Tag Archives: Bobby Robson

Bobby Robson and the almost perfect season at Barcelona.

In May 1996, Robson was enjoying the fruits of his work at Porto when he took a phone call the president of FC Barcelona. Ostensibly it was to discuss a potential transfer target from the Portuguese club, but the conversation moved on to another target that the Catalans had focused on.

At the time, the Blaugrana were a club in turmoil. A messy divorce from Johan Cruyff had left the club rudderless. The board had decided on Louis van Gaal as the man they wanted to put all the pieces back together again. At the time however, the coach was contracted to Ajax, and wouldn’t be available for another twelve months. Barcelona, a ship perilously holed and taking in water needed an experienced hand at the tiller to guide the club into safer and calmer waters before handing over to Van Gaal. They had settled on Robson as the ideal candidate. As things transpired though, the Englishman would deliver a season that bordered on being the very best in the club’s history, and convinced them to maintain his services, even after Van Gaal’s appointment, as a lifebelt that the club could use if the Dutch coach came up short.

Robson was content at Porto and, with the club’s future looking bright, there were very few jobs that could tempt him away. One would be a return to his beloved north-east and Newcastle United. That chance would arrive later. The other was to take charge of one of the continent’s iconic clubs, FC Barcelona. It was one of those ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunities that he simply could not ignore. He would also take José Mourinho with him.

Many coaches, even the most experienced, would have blanched had been offered such a poisoned chalice to quench their ambitious thirst. Cruyff had achieved legendary status at the Camp Nou and was worshipped by the Cules, delivering four La Liga titles, three Supercopa de España successes, and a Copa del Rey, domestically. In Europe, he had added a Cup Winners Cup and led the club to achieve their Holy Grail of a European Cup win as well as lifting the Cup Winners’ Cup. It was the hardest of acts to follow.

Robson had no doubts however and, in his first press conference was in no mood to apologise for sitting in the seat previously occupied by the Dutchman. In firm tones, he insisted that there would be no shadow of Cruyff haunting his time as coach. ‘I am not afraid to follow him,’ he confirmed. ‘When the President of the United States leaves, they have to get another President of the United States.’ It was typical Robson, calm, honest and reassuring, but sustained by the confident belief that he would deliver.

Cruyff’s final season had been a disappointment, and one that convinced the Dutchman that the time to leave had arrived. Rows with the club’s hierarchy may have been the trigger causing the split, but the deterioration of the teams’ performances were a strong underlying cause. Third place in the league, seven points adrift of champions Atlético Madrid was hugely disappointing, although it did offer a place in the upcoming season’s Cup Winners Cup competition, an opening that Robson would seize upon. It had followed a season where second place to Real Madrid had felt so much worse. Barcelona had also fared poorly in cup competitions, losing out in the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey to Radomir Antić’s Atléti as Los Colchoneros completed the domestic double, and in the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup. The club’s squad was packed with talented players but needed a renaissance. Robson would deliver that, and bring in a player who would achieve a God-like adoration at the club.

Despite only being seen as a stop-gap appointment, Robson was not shy in venturing his opinion when the president asked about how the squad could be improved. ‘The President said to me “we need bums on seats, we need a top-class striker, do you know where there is one?”’ Robson recalled. ‘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.’ He was, but it was a risk worth taking. Barcelona sent $19.5million to PSV Eindhoven and, in return, received the services of the player who earned the nickname of “El Fenomeno” – Ronaldo.  Eight months, and 47 goals in 49 games later, when Van Gaal took over from Robson, the Brazilian would also move on, joining Inter Milan. The fee of $27million also delivered a handsome profit on the club’s investment.

With the services of the Brazilian prodigy added to the Blaugrana squad, Robson got to work rebuilding the belief in the squad he inherited that had fallen short across the previous two seasons. Early evidence of the transformative effect of Robson was illustrated in August of the same year when his team hammered the previous season’s double winners 5-2 in the first leg of the Supercopa de España with the goals coming from Giovani, Pizzi, plus El Pequeño Buda, Iván de la Peña and, inevitably setting the tone for the coming season, a brace from Ronaldo. Atléti would fightback in the home leg, but their 3-1 victory was short of hauling back the deficit and Robson had his first trophy.

Cruyff had bequeathed Robson a European qualification and, in September, Barcelona set off in pursuit of the Cup Winners Cup. A hesitant opening encounter with AEK Larnaca was safely, if less than wildly convincingly, passed thanks to another two goals from Ronaldo. It took the Catalans into a meeting with Red Stat Belgrade. By now the club were delivering convincing performances and a 4-2 home win followed by a goalless draw in Belgrade was encouraging, sending the club into the last eight and a tie with Swedish club AIK.

The home leg came first and, when the visitors took an early lead inside two minutes, a test was looming for Robson’s charges. With assured serenity however, they struck back through Popescu to equalise and further strikes by Ronaldo and Pizzi meant that the goalless draw achieved in Stockholm was more than enough for a place in the semi-finals.

Alongside Barcelona, Liverpool, Fiorentina and Paris Saint-Germain made up the final four. Robson’s team were paired with the Italians, the first leg again being played at the Camp Nou. This was a much sterner test, and despite Nadal giving the Blaugrana the lead, a goal from Batistuta squared things up and gave I Viola the advantage heading to the Stadio Artemio Franchi for the return leg. To turn matters in Barcelona’s favour, facing such an uphill struggle, would require a coaching and tactical masterclass. Robson delivered one.

On 24 April, the Blaugrana produced the perfect disciplined performance to return with a 0-2 victory and progress to the final in in Rotterdam’s Feyenoord Stadion against PSG who had defeated Liverpool 3-2 on aggregate. As so often is the case in showpiece finals, the game itself failed to live up to the billing, but a penalty from Ronaldo was sufficient to take the trophy to Catalunya. Robson had two trophies out of two. After the fallow period of the last days of Cruyff’s tenure, Robson had turned Barcelona back into a strutting powerhouse of a team hungry for trophies.  

