WHEN the striker Craig Bellamy was still a Newcastle United player he told me a story about an incident which occurred in the away dressing room at Elland Road during the 2002-03 season.
Newcastle were beating Leeds United 3-0 in front of a typically partisan home crowd, when Robson sent on Shola Ameobi as a late substitute for right midfielder Brian Kerr.
With just nine minutes remaining, Robson ordered Bellamy to move over to the right flank to allow Ameobi to play through the middle alongside Alan Shearer. It was a reasonable request, but Bellamy lost it, throwing his arms up in the air before complaining to the bench.
With hindsight, Bellamy realised he had been out of order, but as the red mist descended, he point blankly refused to move over to the right wing which meant Newcastle finished the game with three strikers playing in a central position.
Back inside the privacy of the dressing room, Robson and Bellamy screamed the place down. Robson was seething at Bellamy’s insubordination and the prickly little Welshman was stubbornly refusing to back down, insisting he had been the team’s best player on the day so why should he switch position.
“Listen son,” replied Robson. “I’ve been in this game a long time, I’ve managed England and I’ve managed Barcelona and, trust me, I’ve squashed better and bigger players than you so get in the shower, shut up and you can apologise when you get out.”
As thoughts of Brazilian superstars Romario and Ronaldo flashed across his mind, followed by iconic images of England heroes like Bryan Robson, Gary Lineker, Chris Waddle and Peter Beardsley, Bellamy was, for once, completely lost for words and meekly did as he was told.
At the end of his managerial career, Robson was sometimes talked about in the same sort of way you would refer to a kindly grandad, but even in his 70s, a man who had traded blows with two burly centre-halves in a bid to establish his authority in the Ipswich Town dressing room, retained a hard, steely edge.
It is impossible to be a successful manager without it and, even if they had cause to fall out, Robson had the respect of virtually every single player he managed in a career which took him to Fulham, Ipswich Town, England, PSV Eindhoven, Sporting Lisbon, Porto, Barcelona and, finally, Newcastle United.
Despite the rumours to the contrary which plagued his last few months on Tyneside, Robson controlled the dressing room throughout his career, but he was also not afraid to let his players express and enjoy themselves. They worked for him and sometimes they fell out with him, but crucially they liked playing for him and that, for any manager, is half the battle won.
Robson got the best out of Romario at PSV Eindhoven and he got, more often than the not, the best out Laurent Robert at Newcastle, the two players he insisted represented his biggest challenge as a manager. Some needed hands around the neck to inspire them, others needed them around the shoulder, but Robson always knew which. That is why he was so successful and it is why his protege, José Mourinho, who worked as Robson’s translator in Portugal and Spain, called him Sir to his dying day.
I was fortunate to spend my formative years as a sports journalist in Robson’s company and he is still the best and most charismatic manager I have come across.
For me, Robson was a hero. He was a hero when I asked for his autograph “for my mum”, he was a hero the first time I ever asked him a question in a Press conference, he was a hero the first time he ever rang me up to complain about something I had written and he was a hero the last time I spoke to him, in an interview to mark his 75th birthday celebrations with the launch of the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation for cancer research.
My first memories of watching England all came when Robson was manager, the World Cup in 1986 when Maradona’s Hand of God knocked England out at the quarter-final stage, the disastrous European Championship tournament two years later, when England failed to get out of the group stage and finally that magical, torturous journey to a penalty shoot-out semi-final defeat to Germany in 1990.
I also lived in Ipswich for a short while, a town where Robson’s achievements as manager of the town’s football team made him a legend in the same way Brian Clough’s had in Nottingham. Of course, when you work for a local paper it is inevitable you will occasionally fall out with the manager of the local team and I’ve been on the receiving end of a few choice words in the past.
One of my former colleagues was even pinned against a wall by the Premier League’s oldest manager for daring to criticise his tactics.
They were never pleasant experiences, but they were quickly forgotten because, through it all, Robson was always fair and even-handed. Even though he had been treated dreadfully by the media during his time in charge of England, he did not hold it against us and no manager could hold a more interesting or entertaining Press conference.
When he left Newcastle in acrimonious circumstances in August 2004, I stayed in touch with Robson and, although the body began to falter as the battle with cancer took its toll, his mind remained sharp. He always wanted to know what was happening at Newcastle, and at Durham County Cricket Club because, as he admitted, he was first and foremost a fan.
He described Newcastle as his club and the fans as his people, which is why United fans still worship him today, despite his failure to end the club’s trophy drought.
There has not been a more popular manager at St James’s Park in the modern era. Even Kevin Keegan can only share that accolade with Robson, but then again, you would be hard pressed to find a more popular figure in football than Sir Robert William Robson.
Gone but never forgotten.