Still haunted by the end of the affair
Interview with Bobby Robson: Up close you can see the scars where, 10 years ago, they peeled back his face. Starting from the corner of his eye, the knife sliced around his nose and cut through his top lip to open up a flap of skin. The surgeons pulled out his teeth and burrowed a hole through his mouth to reach the cancer inside his head. Bobby Robson, then, had six months to live.
Though they successfully removed the tumour, lodged behind his eye, the hole remains. "There's a pink rubber plug," the 72-year-old Robson says, patting me on the arm as if revealing a grandchild's favourite bath toy, "which I clasp to the roof of my mouth. Whenever I take it out, to clean it, my mouth collapses and I can't speak."
For a man as garrulous as Robson the crumpled silence, while he stoops over a sink, is a daily reminder of how close he came to death in 1995. Yet there is a far larger black and white hole in Robson today.
"I call it bereavement," he says of his bitter parting last August from Newcastle United, the club he has loved ever since, as a small boy, his father started taking him to St James' Park. "During the three preceding seasons we'd never finished outside the top five. Then, four games into a new season, I'm gone. I hadn't even lost two consecutive matches so I was devastated. I say I'm almost over it but it will always rankle. I'll never forget what they did."
With a new season less than three weeks away his pain is hard to contain.
"When I came in as manager (Newcastle's chairman) Freddy Shepherd said he still thought we'd be relegated. It was not some psychological ploy to gee me up. There was this feeling that Newcastle were in free-fall. But, of course, we ended up playing Champions League football and the expectations climbed again. There were a few other difficulties as well."
Beyond the ugly public confrontations an even deadlier intrigue has blighted the club. Shepherd and Douglas Hall, a fellow director and son of the former chairman John, have lurched from one crisis to another. They began the Robson era by offering the former England, PSV, Sporting Lisbon, Porto and Barcelona manager £400,000 - in contrast to his predecessor Ruud Gullit's £1 million contract. Alan Shearer, the real power-holder at St James' Park, was already on £3 million a year. Robson proudly details the resurgence he inspired after the Gullit shambles.
And yet the tangled roots of his downfall are inevitably more gripping. In May last year Newcastle travelled to Marseille for a Uefa Cup second-leg semi-final after a 0-0 opening leg. "We actually limped there, missing Woodgate, Bellamy, Jenas, Dyer and Bowyer. (Didier) Drogba scored a couple for them and we were sunk. Arsene Wenger rang me a few days later to sympathise: "Bobby, if you'd had those five players you would have won." "I said: 'I know. But no one round here seems to understand that'."
The hostility of the Toon Army on their return from Marseille marked a sea-change in a remarkably faithful support. Although Newcastle ended the season in fifth place, guaranteeing another Uefa Cup slot, the absence of Champions League football deepened the discontent. After the last home match of the season only 5,000 fans stayed behind to cheer Robson's team.
"I got the shock of my life that day," Robson says. His anguish was compounded by an off-the-record remark highlighting the fact that Leeds United, despite relegation, had just been saluted by 35,000 supporters. Though the rest of the press pack agreed not to report Robson's emotional words, the Newcastle Evening Chronicle ran the story.
His disgust at "a despicable act" is palpable - especially as his board refused to support him. "If the chairman had made a small gaffe like that it wouldn't have seen the light of day. His influence would have carried the day inside the paper's office . . . (but) it became a huge local talking point."
Shepherd and Hall, pinpointed by Robson as the prime mover behind his sacking, soon made their decision. Although a private agreement had been reached with him that he would retire this May, he was fired on the 15th day of a new season. Robson was sufficiently naive to be surprised.
"I couldn't believe it . . . but everything was done in secret at Newcastle. The players' contracts were always kept upstairs. Shepherd didn't want to show me anything. Hall was a recluse to me. I was kept in the dark with contracts and even transfers. Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho know exactly what's going on at their clubs. That doesn't seem possible at Newcastle."
Something more disturbing festered within St James' Park. Beginning with the infamous Grosvenor House incident - when Newcastle players were embroiled in allegations of gang rape, subsequently found to be untrue - constant controversy swirled around the club. Even a shortlist of players' names spells out some of Robson's troubles. Craig Bellamy, Lee Bowyer, Kieron Dyer and Laurent Robert read like a roll call in a juvenile detention centre. The idea that a septuagenarian - who played for England alongside Tom Finney and Duncan Edwards - could control such wayward Premiership millionaires was always problematic.
"Yeah, yeah!" Robson protests. "I've heard it all before. But one stupid remark made by the press - claiming I'd lost the dressingroom - hurt me more than anything. I finished third and fourth with those boys. I handled Bellamy for four years. Graeme Souness couldn't stick four months. I didn't like dealing with Bellamy in the week because he's a strange and awkward character who can start an argument with anyone. But I liked him in that black and white shirt. I thought Bellamy was better than Michael Owen. So I put up with him.