At the same time, as well as improving their league performances, things were developing nicely in the Copa del Rey. A round of Sixteen encounter had brought the club an extra El Clásico meeting with Real Madrid. The ties are played over two legs and the first game, at the Camp Nou promised success when Ronaldo gave the Blaugrana the lead. Goals by Šuker and Hierro though put a different complexion on the game before Nadal and Giovanni gave Robson’s team a fig leaf of cover to take to the Spanish capital for the return leg. It demanded another ‘Fiorentina’ performance and Robson’s team delivered with a 1-1 draw.

The next round saw a titanic battle with cup holders and reigning Spanish champions Atlético Madrid. A 2-2 draw at the Estadio Vicente Calderón appeared to give the Barcelona the edge, but the return game would go down in history as a goal glut decided the tie. With 30 minutes on the clock, the Camp Nou was subdued into stunned silence as a hat-trick from Milinko Pantić had Atléti three goals clear and apparently coasting to victory, but Robson had drilled his team well and given them an almost unshakeable belief in themselves. At the break he delivered his words of wisdom and the team responded with vigour. Five minutes before half-time, Robson had made his intentions clear. Laurent Blanc and Popescu were taken off with forwards Pizzi and Stoickov replacing them. The response was immediate.

Two minutes after the restart, Ronaldo scored and then repeated the feat three minutes later. Inside the opening five minutes of the second period, a declaration of intent had been made. Atléti were hardly happy to roll over though and, a minute after the Brazilin had cut the gap to a single goal, Pantić hit his fourth of the night to double it again. Figo struck back on 67 minutes, and the Catalan cauldron of a stadium was at fever pitch with 20 minutes to play, as Ronaldo squared things on the night. In a basketball -like game inside the final ten minutes it was Pizzi who notched the winner. As well as his team being able to deliver disciplined away performances, Robson had shown that they could also indulge in a slug-fest with the best that Spain had to offer and still prevail.

Having defeated the previous two seasons’ champions, the Copa del Rey was now surely there for the taking, and so it proved. Las Palmas were buried under a seven-goal aggregate thumping and, in the final, 83,000 fans would see the Blaugrana twice fight back from falling behind against Real Betis with Figo hitting the winner in extra-time. It was a third trophy garnered by Robson. Strangely however, it would have been somewhat of cold comfort for the Cules. Weeks earlier, their dream of a complete whitewash of all available trophies had disappeared with a freak league defeat against a club who were already relegated at the time.

With three games left to play, Barcelona had been in pole position to become league champions and put the club in position for a clean sweep of titles. A visit to the Costa Blanca and Alicante-based club Hércules looked a fairly straightforward task. There was however a measure of discontent in the club with rumours of Ronaldo moving on to Inter becoming increasingly difficult to ignore and, the Brazilian was unavailable to Robson for the game, along with Pizzi and Giovanni. Even then though, with depleted forces, there seemed little danger – or was there?

Despite their troubled season, Hércules had already upset the Bluagrana, being the only club to visit the Camp Nou and come away with a victory. Robson was also reading the runes as despite his tremendous success the possibility of him being retained instead of Van Gaal was seemingly a lost cause. The dark clouds were gathering, although few people outside of the club recognised it.

The game itself was a bewildering occasion. After just three minutes, it seemed that form was playing out as Guardiola put Barcelona ahead and, although they couldn’t add to the lead, there seemed little danger from a team with nothing to play for. Perhaps that freedom from the weight of relegation, now a mathematical certainty however, released the Hércules players to perform and offer one last moment of glory. Shortly before the break Paquito Escudero equalised and six minutes after the restart, the unthinkable happened as Hércules went ahead, with Serbian defender Dubravko Pavlicic sliding in to divert the ball past Vítor Baía.

Robson’s team now needed two goals to maintain their advantage in the league over Real Madrid. In the following 40 minutes they laid siege to the home goal but, despite dominating the game and firing shots in from all angles and distances, the goals that had come so easily to them throughout the season – they would score 102 times in 42 league games, by far the best in the division – were now beyond their reach. At the end of the game, the club that would finish one spot from the foot of the table had completed a league double over Barcelona, and destroyed their hopes of league glory.

Real Madrid overcame Extremadura by five goals in their corresponding fixture. Barcelona’s doom was set, as Robson recognised. ‘Mathematically, we’ve still got a chance, but realistically it’s very difficult now.,’ he lamented. It was. Los Blancos efficiently wrapped up the required points and a season that offered a clean sweep of trophies had been scuppered by a relegated club whose wins over Barcelona had denied them the best season in their history.

At the end of the season, Van Gaal arrived and, in gratitude – with a thought as to whether his services may be needed again – Robson was offered an emeritus post as ‘Technical Director’. Van Gaal did well in the early years of his tenure at the Camp Nou, delivering successive league titles, but was it any better than Robson would have done? Statistics can be made to support any argument, but by the time Van Gaal left the Camp Nou, his win percentage was 55%. Robson’s had been 65%.

(This article was originally produced for the ‘Footy analyst’ website).

Bobby Robson at Porto: Cult status, glory and triumph over adversity.

After Robson was harshly sacked by Sporting president Sousa Cintra, with the club top of the league and heading towards their first Portuguese championship title for a decade, the out of work Englishman was quickly snapped up by Porto, and the former Three Lions manager continued his European sojourn with a move to the Estádio das Antas in January 1994. Significantly, he also took José Mourinho with him as his assistant.

