Following his dismissal at PSV, Bobby Robson joined Sporting Clube de Portugal. In a number of ways, the move would be a milestone in Robson’s career, although his time in Lisbon would only last a shade over seventeen months. Portuguese football had traditionally been dominated by the big three clubs in the Primeira Divisão, Benfica, Porto and Sporting. When Robson arrived in the Portuguese capital to take charge on 1 July 1992, between them, the three clubs have been national champions on 57 of the 58 seasons played since the Primeira Divisão was inaugurated in the 1930s. Benfica had triumphed 29 times, Sporting 16 times and Porto on 12 occasions. Only Belenenses had briefly unlocked the Triopoly’s domination – and that was back in the 1945-46 season.
On the face of it therefore, it appeared that Robson was joining one of the country’s elite clubs, with every chance of success. The reality he faced however was quite different. Sporting hadn’t won the league title for a decade – their longest absence from being anointed as the country’s top club in the history of the league – and, in the previous season had finished in an embarrassing fourth place, squeezed out of the top three positions by Boavista. In the season before that, they had finished in third place, but the gap to champions Benfica was a dozen clear points. For both of those seasons, Sporting had been led by the former Brazil captain, Marinho Peres. On 8 March 1992 however, with the club in third place and struggling to keep pace in the league, he was dismissed, António Luís Dominguez replaced him until the season’s end. Whilst, for any new manager, inheriting a successful club is rare indeed, the one that Bobby Robson took charge of on the first day of July 1992 was, in his own words, in ‘a terrible state’.
The former England manager had landed in a new country, to take over a club in decline and run by José de Sousa Cintra, a president that Robson would come to later describe as a ‘loose cannon’. On top of that, the new manager didn’t speak a word of Portuguese and, by and large, the playing staff had a similarly loose grasp of English. There was one major compensation however, that would make itself plain when Robson arrived at Lisbon’s airport. He was met by the man that the club had appointed to ease the new manager through those early difficult days and make communication between him and his players at least functionable. Often described at the time as an ‘interpreter’ even from the start José Mourinho was much more than that, as Manuel Fernandes, the former Sporting playing legend who served as Robson’s assistant explained.
Fernandes knew Mourinho from the time they had worked together at Vitoria de Setubal and Estrela da Amadora. Just 29 at the time, and developing his coaching and tactical knowledge, Fernandes recalled how the Mourinho had studied at school and become fluent in English, and recommended his services to the club – but not only for his translation skills. ‘He was never just a translator at Sporting,’ Fernandes emphasised. ‘I was the first assistant and he was the second assistant. Mr Robson distributed tasks for me and Ze [Mourinho] every day. When he eventually left Sporting, Mr Robson wanted to take Ze with him because he saw what he could do.’
Even with Mourinho there to ease the communication and assist in coaching, plus the services of Dutch defender Stan Valckx, who had followed him from PSV to Lisbon, the first season would always be difficult as Robson sought to bring some order to what was a largely chaotic club run by a president who thought it correct practise to sign players without the manager’s knowledge, let alone his approval.
There was the basis of a more than decent squad present at the club however, with perhaps just the right leadership required to make it blossom. As well as Portugal striker Jorge Cadete, who Robson would turn into the league’s leading marksman in his first season with Sporting, there was also the still largely untapped talents of a young Luís Figo. Still a few months short of his twentieth birthday, the midfielder would be a major asset for the new manager and so impress him, that he would take him to Barcelona a few years later.
The previous term’s fourth place finish in the league had at least ensured European football for Sporting, and they faced Grasshoppers Zurich in the first round of the UEFA Cup. The Swiss club was managed by Leo Beenhakker who had previously been in charge of Ajax, Real Madrid and the Dutch national team amongst many others. Despite their celebrated manager however, Sporting would have considered themselves as strong favourites to progress against a club from what was realistically considered at the time to be very much a second-rate league – especially following the first leg.
On 16 September, with the Primeira Divisão just underway, Robson led Sporting into Europe. Playing the first leg of the tie away, Sporting fell behind to a penalty, ten minutes ahead of the break, converted by Switzerland international Alain Sutter, after Harald Gämperle had been fouled inside the area. With a minute to play before half-time though, Krasimir Balakov, restored parity and secured an important away goal, heading home from a José Leal cross. Things got even better for Robson inside the final ten minutes, as Balakov set up a chance for Andrzej Juskowiak, whose left-footed strike gave Robson and his new team a more than satisfactory away victory. With the home game to come, things were looking bright. Just two weeks later, such assumptions would be swept away as the extent of Robson’s task became clearer.
On 30 September, at the Estádio José Alvalade in front of 40,000 expectant fans, Sporting fell behind to a goal from Brazilian forward Giovane Elber just past the half-hour mark. They still held the advantage thanks to those two away goals, but the lead that had seemed secure was now looking tenuous in the extreme. One more goal for the visitors would drastically swing the balance of the tie. The scoreline remained unchanged until the final half-dozen or so minutes of the game when things deteriorated in a rush of goals.
On 84 minutes, Joël Magnin put the visitors two goals ahead in the game and into the lead on aggregate. Cadete scored a minute later to mirror the scores from the first leg, heading home a cross from José Leal, but it was a temporary respite. In extra-time, it was Elber again putting the Swiss team ahead, and this time the advantage was decisive. Needing to score twice, Sporting fell away and were eliminated.
The old maxim of now being able to concentrate on the league would have offered little comfort to Robson, who needed a period of success to build some momentum to his team. Additionally, Sousa Cintra had, perhaps unrealistic, aspirations of European triumph for his club and, while for the moment, Robson would have been forgiven for failing with a team that had clearly underperformed recently and was new to the Englishman, the following season, European elimination would cost Robson his job.
