Barcelona, a club inspired by Dutch footballing philosophy and routed in Catalan culture have a rather unusual British connection.
It may have been Johan Cruyff who built upon Rinus Michels’ time in charge of Barcelona by refining the Dutch style and infusing it throughout the club from La Masia up, but it was Michels’ predecessor, an Englishman, who first introduced Total Football to Catalonia.
Vic Buckingham was the sixth Englishman to manage Barcelona, and it was his approach that later became known as Total Football, his time in charge of Ajax making a great impression on the Dutch, and in particular a young Cruyff to whom Buckingham handed his debut. Cruyff was not the only future Barcelona manager to be managed by Buckingham – the other was Sir Bobby Robson.
Signed by West Bromwich Albion for a then club record fee of £25,000, Robson was a quality footballer who had a decent career as a player, but ultimately won no major honours.
An England international, Robson earned 20 caps, but suffered injury during the 1962 World Cup Finals in Chile, and subsequently lost his place in the squad to Bobby Moore and missing out on the World Cup win of 1966. If Robson’s playing career was one of frustration and unfulfilled promise, Sir Bobby’s managerial career was the polar opposite, and where he made his impact on world football.
14 trophies accumulated across 4 countries is impressive by any standards, but what really elevated Robson to legendary status, and the reason he will be so fondly remembered today on the anniversary of his death is the style in which those trophies were won and the class of the man who won them.
After a brief, unsuccessful spell with his former club Fulham, it was at Ipswich that Robson first established his reputation as a fine manager, leading the club to consistent top six finishes and beating Arsenal in the 1978 FA Cup Final. Ipswich were regulars in Europe under Robson, even managing to win the UEFA Cup in 1981.
What makes these achievements all the more remarkable is that during his 13 years in charge of the club, Robson bought just 14 players from other clubs, instead forging a reputation for developing new talent. England soon came calling.
Taking the helm in 1982 after Ron Greenwood had been knocked out of the World Cup in Spain, Robson’s time in charge of the Three Lions got off to an uncompromising start. Robson made the controversial decision to drop Kevin Keagan for his first match in charge against Denmark – it would prove to be costly. England lost to Denmark, and despite that being the only qualifying match Robson lost during his tenure as international boss, England failed to qualify for the 1984 European Championship.
It shows Robson’s class that he offered to tender his resignation, but the FA refused and Sir Bobby led England to the 1986 World Cup, only for his side to be knocked out by Diego Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’, an act after which Robson claimed: ‘That day, Maradona was diminished in my eyes forever.’
Despite that relatively successful World Cup, Robson’s England once again disappointed in European competition, crashing out at the group stage of the 1988 Euros. Robson offered to step down amid calls for him to be sacked in the press, but once again the FA declined – their decision would soon be vindicated.
Robson led England to their best World Cup run since 1966 at the ’92 World Cup, achieving a place in the last four for the first time on foreign soil, as England narrowly missed out on a place in the final, losing to West Germany on penalties.
The tournament in Italy was to be Robson’s last act as England manager before embarking on a period of management on the continent. A path rarely trod by British managers or players, Robson remains the most successful English manager to have coached abroad in the modern era.
At PSV, Robson achieved back to back Eredivisie titles, continuing an era of domestic dominance at the club, but failed to live up to the European achievements of his predecessor Gus Hiddink. Robson moved on to a struggling Sporting Lisbon in Portugal. Despite steadying the ship by leading Sporting to a third place finish during his first year in charge, Robson was sacked during his second season with the club sat top of the table. Poor performances in Europe once again proved to be Robson’s undoing.
At Sporting though, Robson met a young Jose Mourinho. Initially acting as translator, Robson soon spotted Mourinho’s potential as a coach, appointing the future Chelsea, Inter and Real Madrid manager as his assistant when he moved to Porto. Robson took over a club in a poor state, underperforming and with attendances dwindling. Instilling an attacking style, Robson beat his former club to win the 1994 Taça de Portugal, before embarking upon back to back league titles and endearing himself to fans.
At Porto, Robson would meet another aspiring, young, Portuguese coach, Andre Villas-Boas. Despite him being just 16 at the time, Robson helped Villas-Boas, who would go on to manage Porto, Tottenham and Chelsea, claim his first coaching badge and handed him a job in Porto’s observational department, where his in depth scouting reports became famous.
Such was his success at Porto, Barcelona soon came calling and Robson was appointed manager of the Catalan club in the summer of 1996, once again bringing Mourinho with him. Robson wouldn’t win the league in Spain, but did scoop up the Spanish Cup, Spanish Super Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup, as well as the personal accolade of European Manager of the Year during his sole year in charge, continuing the attractive football of his predecessor Cruyff.
Robson moved into the position of General Manager during his second year in Spain to make way for Louis van Gaal. However, he very quickly moved on, taking in a brief second spell at PSV before returning to management in England after nine years on the continent.
Following Ruud Gullit’s dismissal, Robson took over a Newcastle United side bottom of the table and led them to an 11th placed finish. Robson achieved two consecutive top four finishes, ensuring Champions League football for Newcastle, but slipped into the UEFA Cup places in the next two seasons, which were highlighted by a run to the semi-final.
In 2004, Robson would be dismissed from what would be his last role as a manager after a poor start to the season. His long standing battle with cancer, one that at times interrupted career, eventually led to Robson’s death in 2009. On the anniversary, tributes to Robson will and should be many.
A fine manager, Robson was knighted for his contributions to football, and will be rightly remembered for the honours, but for so for the style and class in which he handled himself. Posthumously awarded the FIFA Fair Play Award, ‘gentleman’ is a word so often associated with Robson.
Fondly remembered by both former players and fans, Robson was granted the freedom of the city of Newcastle, had a statue of him erected in Ipswich and is warmly referred to as “Bobby Five-O” by Porto fans after how often his side used to win by that scoreline.
Robson’s impact on football stretches beyond his own achievements, mainly due to his ability and willingness to nurture young talent, not just players, but also with coaches. Mourinho and Villas-Boas remain his best pupils, and both were given their first chances within the game by Robson. Even in his illness, Robson found a way to do good, launching the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation, raising money to fund cancer projects in the North East of England, and will forever be remembered as one of the game’s greats.