The inside story of Sir Bobby Robson's Newcastle United adventure and legacy

Freddie Fletcher, Freddy Shepherd and Douglas Hall had gathered at a secret location in London and were convinced they would have a new manager by the time they returned to the North East. Or maybe not. “Give it to somebody else!” Sir Bobby Robson told Newcastle United’s stunned top brass as the meeting drew to a close in 1999.

The former England and Barcelona boss had been lowballed with a six-figure offer. Yes, it was a chance to return home to his boyhood club but Sir Bobby knew his worth after a successful stint on the continent. He also knew the Magpies were in trouble – 19th in the table after six games – and that they needed someone to mend a broken dressing room.

A breakthrough was eventually reached and, with a handshake and smile, so began the black-and-whites’ resurgence. It was back to basics and Sir Bobby drove home the importance of punctuality to his players. “If you were catching a train, the train’s left the station and you’re left on the platform,” he would repeatedly tell those latecomers. The squad began eating together again and could not leave until the manager gave them the signal.

The players wore suits and met at the Copthorne Hotel pre-match, where they went through their final preparations before travelling to St James’ Park on the coach. These were simple changes but they sent the right message.

Sir Bobby had a special connection with the supporters

Arriving to the stadium to greet the sea of supporters outside Barrack Road felt like an event, a reminder of what it meant to wear that shirt. It was the same away from home.

“He loved being around people, he loved being around players and he loved being with the fans,” Warren Barton told ChronicleLive. “We used to say to Bobby, ‘C’mon, can we go now?’ I remember Tony Toward [team administrator] saying we’ve got a plane to catch. He would be outside signing autographs and talking to people, and just having a laugh. “Then he would hold his hand out and shake it and say, ‘Oh sorry boys’ and you could not help but give him a round of applause and let him sit down.

He was everything that football should be really.” Sir Bobby quickly identified his blue-chip brigade – Alan Shearer, Rob Lee, Shay Given, Warren Barton and Steve Harper – who all had their moments under him. Shearer was instructed to start facing the goal again and scored five in the 8-0 win against Sheffield Wednesday on Sir Bobby’s homecoming.

It was Newcastle’s biggest victory since the 13-0 win against Newport in 1946 when Sir Bobby was in the crowd as a supporter.

The inside story of Sir Bobby Robson's Newcastle United adventure and legacySir Bobby Robson’s first home game in charge couldn’t have gone any better

So what was the secret? “The players that had not been used as much as you expect like Alan – Rob Lee didn’t even have a squad number that year – that group of players became the leaders,” former assistant manager Mick Wadsworth told ChronicleLive. “I think people like Nikos Dabizas came to the fore, Nobby Solano was an important player.

It was like taking a cork off the bottle of a lot of frustration and the players went to town on that day.” Knowing he could not watch his players 24 hours a day, Sir Bobby trusted the senior pros to police the dressing room just as Mick Mills and George Burley had all those years previously at Ipswich. If a younger player was using a mobile phone when the manager was not there, for example, it would fall to one of the veterans to remind him of the rules.

Read More

 

But there was humour, too.

Lots of it. Kieron Dyer would sometimes be called Kevin by Sir Bobby; Gary Speed found himself being mistaken for Kevin Sheedy; Shay Given often morphed into Shay Brennan; Shola Ameobi famously became Carl Cort. Occasionally, the same player would be pencilled in to play at right-back and left-back on the team sheet.

In pressured situations, those moments immediately put everyone at ease and a number of players felt that he did it on purpose. Sir Bobby, after all, used to instruct goalkeeping coach Simon Smith to keep a written log whenever the manager made an observation during a match. Yet, when it came to the half-time team talk, he reeled off his observations without needing Smith’s notes.

“What can I say about a great man like Sir Bobby Robson that will do him justice?” Shay Given told ChronicleLive. “He was just brilliant on and off the pitch and he was the perfect fit for Newcastle United Football Club. “He always talked about the importance of playing for the Toon and how lucky we all were to wear the black and white of Newcastle United. He would light up any room he walked in to and he was so charismatic.

“Looking back now, you realise how lucky you’ve been to play for and learn so much from him. There’s only one Bobby Robson.”

The inside story of Sir Bobby Robson's Newcastle United adventure and legacySir Bobby was hands-on on the training field

Although Robson decided against joining in on the five-a-sides at training, his enthusiasm had certainly not waned as he embarked on his fifth decade in management. Following spells at PSV, Sporting Lisbon, Porto and Barcelona, the Newcastle United boss embraced video analysis sessions and two cameras were installed high behind the goals at St James’ Park so match footage could be reviewed.

