After enduring a dismal qualifying campaign for the 1984 European Championships, a crestfallen Bobby Robson spoke with Sir Bert Millichip, Chairman of The Football Association. Conceding that he had failed, Robson offered to resign from his post as England manager, and recommended that The FA should approach Brian Clough to be his successor. Millichip refused to accept the resignation, many consider because the thought of the bluff and outspoken Clough in charge of England was too much for the stuffed shirts at Lancaster Gate to stomach. Robson was told to soldier on – but do better.
Six years later, approaching the 1990 World Cup in Italy, Robson, who had been eliminated from the World Cup in Mexico through Maradona’s sleight of hand, had led England through the qualifying tournament unbeaten was still in charge. It was at that delicate moment, however, that the very same Bert Millichip decided to indulge in the sort of ‘foot in mouth’ demagoguery that would lead to the Three Lions’ most successful manager since 1966 being ousted from his post.
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In 2009, after Robson had passed away, Graham Kelly, Secretary to the Football League from 1978 to 1989 and Chief Executive of The FA between 1989 and 1998 detailed the events of the time in an interview with The Guardian. Kelly recalled that Millichip, “let his tongue run away with him, and said Robson either had to win the World Cup or go, and Bobby reacted by approaching PSV Eindhoven.”
In Italy, Robson became only the second manager, after Sir Alf Ramsey, in the history of the World Cup to take England to a semi-final of football’s premier tournament, and the first one to do so on foreign soil. That achievement would not be matched until Gareth Southgate took the Three Lions to Russia nearly 30 years later. Strangely, and with the sort of perverse logic that often defines football’s ruling bodies, after backing Robson when he failed to qualify for a European Championship, they had painted themselves into a corner that meant they were losing his services after England’s best World Cup performance for 24 years.
Intemperate decisions are often pinned on organisations like The FA, but this seemed to have been the crassest of ill-considered outbursts. Robson had guided England to within a penalty shootout of reaching the World Cup Final. In any other circumstances, his tenure with the national team would have been assured, but when Millichip “let his tongue run away with him” that possibility disappeared into the ether. England’s loss, however, would very much be to the gain of PSV Eindhoven. To his credit, Robson kept his opinions on the matter very much to himself and merely sought the alternative employment made necessary by Millichip’s errant oratory.
When news of his appointment with the Eredivisie club broke, ahead of the World Cup’s opening game, some media outlets – either bereft of the facts, or with little apparent care for them – took to calling Robson out as a traitor, and accusing him of betraying the national team. An honourable man, Robson was very much a proud Englishman and patriot. The slurs pushed him too far, and led to a successful legal case being prosecuted against the ‘Today’ newspaper.
With the success on Italia ’90 banked, Robson’s stock as a manager was very much at its height and there was every possibility that a top club job would be available back in England for the ex-England manager. Eschewing the easy option, however, he had chosen to venture into continental club football with PSV. At the time, some pundits painted a picture of a backwater club offering a semi-retirement role for a manager worn down by the trials and tribulations – not to mention the political backstabbing and intrigues – inherent in managing England. Such descriptions, however, only portrayed a lack of understanding of the level of football once the English Channel had been crossed.
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In March 1987, after serving four years as assistant to Hans Kraay, Guus Hiddink was promoted to take charge of PSV Eindhoven. The move ushered in a three-year period of outstanding success, both domestically and at the highest level of continental competition. Despite trailing Ajax by three points with just ten games remaining when he was appointed, Hiddink demonstrated the club’s ability to appoint the right man at the right time by guiding the club to the Eredivisie title, coasting to the championship six points clear of the Amsterdam club. It was the opening course to a banquet of silverware.
The following season, Hiddink not only delivered a domestic double of league and KNVB Cup, but also took PSV to the heights of emulating Ajax and Feyenoord, by bringing the European Cup back to the Netherlands after defeating Benfica on penalties in the final at Stuttgart’s Neckarstadion. After securing another double in the 1988-89 season, a mere KNVB Cup triumph in 1990 seemed almost like a failure. It wasn’t, of course, but the Dutchman considered it was time to move on and began a journey across clubs the length of breadth of Europe, and beyond, by joining Fenerbahçe.
The move left PSV with a difficult problem. After such a sumptuous period of success, choosing the next manager would probably dictate the fate of the next decade or so. Select the wrong man and a tumble from the top table of European football would be an inevitable consequence. Make the correct selection, however, and there was a chance that the ship, left rocking by Hiddink’s departure, could be steadied and success maintained.
There’s a constant theme of Dutch club success over the years. It seems to require a squad of strong-willed players, often pulling in different directions, but guided by a coach with the skills and man-management ability to both control the players and harness their emotional requirements to produce a united front. Hiddink had demonstrated his ability to do so and, in Bobby Robson, the PSV hierarchy had again demonstrated their ability to pick the right man for the job.
It would, however, be wrong to suggest that the move into Dutch football was smooth and success accomplished with some comfort. Both as a player and coach, Robson had been brought to appreciate the English ethics of the game and how a club should be structured with the manager exerting a measure of control over the players, and an acceptance of that from the squad. What he found initially in Eindhoven was therefore very much of a ‘culture shock’. As well as the Dutch players living up to the reputation of being both forthright in opinion and convinced of the validity of their views on most things, Robson also had to contend with the particularly individual approach of Brazilian star striker Romário.
