Newcastle United, what does that mean to me now? It’s certainly changed over my time supporting this football club. I was hooked and fell in love with the famous black and white shirt from a very early age, just like the majority of Geordie bairns.
There is a quote by Sir Bobby Robson that summed up everything I felt for Newcastle.
“What is a club in any case? Not the buildings or the directors or the people who are paid to represent it. It’s not the television contracts, get-out clauses, marketing departments or executive boxes. It’s the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city. It’s a small boy clambering up stadium steps for the very first time, gripping his father’s hand, gawping at that hallowed stretch of turf beneath him and, without being able to do a thing about it, falling in love.”
I say, “felt” because if this year has shown anything, it’s that Newcastle isn’t the football club that understands the community and really cares for the supporters, the city and the surrounding areas. Sadly it hasn’t been that way for some time - Newcastle United were a very different club when I was growing up. A club with a sense of excitement, a club with a vision and an identity. There were fantastic characters like Tino Asprilla, David Batty, Alan Shearer, Laurent Robert and many more.
The Newcastle of today seems a world away from the one I fell in love with all those years ago. There is no connection between the club and its supporter, as that connection faded due to the way the club has been run over the last decade. Sir Bobby Robson made me fall deeper in love with the club, he took a club that had very little direction and propelled them to Europe. He was a gentleman and a pure football man.
It wasn't just a vision or a sense of ambition that Sir Bobby brought to Newcastle, it was exciting football. You couldn't wait to watch Newcastle play each week. There was a great energy about Sir Bobby, he was obsessed with football and had such a drive to win. He was unique, there won’t be another quite like Sir Bobby. He had a massive impact on some of the biggest names in football, from Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho to Ruud van Nistelrooy, Luis Figo and Ronaldo. They all say similar things when it comes to Sir Bobby, a father figure who helped their careers blossom.
It says a lot about the man and the club that Newcastle have never really recovered from sacking Sir Bobby in 2004. He completely transformed the Tyneside club, saved them from what looked to be a disastrous campaign when he first arrived and got the Magpies into the Champions League. There was a buzz and a bounce about the Newcastle side under Sir Bobby Robson, a determination and a real desire and fight to win.
Under Sir Bobby's management Newcastle finished 11th in his first two seasons, then placed in the top 5 in his final three seasons in charge. A real transformation from a club that was on a downward trajectory, following spells under Kenny Dalglish and Ruud Gullit. Sir Bobby lifted the whole city, like Kevin Keegan once did before him. Having grown up in the North East, Sir Bobby understood the club, fans and how special Newcastle is. It was a match made in heaven, a relationship that just clicked.
Sir Bobby was an incredibly kind individual, something so rarely found in football, no matter the era. He cared about everything and everyone - his players, his club, his supporters and his region. It was that fierce pride and passion with which he guided Newcastle from the brink of self-combustion, all the way to Champions League qualification inside three years, and without being afforded the luxury of heavy investment in the squad.
In February 2003, as Sir Bobby was turning 70 and Newcastle were going all out for the Premier League title while simultaneously balancing historic European exploits, the BBC turned up at St James’ Park to film a documentary called “Just Call Me Bobby”. It was in celebration of his birthday; but this wasn’t just any birthday. Sir Bobby became the first manager to work in the Premier League into his seventh decade. Even today, 17 years on, only three others have joined him in reaching that milestone. His cancer was laying dormant at the time, too. It took incredible strength of character for him to guide the team, not only with his trademark enthusiasm, but in a way which masked what must have been a daily struggle.
Gary Lineker, the former England striker who led the line for Sir Bobby’s team at Italia ’90, was the presenter. In his office at St James’ Park, next to a wall adorned with pictures and poems from his grandchildren, Sir Bobby turned to Lineker and showed him the mail he received daily, between 80 and 90 letters, with countless more requests.
Lineker looks at him and says: “But you say yes to everything!” Bobby laughs to himself and admits that, yes, he is a bit of a soft touch, The tough job of delivering rejections is down to his secretary, Judith Horey. A soft touch he may have been with his many admirers - he’d pose for every picture and sign every autograph even as he was battling cancer again in later life, keeping the true extent of his pain hidden - but he certainly wasn’t with his players.
It became very easy for the Newcastle United board, and even some members of the fanbase, to justify Sir Bobby’s sacking in August 2004, after failure to secure a third successive top four finish in the league and starting the new season without a win in four games, by suggesting he’d lost the dressing room. Kieron Dyer, Craig Bellamy and, amazingly, Alan Shearer, were adjudged to have aided his departure in some way. Shearer has denied that on his part, but the bigger picture is that something which has been allowed to be accepted almost as fact, actually doesn’t stock up at all well in context.
Bellamy, Dyer and a number of others in that squad have admitted that they were difficult characters in their youth. But only the end, rather than the full five-year reign, was taken into consideration. Sir Bobby had juggled egos and age division with such style and grace - everybody wanted to play for Newcastle, and win for him. He spanned generations and left whoever he met in awe of him. That was the power of the man - he saw the best in people, he wanted the best for people, and he gifted Newcastle United fans their club back. Time has only reacted more favourably on him and his mystique cannot be understated.
Describing it almost always does him a disservice, as Sir Bobby’s heart was as pure as they come. He poured every drop of energy he had into this cancer foundation in the final year of his life, not for his own benefit, but rather because he grasped both the pain the disease caused and the power of community. Generosity was at the very core of almost everything he did.
The former Newcastle manager faced and overcame many battles, though none were harder than his battle with cancer. While manager of Porto, Sir Bobby suffered from malignant melanoma and this caused him to miss the first few months of the 1995/96 season. In all, Sir Bobby was diagnosed with cancer five times. As a result of his battles, he launched the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation. The money raised from The Foundation helped fund equipment for the Sir Bobby Robson Cancer Trials Research Centre in Newcastle and he would go on to fund other cancer projects in the North East.
“In life, you know, you can’t succeed and be clever and be bright, be correct and spot on all the time. Life is more complicated than that, life is more difficult than that, it’s a tough world out there and if you’re not a tough guy, you won’t survive - Not to get to where you want to be in your sphere.”
It's difficult to find the words to describe such an iconic man and manager. Sir Bobby was one of a kind and I will always wonder just where this club would be now if they didn't sack him...There's only one Bobby Robson.