Thursday, 31 July 2014

Football remembers Sir Bobby

It was five years ago that football lost one of its great enthusiasts. I had the privilege of interviewing Sir Bobby Robson at two very different points in his career. His influence still endures to the top of the game today: Jose Mourinho and Andre Villas-Boas are his direct disciples. Here's my affectionate personal tribute to him.

Sir Bobby Robson, who lost his long-term battle with cancer aged 76, was a good player but it was his zeal for management which really marked him out. A life truly fulfilled with success at Ipswich, England, PSV, Sporting, Porto, Barcelona and of course, Newcastle United.
During his England days.
He nurtured players to greatness from Romario to Ronaldo; from Gazza to Gary. And if that's not enough, Mourinho and Guardiola, two of the most feted coaches in the world game were cultivated by the great man.

I had the pleasure to interview Sir Bobby with both England and Newcastle. He was the man who crafted Gazza into a senior England performer despite having branded him "daft as a brush". Backing Gazza to step up to the plate was a gamble at the time, but the boss was trusting and generous with ability. He was instantly rewarded as Gazza struck twice in a 4-2 win over Czechoslovakia, the first international I covered for radio.

Sir Bobby was already of pensionable age at Newcastle; he had a great contract and with nothing to prove, the pressure was off. The job was a labour of love. His enthusiasm was so infectious, I smiled with him during our live interview on Prem Plus and he increasingly chuckled back at me. His answers were so long, I had to switch from arm to outstretched oxygen-starved arm to keep the mike under his chin!

Sir Bobby was still on the ball in his Newcastle days
Sir Bobby was famed for mix-ups. On England duty, he wished Bryan Robson a cheery "Morning Bobby!", Bryan dutifully replied "You're Bobby, I'm Bryan, boss!". At Newcastle, Shola Ameobi claimed the boss dubbed him "Carl Cort".

But a less well-known story was relayed to me by former Chelsea and Queen's Park Rangers defender, Steve Wicks.

Wicks had just completed the best season of his career at Loftus Road and had been picked for an England B international in Mexico just months before the 1986 World Cup. Bobby was still pondering the 22-man squad he was going to take to the Finals with rumours that 3 or 4 places were still up for grabs. To add tension to the B game, the boss was going to pick the last available places from the best performers. He popped down to the England dressing room before kick-off to prepare the would-be World Cup stars:
His influence still endures today
"Now, I know you might be nervous 'cos I'm here, but just do your best and good luck to each one of you!", said the England boss.

He then went round the dressing room shaking each of the player's hands with a "good luck son". He arrived at Wicks, an imposing 6 foot 2 inches tall with the physical attributes of a goalkeeper as much as the central defender he was:

"I want you to know son, that you've had a brilliant year... yes, I've monitored you all season!". Wicks couldn't believe it. It sounded like Bobby's mind was made up to take him to the World Cup even before the game had started. "Wow, thanks boss!", Wicks choked out.

"Yes son..... your save at Aston Villa was one of the best I've ever seen!"

In a classic Bobby moment, he'd mixed up Wicks with Woods. Norwich City's Chris Woods, so it was the goalkeeper not the centre-half that went to the Finals.

I've spoken with a lot of friends and fellow fans and the tributes have been no more heartfelt than that of my friend, Jamie Gould. A Geordie and lifelong Newcastle United fan, who told me this:

"It was so sad to see him decline, but he still made it to matches regardless of the difficulties. It was great that he got to manage Newcastle but he was treated terribly at the end. He was the perfect ambassador for the game - but he was more than a Toon manager, more than an England manager, more than a Barca manager. He was a great man of football generally and, moreso, a great man, a great human being. The loss is surely felt well outside the confines of the football world; even people who never met him will say, hand on heart, 'I loved Sir Bobby Robson'".

Friday, 18 July 2014

Argentina and Atletico: legendary status missed forever.

Don't Real Madrid and Germany always win? Seems like it - but it could've been so different.

2014 was the year winning finals could've rewritten history - a chance to cast different light on previous events for good.

Chance missed.

When West Germany beat Hungary in the '54 World Cup Final, little did the Germans know they were creating a football dynasty while consigning another to history. It doesn't look it today, but that 3-2 win for Die Mannschaft over the Marvellous Magyars was a big shock.

And had Argentina won in the Maracana, they'd have won the World Cup for keeps. For all of Brazil's five World Cups, they'd have lost it to their nearest and fiercest rivals in their own backyard - for good.

It was a date with destiny that Atletico Madrid, in a similar situation didn't take either. Had they beaten city rivals Real Madrid in the Champions League Finals, they'd have won their only European championship forever, consigning a huge blot on Real Madrid's trophy laden history.

"We've won 9 European Cups!", Real fans would've boasted.

"Yeah, but we beat you!", little brother Atletico would've said.

They didn't take that one money shot.

Final score: Real 10 Atleti Never.

