|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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