Bobby Robson and the almost perfect season.

In May 1996, Barcelona were a club in turmoil. Having experienced the delirious heights of success with Johann Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team’ delivering no less than eleven trophies in eight seasons, including the Holy Grail of the European Cup, the relationship between Catalan club and revered Dutchman had been torn asunder. Any divorce between an employer and the emotional, impulsive, and often combustive Cruyff would always be messy, but this split would make ‘Kramer versus Kramer’ look tame in comparison.

The Blaugrana had already decided they wanted Ajax’s Louis van Gaal in the manager’s chair. There was a problem however. His contract with the Amsterdam club still had a year to run. Barcelona needed someone to step in for a season, keep things ticking along, ideally pick up a trophy in the process if possible, and hand over the club in good order, before riding off into the sunset. The man they chose for the role would go well above and beyond such parameters. Only the most unexpected of results would deny the La Liga title and prevent him landing every trophy the club was competing for. It would, so nearly, be the Camp Nou’s second best ever season. In fact, the club would be so impressed, they would keep the supposed ‘one-year appointment’ in their employ and be ready to drop him back into the manager’s chair should Louis van Gaal come up short.

Plain old Bobby Robson as he was at the time – his services to the game wouldn’t be honoured for another half-dozen years – was enjoying a hugely successful spell managing Porto in the Primeira Liga. He’d signed a new deal with the club in 1995, but after being diagnosed with a malignant melanoma, as cancer struck the first blow in a battle with the hardiest of fighters, he would miss the early part of the season. In typical Robson manner though, he would kick back against the mendacious illness and return to guide the club to another league title. It was therefore a manager at the height of his powers that took a call from the Barcelona president, to discuss the availability of Luis Figo.

Whether the approach for the player was merely an opening gambit, with other hidden intent, is open to debate. It’s widely reported, however, that the conversation ended with the Barcelona president offering Robson the chance to take the manager’s chair at the Camp Nou for a season. There were probably less than a handful of job offers that could tempt Robson away from his position in Oporto where he had attained legendary status. This, however, was one of them. Having twice previously declined offers to become manager of Barcelona, once through typically honourable loyalty to Ipswich Town, and once showing the same commitment to England – something the FA were shamefully unwilling to reciprocate in later times – at 63 years of age, Robson knew the chance would be unlikely to appear for a fourth time. Understandably, he accepted, taking his protégé, a still little-known José Mourinho, along with him.

The task was easy to explain, but delivering on it would have confounded all but the most capable and experienced of managers. Glue Cruyff’s fractious squad back together, add any talent available both from within the club and elsewhere, be successful, and hand on the baton. If it seemed a poisoned chalice, at his first press conference, the media was pulling no punches. Who was this man entrusted with following Cruyff? With the confidence of sustained success and the experience of more than 45 years in the game behind him, Robson was not the sort of man to apologise for being in the manager’s chair, even at FC Barcelona. In typical unabashed tones, he made clear that the legacy of Cruyff would not cast a shadow over his tenure. “I am not afraid to follow him,” he declared with an assured tone, also bereft of hubris. “When the President of the United States leaves, they have to get another President of the United States.” The king was dead. Long live the king.

Although replete with many star names, the squad of players that Robson inherited from Cruyff were hardly serenely cruising at the summit of the Spanish game. They had tamely capitulated in the title race for the previous two seasons without offering a sustained challenge. Firstly, ending in fourth place behind champions Real Madrid by nine points and then a marginal improvement to third place, but still seven points behind champions Atlético Madrid. The Cules would hardly be happy to tolerate another season of vapid league performances, regardless of the apparent stop-gap nature of Robson’s appointment. Neither was the new man at the helm. Having missed out on this job in the past, Bobby Robson was in no mood for an easy going, freewheeling season. He set about his plans.

Speaking later, Robson would relate how the president approached him about the upcoming term, insisting that the team needed not only to succeed, but also entertain and convince at the same time. “The President said to me ‘we need bums on seats, we need a top-class striker, do you know where there is one?’ I said yes, I know there’s a young kid at PSV that I like very much. I think he’s terrific, but he’s a risk.” Robson’s astute eye for talent had identified a young Brazilian forward, currently at PSV Eindhoven, one of Robson’s former clubs. A world record fee of a reported $19.5million exchanged hands, and a 19-year-old Ronaldo, later to be known as El Fenomeno, became history’s most expensive footballer. Twelve months later, when he left the club, as Robson vacated the manager’s chair for Louis van Gaal, it would look like a bargain. Not only would the club make a $7.5million profit with his sale to Inter Milan, in his single season at the Camp Nou, the striker would net 47 goals in 49 games and be one of the key elements in Robson’s success.

