The world bids farewell to Sir Bobby Robson

by Kevin Coleman

The tumultuous strains of Nessun Dorma hit their crescendo, the years fell away and the tears flowed inevitably once more down the cheeks of Paul Gascoigne.

Not just dear old Gazza.

There were misty eyes everywhere in Durham Cathedral at an emotional thanksgiving service for Sir Bobby Robson which was attended by the great and the even greater of world football as well as family and friends.

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But there were smiles and laughter too. And an outpouring of affection which is rarely seen for those in public life.

So much so that you could imagine Sir Bobby shaking his head in bemusement at how a young boy who began work in the local colliery as an apprentice electrician should have generated tributes of such depth and warmth.

“A footballing colossus,” said the Right Reverend Martin Wharton, Bishop of Newcastle and a season-ticket holder at St James’ Park.

And the congregation shoehorned into the magnificent Norman cathedral, and no doubt those watching on big screens in Newcastle, Ipswich and Fulham, nodded in agreement.

Sir Bobby Charlton had arrived with Sir Alex Ferguson. Former England managers Sven-Goran Eriksson, Graham Taylor and Terry Venables shared a word, while current England boss Fabio Capello led the footballing glitterati which included the entire Newcastle first-team squad, Premier League managers Harry Redknapp, Roy Hodgson, Steve Bruce and Mick McCarthy.

Ipswich boss Roy Keane took his place in the back pew while another former England manager, Steve McClaren, arrived late and was forced to wait by the door as the clergy filed in.

But while Welsh soprano Katherine Jenkins sang hauntingly and the Last Post sounded, it was the strains of Nessun Dorma which transported everyone back to Sir Bobby’s finest hour at Italia 90.

To Gary Lineker’s goals, Gazza’s tears, Lineker’s famous warning glance to the touchline, the missed penalties of Chris Waddle and Stuart Pearce and a manager in Robson who met desperate defeat in the semi-final against Germany with the splendid dignity which categorised his life.

What memories. Wistful and wonderful. And all around there were faces, older and greyer but still familiar. Faces which helped form a jigsaw of Robson’s career.

Such as Peter Beardsley and David Seaman and Alan Shearer, the latter captaining Robson’s Newcastle team and who credited “the great man” with prolonging his career.

Such as his ‘Captain Marvel’ and namesake Bryan Robson who once encountered Sir Bobby emerging from a hotel lift at the Mexico World Cup, deep in thought.

“Hi Bobby,” said Sir Bobby. “No, you’re Bobby, I’m Bryan,” chuckled Bryan.

Just one endearing story of many which filled the Durham air as memories were swapped of a man who was in turn passionate, inspiring, impossibly brave and at times just a tad absent-minded.

Lineker told of being called up for his England debut by Robson and receiving a nod on the substitutes’ bench with 20 minutes to go. “Get warmed up Garth,” said Sir Bobby.

But Lineker also revealed the astute football mind. Before the quarter-final against Cameroon England were practising in front of the public and Lineker was worried about revealing where he would put his penalties.

“Put them in the opposite corner while the people are watching,” said Robson. He did and the rest is history, Lineker scoring twice from the spot in the match itself.

There were tales of him chasing Gascoigne around a golf course screaming at the man he famously once described as “Daft as a brush” to put a shirt on. More stories about him dragging Gazza off a tennis court hours before a World Cup match, his anger at Diego Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ goal and yet more of the manner in which he lifted England’s desolate World Cup players off the dressing room floor after that defeat to West Germany.

Of course bad words rarely accompany a thanksgiving service, but with Robson you just know it was because there are none.

No meanness. No deceit. No cheating. None of the scandal which so regularly hits the headlines where football is concerned.

“He was everything that was good about the game,” said Lineker. “He loved the game and the game loved him. A lion of a man – make that ‘three lions’.”

There were other tributes. From Tom Wilson, his Fulham team-mate and flatmate and best man who told of his passion for cricket and the wish to see England beat Australia in the Ashes Down Under. A dream cancelled when he was diagnosed with cancer for the fifth time.

From Sir Alex Ferguson, too, who told of Robson’s generosity in allowing him as a young Aberdeen manager to watch Ipswich train two weeks before the clubs faced each other in European combat.

The two became great friends and Ferguson credits Robson with extending his career, ringing him up whenever there was a hint of him hanging up his hairdryer and saying disbelievingly: “You’re not retiring, are you?”

Sir Alex chuckled at that, glancing across at the portrait of a proud Sir Bobby on the altar.

A proud man whose enthusiasm was legendary and who never forgot his mining roots.

A man whose courage and resilience shone through, no more so than when Dr Ruth Plummer, the oncologist who worked with him in setting up his foundation, marvelled at his energy in the last 18 months of his life in which he raised more than £1.5million for a cancer research centre at the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle.

“A true gentleman who never walked away” was how she summed him up.

Never daunted by the critics even when he was vilified at times as England manager. Never bitter.

In a playing career with Fulham and West Brom he won 20 England caps. As a manager he spent 14 years at Ipswich, famously winning the FA Cup in 1978 and the UEFA Cup in 1981 before the England years, after which he enjoyed success with PSV Eindhoven, Sporting Lisbon, Porto and Barcelona.

He returned home to Newcastle in 1999 and twice took Newcastle into the Champions League before being sacked in 2004 after finishing fifth in the Premier League. Still he was not bitter.

As his best man Tom Wilson said, while apologising for the cliche: “We will never see his like again.”

He might just be right.

By Frank Malley, Chief Writer, Press Association Sport

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