Bobby Robson and the decline of British decency

He was by all accounts a lovely bloke. But behind the effusive eulogising there lurks a disdain for today’s allegedly crass football fans and players.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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Whether it was a heartfelt tribute from ex-England footballer Gary Lineker or a moving reminiscence from a football correspondent recalling the Fulham team of Johnny Haynes, the response to the death last week of ex-England football manager Bobby Robson, at the age of 76, has shown just how much he meant to so many. In the words of football reporter George Caulkin: ‘He’s gone now but the feeling lingers: I’m still desperate to make him proud.’

Yet there has been more to the response to Robson’s death than just rightfully earned praise, just as there is more to the meaning of Robson’s life than his personality and footballing career. For many, it seems, Robson has come to represent a bastion of old-fashioned integrity and honesty amidst the easy corruption of modern moneyed football: a working-class boy, ‘hewn from the coal face’ of his native North East of England, as Alex Ferguson memorably put it, whose virtues put the modern world to shame. A man famous of his love of all things black-and-white (as in Geordie) has been used following his death to promote a black-and-white view of contemporary football.

As a player during the 1950s, first at Fulham, then at West Bromwich Albion before returning to Fulham again, Robson was an energetic, attacking midfielder. He was perhaps not an outstanding player, but there was no doubting he was a very good one, scoring 133 goals in 583 matches, and picking up 20 England caps in the process. Yet as he himself pointed out, he never won anything. And what should have been the crowning moment in his career as a player – the 1962 World Cup – was lost to an ankle injury picked up in a warm-up game.

It was as a manager, then, that Robson will always be most fondly remembered. If his first managerial job with Fulham in 1968 ended with relegation and, eventually, the sack, his next job at Ipswich was to see him win the FA Cup in 1978 and the UEFA cup in 1981. It was an achievement significant enough for the Football Association to make him England manager in 1982.

Eight years later, on a muggy night in Turin, Robson’s England team came closer than any before or since 1966 to winning the World Cup, bowing out at the semi-final stage to West Germany. While they may have lost, that game, complete with Paul Gascoigne’s tears, Stuart Pearce’s penalty miss and Luciano Pavarotti’s Nessun Dorma serenading the nation through the BBC’s coverage, was to become the defining moment in the transformation of football from, as a Times editorial put it in 1985, a ‘slum sport watched by slum people in slum stadiums’ to the game to which politicians were desperate to proclaim their allegiance.

After a decade of Thatcher-era vilification, a sport watched by what was looked upon as a pariah-like working-class, herded into fenced-off terraces, became acceptable, a thing that it was okay to be seen doing. Bobby Robson’s England team of 1990 had more than just footballing significance; they became a symbol of football’s transformation, too, its movement to the centre of public life. Ironically for a man now hailed for his old-fashioned out-of-timeness, Robson’s most iconic moment came at the point at which football entered the epoch of Nu-Football.

Largely lost amidst the euphoria of a semi-final defeat and the ensuing Gazzamania was the fact that throughout Robson’s England tenure the media and fan reaction was largely negative. Following a draw against Saudi Arabia in the run-up to the 1990 World Cup, the Sun ran one of its classic headlines, demanding of Robson: ‘In the name of Allah, go!’ The bile wasn’t unusual. During the disastrous European Championships of 1988, at which England failed to pick up a point, Robson was slammed by the tabloids, and the young Arsenal defender, Tony Adams, was mocked up with donkey ears.

Robson’s subsequent career was arguably more successful. If he was hurt by his experiences as England manager he didn’t brood on it. In Holland he won the league title as manager of PSV Eindhoven, and in Portugal with FC Porto, after which he joined Barcelona and enjoyed European and domestic cup successes. Following nearly a decade of European achievement he finally returned to England to manage the team he supported as a boy, Newcastle, before being forced to step down in 2004.

Robson’s managerial career is remarkable, not just for the success he enjoyed, but also for how long it lasted. While other managers were certainly momentarily more feted, none could match Robson for durability. In the 1980s, figures like Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest or Howard Kendall at Everton were more celebrated and, arguably, far more successful than Robson; yet while they burnt more brightly, they were, by the 1990s, virtually burnt out. Robson, however, went on, adjusting to the times in a way few of his contemporaries over the years have ever seemed capable.

Yet what has been so striking about the response to Robson’s death is the extent to which it is not just his achievements that are being acknowledged, but the man himself. Patrick Barclay at The Times began his tribute by stating: ‘You cannot talk about Bobby Robson the manager without first talking about Bobby Robson the man.’