Inevitably, Ronaldo’s haul would make him the top marksman in La Liga with 37 league goals to his name. One of those 37 strikes is particularly lauded. Days after his twentieth birthday, Ronaldo was leading the line in an away game against SD Compostela. Gaining possession in his own half, he took off on a sometime weaving, often scything charge upfield, running almost the entire length of the pitch, driving past opponents with apparent ease, before scoring. Later, Nike used a film of the goal for an ad, with the tagline. “Imagine you asked God to be the best player in the world, and he listened to you.” What it failed to add was an invitation to Barcelona to imagine that they had asked God for a manager capable of identifying such a nascent talent, and he had listened to them.

Robson had identified such a talent, brought it to the club, and given him the rein to play. It was a managerial masterstroke, and of little surprise that, at the end of the season, with Robson promoted upstairs and the new Dutch manager arriving, Ronaldo had also moved on. Some would, and have, argued that such was Ronaldo’s talent that Robson merely lit the blue touch paper and stood back to watch the firework display, a worthy enough achievement, having identified the particular firework in question. The player himself however, lauds Robson’s contribution to his, and Barcelona’s, success that season. “He was an awesome coach and an awesome person. He was like a father to me. I have had a lot of managers in football but the difference between all of them and Sir Bobby was his humanity and the relationships he had with the players. He was always like a father to everyone.” It’s a resounding endorsement of the manager, especially so as the duo worked together for just eight months.

It would of course, be the idlest of follies to ascribe the success merely to Ronaldo’s goals. The squad was also blessed with a number of outstanding talents. Pep Guardiola was a developing talent destined for even greater glory and the imperious José Mari Bakero wore the armband. Accompanying Ronaldo in the forward line was the Bulgarian ‘pistolero’ Hristo Stoichkov, who later identify the difference between Cruyff’s team and that of Robson as being that the latter had “heart”. These were just a few of the stars that had fallen short of the expected standards as Cruyff’s tenure and his ‘Dream Team’ bled to death. In Robson’s paternalistic hands, they would rise again.

The first stirrings of a reinvigorated Barca was evidenced in August 1996 when the club faced Atlético Madrid in the first leg to decide the Supercopa de España. Heralding the goalscoring fiesta that would follow later in the year, Robson’s team hammered out a warning by winning 5-2. A brace from Ronaldo was added to by Giovanni and Pizzi, plus a strike from Pequeño Buddha, Iván de la Peña, who scored just a few minutes after Robson had sent him to replace Guillermo Amor. In the return leg, Atleti would rally to score three times, but a strike from Stoichkov, around the hour mark, was enough to give Barcelona and Bobby Robson, their first trophy of the season.

The second one would arrive via the club’s participation in the Cup Winners’ Cup competition. They had qualified as runners-up to Atlético Madrid’s Copa del Rey victory the previous term. As Atleti had also won the league, they had opted for Europe’s premier competition, allowing Barca a run at the Cup Winners’ Cup.

In September, a less than impressive two goal aggregate victory over AEK Larnaca – thanks to a brace from Ronaldo, who else? – got the campaign under way. It would pick up momentum though as it progressed. In the second round, they accounted for Red Star Belgrade 4-2 on aggregate, winning in the Camp Nou, before playing out a draw in Belgrade. The quarter-final draw looked to have been kind, pairing Barcelona with the little-known Swedish club AIK. When Pascal Simpson put the Swedes ahead inside two minutes at the Camp Nou however, things were not running to script. Popescu steadied any fraying nerves by squaring things in the fourth minute and after goals by Ronaldo and Pizzi created clear water, a draw in Stockholm locked out a place in the last four.

The other semi-finalists were Liverpool, Fiorentina and Paris Saint-Germain, with Robson’s team facing the Italians. A Nadal goal just ahead of the break had the Catalans ahead, but when Batistuta equalised in the second period, the advantage lay with the visitors, with the second leg back at the Stadio Artemio Franchi to come. On 24 April, however, Barcelona confounded expectations as an astute masterclass of tactics by Robson saw them score two first half goals through Couto and Guardiola, and then see out time without conceding. Barcelona were through to the final of the Cup Winners’ Cup where they would face PSG, who had eliminated Liverpool 3-2 on aggregate, in Rotterdam’s Feijenoord Stadion. In a less than spectacular final, as is so often the case at such times, a Ronaldo penalty on 38 minutes settled matters. Robson had his second trophy – two out of two.

A Copa del Rey success filled the hearts of the Camp Nou, not only for the trophy it brought, but also for the fact that Robson’s team defeated both of the previous seasons’ league champions en route. In the Round of Sixteen, they overcome arch-rivals Real Madrid. More than 95,000 fans watched a pulsating first leg in the Catalan capital. Ronaldo, of course, gave the home team an early lead, only to be dragged back as Davor Šuker squared things less than 200 seconds later. Then, entering the last quarter of the game Fernando Hierro silenced the Cules, putting Los Blancos into the lead. Driven on by the boiling intensity of the Catalan cauldron though, first Miguel Ángel Nadal and then the Brazilian Giovanni scored to give the home team a lead to take back to the Santigo Bernabéu. This time it was a more studied defensive performance that saw Barca home. An own goal by Roberto Carlos gave the Catalans breathing space, and despite a Šuker penalty, Robson and Barcelona celebrated as Los Blancos were vanquished.

