Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Sir Bobby Robson

You can blame Princess Diana. You can blame the general dismantling of the British stiff upper lip. Whatever you blame it's hard to argue that we are beginning to devalue death by continually leaping into orgies of grief.

How can the great lives be properly marked when the Prime Minister mourns the death of racist reality TV stars? If Gordon Brown speaks ever so sincerely over the death of Jade Goody then what else can we do but doubt his sincerity as he emotes on the death of World War One veteran Harry Patch.

I wrote about this before, shortly after the death of Tommy Burns. A tongue in cheek response not to the death of a decent, honest man but to the idea that death – and so the life itself – is seemingly now measured in the length of the applause, the number of floral tributes and the amount of disruption caused to the fixture list. And, I must say, the Celtic fans took no little exception to my temerity: although their outrage, whether real or faux, seemed to somewhat illuminate my argument that we were in the hold of a facist fetish of death and grieving.

If the death of every one who has been on TV or appeared in Heat becomes the "loss of a legend" then the death of true legends is inevitably devalued.

But cynical as I am, I have found something moving, something totally genuine to the outpouring of grief that followed the death of Sir Bobby Robson.

Here was a football man through and through. He didn't survive at the top for so long, including eight years as England manager which coincided with the tabloids casting aside responsible journalism and turning into a rabid hunting pack, without a strong dose of steel in his soul.

That he did this while retaining the air of an avuncular uncle says much for his essential decency, his essential humanity. Of course the verbal slips helped the image, an unwitting PR dream from a man who probably had no truck with corporate image builders.

His "morning Bobby" greeting to Bryan Robson is the stuff of football legend. On the same trip a player was listening to his Walkman (link included for younger readers) and was singing along. Bobby overheard the refrain "the heat is on" and immediately began racing around checking the radiators and speaking darkly about Mexican schemes to sabotage his players by turning on the central heating despite the stifling heat outside.

My own favourite was a book signing when a girl asked Bobby if he'd signed many books. “Hundreds” he replied as he signed away. When she got home he'd written a lovely message. Inevitably he'd signed it "love, Bobby Hundreds."

His place in the national psyche was assured by a heady combination of Pavarotti, Gazza's tears and Nick Hornby's intellectualising of football. It survived his extended European sojourn and was cemented by the emotional return to St James' Park as a kind of grandfather for the national game.

But if he was a link to the rebirth of English football so he was also a link to a simpler and purer time. The recounting of his miracles at Ipswich over the last few days imbue his achievements there with a Corinthian spirit. Truly, we will never see their likes again.

In those days he couldn't have envisioned how Sky's millions would remove players from the orbit of the fans who no longer paid the major whack of their wages. Similarly the cult of manager would have astounded him and, as much he was proud of his protege, he must have looked a Jose Mourinho and sometimes wondered what kind of monster he had created.

He spent time down the pits before joining Fulham. This tied him to the likes of Stein and Shankly and also grounded him and so many footballers of his generation in a reality that is completely alien to the sort of millionaire players who so spinelessly took his beloved Toon into the championship.

As long as Bobby was around there was a link to a simpler time. Part of the grief surrounding his death is caused by the realisation that whatever direction football now takes the possibility of turning back the clock is gone. Robson had come to embody values that were disappearing from the game. They are now gone forever.

But above all the grief comes from the desire to pay tribute to a man who found wealth and success but never lost his pure enjoyment of the game. He called himself blessed to have lived his life. Such was the infectiousness of the enjoyment he took from his work, his enthusiasm for what he would always think of as the beautiful games, that those of use who followed his career felt some of those blessings rub off on us.

On Friday a radio phone in had the story of a group being shown round at Newcastle. They came face to face with Sir Bobby. One of the group, as happens when meeting a hero, become tongue tied. Feeling the need to say something he chose, bizarrely, to express his admiration for the great man's shoes.

Many managers would not have stopped to chat in the first place. Those that did might well have called security when opinions on their shoes were offered.

Sir Bobby on the other hand took his shoes off and handed them to his stunned interrogator: "You have them, son."

A small, quirky tale in a sea of anecdotes from the great and the good. But one, it seems to me, that provides a glimpse into the essential nature of a life well lived by one of the true football men.