They say that a man's character is revealed in adversity as much as in success. Truer words could not be spoken about Sir Bobby Robson who, over a period of 50 years, carved a successful career in his beloved football and during which span cancer attacked him five times. He reached the pinnacle of his sport as manager of the England team squad, but his lasting legacy will be the charity for cancer research which he kicked off, and which survives him now. That he was able to personally raise £1.2 million in his campaign against cancer is a testimony to his ability to motivate people on and off the field to give their utmost. The disease which struck him relentlessly eventually won the battle, but not the war. His campaign against cancer continues with a research centre dedicated to him.
Black and White
Born on 18 February, 1933, in Sacriston, County Durham, England, Robert William – known to the family and later, the footballing world, as 'Bobby' – was the fourth son of coal miner Philip Robson and his wife Lillian. It was Philip's love of football, in particular Newcastle United, which rubbed off on young Bobby, who tagged along to watch matches as often as he could. It struck Bobby how his father used to go down the mine white, and emerge black, a living embodiment of Newcastle's colours. Bobby signed for Fulham FC in 1950, with team mate Jimmy Hill later descibing him as: 'a brilliant goal-scorer with an eye for a chance'. Uncannily, Fulham's team strip was also black and white.
When he was still a teenager Robson met a nurse called Elsie at a dance in Durham. He couldn't afford to take Elsie out, so she visited him in London. When he was transferred to West Bromwich Albion in 1953 for £25,000, that was a record-breaker. He celebrated by proposing to Elsie, the only woman for him. She accepted and they married in 1955. Only when he was on the maximum wage for a professional footballer – £20 a week did the couple begin planning their family. In those days that was a living wage, but didn't stretch to luxuries like a family car, so Robson walked to the training ground. He and Elsie raised three boys, Andrew, Paul and Mark.
England Thrills and Spills
By 1957 Robson had earned his first England cap in a friendly against France, scoring two goals in a 4-0 pummelling. One of his national team mates was the young, supremely-talented Manchester United winger Duncan Edwards1, whom Robson remembered steaming past the opposition like an express train. Over the next few years Robson played in some outstanding games for his country, certainly the 9-3 win over Scotland at Wembley in 1961 ranked highly in his memory. In total, Robson won 20 caps playing midfield for his national side. Chosen for the 1962 World Cup squad bound for Chile, the fractured ankle he suffered meant he missed out on the glory that was to come. His place in the national squad was taken by Bobby Moore.
In his playing career Robson's goal tally totalled over 60. By his mid-thirties he was past his prime as a player, but he never considered moving away from the game. After a short time as player-manager with Vancouver Royals in the North American Soccer League, Robson got homesick and headed back to the UK for a stint as Fulham's manager, which lasted just under a year. Then in 1969 he applied for, and got, the empty managerial post at Ipswich Town. There Robson earned the respect of hard-nosed players such as Tommy Carroll and Bill Baxter.
In May 1978 underdogs Ipswich Town beat league giants Arsenal 1-0 in the FA Cup final. Former Ipswich and England player Terry Butcher said of his then-manager: 'You feel as if you are going to go through a brick wall for him. You want to do things beyond the normal for Bobby Robson.' Ipswich Town also lifted the 1981 UEFA Cup under Robson's leadership, after beating AZ Alkmaar of The Netherlands.
Robson's success in charge at Ipswich earned him the ultimate prize – he was offered the post of England manager in 1982. He was, therefore, the man in charge when the England team played against Argentina in the 1986 World Cup, a game indelibly ingrained on the memories of those fans old enough to witness it first hand. Just about everyone of a certain age, even non-football fans, remembers Diego Maradona's 'Hand of God' goal which catapulted him to the realm of god-like status in his homeland, and knocked the England side out of the tournament. How many remember the look of utter desolation on Bobby Robson's face? His comments after Maradona claimed divine intervention were: 'It wasn't the hand of God, it was the hand of a rascal, God had nothing to do with it.' However, Robson did concede that Maradona's other goal, rated by some as 'the goal of the century', was indeed 'a miracle'.
Four years later and the next World Cup catastrophe was against Germany. England narrowly lost the semi-final after a penalty shoot-out. Who could forget Gazza's tears – but it was Robson who comforted his temperamental striker on the pitch. Although the agony of defeat hit him hard, Robson was the first man to walk over and congratulate Franz Beckenbauer, the then-manager of Germany. The dream of repeating Sir Alf Ramsey's achievement of holding aloft the World Cup eluded him and he was replaced as England manager by Graham Taylor.