It sent the club into a contest against Atlético Madrid, with the first leg 2-2 draw being a mere appetiser for the goal fest that followed at the Camp Nou in the return. A hat-trick inside the first half hour by Milinko Pantić had Atleti in the driving seat, but Robson’s team would show plenty of the “heart” that Stiockov had alluded to. Just after the break, Ronaldo scored twice to bring Barcelona back into the game, but a minute after his second strike, Pantić added a fourth goal. With less than 20 minutes remaining, Barcelona still needed another three goals. Ronaldo, Figo and Pizzi completed the remarkable comeback. In the semi-final, Barcelona would crush Las Palmas by seven clear goals on aggregate.

It meant a final against Real Betis to be played back in Madrid at the Santigo Bernabéu. Any Madrid fans amongst the 83,000 crowd would have been elated as the Blaugrana twice fell behind; the second equaliser from Pizzi coming a mere five minutes from full time. In the added period, it was Figo demonstrating that “heart” again, who notched the winning goal and sent the trophy to Catalunya.

For Bobby Robson and FC Barcelona, however, the triumph would have been cold comfort. Only weeks earlier, they had seen the dream of winning all available trophies for that season dashed in a game that will always be lamented on by the Cules. With just three games left of the league programme, Robson’s Barcelona were in pole position to take the La Liga title. Their next game would take them to the Costa Blanca to face the Alicante-based club, Hércules. By now the ‘Ronaldo to Inter’ issue was in full cry with the player being unavailable to Robson, as were Pizzi and Giovanni, although for entirely different reasons.

Perhaps there were warning signs ahead of the game. Already relegated by this time, Hércules had been the only team to visit the Camp Nou and come away with a league victory in the season, and the sands in Robson’s hourglass seemed to be running out. As he mentioned at the time, “I’ve given Núñez a list of players (for next season) but he’s not saying anything to me. They must have made their minds up about next year but they haven’t told me anything.”

For all that, things looked like they would go to form when Luis Enrique put Robson’s team ahead after just three minutes. The team that would finish last but one in the league would surely have little heart to battle back. In such circumstances however, the whims of fate can carry a cruel caprice. Against the run of play, Paquito Escudero equalised for the home team shortly before the break, and when Serbian defender Dubravko Pavlicic slid the second beyond the grasp of Vítor Baía, six minutes after the restart, Barcelona’s league position was crumbling before their eyes.

Despite a second-half siege, with Robson throwing caution to the mind in search of two goals, showing a resilience seldom repeated throughout the season, the home team held out. What Robson would have given to have Ronaldo out there. With Real Madrid beating Extremadura 5-0 to go five pints clear with two game to play, it was surely all up.

After the game Robson tried, and failed to be upbeat. “Mathematically, we’ve still got a chance, but realistically it’s very difficult now.” It was. Real Madrid just a single point from their last two fixtures, whatever Barcelona did. The Blaugrana would beat Betis 3-0 at home and then close the season with a 1-2 victory away at Rayo Vallecano, but Real Madrid got over the line and the league was lost by two points. So close to the perfect season, and yet…

At the end of the term, as Robson had suspected, Louis van Gaal took over the manager’s chair. He was given, what amounted to, almost an emeritus position as a technical director. Should Barca have persisted with Robson? The new man undoubtedly did well, and won the league in his first two seasons with the club, but would Robson have similarly achieved? Statistics can be used to support any number of arguments but, as a comparison, in his time at the Camp Nou, Robson achieved a win percentage of more than 65%. Louis Van Gaal’s was just greater than 55%.

In a number of accounts since that time, some have sought to paint Robson as almost a bystander to the success his team achieved. Powerful cliques of players and even the advancing personality of Mourinho have been cited as the real powers at the club. There may be elements of truth in such calculations, but with delegation often defined as the art of management, perhaps such things should be seen as complementary to good management, rather than a criticism of it. And, whether valid or not, if the defining criterion is success, it worked.

Of the players that formed Bobby Robson’s Barcelona squad of 1996-97, more than a dozen of them have gone on to coach or manage at high levels of the game, so perhaps it’s appropriate to let one of them have the last word. Talking of Robson, Pep Guardiola, confirmed that, “I learned a lot from him in that period. I thought I wanted to become a manager, how he handled that situation, it was incredible, I admire him a lot. It doesn’t matter what the media say.” FC Barcelona seem to agree. On the club’s official website, they say that Bobby Robson “managed to get the best out of the young and effective Ronaldo Nazario, won himself a place in the hearts of FC Barcelona’s supporters.”

(This article was originally produced for the These Football times ‘Barcelona’ magazine).

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