As he fights cancer for the fifth time, Sir Bobby Robson explains to Jane Hall why he is dedicating to the next year to a major fundraising effort launched today to help other North East people beat the killer disease.
THE voice is unmistakable. Even from a distance there can be no doubt as to whom it belongs.
It’s the voice of a man who has successfully rallied football players to both match and cup winning form from Fulham to Ipswich Town, England to PSV Eindhoven, Sporting Lisbon to Porto and Barcelona to Newcastle, in a career that began nearly 60 years ago when he himself pulled on his first pair of leather boots and took to the field for home club Langley Park Juniors.
Today that distinctive Durham accent will be put to an entirely different use to rouse to action not an 11-man football team but the entire North East.
To sporting legend Sir Bobby Robson the impassioned plea he will deliver later this morning to a roomful of celebrity friends, medical experts, businessmen and journalists will outshine even the one he made to his Barcelona squad before they successfully lifted the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1997.
Sir Bobby is calling on his fellow North Easterners to dig deep and raise money to equip a new cancer research centre being built at Newcastle’s Freeman Hospital.
He hopes the region’s famed generosity will quickly help reach the target of £500,000 for a state-of-the-art laboratory, consulting rooms, beds, computers and other equipment for the Sir Bobby Robson Cancer Trials Research Centre due to open this October.
But typically for a man who has given 110% all his life, he has no intention of resting on his laurels once he has hit the half million mark.
He wants sufferers from this region to enjoy the best treatment and chance of survival possible. Ultimately he dreams of his newly launched Sir Bobby Robson Foundation funding a North East developed cancer cure – even though it would come too late to save his own life.
Having successfully battled cancer four times, the 75-year-old was 12 months ago diagnosed with inoperable tumours to both lungs. A cocktail of chemotherapy and drugs is currently controlling this latest bout of the disease. But Sir Bobby candidly admits it is a matter of when rather than if.
Now faced with his own mortality, he wants to leave behind more than memories of an inspired football career that saw him turn out as a player for Fulham, West Bromwich Albion and England, and bring back both the FA and Uefa cups to Ipswich during his time as manager with the East Anglian club.
The knowledge that in the long-term cash raised in his name could spare future generations of North East cancer victims the pain and suffering he has had to endure five times in the past 15 fears, brings a crusading fire to his eyes.
“I’m in my 76th year. I’ve had a fantastic sporting life, but I’ve had cancer five times. None of my four brothers has had cancer. I keep saying I’ve had their share. But I consider myself lucky. I may have had cancer five times but thanks to the wonderful treatment I have had through the NHS my life has been saved.
“Now it’s time I paid them back, and I want to do this through the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation, initially by raising in excess of £500,000 to equip the new cancer trials unit at the Freeman. We want the North East to have the best state-of-the-art unit not just in England, but in Europe.
“We have some very clever people working here in the North East in what is a very difficult field, but I am hopeful that with time and money those people will find a cancer cure that will help save lives. At least a third of everybody in England – that’s 20 million people – will at some stage be affected by cancer. That’s one in every three.
“Just think how fantastic it would be if we could find a cure for cancer here in the North East that would not only save the lives of North East people, but sufferers worldwide. I shall be remembered for what I achieved in football. But the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation and the cancer trials unit is the legacy I want to leave to the people of the North East. If I can raise as much money as possible, then part of my life will have been used in a better way.”
Sir Bobby looks weary, and with good reason. He has spent the last three hours in a foundation meeting at Newcastle’s Copthorne Hotel, and it has taken its toll. “I have days when I don’t feel very well, like today.
“There isn’t much I can do about it other than to keep fighting. You have to be positive. I could spend my time moaning and complaining, but I’m not one of those people. If you are prepared to fight then I am a great believer you can overcome. I know I am going to die, but then we all die eventually. The time will come when I won’t win every battle, but my fighting spirit has seen me through this far.”
He has also enjoyed an extraordinary run of good fortune – if such a thing can exist in this situation – as far as his various cancers are concerned. For Sir Bobby should have died long ago. In 1992 he overcame bowel cancer, the same disease that claimed the life of World Cup winner Bobby Moore.
“Then three years later he was diagnosed with an extremely rare and deadly form of malignant melanoma after his wife, Elsie, forced him to see his doctor about an ongoing sinus problem.
“They came back to tell me I had a melanoma in my nose,” Sir Bobby recalls. ”It’s very rare, only a 2% chance of getting it. I had no idea I had it. If Elsie hadn’t made me go to see the doctor I never would have known until it was too late. I was told I needed an operation yesterday and if nothing was done I would be dead by the end of the football season. Elsie saved my life.”