As is so often the case when a new manager joins a club, when Robson arrived, Porto were suffering a period of decline. A fall in performances had seen the club slip away from their traditional place near the top of the Primeira Divisão, and crowds at the Antas had tumbled to around 10,000, echoing around a stadium built to accommodate more than five times that amount. In typical Robson fashion however, the renaissance was put into place without delay.

Brazilian coach Carlos Alberto Silva had delivered successive titles for the club before returning to his native country to take over at Cruzeiro and had been replaced at the start of the 1993-94 season by former coach, Tomislav Ivić. In his first period with the club, the Croatian had enjoyed plenty of success, but this was a different time and with Ivić struggling and the club’s fortunes plunging, Porto chose the season’s winter break to move him on and insert Robson.

By season’s end the decision had been massively vindicated, and Robson had the club pointing in the right direction once more. Porto had closed the gap behind champions Benfica to a mere two points and, but for a home defeat by Sporting against the Lisbon club on 14 May, Robson may even have snatched the title. The change in fortunes was also reflected in European competition. The league title won by Silva in the previous season had granted Porto entry into the Champions League but, by the time Robson was appointed, their progress in the group stage had faltered following a punishing 3-0 defeat to AC Milan.

Robson rallied the team though and, despite losing to a goal just two minutes from time against Anderlecht in Brussels, a win in the return game, a thumping 0-5 victory away to Werder Bremen and a creditable draw against Milan – who would go onto the win the trophy – saw Porto finish in second place and advance to the knockout phase with the victory over Bremen proving decisive. The Bundesliga club finished two points behind Porto and Robson had guided his new club to the semi-finals. A pairing with the winners of the other group, meant a visit to the Camp Nou to face Barcelona, and a 3-0 defeat ended the European adventure.

Success was achieved though in the domestic cup competition.  A 6-0 victory in the quarter-final of the Taça de Portugal over second tier club Desportivo das Aves took Porto into the last four and a tie with Estrela da Amadora. Played at the Estádio José Gomes in Amadora, the 1-2 victory looks closer than it actually was. The home team’s goal only coming as a late consolation penalty when the game was already settled.

As fate would have it, Porto’s opposition in the final was, none other than Sporting, the club that had sacked Robson six months earlier. Following a goalless draw on 5 June, the replay decided the destination of the trophy five days later, when an extra-time goal from Brazilian defender Aloísio gave Robson the cup and perhaps one of his sweetest victories. Robson now had some success to build on.

Fate also delivered something else for Robson to build on. Living in the same apartment block as the Englishman was a 16-year-old football obsessed boy called André Villas-Boas. The precocious youngster would slip notes under Robson’s door, offering him advice on suggested formation, team selection and tactics. On occasions, the young man would also accost the manager on the staircase in the building, over perceived errors.  So many others ibn a similar scenario would have simply rebuffed the overly enthusiastic Villas-Boas, but the kindly and astute Robson saw something in the teenager and offered him support and encouragement instead.

He would appoint Villas-Boas to work at the club’s observation department, where he came into contact with Mourinho, and later assisted him in gaining his UEFA ‘C’ coaching badge at a course in Scotland, whilst also arranging for him to spend time observing training at his old English club, Ipswich Town. Unknowingly, Robson had mentored two men who would later, both, lead Porto to domestic and continental success. Over the next couple of seasons though, despite serious health issues, the former England manager would enjoy triumphs of his own.

In his first full season, the club suffered a traumatic loss when 26-year-old midfielder Rui Filipe was killed in a car accident on 28 August 1994. The new season was just a week old and Robson was compelled to guide his team through a season when, for so many, football seemed a peripheral matter. The club rallied though and, by the end of the term, sat atop the Primeira Divisão table by a clear seven points from Sporting, with Benfica trailing in third place, a further eight points adrift.

There was a particularly sweet moment for Robson when the title was secured with a 0-1 victory away to Sporting. Robson was not the sort of person to seek out the man who had dismissed him, in order to gloat, but there would doubtless have been a small measure of satisfaction for him in winning the title at the Estádio José Alvalade. There was also success in the Portuguese Supertaça. Repeating their success over Benfica in the previous year’s final, Porto again triumphed over the Lisbon team, securing the title on away goals with a 1-1 draw in the capital and a 0-0 draw at home.

The following season began with great expectancy, as a new contract was offered and accepted by Robson. Fresh from their title success, Porto launched into the new term determined to retain their title, but ill health befell Robson. In the early months of the season, he was diagnosed as suffering from a malignant melanoma and would be absent from the team for a prolonged period. For anyone, it was a trying time, but cancer had haunted Robson since a first diagnosis back in 1991. It’s a tribute to his strength of character and immense commitment that he could, once again, overcome the illness that so many others had succumbed to.

Fortunately for Porto, by this time, the manager’s methods and tactics had become ingrained at the club and, when he returned to pick up the reins, was able to guide them to that second successive title. This time the gap to the runners-up, Benfica, had grown to 11 points. Sporting would have surely been ruing the haste with which they dismissed the manager who had now come to dominate Portuguese football. They finished in third place, 17 points adrift of the champions.

So dominant was Robson’s Porto in the 1995-96 that their total of 84 goals across a 34-game league season was 15points clear of the next highest total and their defensive record of conceding a mere 20 was also the best in the league. Goals had now become the currency of choice at the Estádio das Antas, and the players and fans of the club were cashing in.  Domingos Paciência secured the Bola de Prata title as the league’s highest scorer and Robson was lauded as ‘Bobby Five-0’ for the number of times the club recorded victories by that margin.

The impression Robson was making in the country also spread beyond the confines of the Porto stadium. Then, an aspiring young coach, who would later work for clubs across the world, including a period as an assistant to Jesualdo Ferreira back at Porto in 2008, José Gomes would often skip university commitments to watch Robson carry out training sessions with his players. There were far more important lessons to learn from watching the veteran English coach, than to be garnered from sitting behind a desk.

