The football documentary has of late received a makeover. It was inevitable that the modern-day football documentary would outgrow its gritty, made-for-television docudrama form of the 2000s, to evolve into a more elegant form that melds minimalistic storytelling and raw footage to create a compelling documentary. The masterful F1 documentary Senna has driven this change, and its influence has been seen in recent football documentaries such as Maradona and here with Bobby Robson: More Than A Manager. This documentary outlines Sir Bobby Robson’s various managerial achievements and falls from grace, and crafts a fine portrait of an often cruelly denigrated and misunderstood football man with a worldly bent. Even though Robson passed away from lung cancer in 2009, his legacy positively resounds into the present day. Interviews with figures from Robson’s life showed him to be a caring mentor to his players but a distant father, a successful and daring coach punished for his success, and a man who always looked like he was chasing up ‘unfinished business’.
“When he got on the train at Durham to go to Fulham, and he was looking out the window and he was waving, well, I just broke down to think that, was he going to make the grade? Was he going to be alright?“Sir Bobby’s father Philip Robson on his son’s start to his playing career
The opening words of Robson, narrated by the man himself, sets the tone of an uncertain adventure already longed played out. “In my early days,” he says, “I always knew what I wanted to do. It was in my blood. I never knew where it would lead me.” Robson continues in a non-linear fashion, beginning with him taking on the Barcelona coaching job nine months after recovering from an operation to remove a malignant melanoma in his head. The mid-to-late 90s is the anchoring point for Robson, and despite the timeline jumping to his salad days as Ipswich manager and to his infamous stint as England manager through the 80s, we always return to his managerial glory days in continental Europe. This period, highlighted by his Barcelona days, acts as the conflict that drives the narrative forward.
The magic of Robson inevitably lies with his days as England head coach and as the successor to Johan Cruyff at Barcelona. The touchstone moments within these periods are covered with invaluable raw footage. An irate Robson fronts a press pack disputing Maradona’s first goal in England’s 1986 World Cup quarter final against England (“Maradona handled the ball into the goal, didn’t he? Didn’t he?”). We watch a nervous Robson fold a paper cup from the touchline as he sees England bow out to West Germany in the 1990 World Cup semi-final. We chuckle at his valiant attempts to speak Spanish in press conferences (“Figo, problem, fora. Stoichkov, problem, fora.”), and stand and salute his glorious last stand against the opposing forces within his own club to lead Barca to three trophies in a season before being unceremoniously dumped from his position as manager. No bit of footage is wasted in Robson, and through the lens of hindsight, we learn that Robson, despite his individual brilliance and his legitimate success, was always on a hiding to nothing from internal and external forces in the football world. Like myself, younger football fans will primarily remember Robson from his time as manager of Newcastle United in the early 2000s. Robson’s stint at Newcastle—his last—was a bittersweet one. The toxic situation at the club before Robson’s departure is palpably conveyed through Robson.
“He said it was the hand of God. I said it was the hand of a rascal. And I’m right.”Sir Bobby on Maradona’s infamous goal in the 1986 World Cup
The interviews carry legitimacy with endorsements of Robson by figures such as Jose Mourinho, Alan Shearer, Ronaldo, Sir Alex Ferguson, Gary Lineker, and Pep Guardiola. Robson clearly had a great influence on Mourinho’s career. Mourinho’s default pose of ‘resting belligerence’ is occasionally broken by misty-eyed recollections (“Without feeling [Robson’s] trust, I couldn’t jump so fast to be working with the best players in the world. Our relationship was phenomenal”). Pep Guardiola recounts how he offered to join Robson at Newcastle United following Robson’s departure from Barcelona (a real sliding-doors moment). Paul Gascoigne, perpetually on the verge of tears, tells of the deep, father-son relationship he had with Robson and how he would receive two calls a week from Robson following Robson’s sacking from Newcastle (“Under Sir Bobby, I knew I was safe. I was safe”; [Robson] could have done anything…to spend most of this time worrying about me was so, so, so unbelievable”). However, Robson’s dedication to his players is reflected with the distance he kept from his family, with his son Mark Robson lamenting that his father spent relatively little time with him. Robson, on a sombre, final note in Robson, seems to acknowledge this.
“They were spot-on when they chose Mr. Robson to be the next one. Spot on.“Jose Mourinho on Robson’s appointment as Barcelona manager.
Where there is sentimentality, there is also a sense of despondency and feeling of betrayal in the interviews. In regards to Robson’s sacking from Newcastle United, his wife states that “[Robson] was very heartbroken when he was guillotined”, and his son claims that “His world fell apart. We can’t believe it still. Brutal.” Most tellingly was former Newcastle chairman Freddie Shepherd’s assertion that sacking Robson “was like shooting Bambi”. The undercurrent of sadness that flows through Robson is allowed to flow here in its latter parts, especially when Robson, stricken with terminal cancer, shows up to greet the players before the charity match for his foundation, and specifically gives Paul Gascoigne one final word of encouragement.
Devoted disciples to Robson may find the documentary lacking substance in terms of his initial forays into management on the European continent (PSV Eindhoven and Porto) in the 1990s, and a more complete picture of Robson’s life is best served in his autobiographies and biography. Despite this, Robson, as a documentary, almost bursts at its seams with the amount of territory covered. As a lovingly-curated account of Robson’s managerial life, Robson never overstates itself, and as a result is a simple, eminently watchable appraisal of an unforgettable figure in football history. The renaissance of the football documentary is well and truly in swing, and Robson is a prime example of it.
“I remember everything. How long have you got?“Bobby Robson on his life
UNDER 20: A lovingly compiled and elegant recounting of Sir Bobby Robson’s managerial career.