In a complicated operation surgeons removed the tumour, leaving a hole in the roof of his mouth which he has to fill with a rubber plug.
The melanoma may have been removed but its effects have come back to haunt Sir Bobby. Rogue cells found their way into his lungs and his brain. In May 2006 he had a tumour the size of a golf ball removed from his right lung after a routine X-ray of his ribs following a skiing accident picked up a shadow. Again, Sir Bobby had known nothing was wrong.
Three months later Sir Bobby was again back in hospital after being taken ill at an Ipswich Town home game. “I developed a violent twitch on my face. I felt well and couldn’t understand what was happening. I turned to Elsie to say something and couldn’t speak. I thought, ‘My God, I’ve had a stroke.’ I nudged Elsie and she got me out of the ground. Within 10 minutes the twitching had stopped and I could talk again. I had X-rays and a head scan and 20 minutes later the doctor came back and said, ‘Can I have a private word? Unfortunately the scan isn’t normal. You have a tumour in your brain.’
“I said, ‘Do you know what you’re talking about? I’m at a football match, I’m enjoying it and now you’re telling me I have a brain tumour!”
Back in Newcastle Sir Bobby was admitted to the General Hospital where a grape-sized growth was cut out. At the same time he suffered a haemorrhage of the brain, similar to a stroke. Paralysed down the left side, it was assumed Sir Bobby would never walk again. But he has got himself back on his feet, although he has been left partially paralysed.
“I survived that, although no-one knows how I lived. Most people say goodbye and they bury them,” Sir Bobby adds with a laugh. ”
Now regularly attending for scans, in February 2007 nodules were found in both his lungs. “Unfortunately, these are inoperable. I’m on chemotherapy to control their growth, and it seems to be working at the moment. Hopefully they will remain docile.”
His treatment has brought him into contact with Dr Ruth Plummer, senior lecturer in medical oncology and an honorary consultant at Newcastle General and soon to be the new director of the Sir Bobby Robson Cancer Trials Research Centre.
It is she who has set Sir Bobby off on his money raising mission. “She told me she needed to raise some money for a good cause. I said, ‘What is it?’ She said, ‘To kit out a cancer research centre we are moving to next October.’ Ruth explained the unit was already there, that the NHS was going to pay for its running, but that there wasn’t a penny to kit it out.
“The task of raising the money had been left to Ruth and her colleague Professor Hilary Calvert. I was appalled. How could two people with responsible, full-time jobs find the time to raise that sort of money? Ruth asked me if I knew anyone who would be willing to contribute.
“I had a chat with one or two people and out of that the foundation has been born. I’ve never tackled anything like this. I’ve taken England to Brazil, taken football teams to cup finals and won and fought cancer for 15 years, but I’ve never tried to raise money for anything like this. But I have had wonderful treatment here in the North East, and the people of the North have supported me throughout my life. I couldn’t not respond to Ruth’s request and I’m proud she had the guts to ask me for help.
“I have the time now because I’m not 100% involved with professional football to do something gracious and commendable for other people and for the North East. I’m proud of that, and proud of the way I feel about that.”
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Sporting legend who's never forgotten his roots
SIR Robert William Robson is best known for his achievements as a manager, but was a highly-regarded wing-half and inside forward.
His playing career saw him score 68 goals in 152 appearances for Fulham, before moving to West Bromwich Albion, making 239 appearances, scoring 57 goals. He returned to Fulham in 1962 for the final five years of his career.
He was capped 20 times by England and was selected for two World Cup finals squads – 1958 in Sweden and 1962 in Chile. It was at Ipswich Town where Bobby Robson made his name as a top-level football manager.
Over 13 years the club twice finished as League runners-up, and won the FA Cup in 1978, defeating Arsenal. They captured the Uefa Cup in 1981 beating Dutch side AZ 67.
Robson took the England job in 1982, and reached the quarter-final in 1986 and the semi-final in 1990. He went on to win the Dutch league with PSV Eindhoven, the Portuguese league with FC Porto, then the Spanish Cup, Spanish Super Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup with Barcelona.
In 1999 he took over at Newcastle United. They qualified in consecutive seasons for the Champions League, but he was fired in 2004, just weeks into the new season.
His honours include a CBE, a knighthood, the freedom of Ipswich, the Uefa President’s Award and he was made an Honorary Freeman of Newcastle .