‘“The way that this man, in his 60s, passed such passion to his players.”’ He remembered. ‘I looked at him and it was impossible to split him from English football. He was like a symbol of what English football means.” Gomes vividly recalls a drill in which António Folha, the Portugal winger, enraged Robson with repeated errors. “He was shouting at him, ‘Stupid, stupid,’” he says. “But a few seconds later Folha, in the same exercise, did well and Robson dropped to his knees on the ground [he mimics a figure with arms aloft], shouting, ‘Fantastic. Fantastic.’ The guy is 62 and living one simple football exercise with such intensity and love. I keep this picture in my mind for ever, because it is the way a manager must respect his job.[1]”’

Contented with the lifestyle in Porto and energised by the success the club was enjoying Robson was settled in Portugal, with surely only two possible jobs that could lure him away. One would be the challenge to take over at his home town club, and revitalise the fortunes of his beloved Newcastle United. His chance to do so would come along later. Before that though, a telephone conversation with Joan Gaspart, the vice-president of FC Barcelona would lead to a chance to coach at perhaps the most famous football club in the world. It was the second of those two jobs that simply couldn’t be ignored.

In his two full seasons with Porto, Robson would win no less than 55 league games, losing a mere three. His team would score 157 goals in 68 games, conceding just 35 and deliver successive Primeira Divisão titles to add to a Taça de Portugal triumph and successive Supertaças, all that despite being struck down with a life-threatening condition. In 2016, Futebol Clube do Porto commissioned a statue of the then sadly departed Robson. It sits on a bench overlooking the 18th green at the Pestana Vila Sol Golf course in Vilamoura, a favourite spot of Robson’s. It seems an apt reflection of the affection the club had for Bobby Robson.


[1] https://english.aawsat.com//home/article/1589126/jos%c3%a9-gomes-robson-was-symbol-what-english-football-means

(This article was originally produced for the Footy Analyst website).

Robson – The Sporting Clube de Portugal seasons.

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).

Bobby Robson – The PSV Years.

After enduring a dismal qualifying campaign for the 1984 European Championships, a crestfallen Bobby Robson spoke with Sir Bert Millichip, Chairman of The Football Association. Conceding that he had failed, Robson offered to resign from his post as England manager, and recommended that The FA should approach Brian Clough to be his successor. Millichip refused to accept the resignation, many consider because the thought of the bluff and putspoken Clough in charge of England was too much for the stuffed shirts at Lancaster Gate to stomach. Robson was told to soldier on – but do better.

Six years later, approaching the 1990 World Cup in Italy, Robson who had been eliminated from the World Cup in Mexico through Maradona’s sleight of hand, and had led England through the qualifying tournament unbeaten was still in charge. It was at that delicate moment, however, that the very same Bert Millichip decided to indulge in the sort of ‘foot in mouth’ demagoguery that would lead to the Three Lions’ most successful manager since 1966 being ousted from his post. In 2009, after Robson had passed away, Graham Kelly, Secretary to the Football league from 1978 to 1989 and Chief Executive of The FA between 1989 and 1998 detailed the events of the time in an interview with The Guardian. Kelly recalled that Millichip, “let his tongue run away with him, and said Robson either had to win the World Cup or go, and Bobby reacted by approaching PSV Eindhoven.” In Italy, Robson became only the second manager, after Sir Alf Ramsey, in the history of the World Cup to take England to a semi-final of football’s premier tournament, and the first one to do so on foreign soil.  That achievement would not be matched until Gareth Southgate took the Three Lions to Russia nearly 30 years later. Strangely and with the sort of perverse logic that often defines football’s ruling bodies, after backing Robson when he failed to qualify for a European Championship, they had painted themselves into a corner that meant they were losing his services after England’s best World Cup performance for 24 years.

Intemperate decisions are often pinned on organisations like The FA, but this seemed to have been the crassest of ill-considered outbursts. Robson guided England to within a penalty shootout of reaching the World Cup Final. In any other circumstances, his tenure with the national team would have been assured, but when Millichip “let his tongue run away with him” that possibility disappeared into the ether. England’s loss however would very much be to the gain of PSV Eindhoven. To his credit, Robson kept his opinions on the matter very much to himself and merely sought the alternative employment made necessary by Millichip’s errant oratory.

When news of his appointment with the Eredivisie club broke, ahead of the World Cup’s opening game, some media outlets – either bereft of the facts, or with little apparent care for them – took to calling Robson out as a traitor, and accusing him of betraying the national team. An honourable man, Robson was very much a proud Englishman and patriot. The slurs pushed him too far, and led to a successful legal case being prosecuted against the ‘Today’ newspaper.

With the success on Italia ’90 banked, Robson’s stock as a manager was very much at its height and there was every possibility that a top club job would be available back in England for the ex-England manager. Eschewing the easy option however, he had chosen to venture into continental club football with PSV. At the time, some pundits painted a picture of a backwater club offering a semi-retirement role for a manager worn down by the trials and tribulations – not to mention the political backstabbing and intrigues – inherent in managing England. Such descriptions however only portray a lack of understanding of the level of football once the English Channel had been crossed.

In March 1987, after serving four years as assistant to Hans Kraay, Guus Hiddink was promoted to take charge of PSV Eindhoven. The move ushered in a three-year period of outstanding success, both domestically and at the highest level of continental competition. Despite trailing Ajax by three points with just ten games remaining when he was appointed, Hiddink demonstrated the club’s ability to appoint the right man at the right time by guiding the club to the Eredivisie title, coasting to the championship six points clear of the Amsterdam club. It was the opening course to a banquet of silverware.

