Sunday 2 August ~
When I was at school, in FA Cup final week we would pick a team to support and chant our favoured side’s name at each other across the playground. In 1978, for reasons long forgotten, I chose to cheer on Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town as they took on Arsenal. It was the first game of football I ever watched, and I remember well enjoying the new feeling of smugness and satisfaction brought about by Ipswich’s victory.
And so I became an Ipswich fan. Such was Robson’s impact at Ipswich that a decision to follow them based largely on glory-hunting motives seemed not at all ludicrous. For a decade, they were consistently much better than Manchester United, Arsenal and almost everyone else. Even taking into account the vastly different financial landscape of the day, that was a remarkable achievement.
Robson’s triumph was the ability to produce a competitive team year after year without the luxury of frequent trips to the transfer market. The 1978 team that won the Cup was actually an exception, having had a poor season in the League. Robson promptly brought in Arnold Muhren and Frans Thijssen for less money than he’d sold Brian Talbot, changed the way the team played, immediately re-established them as a top-six club and ultimately led Ipswich to UEFA Cup victory in 1981. The team failed to win as many trophies as they undoubtedly should in this era, something that remained one of Robson's biggest regrets.
Though Sir Alf Ramsey brought Town the League Championship, it was under Robson’s leadership that Ipswich were transformed. Not only did Robson make his name there, he made the club’s name while he was at it. He set standards on and off the field that the club will realistically never reach again.
On Friday evening, hours after Robson had finally succumbed to the cancer that he had been outwitting for years, I went to see Ipswich take on Real Valladolid. Like most in attendance, I visited the statue of Sir Bobby standing proudly outside Portman Road, pointing towards the stadium. The statue was adorned with a single Ipswich scarf, while shirts and flowers lay all around. Hundreds stood in thoughtful silence. Robson’s not inconsiderable achievements elsewhere notwithstanding, it was as the thoroughly decent and successful manager of our club that we admired him.
But for Robson, I may have missed out on the joy of being a football fan altogether. If he hadn’t managed to coax such a tremendous performance from his team that day at Wembley in May 1978, Arsenal may have prevailed, I would have been on the receiving end of playground taunts the following Monday and may have decided football was not for me. Watching the winning goal again yesterday, the frisson I had felt when Roger Osborne’s shot rippled the net came back to me. It was a feeling that has shaped my life. Thanks for that, Sir Bobby. Rest in peace. Csaba Abrahall