Not for one minute did Robson imagine a life without football, he spent the next 14 years managing European clubs, with enough success to earn him one 'European Manager of the Year' title. PSV Eindhoven won the Dutch title twice under his leadership. Robson moved to Spain in 1996 where his team won the European Cup Winners' Cup in his only season with FC Barcelona. One of his protégés was the supremely gifted Brazilian Ronaldo. Asked why he appointed Robson, FC Barcelona president Josep Lluís Núñez replied:
Because he is a gentleman.
In 1999 Robson went after the vacant post as coach of Newcastle, his first home game in charge was an 8-0 win against Sheffield Wednesday. He led them to an FA Cup semi-final, however they were knocked out of that round by Chelsea. The next few years saw regular European football and some good results, but the beautiful game had changed beyond all recognition to an old fashioned traditional man who couldn't stomach the prima-donna attitude of some players, their diamond ear studs, celebrity lifestyles, players' agents and the distraction of WAGs. Robson was approached about a part-time return to the England manager's job following Kevin Keegan's sudden departure in 2000, but Newcastle's board of directors vetoed the request.
The Great North Run
One of the charity events Robson supported was the annual Great North Run. He raised the starting pistol for the annual event in 1999 and signed all the Multiple Sclerosis Trust vests for runners in 2003. In 2007, as ill as he was himself, he jumped at the chance to set the runners off again. After setting them off on their 13 mile run, Robson leaned down from the podium to slap the hands of participants who raised their hand in salute as they passed him. The look of joy on his face as he spurred the runners on will be etched on the memory of all who watched the event.
Arise Sir Bobby
The timing couldn't be better as we celebrate not only the unveiling of the statue, but also his recent knighthood in just recognition for his tremendous achievements in football.
– Ipswich Town Football Club chairman David Sheepshanks
The following year, 2003, Robson was a inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame for his great service to the game.
Finally, in 2004 at the age of 71, the board at Newcastle sacked him after a poor start in the league. The city of Newcastle later honoured him by bestowing upon him the freedom of the city. Robson's autobiography, Farewell but not Goodbye, was released in 2005.
Robson was asked to be a technical advisor for the Republic of Ireland team in 2006, but it was not a clearly defined role. Someone of his experience was no doubt invaluable in any part of the game, whether it be checking out upcoming opposition or scouting for new players. Robson's boss Steve Staunton was in his first managerial post, and was grateful to have a mentor such as Robson:
Bobby's achievements are second to none. He's done everything in the game. If I can't learn something from him then I'm not the right man. He has more enthusiasm than some of the 18-year-olds I have been training with.
When they encountered problems with one player, Manchester City midfielder Stephen Ireland, Robson attempted to contact him personally as mediator to help sort out any issues. The headstrong young man refused to speak to him, though:
We've tried talking to him but he doesn't want to know. He needs help. He needs guidance and counselling. He could be playing for his country for the next 10 years and we want to get him back on track, but there's something in his head that won't let him do it.
– Robson speaking about player Stephen Ireland in November 2007
Robson was first diagnosed with bowel cancer in 1991. At the time he was manager of PSV Eindhoven in The Netherlands. He was operated on and seemingly recovered. Three years later, while in Portugal as manager of FC Porto, Robson suffered disturbing symptoms which his wife persuaded him to get checked out. Her instinct saved his life; he had a tumour which would have killed him within six months. The operation to remove it was complicated and disfiguring. The surgeon had to gain access to the tumour via the roof of his mouth, which necessitated the removal of his front teeth and part of his gum. Even after the successful extraction of the tumour, there followed months of radiotherapy which left him exhausted. He also had to get used to wearing the plastic palate which replaced the roof of his mouth, to enable him to eat and talk. For all the pain he endured, the treatment gave him another decade of life.
One imagines that no-one deserves to suffer like that, least of all someone of good character like Bobby Robson, but cancer is like that. It attacks kings, war veterans, young mothers and talented artists indiscriminately. And just when you think it has been defeated, it fights back and scores again. Some cancers are secondary to original tumours but it is quite rare for one person to suffer different bouts of cancer, even though statistics show that one in three of us will be touched by this terrible disease at some time in our lives.
The year 2006 brought devastating news for the Robson family, cancer reared its ugly head again. This time it was in his lung, and although the tumour was successfully operated upon, the cancer spread to his brain. The prognosis was not good; he was given six months to live. Most in the same situation would probably have given up and accepted the inevitable. Not Bobby Robson though. Determined to fight on, he accepted whatever treatment was made available to him, with the support of his family.