The following season Hiddink not only delivered a domestic double of league and KNVB Cup, but also took PSV to the heights of emulating Ajax and Feyenoord, by bringing the European Cup back to the Netherlands after defeating Benfica on penalties in the final at Stuttgart’s Neckarstadion. After securing another double in the 1988-89 season, a mere KNVB triumph in 1990 seemed almost like a failure. It wasn’t, of course, But the Dutchman considered it was time to move on and began a journey across clubs the length of breadth of Europe, and beyond, by joining Fenerbahçe.

The move left PSV with a difficult problem. After such a sumptuous period of success choosing the next manager would decide probably dictate the fate of the next decade or so. Select the wrong man and a tumble from the top table of European football would be an inevitable consequence. Make the correct selection however and there was a chance that the ship, left rocking by Hiddink’s departure, could be steadied and success maintained.  

There’s a constant theme of Dutch club success over the years. It seems to require a squad of strong-willed players, often pulling in different directions, but guided by a coach with the skills and man-management ability to both control the players and harness their emotional requirements to produce a united front. Hiddink had demonstrated his ability to do so and, in Bobby Robson, the PSV hierarchy had again demonstrated their ability to pick the right man for the job. 

It would however be wrong to suggest that the move into Dutch football was smooth and success accomplished with some comfort. Both as a player and coach, Robson had been brought to appreciate the English ethics of the game and how a club should be structured with the manager exerting a measure of control over the players, and an acceptance of that from the squad. What he found initially in Eindhoven was therefore very much of a ‘culture shock’. As well as the Dutch players living up to the reputation of being both forthright in opinion and convinced of the validity of their views on most things, Robson also had to contend with the particularly individual approach of Brazilian star striker Romário.

The South American had been acquired by the club in 1988 and been a key element in the success of Hiddink’s team – much as he would continue to be so for Robson’s. The relationship was however, challenging at best and borderline impossible at worst. It required not only the steely determination to insist on matters when required, but also the empathy to understand the amount of latitude that should be given to a player who delivered scintillating performances on the pitch. At one stage Robson even called the Brazilian to a crisis meeting supported by his assistant Frank Arnesen to convince Romário of the need to change his attitude to training and his work ethic in general. It had little effect but, for Robson, there was the compensation of glut of goals delivered by his errant star on the pitch.

In Robson’s two years at the club, the Brazilian delivered 30 goals in 30 games across all competitions in 1990-91 and, despite suffering injuries the following term, still kept his strike rate up, finding the back of the net 19 times in 18 games. Experienced and astute enough to know the difference between the times when authority and empathy are required, Robson accepted the man and his goals as a package that could not be picked apart. The manager’s ability to bend like grass in the wind, rather than remain taut, straightlaced and risk being broken, reaped handsome dividends on the pitch.

There’s one particular story about Robson’s time at PSV that, if true, offers both an insight into his approach to people regardless of their perceived standing, the humility of the man and total lack of arrogance. One day, whilst walking along the corridors of the Philips Stadion, Robson happened upon a fairly low-level worker as they passed. After exchanging the normal greetings, the worker commented on how nice Robson’s shoes were. Without a moment’s hesitation, the story goes, Robson took off the shoes and handed them the worker as a gift. It’s difficult to know if there’s at least a semblance of truth in the tale but, if there is, it offers a glimpse of how Robson not only understood the value of the job he had, but also of those around him too. It’s not quite a ‘give you the shirt off his back’ situation, but it’s certainly heading in that direction. 

In his first season, Robson took PSV back to the top of the tree of Netherlands football, delivering the Eredivisie title on goal difference from Ajax, with Romário the league’s joint top scorer netting 25 times in 25 games. The victory took PSV back into the European Cup, but it would be a short journey. The first round paired them with Turkish club, Beşiktaş, and a 1-1 draw in the feverish atmosphere of Istanbul’s İnönü Stadyumu, in front of around 32,000 partisan home fans was a creditable result.  A couple of weeks later though, things were looking decidedly unsteady when Metin Tekin put the visitors ahead in the return leg. It took until midway through the first period for Gerald Vanenburg to level the aggregate scores, before Kalusha Bwalya secured progress for PSV in the second half.

It had been anything but an encouraging start to the campaign and set the tone for what was a disappointingly short European excursion. A goalless draw at home to Anderlecht in the next round always looked like presenting a difficult task in the return leg away in Brussels, and so it was. An early goal by Marc Degryse and a last-minute confirmation by Danny Boffin closed the door on any hopes of a run towards the later stages of the tournament. The elimination was clearly a disappointment for Robson. For the club however, with memories of Hiddink’s success a siren’s call for more of the same, it flagged up what was perceived to be a weakness in Robson’s management abilities, and a doubt about his future with the club.

The following season, despite losing Romário due to injury, Robson guided PSV to another Eredivisie title, and a further shot at European club football’s ultimate prize. Robson, however wouldn’t have the chance to take the club on another European Cup campaign. Despite the Englishman delivering two league titles in his couple of seasons with the club, there was a hunger – as things transpired, a perhaps unreasonable hunger – to regain the continental success achieved under Hiddink. The perception was that Robson wouldn’t deliver on that, and he was advised that he would be leaving the club at the end of the season.

With typical dignity, Robson accepted the decision and continued his European Odyssey, moving on to another club – and another period of success in a different country. He was replaced by Hans Westerhof, who won the Dutch Super Cup the following season but, compared to Robson’s achievements, it was a paltry triumph. Westerhof only lasted a single season before being moved on, as Ada de Mos and then Kees Rijvers occupied the manager’s chair briefly, and without success. The PSV board had sought to replace Robson with someone who would bring continental success back to the club. Sadly, their ability to choose the right man for the task had deserted them. Even the domestic honours that had become staple fare under Hiddink and then Robson eluded the club. It would take four years and four different managers before the Eredivisie title came back to the Philips Stadion under Dick Advocaat. As with England, who suffered a fallow period under Graham Taylor after Robson was pointed to the exit door, PSV learnt the same harsh lesson that removing Bobby Robson was not the smartest of moves.

