Bobby Robson: More Than A Manager

Sir Bobby Robson watches on as England capitulate to West Germany in 1990

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.

Jose Mourinho, Sir Bobby, and Ronaldo taste victory

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.

Paul Gascoigne on Sir Bobby

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
Sir Bobby at Newcastle United

STARS: 4.5/5

UNDER 20: A lovingly compiled and elegant recounting of Sir Bobby Robson’s managerial career.

Find Bobby Robson: More That A Manager on IMDB

The Stupid Footballer is Dead – Paul McVeigh

Paul McVeigh’s curiously named The Stupid Footballer Is Dead outlines some important lessons potential footballers must learn in the modern age of footballing. With great focus nowadays on sports science, the days of when a footballer could sink pints down at the pub following a game are well and truly over. McVeigh, however, insists that understanding sports psychology—a fascinating yet underappreciated frontier—is just as important in a footballer’s quest to succeed at the professional level and beyond.

Chapters titled ‘Create a Helpful Self-Image’, ‘Think About Thinking’, ‘Focus on Success’, and ‘Take Preparation and Recovery Seriously’ aren’t exactly new and edifying topics for a footballer already initiated at any professional level. Such advice is straight out of an instructional training session of an honest pro made good in the world beyond football. However, McVeigh very often hits the right tone when doling out his wisdom that is based on his experience mentoring young footballers and aiding in their psychological development. Paul McVeigh is a rare breed—a former pro at the highest level who is also an authority on footballing psychology. He provides case studies of footballers embodying the psychological tenets he describes—examples include James Milner typifying ‘Preparation and Recovery’, and Robert Green typifying ‘Meet Adversity with Strength’.

The anecdotes from McVeigh’s playing days are there too, and serve to flesh out his points. You’ll get snippets of what happened to Rory Allen, McVeigh’s fellow professional at Tottenham; how McVeigh got a gig with Sky Sports; and his on-field tussle with Tim Cahill. He touches on tragedy too, particularly with a car accident following a win in the Championship playoff semi-final.

Here is where The Stupid Footballer is Dead seems to be caught between self-help and autobiography. Autobiographies of players of McVeigh’s ilk are gold dust in a burgeoning market for football literature. Content here, however, is often abridged so as not to override a point. From his Belfast boyhood to sharing a dressing room with the likes of Craig Bellamy, Dean Ashton, and Robert Green (“never fully integrated with the team”), the kernel of an entertaining autobiography is here, yet never fully explored.

Some of McVeigh’s assertions are perhaps a little wide of the mark, also. With the wealth of excellent footballing journalism and long-form nowadays, his criticism of journalists who have never played the game is needlessly dismissive, churlish and straight out of the Robbie Savage book of punditry.

Despite the above shortcomings, The Stupid Footballer is Dead certainly also holds value for the typical footballing fan. McVeigh is a success story in retirement from football, and is a product of the discipline and open-mindedness that he practiced during his playing career. Many of the lessons McVeigh describes can be applied to high-performance tasks or everyday life, and will attract the more reluctant reader of self-help books. He introduces the wonderful mantra to live by, “There is no such thing as failure, only feedback” which should inspire many readers.

From McVeigh’s mentor, Gavin Drake:

“Gavin had explained to me that when we ‘focus’ we should be channelling our energy into what we want to happen with an expectation of achieving that aim. The brain works ‘teleologically’, which means that it will lock on to and help you achieve whatever you focus on, and quite naturally, you will gravitate in that direction.” (pg. 52)

STARS: 3/5

FULL TIME SCORE: An inspiring 2-0 win led by the red-faced veteran at the heart of defence, willing his young charges on until the final whistle.

Retired – Alan Gernon

Retired is a thorough write-up of the numerous troubles faced by football players upon leaving professional football. The footballing public is often unsympathetic and critical of highly-paid stars who have fallen on hard times, however Retired provides some much-needed perspective on the personal and health issues ex-footballers are consumed by when the game leaves the players behind.

Retirement for ex-footballers is indeed a scary premise. Over nine chapters, author Alan Gernon remains sympathetic of ex-footballers in navigating the retirement ‘minefield’. His description of issues such as divorce, bankruptcy, drug use, gambling, physical and mental health, and crime are well-researched and underpinned with relevant and often shocking statistics. For example, the author states that: 80% of retired players will suffer from osteoarthritis; 75% will get divorced within three years of retirement; and 35% will suffer from some form of depression. In a book replete with such statistics, Niall Quinn’s insistence that Retired is “the most important football book in a long time” is certainly given credence. The anecdotes from and of ex-players also give depth to the sobering and often dry reading. As such, the stories of Lee Hendrie, Peter Storey, and Michael Branch among others are drawn upon.

