Words: Mike Gibbons
There are very few good ways to be fired from your job. Should you ever have that misery inflicted upon you, about the best you can hope for is to be discreetly ushered out of the back door and handed a carrier bag full of your personal possessions. Football, that mischievous branch of the entertainment industry, has a long history of taking even that dignity out of the severance package. Some of the world’s biggest clubs have been owned by egomaniacs that possess the clout and inherent sociopathy to give their staff the heave-ho using methods conjured up way out on the edges of their imaginations.
Picture the scene: you’re a football manager, and you’ve unexpectedly just lost a European away game and the tie overall. On the flight home, your club President gets hold of the Tannoy system and announces to a flight filled with your staff, players, and fans that the team are a disgrace and you, personally, are in for an earful when you get home. Once there, as you’re walking out for the next training session, said President fires you outside in front of all your staff. Oh, and by the way, you’re top of the league at this point, on course to deliver your club their first championship in twelve years. When that fate was handed to one of the games’ most cherished managers in December 1993, it was football’s equivalent of shooting Bambi.
Perhaps the most galling aspect of what Bobby Robson called ‘the worst shock of my career’ was that he didn’t quite grasp the full venom of the impromptu cabin crew announcement from the President of Sporting Lisbon, a grandstanding blowhard called José Sousa Cintra. As Robson was still getting to grips with the Portuguese language, he needed his translator, José Mourinho, to provide the verbatim version of the rant that would explain why his players on that flight all looked so aghast. Although he was embarrassed, Mourinho didn’t sugar-coat it; Robson’s bespoke humiliation was in the post.
The club captain, Jorge Cadete, said the team were ‘shocked, completely taken by surprise.’ Cintra’s party line was that Robson’s decision to defend a two-goal lead against Casino Salzburg in Austria had been the final straw. The reality was that Carlos Queiroz, an old friend of Cintra, had recently left his position as manager of the Portugal national team and had been earmarked for the Sporting job. Regardless, it might have been easier to avoid the 3–0 defeat in the second leg had Robson been in sole charge of which players came into the club. Cintra—who Robson said ‘could never keep his mouth shut’—had signed the reserve goalkeeper Costinha without Robson’s knowledge. When he had to step into the team in Salzburg, Costinha shipped two soft ones from thirty yards.
At this point, Robson was entitled to wonder what had happened to his career since Italia 90. Just before England had headed off to that tournament, the Today newspaper had labelled him a traitor for arranging a job with PSV Eindhoven when it was over. Even though England’s game-changing run washed some of that bad blood away, his time on the continent had the whiff of exiled obscurity to it. He won two titles with PSV, but they declined to renew his contract; one unnamed Dutch player allegedly said, ‘all he taught me in two years was the English language.’ Now, at sixty years old, he’d been sacked for the first time in his career. Cintra, at least, agreed to pay up his contract in full, but even that gesture wasn’t all it seemed; he later found the club hadn’t been paying his taxes and was hit with an £80,000 bill from the Portuguese authorities.
Having been levered so unceremoniously out of a job, Robson had little to do other than mooch around Lisbon. ‘For weeks I walked around the city with my hands in my pockets,’ he said, ‘having a rest and wondering what to do next, and all the time people were stopping me and apologising, saying it was the decision of a mad president and not their wish.’ As he plotted his next move that Christmas, he turned down offers to interview for managerial vacancies with Everton and Wales. The one thing that did interest him was a Daily Telegraph sponsored junket to follow the England cricket team around the West Indies. And then the call came.
Robson, as everyone knows, was one of football’s purest souls, a geyser of frothing enthusiasm barely contained by human skin. Yet that childlike and charmingly naïve love for the game masked a single-minded ruthlessness without which a career in the cut-throat world of football management would have been impossible. When FC Porto approached Robson to take over as manager barely a month after he’d been sacked by Sporting, one of the basest human motivations was a driving factor in him accepting the offer to stay in Portugal long-term. ‘By this time, I had fallen in love with the country,’ he wrote in An Englishman Abroad, ‘and there was also the prospect of a wicked touch of revenge about the opportunity.’