Warm, passionate, caring, humble, strong… the adjectives have been plentiful. Above all Robson seems to have been a truly lovely, loveable man – players wanted to play for him, to run, as England defender Terry Butcher put it, through a brick wall for him; others just wanted to make him proud. The Brazilian striker Ronaldo, at his peak the greatest player in the world, called Robson the best manager he ever worked for; Lineker said his relationship with Robson was the most important of his career. And Sven Goran Eriksson, one of his successors as England manager, simply called him ‘one of the kindest people I have met’.

He was also, of course, ‘very endearing, quite comical’, to use the words of Glenn Hoddle, a man not averse himself to the unintentionally comic quip. While at PSV Eindhoven in the early 1990s Robson is reported to have said: ‘I would have given my right arm to be a pianist.’ His ability to forget names was legendary. Upon encountering England captain Bryan Robson in a lift during the 1990 World Cup, he said ‘Hi Bobby’, to which Bryan replied: ‘No, I’m Bryan, you’re Bobby.’

And yet in amongst the praise and affectionate remembrance, there has been something else, too: a barely concealed resentment of the culture associated with modern football. If Robson has been almost sanctified, it has come at the cost of demonising the contemporary footballer. In Mark Austin’s column in the Sunday Mirror, a 60-word piece on Robson still managed to use Robson as a stick with which to berate the present: ‘He had charm and warmth and passion – and there’s not much of that in modern football.’ The Daily Telegraph’s Henry Winter began his tribute with the strangely bitter line ‘Football lost more of its soul yesterday’, before explaining that ‘a sport hardly blessed with statesmen instantly becomes a poorer place’.

The sentiment has been clear. Modern football is too commercial, too grasping, too business-like in its dealings. It has produced ‘blingy, boy-toy obsessed’ players, man-boys more interested in ‘birds, booze and fast cars’ than the game that so enchanted Robson. As Winter notes: ‘There was an old-world dignity to Robson, an individual often bemused by this “bling thing” of the modern game.’ Steven Howard in the Sun was equally aware of Robson’s meaning: ‘Everything about Bobby Robson was a little sepia-tinted, a reminder of the good old days when there was respect and honesty and an eagerness to help one’s fellow man.’ The obituary in The Times was content to allude to the ‘tensions between Robson, the product of a proud, self-disciplined working-class background, and the modern generation of multimillionaire players’.

So the response to Robson’s death has not only appraised the man’s legacy; it has also crystallised a deep ambiguity about football now. Never has the game been more popular, and yet never have those involved been more reviled. A society uncomfortable with affluence has seen its leaders and commentators project their discomfort upon the beneficiaries of football’s success. While vacuous consumption might indeed be vacuous – unless, that is, you have some need for seven Bentleys – to blame footballers, to focus upon football as the source of the meaninglessness of public life today, is wrongheaded. After all, it was the vacuousness of parliamentary politics that saw many politicians fasten on to and exploit football in the first place, as a way to connect with the electorate and provide some sense of national coherence. That football cannot do that, indeed should not do that, is largely forgotten.

The reaction to Robson’s death shows that football remains an issue through which elite commentators express their fear or loathing or pity of the lower orders. For all the discussion of Robson’s era as one where decent working-class blokes simply loved the beautiful game, many have forgotten that, in fact, those working-class fans were frequently looked down upon by snobbish officials and observers as ruffians or hooligans in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Today, commentators romanticise earlier footballing heroes and audiences – conveniently brushing over the demonisation of those very people in the past – in order to express their sense of distance from today’s footballing heroes and audiences, who are seen as too money-obsessed, too loud, too rowdy; that is, they aren’t the obedient, cloth cap-wearing, ‘salt of the earth’ football types who we now imagine peopled the stadiums and pitches of Britain until some time around 1966.

It is telling that those footballers accused of introducing crassness and bling to the game actually loved Robson just as much as any of those now expressing sanctimony dressed up as nostalgia. ‘He could be my grandfather’, said then Newcastle midfielder Jermaine Jenas, ‘but somehow he doesn’t seem old – he’s on your wavelength’. Robson himself was all too aware that footballers should not always be expected to be well behaved; as he said of some of his players’ behaviour during a particularly difficult time publicity-wise for Newcastle: ‘They can’t be monks. We don’t want them to be monks, we want them to be football players because a monk doesn’t play football at this level.’ Exactly.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume criticised the obsession with squeaky-clean role models and the desire to bash footballers. Duleep Allirajah discussed the meaning of football. Matthias Heitmann wanted to kick morality and politics out of football. Rob Lyons explained why grief should not be a national sport. Or read more at spiked issue Sport.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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