Jeff Astle’s sad passing from CTE frames Retired’s damning assessment of the football industry’s handling of the mental health of ex-professionals; an assessment that also touches upon male bravado in the dressing room as a mask for depression and anxiety (remember what John Gregory said to Stan Collymore all those years ago?).

The tone of Retired is hard-edged and softens in its treatise of players voluntarily giving the game away completely, or staying in the game as a pundit or coach. Who’d ever thought David Bentley would be now running restaurants in Spain, or Lee Bowyer would be clearing the brush away from his own fishing lake in France? You may not be familiar with names such as Richard Leadbeater or Shane Supple, but their stories are fascinating. Such anecdotes serve to show that players fall out of love with the game, and the decision to quit can be a slow-burning one or even a sudden one—as in the case of Espen Baardsen’s decision to give it away just as he was about to tuck into a Tesco sandwich. This softer side of Retired acts as a counterpoint to the first half of the book.

Of particular highlight is the interview with BBC pundit and seeming Renaissance Man, Pat Nevin. He comes across as erudite and well-informed, and throws in his two cents about the desperate hordes of ex-professionals thinking that punditry is a given upon retirement.

Retired hits hard like an expose aimed more so toward footballing authorities, rather than the failures of footballers failing to recognise the pitfalls of a cutthroat profession. A sense of entitlement pervades but is rarely touched upon, and player failings in avoiding issues such as bankruptcy, divorce, and gambling and not covered in Retired. Although these failings are not the only causes for an ex-player’s downward spiral in retirement, the blinkered attitudes of professional players at the highest level prior to retirement was not adequately covered in Retired. A pro career may finish in an instant, or it can be a dramatic fall from grace. The author, in this respect, was prescient with his description of a World Cup 2018 England squad featuring Joe Hart.

Nevertheless, Retired is indeed an important book for football fans that will add broad shades of understanding to complex issues facing ex-professionals, and will add much-needed perspective to often one-sided pub arguments.

On the attrition rate of young professionals:

“A young player, groomed by their club since childhood, has solely focused on a career in the game. They generally have no education to fall back on, so when they’re one of the 98 per cent to be jettisoned between the ages of 16 and 21 panic sets in—remember you are only two per cent on 16-year-olds on a club’s books that are still playing professionally by the age of 21. For the 22 players on the pitch in the next match you watch, consider that there are another 1,100 who were churned out and discarded by professional football before getting the proverbial key of the door.” (pg. 103)

In an interview with Gordon Watson:

“Watson had been gambling during his career but the free time afforded by retirement exacerbated his problems. ‘I think that it took hold all the way through my career. Time, place and money are the triangle of disaster. But I didn’t have the time when I was a player. I was training or travelling or preparing for a match. But as soon as the lines of the triangle align, then it’s just like a runaway train.” (pg. 237)

STARS: 3.5/5

FULL TIME SCORE: An end-of-season 2-2 away draw upon which the long-serving veteran stands tearfully contemplates his retirement before the travelling support.

The Bottom Corner – Nige Tassell

In The Bottom Corner, author Nige Tassell casts light on the non-league echelons of English football and explores the cast of characters involved in keeping afloat the clubs that live and die by individual results. Through this romanticised pallor, the reader is brought into a world underrepresented in slick, mainstream football media—a world that exists below that much vaunted line of professional demarcation, yet seems to actively push against it to remain apart.

Two narratives are presented in depth. Bishop Sutton, cellar dweller of the Toolstation Western League Division One, can barely muster a team to avoid the ignominy of a winless season. Tranmere Rovers (“a star-crossed football club that perpetually finds new and painful ways to kick its fans in the gut”), oh-so-close to a Premier League berth some 25 years ago, attempts to return to the professional league on the first try. No slickly crafted, feel-good tropes of miraculous comebacks and last-minute winners abound here. Instead, these two narratives serve to show just how tumultuous the going can be in non-league football, and how nothing is guaranteed amidst the turgid play of part-timers slugging away at each other for a shot at individual glory at the professional level.

In between these narratives and over ten fascinating chapters, characters emerge that provide shape and substance to non-league football. A Philippines international captain in the twilight of his career. A striker trying his best to get (back) into the national Gibraltar setup. A reluctant goal machine (“I’ve put eighty balls in the net”) who is also restricted in movement due to a driving ban. A young Sierra Leonean and Chelsea U-19 castoff looking for his place in football. Such vignettes serve to highlight the “tension between collective ambition, between team and self, is omnipresent, no matter what level”.