When sounding out Mourinho about the move, Robson landed has first blow back at Sporting by convincing him to come along for the ride. The pair headed 192 miles north along the Portuguese coast in January 1994 to find a giant of Portuguese football in a depressed state. The club was in a wrangle with the local authorities over taxes and within a few months of Robson taking over the stadium was seized and temporarily closed, forcing him to use the car park to conduct training sessions. Results hadn’t been horrendous before his arrival, but the football stank and fans had voted with their feet. The crowds at the Estádio das Antas sinking as low as 10,000 had been the main reason that coach Tomislav Ivić had been removed to make way for Robson.
‘The team didn’t attack enough,’ Robson later reflected. ‘There were too many dreary draws. Even at home, the coach had them defending with five in a saucer shape. The first thing I did was scrap the sweeper.’ It was transformative. Within a few months, the number five found a whole new frame of reference at FC Porto. In back to back league games in February, they walloped Famalicão and Braga five–nil; a month on from that, in a crucial Champions League group game away to the German champions, Robson’s team hosed down Werder Bremen by the same score. Crowds at the Estádio das Antas in Porto soon rocketed back up to over 40,000. In the Portuguese media, Robson was christened ‘Bobby Five-O’.
The squad he had inherited was packed with talent. Local players like Vítor Baía, Fernando Couto, Carlos Secretário, Rui Jorge, António Folha, João Pinto, and Domingos were supplemented with overseas talent like Emil Kostadinov, Ljubinko Drulović, and Aloísio. All Robson had to do was set them free. Around him, he had Mourinho on hand for guidance, a useful assistant in Augusto Inácio and a new President with an almost paternalistic pride in his new man. Jorge Pinto de Costa had given Robson a salary that made a mockery of what Sporting had paid him.
Although they could not make up for their sluggish start, Porto only lost out on the league title to Benfica in 1993–94 by two points. They not only finished ahead of a fading Sporting Lisbon but also turned them over 2–1 in extra time of a replay in the Taça de Portugal final. It was a satisfying enough revenge for Robson, but he wasn’t done yet; an even colder and tastier version of that dish was waiting to be served up at Sporting’s table.
That summer, life was so sweet for Robson that he agreed a contract extension with Pinto de Costa. Although Robson couldn’t prevent players like Couto and Kostadinov leaving, he had a free reign to bring his own in. The agreement was caveated with the right for Robson to leave if a huge offer came in for him. The bond between the two had become so symbiotic in the space of a few short months that it was a gentleman’s agreement, and nothing was written down. Down the line that would be a source of great friction. But Pinto de Costa adored his coach so much that in the moment he’d happily agree to anything he asked for.
With the Premier League beginning to take off in England it was always in the back of Robson’s mind to go back one day. In Oporto, he and his wife Elsie were members of the British Club, a gaggle of expats based in the city. Robson even signed up for their cricket team and padded-up for the first time in thirty years. ‘They were a man short and put me in at number five against tourists from England,’ he remembered. ‘I got 37, the top score. Only got out through impatience. Tried to hit the fellow over mid-off, got a slight inside edge, and away went the middle stump.’
Yet Robson was anything but the insular Englander abroad. Although he was beamingly proud of his English heritage, few managers from these islands have been such a Europhile; proof that wanting the best for your country and openly embracing other cultures can happily co-exist. Robson immersed himself in the Portuguese culture and diligently learned the language. With his afternoons free after training, he hung out on the beach, played golf, went through the range of Portuguese cuisine and read books.
He even found the time to give a 16-year-old kid in his apartment block a break. André Villas-Boas was so obsessed with football and tactics in his teens that he posted Robson a note outlining in detail why he believed Domingos, who was out of the team at that point, should return to the starting eleven. It wasn’t long before Robson was being doorstepped by him and the two would engage in lengthy chats about Porto’s progress. Impressed by the front and the insight from the youngster, Robson invited Villas-Boas to attend training sessions and produce dossiers for the team and also arranged for him to travel to Scotland to take his UEFA C license at Largs. Those were baby steps ahead of the strides Villas-Boas later took into huge management roles in Portugal, England, and Russia.
It was working in finer details with the players that really fired Robson’s imagination. At Porto, he had more time on the training ground with his players than he’d ever had as manager of Ipswich Town. ‘I remember asking Arnold Mühren where he got such a wonderful touch and choice of pass,’ he said. ‘He replied that, in Dutch football, every day was about eight-a-sides and keeping possession. So just as golfers practise every day with their clubs, footballers have to work with the ball, and here we can do that plenty because there are not too many midweek games.’