"They're all moody, difficult characters but they could play. And Bowyer never gave me a moment's trouble. I think he felt remorse over what he'd done in the past and he kept his nose clean with me."
The squalid Newcastle soap opera has not abated in Robson's absence - with the raging confrontation between Bellamy and Souness being overshadowed by Bowyer's and Dyer's fist-fight during a match against Aston Villa. Yet Shepherd and Hall often appear more desperate to placate Shearer - or "the crown jewels" as Robson wryly describes the ageing icon.
"I didn't know how tricky it would be, handling Shearer. I was a strong and experienced manager used to dealing with famous players like Romario and Ronaldo, Figo and Nadal. But Shearer occupies a special position in Newcastle. I think he's a good guy but I was a little disappointed by his reaction when I left him out. Still, at the same time I understood he wanted to play every game. I think he's changed his attitude but then he didn't appreciate the need to be rested."
Robson smiles when I ask if Souness might have persuaded Shearer to play another season for political rather than footballing reasons. "Yeah. I think so. But I'm still surprised. Alan's 35 in August. He's usually very good at making the right decision; just look at his retirement from international football. But I'm not so sure about this one. It's going to be hard for him."
There are no such doubts about younger Newcastle players. Jermaine Jenas, the 22-year-old who has the same birthday as his former manager, inspires the most rapture. "JJ is special. That's why I wasn't surprised to read about Arsenal considering him as a replacement for Vieira."
Even in the unlikely event of Arsenal signing Jenas, Wenger will struggle to keep up with Mourinho. If Robson follows that managerial battle with a mixture of pride and envy, his warm memories of Mourinho carry no such ambivalence. They first met when Robson took over as manager of Sporting Lisbon in the early 1990s.
"He introduced himself at the airport. 'Hello Mister. My name is Jose Mourinho and the president has hired me as your interpreter. I hope I can do a good job for you, Mister.' He alwayscalled me Mister. That was Jose. Very nice, very respectful, very handsome. But, if I said something hard and direct, he never tried to soften it in translation. Jose was strong but he developed a nice, positive rapport with everyone. The players loved him.
"One of my stipulations in moving to Barcelona was that Jose should accompany me (as he had to Porto). You should have seen him with Ronaldo, whom I'd just signed for £20 million. Ronaldo, for the short time we had him at Barcelona, was phenomenal. There were no girls for Ronaldo then. No disco, no fashion, no earrings, no flash cars. He had the need to be a great player - and so he listened to Jose. It didn't matter that Jose had done nothing as a player. With a young genius like Ronaldo, he was perfect. Jose knew how to speak to him."
Despite Mourinho's singular ability, and his subsequent European triumphs with Porto, Robson says, astonishingly, "I really feared for Jose when he came to Chelsea. The Premiership is a mighty challenge and I thought he would need a buffer, perhaps a mentor, to guide him through the transition. I expected him to battle at first."
It is a sign of Mourinho's confidence that he did not consult his former boss about moving to Chelsea. "That surprised me," says Robson. "I thought he would've called me. But he only came to see me after he'd signed his contract."
Mourinho presumably steered clear of an old man's caution. Robson, though lauding Mourinho's "terrific first season" shakes his head at the tapping up of Ashley Cole and Frank Arnesen. "That's the only thing I'd say in warning. Jose, and Chelsea, should be more careful of stepping over the line. I would also tell Jose to keep his mouth shut. Why is he trying to get involved in issues outside his domain? He doesn't need to take on Fifa or Uefa or get involved in tapping up. If I was behind him at Chelsea I would say, 'Jose, step aside. I'll deal with that for you'."
Arnesen, who also once worked under Robson at PSV, is about to begin his new post at Chelsea. "I'd better get Jose and Frank to offer me a job," says Robson with a laugh. "I'm told they hadn't met before this summer. But they're both football people. Frank's a great judge of a player. He's hard-working and enthusiastic and Jose will like that. Frank will enjoy Jose's style. They're both the right age. They could be the ideal combination. And Jose's got that insatiable craving for more success."
There is a wistful edge to Robson's voice. The poignancy of his protege dominating the Premiership frames his own sadness. He falls silent when asked if he thinks he will work again as a manager. It is almost as if the pink plug has been pulled and his mouth has collapsed. And then, lifting himself, Robson tries to sound hopeful. "There were offers after Newcastle. I could've gone to Sheffield Wednesday or Hearts. Wolves were there for me, and Derby, but I turned them down. In a way I regret that now. They're good football towns, nice clubs, and I'm a football man. I'd like another crack."
Robson might have survived cancer and Newcastle but life without football is still unimaginable. "I'd like to say there's another job for me in football. I just don't know where it's coming from. I'm 72. But I've still got my marbles and my hair. I don't want to give up football yet. It's what I want. It's what I need." ... Guardian Service