Only in the muddy scrabble of non-league could there be a motley bunch. Coaching staff and fans are well represented, of course, in the pages of The Bottom Corner. So are well-meaning footballing anoraks steeped in the glory of ‘groundhopping’ (“blokes who are forty-five onwards. We’re all trainspotters or ex-trainspotters), as well as the entrenched volunteers such as those at Salford FC refusing to move their food stalls despite Gary Neville’s insistence. Rarely is there disaffection amongst these types, and when there is, something glorious comes out of it—the formation of FC United of Manchester conceived at a series of curry houses comes to mind here.

Where there is glory, however, there is also tragedy. The deaths of two Worthing United players at Shoreham while commuting to a game bookends The Bottom Corner. There is also tragedy that touches on the inherent difficulties faced by non-league clubs and officials. An honest toiler misses training because he has been held in detention; a septuagenarian referee continues officiating out of love, but also because of a lack of young referees; and a successful team completely gutted when its gaffer takes his players and staff to a more competitive level. When BBC presenter Mark Chapman was quoted about non-league football, “I love it. It feels earthy, it feels real. It’s the noise, it’s the Bovril, it’s the smell of a pie that’s been there a week and a half”, he possibly didn’t have in mind the wound-up clubs, the sodden and empty pitches from cancelled games, and the clear lack of investment from England’s ruling football body. This is non-league reality.

Nige Tassell does a remarkable job bringing these stories together. He does, however, seem to spread himself a little thin at times. A such, many stories are naturally open-ended and lack a take-away lesson. A bit of context with the structure of non-league football would not go astray, particularly for someone not familiar with the vagaries of it. The Bottom Corner is a breezy read, and clearly—as has been previously discussed—contains plenty of special moments that will resound with the reader beyond the last page. There are also plenty of those ‘Oh, so that’s where that player ended up!’ moments.

Upon coaching staff of phoenix club Hereford FC returning to the abandoned Edgar Road home ground of the wound-up Hereford United:

“In the home dressing room, the detritus of the final training session lay everywhere—muddy shirts, screwed-up socks and mildewing towels. Upstairs in the bar, the beer had been festering in the pipes for six months, while a selection of mince pies lay untouched on a tray. The Christmas decorations were still up. Everything seemed to be waiting for the arrival of a crack forensics team to dust for prints.” (pg. 272)

STARS: 4/5

FULL TIME SCORE: An entertaining, end-to-end slog in a 3-2 FA Vase tie. Featuring a dog on the pitch.

Lost In France – Spencer Vignes

Lost In France chronicles the life of enigmatic Welsh goalkeeper Leigh Richmond Roose before it was cruelly cut short on a WWI battlefield.

On the football field, Roose was a maverick goalkeeper who set the gold standard for goalkeeping in the early 20th century English leagues. He played with passion, abandon, and inspired a generation of goalkeepers to be as daring as him. Off the field he was a playboy that moved in and out of London social circles, living off the suspect living payments his clubs provided him with in return for his goalkeeping expertise. As such, controversy followed him around in his prime and during the twilight of his career. He burned bridges with some clubs, while others glorified him. He was erudite, athletic, confident–a genuine football philosopher who would regularly wax lyrical on the fine art of goalkeeping in newspapers. This daring-do led him to the WWI battlefield, and after serving England with great pride he, like many of his generation, was cut down in a foreign field.

Lost In France author Vignes delicately and authoritatively picks apart Roose’s life from the scant anecdotal evidence, and his investigation on where Roose’s finally resting place lies is a particular highlight. Overall, Lost In France is not just an insight on the life of the maverick goalkeeper, but an insight into the English football league in its formative years. As such, the writing takes on a historical bent and lacks a certain poetic feel. Nevertheless, Lost In France is an informative and short read that outlays the fascinating English foundations of the game we so love through the prism of one of its forgotten heroes.

It is interesting to note that Vignes has provided a chapter at the end in which Roose’s goalkeeping ‘philosophy’ is laid out in detail, taken from articles Roose had written for newspapers/magazines in his prime. Though Roose’s thoughts are often unintelligible and confusing, there is an undoubted genius behind his words. One can only speculate as to what he could have achieved in his life after football, had he come through WWI.

STARS: 4/5

FULL TIME SCORE: An inspired and heroic display by the goalkeeper leads to a 3-1 win for the away side.

Johnny Cooper, Championship Manager – Chris Darwen

This is a write-up, in journal form, of Mansfield Town’s fictional 1999-2000 season, played out through the football simulator Championship Manager.

In order to appreciate this book, one must be a fan of the CM/FM series, especially the earlier versions. I cut my teeth on the 99/00, 00/01 and 01/02 versions of CM, so I took a particular interest in this book for the nostalgia trip. Therefore, similar CM/FM addicts will find this book worthwhile in some sense.

What is typical of a season summary in the CM universe is repetitive writing (game, incoming news, game, incoming news…). This can be overcome by providing the reader with a team to support and empathise with through the fleshing out of players’ personalities and elaborating upon results.