Former manager Marinho Peres had now landed at Vitória Guimarães, who had finished just one place and three points behind Sporting at the end of the 1991-92 season. Given that the new English coach had been chosen as the long-term replacement for the Brazilian, it’s safe to say that had the Braga-based club performed better than Sporting, Robson’s position would have been in peril. On 28 March though, with Vitória Guimarães in 15th position and in danger of relegation, Marinho Peres was again shown the door. At least Robson had nothing to fear from the Ghost of Seasons Past.
The league season was very much a mixed bag for Sporting as Robson wrestled to arrest the decline that had set in and point the club in the right direction. They would finish in third place, an improvement on the previous season, and the gap to the top club had closed from 12 points to nine. It was very much a season of transition though, with the benefits hopefully to follow in the new term.
The potential benefits of Robson’s work were already beginning to deliver hints of revival though. In the four games against the other two major clubs, Sporting only suffered a single defeat. A 1-0 loss, at the Estádio da Luz, to a Benfica side boasting the talents of Paulo Futre, Rui Costa, Paulo Sousa and Stefan Schwarz was hardly a significant reverse at all though. The next season promised more progress but, three months into the season with prospects very much on the up, the hair-trigger volatility of the club president, would bring Robson’s time in the Portuguese capital to an abrupt end.
In the summer, Sporting had acquired the services of Paulo Sousa from Benfica, and the Portugal international was the ideal creative influence for the side in midfield and the 1993-94 season began spectacularly well. Robson’s team went undefeated for the first eight games, winning seven games and drawing one, including a run of six successive victories from the start of the term. On 24 October, a 3-0 victory over Vitória Guimarães confirmed Sporting’s position at the top of the table and favourites for the title. It seemed that Robson had delivered a spectacularly quick turnaround of the club’s domestic fortunes. Similar progress had been achieved in the UEFA Cup. A first-round victory over the Turkish club Kocaelispor, was followed by success over Celtic. A 1-0 defeat at Parkhead left Sporting with something to do in the return, but a brace by Cadete, with a goal either side of half-time was sufficient to turn the tables and send Sporting into the Round of Sixteen.
Between the two legs of the Celtic tie, Sporting suffered their first league defeat of the season, losing 2-1 at Boavista. It was a blow for the club but, given their electric start, it hardly put a pause into their march forward. Returning to league action after eliminating the Scottish club, a home game against Porto offered the ideal opportunity to restate their title credentials. In a bad-tempered game however, Sporting fell behind to an early goal by Domingos Paciência and, despite pressing, couldn’t get a foothold back in the game. Successive losses after an eight-game unbeaten run including seven victors, felt like a looming crisis, but Sporting were still top of the league and a home 2-0 win over SV Austria Salzburg in the first leg of the UEFA Cup Round of Sixteen suggested that there was still plenty of hope for the club in European competition.
Four days later, another win, this time in a league fixture away to GD Estoril reaffirmed the Sporting’s domestic credentials and, with a two-goal lead to defend in Austria in the second leg against Salzburg, those two league defeats were now looking like a blip, rather than a sustained problem. The return leg against Salzburg in Austria at the Lehener Stadion on 7 December would, however, be Robson’s last one in charge of Sporting.
Entering the final seconds of the game, all seemed well. Sporting had played out the first 45 minutes without any major problems and, although defender Leo Lainer’s long-range left-footed strike had somehow deceived Costinha in the Sporting goal, two minutes after the restart and offered some hope to the Austrians, entering the last minute of the game, Sporting still led on aggregate. The home team were also down to ten men by this time, after Kurt Garger had been dismissed for a second yellow card offence, handling the ball to prevent Cadete breaking clear of the Salzburg back line, as the home team desperately pressed for the goal that would level the tie. The sending off surely settled the issue.
The 90 minutes had passed with injury time drifting away when a final desperate Salzburg assault saw the ball with Adi Hütter 30 yards or so from goal. With little else on, he chanced his arm with a long shot on goal. The ball bounced on its way, but still, improbably beat a diving Costinha, perhaps hampered by injury, who seemed to misread the pace of the ball. A few second were all that separated sporting, and their English manager, from a place in the quarter-finals. Deep into injury time, the scores were level and extra-time would be required to settle the game.
With both teams tiring, the extra 30 minutes ebbed and flowed, Sporting hit the post but, when the goal came it would be a killer strike for Robson’s team. With six minutes remaining, a fumbled clearance in the Sporting box saw the ball fall towards Hütter who underscored his hero status by volleying an unstoppable shot past Costinha. Shortly afterwards, a truculent Sousa Cintra sacked Robson in a fit of pique.
As with the sacking of Robson at PSV, the move hardly did the club any favours in the short or longer term. Carlos Queiroz was brought in to take over, but the club stumbled from the top spot Robson had taken them to, and finished back in third place. When the Englishman had taken over the club Sporting had been waiting a decade for their next title win. That delay would be extended until the turn of the century, and a further 11 managers would pass through the club before Sporting were crowned as champions once more.
Sousa Cintra’s rationale for sacking Robson had been his failure to deliver European success. The former England manager was dismissed in December 1994. More than a quarter of a century later, Sporting are still waiting for a European triumph. As for Robson, he made the short trip to Porto and began a new project in Portuguese football, delivering success that would have frustrated Sousa Cintra even more.
(This article was originally produced for the ‘Footy analyst’ website).