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).
In the summer of 2001, Frank Lampard left West Ham United and moved across London to join Chelsea. In those days, any thoughts of a Russian oligarch taking control of the Stamford Bridge club, “parking his tanks on our lawn and started firing £50 notes” as Arsenal’s David Dein famously opined, hardly even entered the realms fanciful caprice. Chelsea were under the charge of Ken Bates, managed by Claudio Ranieri – very much in his ‘Tinkerman’ incarnation – and plunging headlong into a financial morass. Continue reading →
In the summer of 2005, just after José Mourinho had made Chelsea the champions of England for the first time in fifty years, Michael Essien signed for the club. Olympique Lyonnais had found a bid of around £25million too difficult to rebuff. Two Ligue 1 titles in as many seasons with Les Gones illustrated Essien’s ability and his presence would serve to further ramp up the quality of the midfield of a team that had just romped away with the Premier League title by a dozen points.
In the 2004-05 season, a midfield trio of Lampard, Makélélé and Tiago had metaphorically swept all before them, but when Mourinho described the Ghanaian as being, “the best we can get for his position and he can play anywhere in midfield,” it was clear that the 22-year-old had been lined up to take over from the manager’s compatriot. Here was a player of such abundant physical reserves that, after a metronomic display in a pulsating midfield, legend had it that he would go for a run to burn off surplus energy. Continue reading →
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 →
It’s 24 April 1996 and Iceland are playing Estonia in Tallinn. Starring for the visitors is 34-year-old Arnór Guðjohnsen, one of the country’s top strikers who would net 17 times for his country in his career. Sitting on the substitute’s bench is Arnór’s 17-year-old son, Eiður. Rumour had it that, assuming the score line allowed such courtesies, the youngster would be brought on towards the end of the game and play alongside his father. Fate took a cruel hand though and an injury to the father was in fact the gateway to the teenager entering play. The sentimental gesture was abandoned, postponed for another time. Continue reading →
It’s surely one of the greatest unofficial accolades that the game has to offer. No-one votes for it, not the press, not other players, not even the fans. Someone somewhere suggests it, and off it trots merrily making its way through the highways and byways of ‘football talk’. Eventually, it’s travelled the length and breadth of the football community, by common assent it becomes accepted as part of the lexicon of football. I’m talking about having an element of the game named after you. There’s the Panenka penalty, the Cruyff turn, the Makelele role and even Fergie time, to name but a few of the uncontentious – well, fairy uncontentious anyway – ones. Now, another nom de guerre may be seeking to elbow its way into the language of football. At the moment, there’s only the merest whisper of it being circulated. Isn’t that how it always begins though? Continue reading →
Jose Mourinho appears to have won his battle of wills with Spain’s national team manager Vicente del Bosque over the fitness of Chelsea striker Diego Costa. The Rojas squad, announced last week for the European qualifier against Belarus and the prestigious friendly against World Champions Germany, noticeably excluded Brazilian-born Costa, and doubtless brought a smile to the Blues’ manager’s face. A long term hamstring problem, dating back to the tail end of last term’s La Liga season was hardly helped on the way to recovery by Spain’s albeit truncated participation in the World Cup. Add that to the physical rigours of the Premier League and Mourinho’s argument that a fortnight’s rest for the player, rather than playing a further two games, will be more beneficial for both club and country in bringing Costa to peak fitness, seems to gain a little credence. “I’m pleased about Diego [Costa], but I did nothing to make this happen,” Mourinho said at a press conference before the weekend. The decision however did not extend to Mourinho resting the striker against Liverpool, and when he netted the winner, it seemed that the Chelsea boss had won from every angle. Continue reading →
Jose Mourinho’s rampant Chelsea squad top the Premier League with a number of opposition managers already apparently prepared to write off the title race with less than a dozen games played. Whether that’s more than a mite premature is something that will be revealed over time. For Blues’ fans however, it seems the ‘Special One’ can do no wrong. The summer transfer market saw the arrival of Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas, already two stellar names in the club’s performance to date, plus the redoubtable tyro goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and Brazilian Felipe Luis who is already offering genuine competition to Cesar Azpilicueta on the left flank of Chelsea’s defence. Add this to big money sales of David Luiz and Romelu Lukaku that balanced the books with an eye to FFP, and it’s bordering on genius dealings. Back in January however, Mourinho countenanced the sale of player who, current statistics reveal, is at the top of the creativity stakes in European football.
Everyone can be wise after the event of course, but back In January, accepting a £18million bid from Bundesliga outfit Wolfsburg for Belgian wide player Kevin de Bruyne appeared eminently sound business. The player had after all cost a mere £7million when Chelsea secured is services from Genk. Although now distant from the blandishments and promptings of Mourinho, de Bruyne has however had an exceptional start to the season, and currently is the main reason why unfancied Wolfsburg are tucked nicely into second place in the Bundesliga, behind perennial champions Bayern Munich. Continue reading →
The news that chief executive Ron Gourlay is to leave his position at Stamford Bridge to pursue other business interests seems, on the surface, to be a case of strange timing. Under Mourinho, the club now appears to be one of the prime forces in the domestic game. Couple this with a summer of acclaimed transfer business, on the back of a January window when they accumulated a reported £37million for a player who rarely started for them, plus a series of commercial agreements, and things seem to be going rather swimmingly at the Bridge. For the cognoscenti of the power relationships at the club however, the move probably came as little surprise. Whilst of course Gourlay’s term can be deemed as satisfactory, his power in recent times has been diminished by the ever-growing authority of probably the most powerful woman in the British, if not European game, Maria Granovskaia. Who? You may well ask. Continue reading →
If you were asked to produce a list of the managers who have left a major mark on football, who would be on the list? Ferguson? Almost certainly. Wenger? Probably. Mourinho? Ancelotti? Arguably. Some may even reach back a little further in time, and pull out Rinus Michels as a name. There’s a case to be made for all of the above.
Some, such as Michels with his ‘totaal voetball’ have done so with tactical innovation. Others, such as Sir Alex Ferguson or Arsene Wenger in English football, can claim to have dominated for a while. The likes of Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti have broken barriers with winning Champions League trophies with different clubs, building winning squads again and again. Very few however could lay claim to have influenced so many future high-profile managers, in such a short period of time, as Louis van Gaal did in his spell at Barcelona between 1997 and 2000. Continue reading →