In May 1996, Robson was enjoying the fruits of his work at Porto when he took a phone call from 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 Super 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 round of 16 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 stopgap 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 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 Star Belgrade. By now the club were delivering convincing performances and a 3-1 home win followed by a 1-1 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 1-1 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, that 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 Stoichkov 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 Blaugrana, 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 Luis Enrique 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 released the Hércules players to perform and offer one last moment of glory. Shortly before the break Paquito equalised and six minutes after the restart, the unthinkable happened as Hércules went ahead, with Serbian defender Pavlicic adding another.
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 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%.