It was a decision that the club clearly came to regret and, in July 1998, after success in Portugal and Spain, Robson was invited back on a short-term contract to replace Advocaat who had moved to Scotland and Glasgow Rangers. A single season was hardly sufficient time for Robson to re-establish the success he had achieved but he still delivered silverware with the Dutch Super Cup, now rebranded as the Johann Cruyff Shield, and also ensured qualification for the Champions League. Would he have stayed in Eindhoven had the invitation been offered? It’s difficult to say, but with the opportunity to take over at his home town club, Newcastle united, the lure of going ‘home’ was always likely to have been irresistible.

(This article was originally produced for the Footy Analyst website).

Ronaldo at PSV. The birth of a legend.

In 1994, the Brazil squad that travelled to the USA to compete for the World Cup included a skinny 17-year-old striker named Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima. The teenager had only played a single season with Cruzeiro in Belo Horizonte but had scored a dozen goals in just 14 league appearances for the club. That record and, more importantly, the promise it held for the future, were sufficient for Seleção coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira, to include the precocious youngster in his squad.

Although being with the squad was an experience the young striker would rapidly become accustomed to, it was another giddying step along a career path that would mark him out as one of the greatest players of all time. Even at this early age, he had already impressed legendary Seleção defender Cafu, with his goalscoring feats for Cruzeiro. The World Cup winner once watched him score five times in a single game for El Raposa against Bahia on 7 November 1993. “From that point on,” Cafu recalled. “He showed that he was truly a phenomenon.” It was a sound assessment. That young player would grow up to claim that name for himself, becoming known throughout the footballing world as “El Fenomeno” – or simply Ronaldo.

Born in September 1976, like so many celebrated Brazil internationals, Ronaldo was a child of the streets of Rio, learning his game in the  compact backstreets and alleyways of the city, where an ability to control a ball on an irregularly cobbled surface was a prerequisite to even compete, let alone excel. Even amongst the crop of talent that thronged those streets, a nascent ability shone out and he was spotted by another former Brazil star, Jairzinho then working with minor club São Cristóvão, and at 16, he recommended the teenager to his old club Cruzeiro. When the move happened, Roberto Gaglianone, the coach at Sao Cristovao remarked sagely that, “In December 1992 I said I’ve sent a boy to Cruzeiro who is going to be Brazil’s next striker. He will play in the 1998 World Cup. They asked the name and I said ‘Ronaldo’.” The move opened a pathway that would lead to a World Cup adventure and then a move across the Atlantic to join PSV and build a legendary status

For the stars of Brazilian football, the route from South America to Europe’s top clubs was well established, and there was an ever increasing drive for scouting networks to identify potential stars at younger ages to both ensure that their club had the pick of the emerging talent and, just as importantly, to ensure value for money by buying potential, rather than established stars. This meant that word of the young Brazilian striker was already hot news among European clubs, with many keen to sign the gleaming but, as yet unpolished, diamond.

Juventus and Milan had both scouted the player but, at 17, such a move would be a huge gamble for both club and player. A more sensible approach would be to move to a less high-profile club initially, as a kind of stepping-stone, before launching into the rarefied atmosphere of top tier European football. Then under the control of Louis van Gaal and on their way to a Champions League triumph, and despite already having the burgeoning talent of Patrick Kluivert in their ranks, Ajax was considered to be a favoured destination. The 1994 World Cup though would change all of that. Although the young Ronaldo wouldn’t kick a ball in the World Cup, a conversation with a fellow squad member was key in the decision that, instead, took Ronaldo to PSV Eindhoven.

In 1988, then aged 19, Romário had been in a similar situation, and had chosen PSV ahead of other potential suitors, enjoying five successful seasons with the Dutch club, winning three Eredivisie titles and two KNVB Cups, and scoring 128 goals in 148 games before moving to Barcelona in a £2million deal in the summer of 1993. After enduring a trophy-less season following Romário’s departure, PSV were now looking for the next Brazilian star to ignite the new term. As Ronaldo explained, “Romário told me that PSV is one of the most professional and best organised clubs in Europe. He said it would be best to acclimatise in Europe and the learn about European football. I think he is right.” Although he didn’t know it at the time, not only would Ronaldo follow his Seleção team-mate to Eindhoven, he would also later retrace his steps to Catalunya as well. It had been sage advice. Van Gaal publicly consoled himself to the loss saying, “We have Kluivert.” It was true of course, and the Dutchman would become a top European striker. Few however would have chosen him over Ronaldo had they been given the choice – not even Van Gaal.

Despite the encouragement of Romário and the fact that Dutch domestic football was far less a feverish environment than the goldfish bowl existence of players in Serie A or La Liga, moving to a different continent and an unknown language was still a challenge for a teenager and, despite a commitment to learn Dutch, the social transition was not easy even living with both his mother and girlfriend. On the pitch though, things were very different. The ball was still round, the goals were still square, and Ronaldo’s ability to insert the former into the latter was undiminished.