Whereas some managers delegate coaching to their assistants as they get older, Sir Bobby was front and centre on the training field. “A biological age means nothing to someone like him – he was like a guy who was in his 40s. He was so enthusiastic.

That was his main force. He kept on going,” Nikos Dabizas told ChronicleLive. “That guy and his character were so genuine. It was not that he was trying to do it, he made it natural.

“When you see that, you sense that he was very, very active for his age and I think the way he was behaving in general was nothing to do with his age. “It was charisma because when you see a guy act and take decisions like leading training sessions in his way, you say, ‘Wow. Something different here!'”

The inside story of Sir Bobby Robson's Newcastle United adventure and legacyNikos Dabizas never forgot his time with Sir Bobby Robson

There were countless highlights along the way.

That night in Rotterdam; the win at Highbury and being top at Christmas; bringing hope back to St James’ Park… But it all came to an end on a bank holiday Monday in August, 2004 – just a few months after the Magpies finished fifth. “I met him at the ground.

As I pulled in, he pulls in. We go upstairs and then he got the phone call to go up and see the chairman,” former chief scout and right-hand man Charlie Woods previously told ChronicleLive. “Ten minutes later he comes down and says, ‘I’ve lost my job’. I said, ‘Give over!’ That devastated him.

“I drove him around, went to see a couple of people who he liked, and then I drove him home to his house in Durham. He was cut up about it at the time. It was a bit difficult because he loved the place.

I shouldn’t say it, but I think that was his favourite job.”

Read More

 

All of a sudden, Sir Bobby found himself free at 3pm on a Saturday. At 71, he did not have the fuel – for top-level management – that drove him on for so many years. Sir Bobby would return to St James’ Park to watch some games, and later took up a role as an international football consultant with Ireland, but there was something missing.

“I don’t think he recovered to be honest,” son Mark told ChronicleLive. “I think his health took a knock. His passion and the type of person he was, he understood human nature and he was a humble and compassionate person.

The inside story of Sir Bobby Robson's Newcastle United adventure and legacy

“He liked helping others and that was all part of his legacy if you like, and why the cancer foundation is doing so well, so for that to happen when we were a top four, top five club hit him exceptionally hard and hit us hard.” Following four previous battles with cancer, Sir Bobby discovered that tumours had returned to his lungs in 2007 – and this time it was terminal.

Dr John Mackay, who served as Newcastle United’s club doctor, was Sir Bobby’s GP for a decade and looked after him for the rest of his life. “It was always, ‘Doc, what’s this? What’s going on?'” he told ChronicleLive. “I wouldn’t say we were great friends or anything like that, I just enjoyed being in his company, but I was his doctor and was a professional.

“I felt it a privilege to be his doctor and to look after him. That’s probably the toughest job I’ve done to be honest, looking after him, towards the end of his life. It is never an easy time.

Understandably, there’s a lot of pressure to get things right and he always set such very high standards, I didn’t want to let him or the family down.” Ten years ago today, Sir Bobby died after his final battle with cancer but his legacy lives on in so many ways – not least the foundation set up in his name.

The inside story of Sir Bobby Robson's Newcastle United adventure and legacyL-R Martin Galler (research technician, Sir Bobby Robson PET Tracer Production Unit), Lady Elsie, Dr John Mackay (trustee of Sir Bobby Robson Foundation), Andrew Robson and Mark Robson witness the Biomarker Generator technology in the Sir Bobby Robson PET Tracer Production Unit

Sir Bobby launched the foundation in March, 2008 after a request for help from his oncologist, Professor Ruth Plummer, to equip a new cancer drug trials centre at the Northern Centre for Cancer Care in Newcastle. The charity has raised more than GBP13.5 million to date to help find more effective ways to detect and treat cancer. 

Robbie Elliott is among those ex-players who have got involved and it was while visiting Sir Bobby’s former clubs on a a 3,500-mile charity bike ride that he realised just how many lives he had touched. “It’s incredible, really, when you think how the name is seen around the world,” he told ChronicleLive. “I remember on my bike ride we had a picture of Sir Bobby on the truck and people would just stop and talk. “He is just so recognisable throughout the world – it’s crazy.

The foundation he set up he said he wanted it to be his last team and they have done a mind blowing job in driving it and making changes to so many people’s lives, which is exactly what he would have wanted.”

Read More
Read More

You may also like...