Finally! It’s time for number one in our countdown to find ‘The Best British Manager Abroad’.
Who is it? None over than Newcastle and Ipswich’s favourite son…..Sir Bobby Robson.
We have to go all the way back to the swinging sixties to find a young Bobby Robson embarking on what was to becomes the most sensational of managerial careers. After a fruitful playing career achieving over 600 appearances for Fulham and West Bromwich Albion, Robson was advised by the late England manager Walter Winterbottom to take up a coaching course at Lilleshall. His badges led to management positions at Fulham and then Ipswich. It was with the Tractor Boys that Robson went on to forge a reputation as one of the true great British managers, bringing domestic and European success to the modest East Anglian club.
After 13 years Robson then answered the call of his national side and in 1982 was appointed the most poisonous of chalice’s, the England managers role. By the time his England career came to end, it would be perceived by many despite a rather bumpy start, as an uncommonly successful period in English football. After an 8 year period, coming within a Maradona fist and a Pearce penalty miss of achieving greatness, Robson passed the baton to Graham Taylor. The County Durham born former electrician had his share of abuse by tabloids but on the whole had become the darling of English Football. Surely nothing could tarnish that reputation?
Bobby’s next step was to coach abroad, namely Dutch club PSV Eindhoven.
I was called a traitor for leaving, by the same people who three months earlier had said I was a plonker and should go.
PSV had just come off the back of a superbly successful period in their history with four back to back Eredivisie titles and a 87/88 season European Cup win. Upon replacing the outgoing Guus Hiddink, Robson had much to live up to and immediately was tasked with tempering the clubs fractious playing personnel, namely a certain Romario.
Robson became infuriated with the Brazilians work ethic and in the end, after showdown talks had broken down, had to let the future World Footballer of the Year leave for Barcelona. That is not before the talented forward helped Robson to two successive 90/91 and 91/92 league titles. The Sacriston born manager had kicked off his continental coaching career with a bang. The PSV board, however, were unconvinced by the clubs progression in European competition and Robson was soon informed that he would be leaving the club at the end of the 1991–92 season.
Robson left for Portuguese club Sporting Lisbon and soon guided them to a respectable 3rd place finish in his debut season. After dealings with a rather unpredictable and eccentric club President, Sousa Cintra, Robson was again fired despite his side leading the table in his second season. Whilst not seen as his most successful period, his time in Portugal became all the more noticeable for his employment of a certain future trophy winning Goliath, Jose Mourinho. Originally acting as an interpreter for Robson, Mourinho’s scouting and management ability soon saw him become a trusted advisor.
Jose was to prove a marvellous asset, covering my back and looking after me while building up a good rapport with the players of the three clubs we have been at together. Whenever I needed his support he was there, even though it often meant putting himself in the firing line
FC Porto, fierce rivals of Sporting, became Robson’s next destination. The club was in a poor state of affairs upon his appointment with attendances dwindling in the 10,000’s. Soon after his employment, more league titles followed the former England manager, with Porto becoming champions in the 1994–95 and 1995–96 seasons. Porto also reached the semi-finals of the 1994 Champions League against a Johan Cruyff led Barcelona side. Robson would soon be known to Porto fans as ‘Bobby Five-O’ in honour of the number of matches Porto won 5–0.
Not everything, of course, was going to go the club or its manager’s way, at the beginning of his second season at the club a malignant melanoma was detected for which Robson had to receive extensive treatment. Not only that, a car crash fatality involving 26-year-old midfielder Rui Filipe was to rock the club and it’s fans.
‘Bobby Five-O’s’ previous work with Ipswich in the English old first division wasn’t just appreciated in the modest setting of East Anglia, waves had reverberated and Robson developed keen admirers in Catalonia. After a fleeting talk about the availability of a certain Luis Figo with the club vice-president, Joan Gaspart, Barcelona saw a window of opportunity and approached Robson to replace the outgoing Johan Cruyff. Robson would sign on one condition, that assistant Mourinho would be signed as well, he duly was.