Initially paired with Belgian striker Luc Nilis, Ronaldo’s career with PSV remained goalless for a mere ten minutes. On 28 August 1994, a few weeks short of his eighteenth birthday, Ronaldo made his debut in an Eredivisie match against Vitesse Arnhem. Entering the tenth minute, a pass was played behind the Vitesse backline. With cool confidence and practised ease, the Brazilian brought the ball under control with his first touch, before firing home right-footed into the far corner of the net. Many more goals would follow. In Romário’s debut season with PSV, he notched a highly impressive 26 goals in 34 appearances across all competitions. Ronaldo would eclipse that total with plenty to spare. In his first season with the club, he played in 36 games, scoring a staggering 35 goals. As part of that haul, 30 goals in 33 league appearances him the Eredivisie’s top goalscorer. The club totalled 85 league goals that term. That skinny teenager contributed almost 40% of them.  There was little doubt that PSV Eindhoven had a burgeoning global star in their hands. It wasn’t however, merely the goals he scored that led to such conclusions, it was also the manner of his performances.

Writing in The Guardian, Nick Miller described the impact that the teenager had in his debut season. “What’s striking about Ronaldo in that first year at PSV is how complete he looks, even as a skinny teenager. Everything that would come to define him – the lightning pace, the blurry stepovers, the implausible impression that he was faster with the ball than without it, even the exceptional upper-body strength – was all there.” The phrase “those blurry stepovers” were a reference to the move that Ronaldo perfected and continued to deploy throughout his career. In modern parlance it’s often described as a ‘Flip Flap’ but to all of those at the Philips Stadion, who watched in awe as the Brazilian tyro bewildered and befuddled his opponents. The move will always be known as Ronaldo’s “Elastico”.

Faced with an opponent Ronaldo would pause for a moment over the ball, swaying slightly like a cobra hypnotising its prey. Then, with the defender’s concentration awaiting the first move, he would slightly nudge the ball in one direction, hypnotically inducing the defender to shift his balance and counter the anticipated move, and in that moment Ronaldo had his opponent beaten. A quick snap of the ankle would then flick the ball in the opposite direction allowing the Mercurial striker to scamper past the beaten defender, leaving him floundering like some dupe, a victim of a conjurer’s sleight of hand. Guardian columnist Rob Smyth would concur with the magician metaphor. “In many ways Ronaldo was the first PlayStation footballer. His stepover was a form of hypnosis, and his signature trick, the elastico, could certainly have come from a computer screen.”

It wasn’t however only the scribes who were impressed by his play. On 13 September, PSV visited Bayer Leverkusen, for the first leg of the UEFA Cup’s opening round. Still five days short of his eighteenth birthday, and only a month or so into his season with a new club, in a new country, on a different continent, Ronaldo would notch a hat-trick and produce a performance that even had the opposition’s players purring with astonishment.

A goal down after five minutes following a strike from Ulf Kirsten, Ronaldo seemed inspired. The first warning came early when a pass allowed the striker to accelerate into a gap and flick the ball past an advancing Vollborn in the Bundesliga club’s goal, but the slightest of deflections from the goalkeeper saw the ball narrowly evade the post. Leverkusen should have heeded the earning. Soon after another chance was created. A neat control and turn deceived a defender, around 25 yards from goal, but the shot flew over the bar, again following intervention of the overworked Vollborn.

Ronaldo would simply not be denied though and, on 11 minutes another scything run saw him latch onto a pass and drive into the penalty area. Playing the ball past Vollburn, the goalkeeper was beaten and resorted to the only recourse open to him to prevent a goal, tripping the teenager as he flew past him. It was the clearest of penalties, and the conversion was the clearest of goals, the ball flying powerfully beyond the reach of Vollburn.

The problem for PSV though was that while Ronaldo was a constant threat at one end of the pitch, they were conceding goals with alarming regularity at the other end. As half-time approached, PSV were 4-1 down. New hope was given though when the Brazilian rifled in his second goal. Instant control, a shimmy to create a small space and a shot that hit the net before Vollburn had completed his forlorn drive were the hallmarks of a master marksman, and PSV had a foothold in the game again. Climbing to his feet, as the PSV players mobbed the teenager, the goalkeeper merely stood there and shook his head in sad acceptance of the fact that sometimes there’s simply nothing you can do.

The second period began in the same way as the first had ended. The game was simply a battle of who could score the most goals. Would it be the entire Leverkusen team, or Ronaldo. Eleven against one. With that one being Ronaldo, it was just about a fair contest. On the hour mark the Brazilian closed the gap even further, coolly converting a cross from the left. From a position of comfort, the Leverkusen game plan had been torn asunder by the teenager. In the end the Germans would score once more, before an exhausted Ronaldo was withdrawn. Nilis added a late goal for PSV, but there was only one star of the game. In a post-match press conference, Germany World Cup winner Rudi Völler spoke for so many who had watched the virtuoso performance. “Never in my life have I seen an 18-year-old play in this way.” How good was Ronaldo? Nick Miller reckoned that he “was a force of nature, a blast of hellfire with a velcro touch and jealous refusal to give up the ball.” It was the birth of a legend. Strangely, in a weird juxtaposition of events, the return leg ended goalless and PSV were eliminated.

PSV would end the Eredivisie season in third place, some 14 points adrift of champions Ajax, but the promise of Ronaldo developing even further, with a full season of European football behind him, was enough to whet the appetite of any PSV fan. It had been a glorious season. On the opening day, PSV fans had welcomed that skinny kid from South America with the long name as a young hopeful, someone who would have done amazingly well if he could even come close to emulating what Romário had brought to the club in terms of goals, excitement and exhilaration. By the end of the season, everyone knew the name of Ronaldo, his compatriot’s achievements had been cantered past and erased from the record books. The greatest prospect in world football was wearing a PSV shirt.

That Ronaldo was exceptional in his first term at PSG is beyond debate but, indulging briefly in that endlessly pointless debate of comparing across eras, just how outstanding was he? At the same age, the two players now regarded as being possibly the best players of all time, Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, were still battling to establish themselves. At approximately the same age, the former had played a mere nine first team games for the Blaugrana, scoring just once; still some way from establishing himself as a first-team player, let alone as the most important element in the team. Meanwhile Ronaldo had just moved to Old Trafford and was still regarded as something of a show pony with fancy tricks and step-overs that beat defenders, but with lots still to learn.

