It is testament to his achievements in his career that sadness at the death of Bobby Robson will reach far beyond the boundaries of his beloved North-East or even the shores of Great Britain. Robson’s skills as a player and manager as well as his gentle and welcoming manner, meant he was respected and much loved across the footballing world.
This is definitely the case with Barcelona, with whom Robson had a successful two year spell in the mid 1990s. Before moving to Catalonia Robson was manager of FC Porto where, with a certain Jose Mourinho as his right hand man, he won a Portuguese Cup and successive league titles.
Then in the summer of 1996 a phone call from Barca vice-president Joan Gaspart regarding Luis Figo led to Robson moving to the Nou Camp with Mourinho again as his assistant. He was succeeding Johan Cruyff, a true Barca legend, who had guided the Barca ‘dream team’ to European Cup success in 1992. The pressure was on Robson.
Having been told by Blackburn that Alan Shearer wasn’t for sale one of Robson’s first actions at Barcelona was to persuade president Josep Luis Nunez to part with upward of $20 million to sign 20-year-old Brazilian striker Ronaldo from his former club PSV Eindhoven.
It was a huge gamble by Robson and one that put his reputation on the line. But one of Robson’s skills was getting the maximum out of his players. His man-management was second to none and his gamble on Ronaldo proved to be a masterstroke as the striker upset the Spanish football odds and went on to grab 45 goals in 48 starts during the 1996-97 season.
Not that Robson’s skill was restricted to young players. He knew that big name players needed to be carefully managed. In an interview while at Newcastle United Robson recalled his time at Barca:
“To have managed big players like Ronaldo, Guardiola, De La Pena and Figo you have to have tremendous knowledge, courage, guile and self-confidence. If you don’t they will find you out.”
That year Barca beat Atletico Madrid to lift the Spanish Super Cup and defeated Real Betis 3-2 to lift the Copa Del Rey. Robson added a third trophy to the cabinet when Barca beat Paris St-Germain 1-0 to lift the European Cup Winners’ Cup.
But despite the success Robson was always seen as an interim coach while the club waited for Louis Van Gaal to become available. When the Dutchman moved to Barca in the summer of 1997 Bobby Robson moved upstairs to become technical director.
Further success would follow in 1997-98 as they won the Spanish League and Cup double. But in the summer of 1998 the lure of Robson’s former club PSV proved too much to resist and he returned to Holland.
Despite his short tenure in Spain the Barca fans quickly took Robson to their hearts, in particular because of the way he guided and nurtured a young Ronaldo to such heights. We can only wonder what he would have achieved had he stayed on for longer.
But for now I am sure Barca fans will join the rest of the footballing world in mourning the passing of a true footballing legend, whether he played for or managed a side you support or not.
R.I.P. Bobby, football is much the poorer without you.