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More Than a Manager
Written by Stowmarket on Tuesday, 5th Mar 2019 17:54

It was a warm Friday evening in late May and almost a thousand Ipswich fans had a date with Bobby Robson at Portman Road.

He might have passed away nine years ago but his presence at ITFC can be seen everywhere: the statue, the stand, the suite… and the football legacy, something I will return to.

I am not old enough to have seen Alf Ramsey’s champions but there is little doubt that Robson’s latter-day Town side was the finest in the club’s history. It did not happen overnight and it required a patient chairman, but Robson eventually created magic memories.

Few people outside Suffolk expected Town to defeat Arsenal at Wembley in 1978 but it was probably one of the most one-sided finals in the history of the competition. The UEFA Cup victory in 1981 was less of a shock. By then, ITFC had arguably the best side never to have won a League title.

On the eve of the 2018 Russia World Cup, this was a night of nostalgia. Robson-era Town legends spoke fondly of their memories of that golden age, while Terry Butcher was able to speak about the man from both a club and country perspective.

As the sun set and the stands started to lose their definition, I could not think of a better venue to watch this warm, moving and beautifully constructed film.

It was a masterstroke to break-up the chronology of the Bobby Robson story. Instead of an A-Z documentary, we were sent hurtling backwards and forwards: from his playing days and his lengthy stay in Suffolk, to the Maradona handball in Mexico, the joys and despair of Italia 90, the political and cultural cauldron of Barcelona and back to his Tyneside roots as his managerial reign came to an end.

The fact that the film is, for the most part, narrated by him, adds an elegiacally emotive and personal depth to the narrative. We follow him from a beaming young manager arriving at Portman Road to the painful sight of his last public appearance at St James’ Park five days before his death.

There is no attempt to construct the myth of a perfect man or manager; rather, a loving portrait of a decent human being who loved the game more than life itself. The fact that a man facing death spoke proudly about his cancer foundation – rather than his 54 years in the game – spoke volumes about his humanity. More than a manager.

For ITFC, Robson’s legacy has, arguably, been a two-edged sword. His long spell at the club created a history and tradition for fans to proudly look back on. Has it created a weight or burden for managers, players and fans who followed in his wake?

With the sole exception of the 2000/01 season when George Burley took the club back into a European-qualifying top-flight league spot, the club’s fans have been starved of success ever since Robson left.

Of course, we all know that a football club in a town with a population of less than 150,000 has no logical right to a Football League place, never mind a Premier League one. Yet the sight of Burnley – with half Ipswich’s population – holding down a place among the elite offers (frustrated) hope or inspiration.

Walking back from the ground to the train station after the film, I found myself glancing back at Robson’s former home. I am aware that Portman Road requires more than a lick of paint. Some of the stands, buildings and fencing have seen better times, like the team. However, the stadium dominates the skyline with its four sleek, modern floodlights and the club’s name illuminating the darkness.

Ipswich the town is synonymous with Ipswich Town FC. That is largely thanks to Robson, even if it is vital to start looking forward, rather than back to those glory days.

With League One on the horizon, never before has the contrast between past and present been more acutely painful, nor the need for a renaissance more vital.

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algarvefan added 18:25 - Mar 5
I too am from the same era, not quite remembering the Ramsey winning side but well remember the Robson era, he was a truly exceptional man, loved by many, even by those not into football. The whole ethos of the club was so different then, the Cobbolds , the country bumpkin feel. I would exchange that again for what we have now in a heartbeat.

I love this club, but I'm sorry to say I don't love what it has become. A resting place for a season or two of journeymen, unable to get into their home teams and playing away for their own benefit. An owner, who quite frankly I cannot find it in my heart to trust with something as special to me as my club. I do not believe his heart is in ITFC, it's a business end of story.

My hope is that we will find our way again, but we need to give it time and invest with youth and the little money we have in 'our own' players. As my dear old Grandad used to say 'neither a borrower nor a lender be'. Lets hope the club can rebuild it's future from the ashes of Division One (Third Division old money). Because the demise of clubs like Portsmouth, Blackpool, Coventry etc are there to remind us of the alternative!

Bildestoned added 21:08 - Mar 5
Let's hope Stuart Watson is right in that maybe we need to go backwards to go forwards. I suspect that achieving an identity in the Championship these days is a struggle. The league is full of spat-out clubs from the Premiership and as a consequence the level of individual ability is much higher than it once was making it hard these days to establish a truly competitive league. As Trump likes to say 'Let's see what happens....'


therein61 added 08:21 - Mar 6
Great post; I have been lucky enough to witness our rise from the Ramsey era winning div2 then the league championship the last game at home against Villa was so tense and then we had to wait while the Burnley v Chelsea result came through the ground exploded in noise and the players were led around on fans shoulders what a day!! The Sir Bob days were and will always live in the memory as the most exciting that I will ever see as a Town fan he gradually built us into a force to be reckoned with at home and Europe I have been so lucky to witness.

Carberry added 13:37 - Mar 6
I too went along that night. The warmth also came from the stand as we all sat and watched in awe at the great man's humanity and talent. Those of us who remember those times are of a certain age and we are the lucky ones. I feel sorry for those young fans who have been brought up on disappointment with nothing to look back on fondly. There's every chance we will never see success again, when we were revered by other managers, coaches, supporters and the media. What hope now eh? Will we be competing with Manchester City and Liverpool sometime soon, of course not, a promotion from League 2 might be our only hope of glory. As the stadium falls apart so does the club, so sad. It was good to see the film picking up two prizes at the Sports Journalists Awards last week. Very well deserved.

Carberry added 13:39 - Mar 6
….and very nice blog, Stowmarket, thank you.

armchaircritic59 added 22:52 - Mar 6
Two great times for the club, unfortunately i started watching with my parents, the season after we won league one! I think what Sir Alf achieved was an even greater feat than Sir Bob's (though it's nit picking). Can you imagine a team today being promoted from league 3 to league 2, then from league 2 to league one, then winning league 1 (premiership) in consecitive seasons? It's not going to happen.

Having said that, i believe that if you could turn back time and somehow have Sir Alf's side play Sir Bob's, the latter would have too much class for the former.

We've been so lucky to have those two era's, and who knows what might happen at some point in the future? Did anyone at the time expect to see what unfolded at the club when the two legends first arrived. I doubt it very much!

ElephantintheRoom added 10:49 - Mar 12
A good read - though I would take issue with your rose-tinted memories of the Robson era. There is more than a little doubt that Robson's teams were the finest in the club's history. Ramsey's team won the league, something Robson's teams never really came close to - and they beat what was hyped as the time, 'the team of the century' (double-winning Spurs) home and away whilst so doing). If anything, Robson's teams underachieved by winning just one domestic cup competition in almost a decade of sustained excellence - the same return as Luton, Oxford Utd and er Norwich during the Robson era. I would argue that Robson's blind spot was in goal - Shilton went to Stoke and Forest for entirely realistic fees - and a rather late in the day bid to sign Pat Jennings floundered later on some incompetence, if the story from Jennings is to be believed. The most endearing thing about the film for me was the sheer depth and genuine warmth and admiration that characters like Ronaldo, Guadiola and a startlingly young special one had for the man. The Gazza interview was genuinely moving. Personally I didn't like the structure of the film - but it was nice to see the staggering achievements of the man wherever he went highlighted so well - as well as his warmth and humility. .
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