult qualifying phase, banner headlines appeared calling for Robson to be sacked following a draw in a friendly with Saudi Arabia - remember - In the Name of Allah, Go!? The FA's then secretary, Graham Kelly, has subsequently claimed that each attack only strengthened the FA's determination to stand behind Robson. Typically however, when the association finally cracked, it was with dreadful timing. 'Just before the 1990 World Cup, the chairman, Bert Millichip finally lost patience, let his tongue run away with him and said Robson either had to win the World Cup or go. Bobby reacted by approaching PSV Eindhoven,' Kelly later said. He was accused of being 'a traitor.' Bar the odd flash of anger (particularly in one memorable conference where he told the assembled scum 'Pressure? There isn't any pressure. You people provide the pressure. If you people didn't exist, my job would be twice as easy and twice as pleasurable'), Robson refused to let the press get to him. After taking England to within an inch of the World Cup final, he then went back to club management in Europe because in England his reputation was so damaged by eight years of negative press. It was then that he showed the English football fraternity exactly what he was made of, with a decade of success in the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain. He came back to manage a relegation-threatened Newcastle in September 1999, gaining for them — before he was sacked amid never fully substantiated rumours that he'd 'lost' the dressing room — finishes in fourth, third and fifth place in the Premier League. He was, without over-stating the matter, a bloody brilliant football manager. But it took that final stint at Newcastle to make his credentials clear to English football. There comes a point in most sporting careers where longevity eventually wins not only respect but also affection. Bobby Robson was never disillusioned, despite having every reason to be. As Simon Barnes said in The Times 'He never tired of the struggle, was never weary of the cruelties of fate and football.'