Monday, December 31, 2007

From Bobby to Berbatov how times change

From Bobby to Berbatov how times change.
Two recent news items in English football are resonating in my head.

One was the sight of an ailing Sir Bobby Robson receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award at the BBC's annual televised Sports Personality of the Year ceremony and the other was a typically calculated media plug by Dimitar Berbatov's agent on New Year's Eve.

Sir Bobby, a player and coach of his country and a successful manager of Barcelona, PSV, Porto, Sporting Lisbon, Newcastle and Ipswich, looked frail and white-haired after his latest cancer treatment, but it was the media savaging of his England managing in the 1980s which had first hit him sideways and turned his hair grey.

The venomous 'Robson Out' campaign pursued by The Sun was just one example of how times had changed in football since Bobby's playing days began, at Fulham in 1950.

The media plays such a big role now that one of the key questions posed about Fabio Capello's accession to the England manager's role was whether he could handle the hacks. Both Robson and his successor Graham Taylor withered under the unforgiving fingers of Fleet Street, which set a precedent for a Press v England manager feud thereafter. "Win every game!" was Taylor's assessment of the only possible remedy.

Alf Ramsey was not without his critics, whom he saw as an enemy trying to destabilize his patriotic ambitions, and Sir Alf took great pleasure in proving them wrong when he won the World Cup in 1966. The impassioned 'Jamais!' ('Never...will I forgive my critics!') mantra of Aime Jacquet after winning the World Cup for France in 1998 springs readily to mind, too.

The negative comments about Sir Alf's England were as nothing compared to the outright brutality aimed at Robson twenty years later, and in the '60s, the private lives of managers were never probed and held up for self-righteous judgment like they were in the '80s.

This is an English perspective I am speaking from, let me remind you. Sven-Goran Eriksson's bed-hopping is a matter for entertainment in England, but of supreme irrelevance in Italy, for instance.

That Bobby is pushing 75 and has only just stepped away from football, for now at least, is remarkable and testament to a decent man utterly devoted throughout his life to a love of the sport.

While Bobby's football life is coming to an end, new stories are always beginning and despite the sinister takeover from the money-men in recent years, the game just about about remains beautiful and every day I still read the football press hopeful of finding a new chapter enfolding.

And so, today's top story in the home of football is that Tottenham's ace striker is seeking a bigger club at which to ply his trade.

Nothing special there, but how odd it has become the norm now for all the quotes to arrive from the agent, as if the hotshot player has lost the power of speech but has no problem pronouncing via a proxy.

Emil Dantchev is a typical example of a footballing species that was almost absent in Sir Bobby's heyday.

"His performances for the club are a testament to his commitment to the fans and his team-mates," Dantchev speciously told The Sun, adding equivocally, "Fans must understand Dimitar is 27 next month and time is running out for him to find a club that can match his ambition."
In case we suspected Dantchev had any vested financial interest in planting a tale of player restlessness hours before the January transfer window opened (perish the thought!), he reassured us thus, "I would like to stress this is not about money."

Along with the power of television and the globalisation of labour, an aggressive media pack and the prevalence of agents influencing playing careers are key shifts in football's traditional culture.

Robson spanned both eras and seemed to adapt to the seismic changes of the 1990s, although Newcastle's overpaid 'stars' appeared at times to be out of control off the field when he was in charge of them, a consequence of the 'baby Bentley' lifestyle replacing the £20 per week maximum wage Sir Bobby was paid.

What a treasure trove of football memories Bobby's head must hold. Born in the early 1930s, a World Cup player in 1958, a World Cup manager in 1986 and 1990, a UEFA Cup and Cup Winners' Cup winner, plus the FA Cup, Spanish Cup, Dutch and Portuguese league titles to his name.

His influence remains, having schooled a certain interpreter called Jose Mourinho at Porto and then taken him to Barcelona as his assistant.
Bobby suffered a lot of criticism at his various clubs, but kept fighting, refused to yield and proved his critics wrong in the end.

And perhaps above all, unlike today's hotshot players inflated by their extraordinary and unprecedented personal wealth, Bobby did his own talking.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile.

1 comment:

Jon said...

The lack of loyalty in football is really starting to annoy fans these days.

How is a regular fan supposed to related to a team of foreign players who will all move to a new club the second the get offered a bigger salary?