In comparison, Ronaldo at 18 was widely regarded as the hottest striking prospect in Europe, if not the world. Surely the future would be even brighter. Fate however had a cruel twist in store for one who it seemed had been favoured so abundantly with the smile of the Gods. Whilst Messi and CR7 would go on to great heights with careers benevolently blessed by an absence of serious injury, Ronaldo would be compelled to endure the things they avoided.

Sadly, although he still managed to notch 19 goals in 21 games across all competitions and a dozen in 13 league appearances, maintaining a spectacular goalscoring ratio, Ronaldo’s 1995-96 season was marred by injury.  His knee had been causing him increasing amounts of discomfort from Autumn, and moving towards Christmas, it was clear that the issue simply wouldn’t just heal on its own. A case of Osgood-Schlatter Disease was diagnosed. Despite the name, the condition isn’t a disease, but a problem often brought on by an excess of high-level physical activity in adolescents undergoing a growth spurt, leading to overuse injury. The opportunities offered by Ronaldo’s precocious talent had also been complicit in his injury.  

Still in his teenage years, the decision was made to undergo an operation to relieve the condition, followed by a period of rehabilitation. For a young man with the world apparently at his hugely talented feet, the shock of realisation cut like a surgeon’s knife. “Football is my life,” he lamented. “If I am not able to play, I am broken.” Fortunately, he was able to return, but the issue of knee problems would persist throughout his career. Although the injury absence meant that his second season was less spectacular than the first, it saw him win his only title with PSV, as they lifted the KNVB Cup.

The double-edged sword of having such a talent at the club was now being felt by PSV. The continent’s richest clubs were circling, casting envious towards the young striker. Soon newspaper reports were dropping heavy hints, doubtless fed by agents or covetous clubs, that a move in the summer was inevitable. It’s not difficult to understand how such coquettish whispers can turn the head of a teenager far from home and fired with ambition. The injury dissuaded some, but down in Spain, Bobby Robson, a former PSV manager now ensconced in the Camp Nou hot seat was firmly recommending the young striker as the man to fire Barcelona back to glory.

The fates were set. PSV would only cherish the exquisite joys of Ronaldo for two seasons before he followed in the footsteps of Romário once more. The Catalans would be forced to pay a reported £12.5million fee to secure Ronaldo’s services as PSV extracted full value for losing their prize asset. Despite the injury, in two seasons he had scored 54 goals in just 58 games.

Two years later, aged just 21, Ronaldo would become the youngest ever player to win the Ballon d’Or. In a landside of votes, 38 ballots were cast in his favour. No one else received any more than two. Robson clearly knew what he was getting. When asked to state the best signing he had made in his long career, there was no hesitation. “Ronaldo was marvellous. He had one year with me at Barcelona, I bought him from PSV, and he was out of this world. He was a god, absolutely fantastic. He had amazing ability, was a great young athlete, a nice character, respected me and it was sad he only played eight months for us there. […] The year he had with us you could see he was going to be phenomenal. He was so strong, would go past people, come deep to get the ball, turn and whatever you put in front of him there was a chance he could always go through you. Power and skill.”

In the remainder of his career, before returning briefly to Brazil to play out his career with Corinthians, Ronaldo would not only play for Barcelona, but also Real Madrid, and both Inter and Milan as he completed a tour of the continents most celebrated clubs. Across his time in league football for the various clubs he played for, 343 appearances would bring almost 250 goals. Given that so many of these were delivered at the highest levels of competition, it’s a hugely impressive record. He would also play 98 times for the Seleção, scoring 62 goals.

On so many occasions, it’s often only the wealthiest clubs – Real Madrid, Barcelona, Milan, Inter, Juventus, perhaps Manchester United, or latterly PSG – that can claim to have numbered the world’s greatest stars amongst their players, and counted their ‘golden days’ in their colours. Sometimes though, just sometimes, a new star is not only revealed at a different club but achieves legendary status there. Such an occasion was when that skinny 17-year-old Brazilian kid landed in the Netherlands and joined PSV Eindhoven. In two seasons he became a legend. It’s a legacy few clubs outside the elite half dozen or so can claim, but at the Philips Stadion, the memory of Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima wearing the red and white striped shirt is treasured for all time.

(This article was originally prioduced for the These Football Times ‘PSV Eindhoven’ magazine).

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. Continue reading →

The naïve exuberance and precious, vulnerable talent of England’s Paul Gascoigne.

Millions upon millions of words have been spoken and written about the career of Paul Gascoigne; the glory and the gormless, the poetry and the prose, the joys and the tears. If one aspect of the career of Duston’s finest ever sportsman epitomises his footballing life however, it is surely the time he spent wearing his country’s national shirt. It was that most rare of occasions, when a young English footballer burst onto the world stage offering up the promise of a talent so extraordinary that it created a dream of glory, but then crashed and burnt in flames that consumed hopes and talent without mercy. There’s a phrase that’s often referred to when talk of Gascoigne and his time with England arises, so I’m going to borrow it from Gary Lineker. Let’s “have a word” about Paul Gascoigne’s time playing for England. Continue reading →

Penalties, Dutch courage and what might have been…

tim krul penalty save

Yes, I know a lot of people will say things like ‘You say that now…’ but you’re going to have to either believe me or not, I guess. It is true however that Louis van Gaal’s goalkeeper substitution shenanigans in the World Cup quarter final over the weekend brought back memories of another penalty shoot-out some twenty-four years ago, and an outlandish suggestion I made at the time. Continue reading →