During yet another surgical operation in 2007, Robson haemorrhaged and suffered a stroke which affected his left side and left him partially paralysed. Don't imagine even this tragic turn of events stopped him in his tracks; he began fundraising for cancer research while continuing his role as technical advisor for the Republic of Ireland team.
For his career of over 50 years in football, a lifetime achievement award was presented to him at the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year 2007. Robson, introduced by Gary Lineker, limped unaided onto the stage to terrific applause and a standing ovation from the studio audience lasted over two minutes before the overwhelmed honouree asked them to stop so he could speak. Surrounding him on the stage were past players, all international footballers, and Robson paid tribute to them all. He said he couldn't have achieved what he had in his 'fabulous career' without them, the great coaches he'd worked with, and the rest of his support staff over the years.
He spoke lovingly of how his mother taught him the values he lived his life by. How happy and proud his father, who introduced him to football, would have been to have been sitting in the front row: 'if he'd lived he'd have somersaulted all the way from Durham to be here'. He paid tribute to his family and Elsie, his wife of 52 years, publicly thanking her for her patience and understanding and saying: 'without her I wouldn't be what I am'. Finally he thanked the BBC for the 'terrific honour' of the presentation and giving him 'one of the greatest evenings of my life', and he left the stage, again, to thunderous applause.
The Bobby Robson Foundation
Robson determined to thank the NHS for the care he had received since he was first diagnosed with cancer, and leave a legacy for the nation. In 2008 he proposed to raise half a million pounds to be put towards a state-of-the-art cancer research facility, but that target was kicked into touch within two months. One fundraising dinner at St James' Park alone raised more than £80,000 for his foundation.
It truly has been an amazing week for my wife and I. We started off down at Wembley where I presented the FA Cup and now here we are having achieved our first fundraising target for the Foundation. It meant a huge amount for me to present the cup, but I'll be even more proud to hand over that cheque for £500,000.
– Sir Bobby Robson speaking in May 2008
Eventually the Sir Bobby Robson Trials Centre was officially opened by Robson at the Freeman Hospital in his beloved Newcastle in February 2009. He made a 15-minute speech even though he was not expected to. He thanked the England manager Fabio Capello for attending, and cracked jokes with the invited guests. Donations on the day included a £75,000 cheque from the Football Association. Since it began life in 2008 over £1.2 million has been raised for his foundation and money continues to pour in.
On 26 July, 2009, at St James' Park, Newcastle, a charity football match was staged between an all-star England and legends of Germany teams to raise funds for the Bobby Robson Foundation. Sir Bobby Robson was guest-of-honour and his carer wheeled him around the ground before the kick-off, to thunderous applause from the 30,000-plus crowd. Delighted Robson tipped his hat with his good right hand. Among those who had the honour of playing for him that day were some of the 1990 World Cup squad, including his old protégé Paul 'Gazza' Gascoigne, and the team skipper while Robson was at Newcastle, Alan Shearer.
The Final Whistle
Just five days later, on Friday, 31 July, 2009, Bobby Robson passed away at his home, surrounded by his family. At Ipswich there was a minute's silence before that evening's friendly match against the Spanish team Real Valladolid. Staff at St James' Park opened up the stadium for fans to lay floral tributes and scarves of all teams were also wrapped around barriers.
Words cannot descibe how I feel. I have lost my second dad. He gave me a chance to play in the World Cup. I can't really talk that much because I just want to cry. I loved him. I'm sort of numb.
– Paul 'Gazza' Gascoigne
Flags at the FA headquarters in London, Wembley Stadium, Ipswich's Portman Road ground and all over Newcastle flew at half mast. Former England captain Alan Shearer led tributes from the north east saying: 'Bobby was a people's man. He was a winner, a battler and a fighter. He fought to the very last.'
I was never too big or proud to ask him for advice, which he gave freely and unconditionally. In my 23 years working in England there is not a person I would put an inch above Bobby Robson.
– Sir Alex Ferguson
Following a private funeral for family and close friends, a televised memorial service was held at Durham Cathedral on 21 September, 2009. The emotional ceremony, which included Tenors Unlimited singing 'Nessun Dorma', was broadcast to thousands watching at Ipswich's town centre and St James' Park in Newcastle. The cathedral service was attended by past England managers Graham Taylor, Terry Venables, Sven Goran Eriksson, Steve McClaren and current coach Fabio Capello, and former players Bobby and Jack Charlton, Paul Gascoigne, Gary Lineker, Terry Butcher, Alan Shearer, Bryan Robson, David Seaman and Stuart Pearce.