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