Robson had been absorbing ideas like a sponge for four decades. In November 1953, while his Fulham teammates went to the snooker hall after training, Robson went to Wembley and had his mind blown wide open by watching Hungary serve up England 6–3.
In the 1994–95 Primeira Divisão, FC Porto blew everyone away. They only lost once all season and won the title with three games to spare. The game that clinched the title for Porto was almost too delicious for Robson—away to second-placed Sporting Lisbon. ‘To win it there is my dream,’ he said beforehand. ‘I have to admit it.’ After their 1–0 victory, Porto’s players took him into the centre circle of the Estádio de Alvalade and threw him up in the air in triumph.
‘I have a wonderful life in Portugal,’ Robson said weeks later, ‘with a good team, a marvellous club, and an appreciative president. But I am aware that should I lose three or four games on the run, I would lose my job.’ Pinto de Costa was now threatened with losing Robson for the opposite reason. Arsenal tried to get him in the summer of 1995, in the wake of George Graham’s departure. Robson was determined to go and manage one of England’s biggest clubs and reminded de Costa of their agreement. The President said he couldn’t recall it.
When Arsenal tried to pursue Robson, Porto threatened legal action. In their desperation to keep everything above board after the scandal that saw Graham sacked, Arsenal backed off and the moment passed by. Robson shouldered his disappointment and decided to refocus on his work with Porto, though the affair had soured his relationship with de Costa. But there were far more serious problems coming his way than a missed job opportunity.
Robson’s time in Portugal was tinged with tragedy. After a leaving party in December 1993 arranged by his former Sporting Lisbon staff and players after Robson was sacked, 22-year-old Ukrainian midfielder Sergey Shcherbakov was paralysed from the waist down after being involved in a car crash in the early hours of the morning. Just eight months later, another car accident claimed the life of Porto’s midfielder Rui Filipe at 26. Now Robson would face a terrifying brush with death of his own.
Cancer first came for Robson when he was at PSV Eindhoven. Then, the club had managed to keep it under wraps while Robson saw off the condition then affecting his bowels. When his wife Elsie pestered him to get a sinus irritation checked out in the summer of 1995, Robson was diagnosed with a malignant melanoma behind his nose, requiring major surgery immediately. His face was effectively cut in half and peeled back, with his palette and six teeth taken out in order to operate.
Through the operation and the recovery, Pinto de Costa redeemed himself somewhat by keeping a vigil at Robson’s bedside. ‘Patients always want to know, “How long have I got, Doc?”’, said Robson’s surgeon Huw Davies in the documentary More Than a Manager. ‘But you can’t predict. With his diagnosis, the vast majority of the patients do not survive. Two to three years would be good.’ To replace what had been removed Robson was given an obturator—a moulded, insertable rubber plug that would essentially hold his face in shape and was impossible to live without. His initial efforts in removing and reattaching the device to get used to it were agonising and reduced him to tears. Robson was advised to retire from football.
Of that, the chances were bugger all. The operation had been a success; Robson eventually mastered his obturator and set on a determined course to return to Porto as soon as he was up to it. Inácio and Mourinho had stepped in to guide the team in the early part of the season. Robson, three months after staring down the Grim Reaper and making him flinch first, returned for a Champions League game with Panathinaikos in October 1995. ‘I was happy to be alive,’ he recalled in his autobiography, ‘but running totally on adrenalin.'
His zest for life was now at an even more heightened state after seeing off cancer for a second time, and that energy channelled back into his work. Porto flattened the Primeira Divisão again in 1995–96 and won by 11 points. When he returned to Lisbon for the semifinal of the Taça de Portugal that season, the Sporting fans gave Robson a standing ovation. Porto’s achievements meant that the coaching staff and the squad were owed thousands each in bonuses. To pony up the cash, Pinto de Costa had to sell Brazilian midfielder Emerson—dubbed the new Bryan Robson by his manager—to the original Bryan Robson and Middlesbrough for £4 million in May 1996. It was the first of a wave of international transfers in the Premier League that summer that would set it on course to become the global phenomenon it is today.
In Britain there is often an absurd snootiness towards any achievements in Portuguese league football, boisterously voiced by Merson-esque Proper Football Men who can’t wrap their heads around the idea of anything of any consequence taking place outside of these islands. It’s not a view shared elsewhere. Robson’s achievements with FC Porto had caught the attention of Barcelona, who were looking for a new manager after sacking Johan Cruyff. Robson had turned that job down in 1981 and 1984; he knew it would never come around again. This time, Pinto de Costa could not stand in his way. The financial separation, like all his dealings in Portugal, was a shambolic mess, but Robson was bound for the Camp Nou.