The South American had been acquired by the club in 1988 and been a key element in the success of Hiddink’s team – much as he would continue to be so for Robson’s. The relationship was, however, challenging at best and borderline impossible at worst. It required not only the steely determination to insist on matters when required, but also the empathy to understand the amount of latitude that should be given to a player who delivered scintillating performances on the pitch. At one stage Robson even called the Brazilian to a crisis meeting supported by his assistant Frank Arnesen to convince Romário of the need to change his attitude to training and his work ethic in general. It had little effect but, for Robson, there was the compensation of glut of goals delivered by his errant star on the pitch.
In Robson’s two years at the club, the Brazilian delivered 30 goals in 30 games across all competitions in 1990-91 and, despite suffering injuries the following term, still kept his strike rate up, finding the back of the net 19 times in 18 games. Experienced and astute enough to know the difference between the times when authority and empathy are required, Robson accepted the man and his goals as a package that could not be picked apart. The manager’s ability to bend like grass in the wind, rather than remain taut, straight-laced and risk being broken, reaped handsome dividends on the pitch.
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There’s one particular story about Robson’s time at PSV that, if true, offers both an insight into his approach to people regardless of their perceived standing, the humility of the man and total lack of arrogance. One day, whilst walking along the corridors of the Philips Stadion, Robson happened upon a fairly low-level worker as they passed. After exchanging the normal greetings, the worker commented on how nice Robson’s shoes were. Without a moment’s hesitation, the story goes, Robson took off the shoes and handed them to the worker as a gift. It’s difficult to know if there’s at least a semblance of truth in the tale but, if there is, it offers a glimpse of how Robson not only understood the value of the job he had, but also of those around him too. It’s not quite a ‘give you the shirt off his back’ situation, but it’s certainly heading in that direction.
In his first season, Robson took PSV back to the top of the tree of Netherlands football, delivering the Eredivisie title on goal difference from Ajax, with Romário the league’s joint top scorer netting 25 times in 25 games. The victory took PSV back into the European Cup, but it would be a short journey. The first round paired them with Turkish club, Beşiktaş, and a 1-1 draw in the feverish atmosphere of Istanbul’s İnönü Stadyumu, in front of around 32,000 partisan home fans was a creditable result. A couple of weeks later though, things were looking decidedly unsteady when Metin Tekin put the visitors ahead in the return leg. It took until midway through the first period for Gerald Vanenburg to level the aggregate scores, before Kalusha Bwalya secured progress for PSV in the second half.
It had been anything but an encouraging start to the campaign and set the tone for what was a disappointingly short European excursion. A goalless draw at home to Anderlecht in the next round always looked like presenting a difficult task in the return leg away in Brussels, and so it was. An early goal by Marc Degryse and a last-minute confirmation by Danny Boffin closed the door on any hopes of a run towards the later stages of the tournament. The elimination was clearly a disappointment for Robson. For the club, however, with memories of Hiddink’s success a siren’s call for more of the same, it flagged up what was perceived to be a weakness in Robson’s management abilities, and a doubt about his future with the club.
The following season, despite losing Romário due to injury, Robson guided PSV to another Eredivisie title, and a further shot at European club football’s ultimate prize. Robson, however wouldn’t have the chance to take the club on another European Cup campaign. Despite the Englishman delivering two league titles in his couple of seasons with the club, there was a hunger – as things transpired, perhaps an unreasonable hunger – to regain the continental success achieved under Hiddink. The perception was that Robson wouldn’t deliver on that, and he was advised that he would be leaving the club at the end of the season.
With typical dignity, Robson accepted the decision and continued his European Odyssey, moving on to another club – and another period of success in a different country. He was replaced by Hans Westerhof, who won the Dutch Super Cup the following season but, compared to Robson’s achievements, it was a paltry triumph. Westerhof only lasted a single season before being moved on, as Aad de Mos and then Kees Rijvers occupied the manager’s chair briefly, and without success.
The PSV board had sought to replace Robson with someone who would bring continental success back to the club. Sadly, their ability to choose the right man for the task had deserted them. Even the domestic honours that had become staple fare under Hiddink and then Robson eluded the club. It would take four years and four different managers before the Eredivisie title came back to the Philips Stadion under Dick Advocaat. As with England, who suffered a fallow period under Graham Taylor after Robson was pointed to the exit door, PSV learnt the same harsh lesson that removing Bobby Robson was not the smartest of moves.
It was a decision that the club clearly came to regret and, in July 1998, after success in Portugal and Spain, Robson was invited back on a short-term contract to replace Advocaat who had moved to Scotland and Glasgow Rangers. A single season was hardly sufficient time for Robson to re-establish the success he had achieved but he still delivered silverware with the Dutch Super Cup, now rebranded as the Johann Cruyff Shield, and also ensured qualification for the Champions League.
Would he have stayed in Eindhoven had the invitation been offered? It is difficult to say, but with the opportunity to take over at his home town club, Newcastle united, the lure of going ‘home’ was always likely to have been irresistible.