Summer 2014 was the moment for the generation's greatest player to step up to the plate and confirm his place in history.

Lionel Messi already netted a hattrick for Argentina against Brazil. He needed to add the World Cup to his stellar achievements with Barcelona.

Argentina could have taken their own World Cup count to 3, but this one was the immortal one – victory across the border. Brazil, the greatest of all nations in football? Trumped by Germany in the semis and then the ultimate slap in the face had Argentina won it?

Argentina won't be back in four or eight years time. Not with that team. Messi didn't take it.

Great players do it when called for. Zizou in 1998, Maradona in 86, Pele in 58 & 62.

Like Atletico, it was Messi's time.

Instead normal service resumed. Real Madrid and Germany - again.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Why Argentina are destined to beat Germany in tonight's World Cup Final

It's Lionel's date with destiny. Step up to the plate, world's greatest. This is your time... 

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Despite Messi, Zidane's still modern football's greatest

Wonder strike: Hampden Park
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Lionel Messi helped ease Argentina to the World Cup Final without pushing up trees.

Although by his exceptionally lofty standards, the last fifteen months were quelled by injury and a Barcelona in transition. Still, he's widely regarded as the greatest player in the world.

He was the first to score 5 in a single Champions League game and let's not forget, he breached the Brazil defence for a hat-trick - in Brazil, broke Gerd Muller's 40-year record scoring 91 in a single calendar year and claimed a fourth FIFA ballon d'or in the process.

That Cristiano Ronaldo's the current holder underscores his showing in the last year or so. But he's on his
way back.

I've had the good fortune of watching him play live. He scored in both games; from the spot in a routine home league win over Almeria and that mesmerising strike thumped into Manchester United's net at Wembley in the Champions League Final.

Show me the medals. Zizou's got the lot.
Messi's magnificent, with speed, strength, intelligence, quick feet, pace and power - but still I remember Zinedine Zidane as the greatest player I've ever seen.

Because for all Messi's brilliance and I grant you, he still has most of his career ahead of him, he's got a way to go to match the majesty and drama of football's most decorated Frenchman.

I saw Zidane play five games: twice for Real Madrid and three times for his country. In three of those games and without any recourse to superlatives or exaggeration, Zizou produced iconic moments to be remembered for decades as the fans in the stadia held their collective breaths.
Not even Giggs could stop it.
Take Lisbon's Stadium of Light for starters; England's opening game of EURO 2004. Boosted by 75% of the crowd in the best atmosphere I've yet experienced, England were in control as Lampard's first half header should've sufficed for victory.

The crowd had bayed Thierry Henry out of contention and Boy Wonder Rooney was up for it. Then he got subbed and the energy changed in the cauldron.

Step upto the plate, Zinedine Zidane who's superficial calm masked a volcanic temperament. He flashed the ball into the net from a brilliant free-kick, then struck a penalty to turn the game on its head in injury time. I watched the silvery ball's trajectory flash into the net - trouble was, so did hapless David James.

Then there's That Hampden Strike. Roberto Carlos hooked the ball high into the sky in a final attempt to keep possession amid a high challenge from a Bayer defender. Watching it speed downwards like a squash player ready with his racket, Zizou struck it left footed with expert precision, curling, speeding into the top corner. Keeper no chance. It'll never be forgotten.

Then there's the World Cup Final in Berlin. What he did as the curtain fell on his brilliant career is viewed as such a stain. But there was more to his performance in that 90 minutes than that.

His nonchalant penalty with almost demob happy laissez-faire, struck the crossbar and over the line to give France the lead. Let's not forget, he joined Sir Geoff Hurst in scoring three goals in the World Cup Final.

Messi's ecstatic celebration at Wembley
No one could predict what happened later - and when it did, most in the Olympic Stadium wouldn't see it.

Startling. Off the ball. An exchange of words. In cricket, sledging. The headbutt into the chest of Marco Materazzi. I admit the first I saw of it was when Italy keeper Gigi Buffon remonstrated with the French strikers near to him seconds later.

As he traipsed off, round shouldered down into the dressing rooms sweeping past the Trophy, with it France's edge in the impending penalty shootout was lost too.

Shameful end; but not altogether incongruous with his whole career. And still, it makes not a jot to how I perceive him. In fact, it adds dimension and context to his greatest moments. And while Messi's brilliance lights up a match in milliseconds, Zidane's range of personalities makes him modern football's greatest. My best since Maradona.

Messi is a product of a generation of team players. The best of the bunch for sure.

So would I change my view? Not now. Messi couldn't produce a World Cup like Maradona's blistering one-man show in 1986 (and to a lesser extent in 1990), couldn't marry it with his stratospheric club career. He's not surpassed Zidane or Maradona.

But Zidane the loner, Zidane the volcano, Zidane, decorated from top to bottom for both club and country trumps the Argentine for greatness - so far.

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