However, I could not identify with any of the players, simply because I didn’t know who they were. Most players were simply referred to by their nicknames (Chrissy G, Lins, Bowler, Clarkey…), and featured minimally outside of match play. Asides with staff members were a tad hackneyed, and the anecdotes with ‘Leathers’ were repetitive and unnecessary. Also, early pages had an overabundance of prophetic quips regarding some players (“Wenger has bought that French lad, Pires…doubt he’ll do anything over here” and “Graham Barrett. What a talent, if he doesn’t play 100 times for Ireland I know nothing”) that become tired.

All this contributes to the often uninspiring writing which is typified by the Mansfield Town chairman ‘Hazza’ frequently uttering “Absolutely delighted!” after a good win (CM fans will understand this reference, though it gets tiresome quickly).

Fans will, however, get something out of this. Cooper’s blokey, jocular voice is well suited to this story, and his love of Onesimo (a CM legend) will resonate with long-time CM addicts. Brief allusions to Cooper’s playing history with Wimbledon and Nottingham Forest allows him to name-drop some blasts from the past, proving his managerial bona fides. Finally, I felt a sense of vicarious satisfaction when Cooper’s scouts discovered an ‘excellent prospect’ in deep Scandinavia and South America; or when Cooper haggled with rival managers over the price of a Mansfield Town player.

This is a light and breezy read that won’t even take half a day to read. For avid CM/FM players only!

STARS: 1/5

FULL TIME SCORE: A dead-rubber 0-0 draw, both sides parking the bus.

The Unbelievables – David Bevan

There are a multitude of accounts depicting Leicester City’s remarkable road to the 2015-16 Premier League title, but The Unbelievables is certainly one of the better ones.

David Bevan takes the reader through every Leicester City league game of that season, with each chapter providing a the lead up to the match, a brief synopsis of the match, and finally followed with a relevant anecdote influenced by Bevan’s experiences of watching Leicester City for decades.

This is an important point to consider–Bevan is a dyed-in-the-wool Leicester City fan and therefore his writing is honest and holds legitimacy. Compared to other published accounts, Bevan doesn’t focus overly on the behind-the-scenes support staff, but only what he can see as a dedicated fan. His emotion is palpable and will certainly resonate with fellow Leicester City fans and aficionados.

As previously stated, The Unbelievables analyses all 38 of Leicester City’s Premier League games. This format may seem tedious, but when dealing with such an unprecedented story, the narrative builds a wave of suspense, tension, and exhilaration. Breaking down this story into its 38 parts is a necessary endeavour to truly re-live one of football’s greatest stories.

STARS: 4.5/5

FULL TIME SCORE: A passionate 3-0 win against all the odds.

Beyond Borders – Aleksandar Duric

Beyond Borders is truly a special read that transcends the typical autobiography of a retired footballer. Indeed, not many footballers of international status can claim to have had such a turbulent, winding, and ultimately successful career and life as Aleksandar Duric.

As such, this is not a tedious and watered-down blow-by-blow account of his exploits on the football pitch that are prevalent on the market nowadays. Instead, Duric (with Glenn Wray) honestly takes us through his early years in Yugoslavia as he pursued his dream of becoming a successful canoeist while sifting through local rubbish dumps to help earn some money with his family.

The years that follow ultimately shape Duric’s character–from his experiences in the Bosnian War, his representation of Bosnia in the 1992 Olympics, his dabbling in smuggling to earn a crust, and his fractured relationship with his father, we can see how resilient and determined Duric was to eke out a living away from his true home, let alone eke out a footballing career.

The second half of the book details his football exploits in Hungary, Australia, China, and ultimately Singapore. For a footballer of international stature, Duric comes across as incredibly humble and truly thankful of the career he has truly earned. And boy, did he earn it–he was a late bloomer in the world of international football, and became a fully-fledged Singaporean citizen and national at an age when other players would consider retirement. By the time he retired in his early forties, the evergreen Duric had won numerous domestic and regional accolades with his domestic teams and the Singapore national team. He truly did it his own way.

Duric’s honesty is also reflected in his scathing criticism of the S-League format. Even though I couldn’t identify with this as a non-follower of Singaporean football, I nevertheless appreciated his bravery in putting forward such thoughts, and shows how much he cares about his adopted-country’s footballing fortunes.

Beyond Borders is a highly recommended read and a hidden gem that deserves more than a regional audience.

HIGHLIGHTS: Honest anecdotes of Duric’s upbringing; his account of a turbulent footballing career in Hungary and Australia; critique of Singaporean football

STARS: 5/5

FULL TIME SCORE: A comprehensive 4-0 aggregate win over two legs.

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