‘It is all I want,’ he said, unable to contain his giddiness, ‘then I will bow out of football, but what a way to go: as manager of one of the great clubs. There are only a handful of really top jobs in world football—Manchester United, Inter Milan, Real Madrid, Juventus, and Barcelona. I am so excited by this.’ He took Mourinho with him again, this time installing him as an assistant and with a greater level of input an authority than ever before. It was a butterfly wings moment that launched the career of one of the 21st century’s great managers.
Having been given a second chance at life, Robson made the most of his opportunity. Even if his time at the Camp Nou has been well documented, it’s still worth remembering the achievements: Barcelona won the Copa del Rey, Spanish Super Cup, and the European Cup Winners Cup in his first season. He signed Ronaldo from PSV Eindhoven and oversaw the striker’s greatest ever season. Ronaldo had Robson and everyone else with their hands on their heads in awe as he rattled in 47 goals in all competitions. After he was moved aside for Louis Van Gaal after just one season, Robson eventually made his way to his boyhood club Newcastle United. He resurrected Alan Shearer’s career and the club’s entire reputation until they made the asinine decision to sack him in 2004. As for the team he left behind, FC Porto rattled off another three league titles in a row from the base that Robson had built. In September 1996, almost in tribute to their departed leader, they won the Portuguese Super Cup by spanking Benfica 5–0 in the second leg.
Cancer kept returning to Robson’s body with increasing ferocity until it finally claimed his life in 2009. The outpouring of grief of grief stretched far beyond the borders of the UK. His loss was felt keenly by the Portuguese, where it made the national news. ‘His qualities as a coach were exceptional,’ Pinto de Costa said, ‘but his strength in the period of his illness was an example of strength and will to live that I will never forget.’ Vítor Baía, who Robson would sign for Barcelona, paid tribute to ‘a very special person with a contagious humour.’
Legions of players lined up to pay tribute to his life-changing effect on their careers. Paulo Sousa, who won the Champions League with Juventus and Borussia Dortmund after working with Robson in Lisbon, had called Robson every week in his last 18 months of his life. ‘I never forget what he did for me,’ said Sousa. ‘He made me feel important and believe in myself.’ It even prompted an admission of error in the rival camp. ‘One of the mistakes I made at Sporting was to fire him,’ conceded Sousa Cintra. You don’t say.
There are statues of Robson at St James’ Park and Portman Road, and there is also one in the FC Porto club museum. When their B team travelled to play Newcastle United under-23s in the semifinal of the Premier League International Cup in April 2018, the Porto delegation and their travelling fans laid wreaths at the St James’ Park statue in tribute. The two first teams met in a friendly a few months later to celebrate Porto’s 125th anniversary and their new home, the Estádio do Dragão, was packed. When both sets of players unveiled a banner in tribute to Robson, all sides of the ground stood for a prolonged, heartfelt applause.
‘Bobby Robson is one of those people who never die,’ Mourinho said in 2009. ‘Not so much for what he did in his career, for one victory more or less, but for what he knew to give to those who had, like me, the good fortune to know him and walk by his side.’ Robson’s haul of two league titles, one national cup and one Portuguese Super Cup account for just 4 of the 76 trophies that Porto have to their name. There were 65 coaches before him, and there have been 20 since. Yet his thirty months in Porto left an indelible mark on the club. Bobby Five-O, in everything he did on and off the pitch, had been an object lesson in retaining senses of perspective, humour and self-awareness.
Back in April 1994, Robson could have been forgiven for a sense of immediate déjà vu. He was on another flight home from another 3–0 defeat in European competition, and a sense of despondency hung in the air. Porto had just been comprehensively beaten by Barcelona in the semifinal of the Champions League. It had been the first serious setback for Robson in those early months spent five-nilling FC Porto back to respectability. With heads bowed among his staff, Robson decided to address the issue while they were in the sky. ‘Inácio,’ he said, approaching his crestfallen assistant and prompting him to look up. ‘Football is this. But tomorrow is another day, and the sun will shine for us.’
This beautiful piece of writing was originally published in Issue 17. That's long sold out now, but you can subscribe to the magazine so that you never miss out again by clicking here.