Bobby Robson film offers smiles, tears and plenty of fond memories

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Watching the elegantly put together More Than A Manager highlights why Robson was so revered by fans, players and fellow managers

17 September ~ It is a measure of the esteem – let’s go further – the love for Sir Bobby Robson that such football A-listers line up in this film to talk about him with genuine affection.

José Mourinho and Pep Guardiola tell us how he fed their ambition to coach. Gary Lineker and Alan Shearer say he saved their careers and Alex Ferguson talks with reverence for an equal who supported him in his early days and wasn’t shy of turning up on his doorstep for a chat. Even more touching were his relationships with the Brazilian Ronaldo: “He trusted me. He made me feel calm,” and of course Paul Gascoigne: “I knew I was safe.”

When you watch Bobby Robson: More than a Manager you can’t fail to see why Robson was so revered; his enthusiasm bursts through the screen. He wants to talk football, he wants to play football and almost nothing was hidden.

The only time you see him actively choking down emotion is when we are left with the isolated camera trained on his face as Chris Waddle takes his fateful penalty at the 1990 World Cup. The film doesn’t cut to the match footage – you know what happens – but stays with the manager fighting to maintain dignity in heartbreak.

We feel his pain when his beloved clubs Barcelona and Newcastle each gave up on him too early and his sense of injustice after Diego Maradona’s Hand of God. Pictures of Argentina’s jubilant dressing room are overlaid with Robson’s post-match comments; he’s more than angry, he’s betrayed by football.

There’s fury with the media, understandably. As his wife Lady Elsie puts it, his treatment by the newspapers was “barbaric” and in his exasperation we see him interrupt the dour Graham Kelly in a media conference at which they announce that Robson was leaving the England job to denounce the latest onslaught.

His chief regrets aren’t for football matches lost but for time he didn’t spend with his family. Mark Robson admits he and his brothers hardly ever sat down to talk football with their dad. And true to form, Sir Bobby wasn’t sanguine about losing his final battle with cancer. We see a frail man greeting Gascoigne and others at a charity match played in the early days of his cancer research foundation, which were the last days of his life. Elsie tells us: “He felt like he was being robbed.”

There are plenty of smiles too. I enjoyed his 1969 interview as Ipswich’s new manager with altogether posher, more clipped tones than when he later relaxed in front of the cameras. And you might appreciate Mourinho’s intelligence that bit more when you reflect on how he had to translate his boss’s Geordie/Spanish mash-up for the Catalans.

There’s a danger that a documentary about someone as popular as Bobby Robson can turn into a hagiography and, it’s true, no one comes along to tell us that they didn’t love and respect him. The only time the praise overreaches is when Lineker describes his old boss as “the greatest English manager” – perhaps forgetting Brian Clough at the moment of recording. There’s little attempt to discuss Robson’s shortcomings as a manager other than to question his recruitment at Newcastle and how his tendency to put trust in his players backfired that time. “The players were cruel,” concludes Sir John Hall but Ferguson blames the hierarchy, describing Newcastle as a “club of confusion” who never recovered from the baffling decision to turn out their popular and successful manager.

It’s a lovingly made film that makes elegant use of a great depth of footage – from Robson the player to the dressing room motivator, and to the dad on the beach. It is unapologetic in its care for its subject, a welcome touch of class in the throwaway era of YouTubers.

There’s no one quite like Bobby Robson in football these days – or if there is we wouldn’t know it. We see managers as much as ever before but the environment is more controlled, the words more cautious. Can we blame them? Robson’s ordeal when he was caught in the crossfire of tabloid circulation wars contributed to football’s tendency to erect defensive walls around its personalities and we are all a little poorer for that. Jon Driscoll

This article first appeared in WSC 378, September 2018. Subscribers get free access to the complete WSC digital archive – you can find out more here