The Catalans had previously lifted the European cup under Cruyffs leadership in 92, on top of that Barca had claimed four La Liga titles. Unlike the period countryman Terry Venables coached the side, this Barca were very much the expectant club it is today. The side, however, come the start of the 96/97 season were struggling. The previous two seasons ended trophy-less and, having already lost the great Romario the previous year, no Barcelona player reached 14 goals in the league despite star players such as Gheorghe Hagi and Luis Figo being in the squad.
Robson responded to this lack of firepower by firstly trying to bring in Blackburn and future Newcastle goal machine Alan Shearer. Respecting then Rovers manager Ray Harford wishes not to try and tap the player up, Robson changed his sights to other targets. In came an old face in Bulgarian legend Hristo Stoichkov and a number of new faces such as future club coach Luis Enrique, Nigerian winger Emmanuel Amunike, favoured Porto keeper Vitor Baía, Brazilian forward Giovanni and, the player who was to be his greatest career signing, 20-year-old Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima.
Influenced by Robson’s man management, the club went on to a Spanish Cup, Spanish Super Cup and a European Cup Winners’ Cup win all in just one season. His protégé and lethal new striker Ronaldo scored an incredible 47 goals in 49 matches to forge a reputation as the world most devastating forward. Robson himself was later voted European Manager of the Year for his troubles.
I played in lots of positions for him, and many games, and I have great memories of that year, and I only have positive things to say about that time.
The Robson we got to know in Barcelona was already a very qualified coach, who had won trophies. He had experience and success behind him. He was really well respected. He had very clear ideas, very attack minded, and had a clear and fairly simple philosophy.
He knew how to get a group to adapt to the demands of a great team, under different circumstances.
I remember that at half-time, he’d use plastic cups to demonstrate tactical moves! He was a coach with lots of resources and was so easy to get on with.
Despite three trophy wins, the league season ended with the Catalan club falling two points short of top team Real Madrid. Another year without a La Liga title riled the clubs upper hierarchy, that and the fact that a much more desired ‘Total Football’ style of years previous clashed with Robson’s British approach incensed the board even more. Barcelona ended the former England manager’s short tenure in charge and instead brought in Louis Van Gaal, a long time student of the clubs desired football style.
Due to his huge popularity among players and fans, Robson was moved upstairs into a General Manager role.
Robson only lasted a year in his new role before his management skills were required by the club he secured his first league title with, PSV. In a short tenure, Robson guided the underachieving club to Champions League qualification and a Dutch Supercup victory.
Future and eventual death
Robson soon moved back home where he spent the remainder of his managerial years at much-beloved club Newcastle United. After five seasons with the club, Robson ended his full-time management career.
5 years were spent in various advisory roles before, after much of his life battling illness, the great manager died of lung cancer at his home in County Durham.
Sir Bobby Robson made his name as a superb coach abroad and at home, collecting trophies in environments many British managers were scared to venture into and become a hero to locals during much of his tenures. Robson rarely brought in English backroom staff when taking jobs around Europe, instead opting to keep the clubs hierarchy in place as a method of ingratiating himself with the locals and to put at ease those who had feared for their jobs upon his appointment. Such gestures became commonplace where-ever Robson set up home.
It is for his unmatched managerial prowess, his undeniable trophy winnings and most of all the fact that rarely has there been a more decent football man, that Sir Bobby Robson is our ‘Best British Manager Abroad’.
Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson (Living the Game)
I go back with Bobby to 1981 when Ipswich won the Uefa Cup. I was at Aberdeen at the time and we played Ipswich in the first round of the competition the next year and we beat them. Even though they lost he came into the dressing room straight after the game – not an easy thing to do – and told us we could win the cup and not to let him down.
PSV Eindhoven: Eredivisie (2): 1990–91, 1991–92
Porto: Primeira Liga (2): 1994–95, 1995–96, Taça de Portugal (1): 1993–94
Barcelona: Copa del Rey (1): 1996–97, Supercopa de España (1): 1996, European Cup Winners’ Cup (1): 1997