Thousands of words have now been written about the late Sir Bobby Robson. Obituaries which were originally drafted in the 1990s – and then updated again and again as he bravely fought cancer five times – have finally been published.
His great footballing achievements have been revisited by the media and his contributions to former clubs and the national side appreciated all over again by fans and players alike.
Amid the overall, very genuine, sense of sadness it is inevitable that there is also debate about his time at Newcastle United. Would we be where we are now if he had retained an official position of influence at the club? Not likely.
But for me, his enduring achievements came away from the pitch and the success of the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation eclipses every hard-earned trophy he won during a long and distinguished career.
I got to know Sir Bobby over the last 18 months while working to promote the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation. Being part of his team and seeing the immense efforts he made to ensure the charity’s success was a real privilege.
I also saw at first-hand how much Newcastle United meant to him. He was extremely troubled by the recent events at the club and was badly hurt by Newcastle’s decline. These were not the standards he set for himself, his players or his staff.
In the time I knew him he was already fighting what he knew would be his last battle with cancer. His mobility was restricted and his energy depleted. It took incredible personal effort to set up his charity and I admire him greatly for it.
Every time I met him was a privilege. He had enormous presence. In my first meeting with him and the charity committee in February last year, I was like a rabbit in headlights and then he spoke – that voice simply could not belong to anyone else and it commanded attention. It was an unforgettable experience.
Howard Wilkinson was among those who spoke at the fundraising dinner at St James’ Park the night before The Sir Bobby Robson Trophy game. He said that Bobby achieved what he did in his career because he had such enthusiasm and passion and players didn’t want to let him down.
That was Bobby’s magic. And like countless others before me, I was desperate for him to think favourably of me. I don’t know if he was even aware that he possessed this quality but it was an incredibly effective man management technique.
I didn’t sleep properly for weeks before the media launch of the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation in March last year. I was worried that it wouldn’t go off properly. That it wouldn’t give be the launch he deserved.
He was also nervous beforehand but you’d never know it to watch the footage of that press conference. He talked until he almost lost his voice. The final interviews he gave were to local print journalists and he continued in a raspy whisper – but he kept going and captivated everyone.
Afterwards I was just relieved not to have screwed up. He was exhausted and was on his way out the door when he stopped and gave me a hug. He said to me: “I was good, but you were fantastic.” I almost cried from relief and pride.
He was simply the most motivating and inspiring person I have ever met.
I don’t know how he found the strength to attend The Sir Bobby Robson Trophy match. He was so ill by then.
Before the game, despite everything he was going through, he still posed for photographs with one very young and one very old fan because it had been promised to them. His commitment was staggering.
Time and time again he would summon up reserves from somewhere and light up the room at a fund-raising event with an unexpected speech or appearance. Often the people around him had no idea how much effort it had been for him – he seemed to step up a gear, not wanting to let anyone down.
That was the positive cycle he created. Because he believed and worked hard – so did you. I bet it was like that his whole career in football too.
In a time when football seems dominated by money, agents and image rights, Sir Bobby was a beacon of hope. He loved the game first and foremost.
He was not a latter day saint and to portray him as one is to do him a disservice. He was a man. But his passion for the game, for his charity, his wholehearted commitment to anything he signed up to made him extremely special.
I will really miss working with him. Without knowing it, he left me with a personal legacy of confidence in my own abilities and I’m very grateful.
More importantly, he has left the cancer patients who continue to benefit from the work of the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation a legacy of hope – hope that one day the pioneering work being done at the Sir Bobby Robson Cancer Trials Research Centre will make a significant breakthrough in treating this devastating disease.
Sir Bobby was an incredible man.
For further information on The Sir Bobby Robson Foundation or to donate please visit www.sirbobbyrobsonfoundation.org.uk.
Ed: this article originally featured in true faith, August 2009.