English football has become notoriously insular. Players or managers rarely, through choice at least, try to test themselves outside of the British Isles. When Sir Bobby Robson left the job of England manager after the 1990 World Cup, he set a continent-hopping example.
His success working in Lisbon, Eindhoven, Porto and Barcelona is inspirational enough, that his later life was punctuated by too-frequent battles with cancer makes it all the more poignant.
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I was thirteen when the only grandfather I had ever known died. A year or so later Sir Bobby Robson died too.
On some level and in hindsight, these two moments feel like touchstones. They are both way-stations, marking the gradual ending of my childhood.
Like many small children, I idolised my grandfather, but I remain convinced, even as an adult aware of my bias and my youthful naivety, that he was an utterly wonderful man. He was charming and unfailingly polite. A throwback to a non-existent era who, somehow, magically, escaped the prejudices or flaws of his peers. (I will always remember his disdain for the laddish misogyny of Top Gear.)
At the same time, I was slowly absorbed by the fortunes of eleven millionaires in black and white.
Anyone who is a football fan has, I think a set of players who will forever have been the team they first became obsessed with. As a Newcastle United fan, for me that team is Robson's team. The team that went to Rotterdam and came from behind to shock Feyenoord in the Champions' League. Some combination of Alan Shearer and Gary Speed and Craig Bellamy. Names that will mean nothing to most. Jermaine Jenas, Shay Given, Kieron Dyer. Players like Aaron Hughes or Andy Griffin.
As a sport-mad child, Sir Bobby Robson was a natural grandfather figure. He was the catalysing force around which sport, in all of its escapist glory, grew. (Of course, when you are ten, no-one speaks to you about corruption.)
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A few months ago Newcastle United played Ipswich Town (the other English side Robson managed with some success during the 1970s and early 80s. During the game each set of supporters raucously celebrated this man. Fifty thousand people united in a hard to contextualise expression of love.
Robson was a kinder, gentler England. He was known for his endearing bumbling, but the slapstick malapropisms obscure that he was a man capable of genuine insight. He was a heartwarming, inspirational figure. Someone to be proud of.
And he understood the painful contradiction at the heart of professional sport. In a book he wrote about the city, called My Kind of Toon, he wrote something that has become a mantra for disillusioned fans of Newcastle United:
"What is a club in any case? Not the buildings or the directors or the people who are paid to represent it. It’s not the television contracts, get-out clauses, marketing departments or executive boxes. It’s the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city. It’s a small boy clambering up stadium steps for the very first time, gripping his father’s hand, gawping at that hallowed stretch of turf beneath him and, without being able to do a thing about it, falling in love."
As football continues to spiral out of control (the problems I skewered earlier in 2016, in a piece for E&M's Diaphragm section, have only grown) the memory of Sir Bobby feels like the last force tethering the sport to reality. It encapsulates the intangibles and the game's sense of wonder. And, in truth, it has been a while since I have felt those things.
He was a surprising globetrotter, a family man and a fundraiser, but most of all: a role model, acting as a check on the excesses of a sport and a team and a city. The best of the North-East of England threatened to die with him, but to paraphrase another grey-haired mentor figure: He will only have truly left this city when none here are loyal to him.
In 2016 my city (and it will always be my city) probably brings to mind Geordie Shore more than anything else. I however, will always think of a remarkable old fellow in a long jacket and a hat.
About the author
Sam Volpe is from Newcastle in the desolate North of England, and he is one of E&M's Diaphragm editors. He's not as funny as he thinks he is.
He graduated from the University of Oxford in 2015 with a degree in an apparently pointless arts subject. He is hoping to complete an MA in Print Journalism at the University of Sheffield soon. Hopefully.
Too many banal tweets can be found @samuelevolpe.