t has been five years since Sir Bobby Robson passed away after a long battle against cancer. Robson was universally respected around the world of football after an improbable UEFA Cup victory was followed up by trophies in the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain, and taking England to the FIFA World Cup™ semi-finals for the first time since their 1966 triumph.
As well as his remarkable personal achievements, Robson also evokes memories of a true gentleman of the game, with Sir Alex Ferguson’s tribute shortly after the former England international’s passing in 2009 displaying the level of respect in football towards him.
“There is not a person I would put an inch above Bobby Robson,” Ferguson said. “I mourn the passing of a great friend, a wonderful individual, a tremendous football man and somebody with passion and knowledge of the game that was unsurpassed.”
FIFA.com takes a look back at some of the moments that formed Robson the player, the coach and the man, as well as looking at the incredible legacy he has left behind.
England 4-0 France, 27 November 1957 (international friendly)
Robson made his full England debut at the old Wembley Stadium, after impressing domestically for Fulham and West Bromwich Albion. Starting at inside-right, Robson scored twice in front of over 60,000 fans. Years later, England’s No8 that day reminisced about some advice Sir Tom Finney gave to him before his international bow: “Tom told me that if I got tired I should play the ball out to him on the wing and he would keep hold of it until I got my breath back. He did it too.”
As it happened, Robson benefitted from some excellent wing play from the other side, with Bryan Douglas’s trickery down the right supplying two tap-ins for Robson. Despite his impressive debut, the future England coach would have to wait six months for his second cap, but was then included in England’s 1958 World Cup squad. Robson played in all of the Three Lions’ games in Sweden, with their three draws sending them home after the group stage.
Ipswich Town 3-0 AZ Alkmaar, 6 May 1981 (UEFA Cup final, first leg)
The UEFA Cup, lifted by European heavyweights such as Liverpool, Feyenoord and Juventus in its early years, was to see the unlikeliest of winners in the 1981 final. Ipswich Town, a provincial side from England’s east coast, had one top-flight title to their name but were enjoying something of a golden era under the stewardship of Robson. After a spell in charge of Fulham, Robson took charge of Ipswich in 1969, and oversaw the most successful period in the club’s history. The club rose to be one of the top sides in England under his tutelage and, after winning the FA Cup in 1978, had an impressive run to the UEFA Cup final in 1981.
The two-legged affair was effectively won in England, with a baying Portman Road crowd cheering their side on to a 3-0 victory as club legend John Wark converted a penalty, before Frans Thijssen and Paul Mariner completed the comprehensive victory. Thijssen and Wark scored in Alkmaar as the Tractor Boys went down 4-2, but they completed a 5-4 aggregate victory which confirmed Ipswich’s only continental silverware to date.
West Germany 1-1 England AET (4-3 PSO), 4 July 1990 (FIFA World Cup semi-final)
After Ipswich’s remarkable rise was capped with that continental win, Robson was summoned by the FA a year later to replace Ron Greenwood as England manager following the Three Lions’ elimination from the 1982 World Cup. He led England to the 1986 World Cup quarter-finals, undone by Diego Maradona’s mischief and magic, before taking his country to Italy 1990. The 1966 champions finished top of Group F before seeing off Belgium and Cameroon in extra-time to reach the semi-finals.
They faced old foes West Germany in a pulsating and draining last-four encounter in Turin. A game that will live long in the memory for fans of both sides, and indeed football fans across the world, saw several iconic moments in a match described later by victorious coach Franz Beckenbauer as a “Klassiker”. Andreas Brehme’s looping deflected effort, Paul Gascoigne’s tears and Chris Waddle blazing his penalty over the crossbar in the shootout all helped create a veritable World Cup classic which, aside from the third-place play-off which saw the hosts defeat England, brought to an end Robson’s reign as England coach.
Newcastle United 8-0 Sheffield Wednesday, 19 September 1999 (English Premier League)
After departing his role with England, Robson began to forge a reputation as a respected coach in European club football. He won back-to-back Dutch Eredivisie titles in his first job after England with PSV, before moving on to Sporting in Portugal. He took a role with rivals Porto, winning successive league titles again with Os Dragões, before joining Barcelona, signing Ronaldo for a world-record fee and winning the Copa del Rey and UEFA European Cup Winners’ Cup. After another stint back at PSV, the one role that Robson had longed for became available and in the winter of 1999 he was appointed Newcastle United manager. The County Durham native had supported the Magpies as a boy and described taking the role as “going home”. Newcastle were second-bottom of the top flight, with one point from six games, and his first home game in charge was a crunch match against bottom side Sheffield Wednesday. What followed was a quite incredible afternoon in the north-east of England, with Alan Shearer scoring five times in a rout that truly kicked off Newcastle’s revival.
“He has put in a hell of a lot of work,” Shearer told the BBC after the match. “He understands people, he’s got everybody playing with a smile on their face.” Robson guided the club to safety that season and by mid-2002, they had qualified for the UEFA Champions League after finishing fourth in 2001/02.
FIFA World Player Gala, 21 December 2009
After fighting off cancer several times throughout his lifetime, Robson passed away on 31 July 2009 at the age of 76. He was posthumously award the FIFA Fair Play Award at that year’s FIFA World Player Gala for the “gentlemanly qualities he showed throughout his career as a player and coach”. After his death, tributes poured in from around the world of football. FIFA President Blatter said: “He always showed great passion for the game and will be missed by all football fans across the globe.”
Brazilian superstar Ronaldo worked with Robson for just eight months, but that was long enough to make an impact on the then 20-year-old. “I’m proud to have worked with him,” O Fenômeno told the Daily Mail. “He was like a father to me.”
Robson’s Portuguese protégé Jose Mourinho, who worked under him at Sporting, Porto and Barça, summed up a true gentleman of the game in the best possible way: “He is immortal because he leaves in everybody who knows him a mark of his personality – a great coach but, more than that, a great person.”