JUST being in the stands for Sunday’s re-run of the England v West Germany 1990 World Cup semi-final at St James’s Park was a privilege.
The game was played to raise funds for the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation, the charity he set up to help others survive the disease which ultimately defeated him, but only after extra time.
It was a dull match, as these things always are. Watching out-of-breath, overweight, long-retired former footballers waddling around a field trying to recapture past glories is rarely an edifying experience. It was not long before the first Mexican wave – normally a surefire sign of supporter boredom – rippled around the stadium.
But for me and most of the 33,000 fans, the 90 minutes of low-tempo football were irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.
Yes, you read that correctly: 33,000 fans.
Some from beyond this region might dismiss the attendance as just another indication of how football daft the North East is. But sitting in the same ground three days later – this time from the Press box rather than the Gallowgate End – as a muted 16,000 crowd bolstered and enlivened only by a hefty contingent of Leeds United supporters watched Newcastle United’s only home friendly of the pre-season, put Sunday’s gate into perspective.
We weren’t even there to contribute to Sir Bobby’s cancer foundation. If that was all we wanted to do, we could have stuck our £10 or £15 in the post and gone to the pub. We were there because we wanted to see Sir Bobby (knowing it might well be for the last time) and for him to see us.
Many people have to wait until they die before others start saying nice things about them, this was an opportunity to show Sir Bobby what we thought of him while he was still there to see it.
When we did, it was a sobering moment. “He’s in a wheelchair!” gasped the friend next to me as Sir Bobby made his appearance to the backdrop of an emotional standing ovation which seemed to go on forever. Even from our great distance, it was clear he was every bit as frail as a 76-year-old fighting cancer for the fifth and final time should be.
The players were lined up in front of the main stand to shake hands with Sir Bobby as he passed slowly down the line.
If watching the faded stars in action was at times difficult, then actually playing on a warm early evening in July must have been tortuous for some of those taking part, many of whom reluctantly gave up the game through injury.
Yet the sheer number who agreed to play spoke volumes for the respect Sir Bobby had within the football community.
In the stands, the carnival atmosphere extended way beyond the Mexican waves, with numerous chants of “One Bobby Robson” once the lumps in the throats had cleared long enough to let them out.
If we were emotional, goodness knows how the man in the wheelchair felt.
Sir Bobby had confounded medical opinion – yet again – just to make it to his big day. I hope it was worth the wait.