LONDON — Dreams, apparently, do come true.
Next Tuesday Sir Bobby Robson leads Newcastle United against Barcelona in the Nou Camp, which is a fitting reward for possibly the nicest man in English football.
If one man ever summed up all that is good and great about the beautiful game it is Robson, who will be 70 next year yet retains the enthusiasm of a 17-year-old.
No one should begrudge Robson the success he is enjoying with Newcastle, which made Champions League history by becoming the first side to make the second phase after losing its first three ties.
Craig Bellamy’s stoppage-time winner against Feyenoord in Rotterdam ensured Robson and Newcastle continued their adventure in European football’s premier club competition. Robson has the chance to return to one of the clubs he has been with during his 35-year managerial career, which started in 1967 with the Vancouver Whitecaps of the North American Soccer League.
“I am absolutely delighted,” said Robson when the draw was made. “I worked there for two years and I have wanted the opportunity to go back to Barcelona.
“It’s four years since I was there and I can look back on some magnificent times. I did well in my time with Barcelona and enjoyed the lifestyle. Barcelona are a very special club. In fact they are more than a club — they’re a nation.
“This is the sort of game that puts us on the world map, not just Europe. This is the biggest club competition in the world and it means we have taken that extra step reaching the last 16.
“But I’m in charge of Newcastle United now and we want to win the game.”
Unfortunately, the dream could turn into a nightmare for the footballing knight. Bellamy, the hero in Rotterdam, was the villain when Inter Milan came to St. James’ Park last week because the Welsh international was sent off in the fifth minute for lashing out at Marco Materazzi, which earned him a club fine of two weeks’ wages and a UEFA ban, which means he will miss the trip to Barcelona.
To make matters worse, Newcastle will also be without captain Alan Shearer, who received a two-match UEFA suspension after video evidence showed the striker elbowing Fabio Canavarro.
Taking on Barcelona, which will equal AC Milan’s record of 10 consecutive European victories set in 1992-93 if it beats Newcastle, would be hard enough with a full-strength team. To go to the Nou Camp without your first-choice strike force — and a defense that can be more generous than Father Christmas — is surely mission impossible.
Inevitably, the disciplinary problems have taken some of the gloss off Robson’s return, but he will still be warmly welcomed by the Catalans who remember his contribution between 1996 and 1998.
In his first season, Barcelona won the European Cup-winners’ Cup, the Spanish Cup and finished runnerup in the league, but the board made Robson director of European scouting, bringing in Louis van Gaal from Ajax as coach.
It was not so much a comment on Robson, more that Barcelona could not resist the opportunity to bring in Van Gaal, who had won the Champions League with Ajax and was rated as Europe’s finest young coach.
Van Gaal subsequently left after helping Barca win two Spanish championships in three years, but returned last summer so the pair will be reunited on what is sure to be an emotional night for the Newcastle manager.
If Robson is not quite spoken of in the same breath as Sir Alex Ferguson or Bob Paisley, who won countless trophies with Manchester United and Liverpool, Sir Bobby can claim to have been successful in more than one country and at the international level.
There is a case to argue that Robson’s CV is the most impressive of all given the size of some of the clubs he has worked with, plus the success he’s had which seemed unlikely when, in November 1968, he was sacked by Fulham after just 10 months in charge.
Robson took over at Ipswich where the F.A. Cup and UEFA Cup came to Portman Road while the East Anglians finished second in the old first division.
The Premiership is awash with overseas players these days, but it was Robson who was a pioneer in the 1980s when he brought Dutch midfielders Frans Thijssen and Arnold Muhren to English football. Their contribution to Ipswich’s triumphs and the impact they had on the English game — Thijssen was voted Footballer of the Year — was immense.
When England called, Robson was proud to lead his country and under him the national team reached the quarterfinals of the World Cup in 1986 (when Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal put Argentina on the road to victory) and in 1990 it lost to Germany in the semifinals on penalties.
Next stop was PSV and two Dutch titles before a short spell at Sporting Lisbon, where Robson was dismissed in December 1993 with the team at the top of the Portuguese League. A UEFA Cup defeat by Casino Salzburg was seen as a sacking offense.
Robson was quickly snapped up by FC Porto and he masterminded its championship triumph a few months later.
On to Barcelona before returning to PSV where, under Robson, a young Ruud van Nistelrooy was coming through the ranks.
Frank Arnesen, the Dutch club’s managing director, said: “One of Bobby’s big talents is that he gets people around him to work not at 100 percent but at 110 percent. Everyone loves to work for Bobby — not only for him but with him.”
Finally, at 66, Robson came home in just about every sense to manage the club he had supported as a boy and always wanted to lead. When Newcastle showed Ruud Gullit the door in September 1999, there was only one realistic successor.
The club was in turmoil on the pitch and off it, the financial excesses of previous regimes restricting Robson’s transfer market activities. As he has always done, Sir Bobby found bargains and promising youngsters, giving the team a spirit which helped it qualify for the Champions League and, for the first time, reach the second stage.
Despite being 69, the word retirement is banned with Sir Bobby. “I realize how old I am but it’s just a number,” he said. “I feel great, I am happy, I’m at a great club and I love to work.
“I know people say what an old goat he is but as long as my health is good, I’m doing what I want to do and while I’m successful, I’ll carry on. The day results dip and people say it’s time to go, that will be it then, because I don’t think I would move upstairs. That’s why I want to keep working. I’ll know when to retire but it isn’t yet.
“I don’t know what I’d do with myself. I don’t want to go shopping on a Saturday afternoon. I don’t want to have extended holidays or play golf all the time. The bulk of my life is football and I’m in love with it.”