Robson's coming home

Thursday 15 November 2001

Bobby Robson returns to Craven Cottage on Saturday, 33 years after telling himself: "I'll never come back to this bloody place again."

The grand old man of English football was just 35 and nine months into his first job in management when Fulham sacked him one November afternoon in 1968.

The Newcastle manager recalled: "I was driving home over Putney Bridge when I spotted the Evening Standard billboard," he recalled. "It said: 'Fulham sack Robson.' I was white. I knew nothing about it. I couldn't believe it. I'd only just left the ground.

"I stopped the car and bought the paper. I read that I'd been sacked. I didn't know what to do. I drove home and said to my wife Elsie: 'What are we going to do?' We had three children and a mortgage. Christmas was round the corner and I was suddenly out of work.

"I rang the club. Everyone was embarrassed. They asked me to go in the next morning to meet a guy called Eric Miller and discuss compensation. Tommy Trinder was the chairman but the real boss was Miller, who later shot himself.

"When I met him I remember asking to keep the company car. 'You can't leave me without a car,' I said. I had a three-year contract but they sacked me after nine months, three of which were in the close season. Had they told me I'd be on trial for the first nine months, I wouldn't have signed the contract.

"I remember walking into the middle of the pitch. I'd been at Fulham for 12 years as a player. I was really angry and upset. I didn't break down but there was a tear or two. I remember vowing that I'd never return to the bloody place again."

Robson smiles at the memory now. In the ensuing decades, he's proved Fulham wrong countless times, with Ipswich, England, PSV Eindhoven, Sporting Lisbon, FC Porto, Barcelona and now, Newcastle.

He was the Fulham manager when Newcastle last played at Craven Cottage in the top division. Embroiled in a fight for survival at the foot of the table, the Fulham of Johnny Haynes, Les Barrett and Fred Callaghan nonetheless beat Newcastle 2-0 in April 1968.

"They were bottom of the old First Division when they appointed me manager and I couldn't save them," he recalled. "We started the following season quite well and were eighth when they sacked me. It obviously wasn't good enough for Mr Miller.

"I've had no other experience in football to equal that blow to my esteem as a young coach. When I finished playing, I qualified as a coach with Don Howe and committed myself to that path in life. Then they suddenly slammed the door in my face. I was worried stiff.

"I remember going to the Labour Exchange to sign on the dole but I was too embarrassed to go through with it. I'd promised the kids that we'd have a TV for Christmas and I didn't want to disappoint them.

"I went to the Radio Rentals shop in Weybridge. The guy sat me down and we filled out the form. 'Occupationhe asked. I said I was unemployed. I could see him thinking: 'How are we going to get our money?' I remember saying to him: 'Trust me. Please.'"

The three young Robsons had their TV in place for Christmas and early in 1969, Ipswich asked him to become manager at Portman Road. A year later they were bottom of Division One but, with great foresight, offered him an extension to his contract.

"At Ipswich I had the best job anyone could get," he smiled. "They gave me time to get it right. I was there for 14 years. I was helped by an understanding board of directors who treated defeat and victory much the same."

Robson also described his time at Ipswich as a "tranquil experience".

He said: "It prepared me for the England thing. I was reading the other day about Gerard Houllier's illness and all the pressure of this type of work and realised that I'd never once been to the doctor complaining of stress.

"I like Gerard. I admire what he's achieved. I wrote to him and told him that I didn't think anyone would repeat his achievement of winning five trophies. When he brought Liverpool to St James' Park he gave me two bottles of French wine and then beat us 2-0.

"I hope he makes a full recovery, but I do I think we make too much of stress in this business. There's always a get-out for those who can't cope - get a job that doesn't give you a headache.

"I come from a mining village in the North-East and know that the bloke working in drudgery, trying to support a family on low pay, is the one under pressure.

"I don't think our game has ever been healthier. I'd love to be a player today. Look at what they're earning. Unless they're very stupid a top player can retire at 35 and never work again.

"When I was captain of West Bromwich Albion and England's right-half I had to live in a house near the ground because I couldn't afford a car to get me to training."

Today Robson is wealthy, famous and rightly regarded as something of a national treasure. He will be 69 in February.

"I can't give up football now," he grinned. "I've no desire to spend every Saturday afternoon in Tesco. I have a 12 month, roll-on contract. Every day I've got 12 months to go. Suits me nicely."