Mel HendersonComment


Mel HendersonComment

Bobby Robson's wipes the sweat from his brow after pushing himself through a tough training session with his players, surveys his new working conditions, and admits: "I love it here!"

The scene is the palatial training headquarters of PSV Eindhoven, the Dutch club backed by electrical giants Philips, who are paying the former England manager a reported £500,000 over the next two seasons to spark their attempt to regain the Champions' Cup.

PSV were the last winners of the competition before AC Milan, ironically inspired by the Dutch triangle of Rijkaard, Van Basten and Gullit, swept to two successive victories. Now Robson, fresh from a World Cup campaign that enhanced his reputation in Holland, has been entrusted with the task of repeating their 1988 triumph.

"I want is as much as they do," he enthuses. "Look at my career and what's missing? The European Cup.

"I've been involved in everything else with Ipswich and England, so the thought of going for the big one excites me. And I know I can only have a crack at it if I lead PSV to the Dutch title this season.

"I know what's expected of me over here. The championship this season and the European Cup next. That's my brief, if you like. But I couldn't ask for better working conditions and the club know they have taken on someone itching to do well.

"The return to club football after eight years in the international scene is just what I needed. I love the day-to-day involvement with the players as much as I missed it with England.

And, believe me, I've inherited some of the finest players in Europe at PSV."

Robson arrived in Eindhoven during a summer of transfer activity. Without reference to him, Dutch international pair Johnny Bosman and Erwin Koeman had arrived and Fleming Polsen and Wim Kieft, who was on target for Holland in their World Cup clash with Egypt, had left. There could be further deals in the weeks ahead, however, as Robson familiarises himself with the overall playing strength and decides whether reinforcements will be needed.

If so Robson refuses to discount the possibility of looking to England, and more particularly his former international players, to supplement a squad already rich in talent. Inevitably, no sooner had Robson cleared out his office at Lancaster Gate and arrived in Eindhoven than he found himself subjected to newspaper speculation linking him with several of England's heroes in Italia 90. But he insists: "There is nothing in the pipeline. I have heard several names mentioned but there is no foundation to stories that I am buying this player or that.

"I admit that if I felt the need to strengthen my squad I would consider looking to England. But why should that surprise anyone? I know the transfer market over there, I know what people are worth, and I would know if I was getting value for money. Terry Venables did the same at Barcelona, with Lineker, Archibald and Hughes, and he knew exactly what he was paying for.

"But before I get involved in any transfer business I'll be looking very carefully at the playing staff here. That's my specific area within the club. My job won't be like managing Ipswich, for example, where I did a million and one other things. I'm in charge of the playing side, and that's it." 

Robson clearly relishes the prospect of working on the continent, an opportunity denied him during his days at Portman Road. His European exploits on behalf of Ipswich, culminating in UEFA Cup glory in 1981, brought him to the attention of the richest foreign outfits, and both Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao offered him a fortune to desert Suffolk for Spain. "I bit my tongue each time," he recalls, "and decided to honour my contract."

Once his eight-year commitment to England was over, however, Robson was free to accept PSV's offer. "The fact that they speak such excellent English over here was a big plus factor," he says. "Imagine if I'd gone to Spain or Italy and had to start taking language lessons, or if I'd been giving instructions at training sessions and team talks through an interpreter. Wouldn't work. A big part of the job is communicating with the players, and that isn't a problem here."

Robson has difficulty launching this latest chapter of an eventful career without permitting himself to reflect on what might have been in Italy a few weeks ago. "We were up there alongside Italy and West Germany as the best teams in the World Cup this is indisputable," he maintains. "We were just a penalty kick away from the final and we'd have fancied our chances going through to meet Argentina.

"But we came back with our heads held high and there were plenty of good points about our participation in the competition. Paul Gascoigne, for example, was a revelation. He played in six matches and in every one of them he was outstanding and caught everybody's eye. In the semi-final we pushed him into a one-to-one with Matthaus and he more than held his own.

"There were people clamouring for me to have Paul in the team a year earlier and I made a few more enemies when I refused to rush him. I stuck to my guns because I didn't think he was ready then. I don't think he could have coped with international football when he was just beginning to get into his stride at Spurs.

"But when I gave him a run in the games before we set off for the World Cup he showed he could do it, He was probing, prompting and promising so much that it was impossible for me to leave him out. I'm a Gascolgne fan, but I hope the lad realises that he is going to have to repeat his World Cup form and build on it. He'll have to be reminded that world-class players don't just do it in six games.  The greats do it over several years, and keep producing.

"Paul was definitely the best young player in the World Cup and now, I hope, he will become even better. That should be his aim and he certainly won't fail for lack of ability.

"There were plenty of other successes over there. Parker, Walker, Platt and Wright all did extremely well, Lineker too. And other senior players also emerged with credit when the critics were lining up to have a go.

"Shilton, his mistake against Italy apart, was probably the best goalkeeper in the tournament, and I was pleased that Butcher did so well. He had a bit of a knee injury and his critics were saying he was a yard short of pace. But who got past him? "Pearce was solid - not many got past him either - and he crossed more balls than most wingers I saw. Then Dorigo came in and proved we have two very good left-backs." 

Robson's gamble on introducing the sweeper system for the qualifying game against Holland, and then persevering with it in subsequent matches, paid off handsomely. But he reveals: "It wasn't a spur-of-the-moment decision. I made up my mind three or four months earlier to play with a sweeper against the Dutch.

"When the draw paired us with them I thought back to our European championship game when they beat us 3-1. 'They won't beat us 3-1 next time,'I thought to myself. It was always on the cards that I'd use a sweeper against them. That was why I took Mark Wright instead of Tony Adams.

"I was never going to risk Walker and Butcher against Gullit and Van Basten. I made up my mind about that, but never told a soul. I knew it was a risk we shouldn't take.

"Wright was the ideal choice as sweeper. He's quick, he can read the game well, he can intercept, he's good in the air and he can bring the ball out of defence to get things going. I knew that if Van Basten had slipped Butcher, for example, Mark would be there to tidy up."

As the World Cup is consigned to the memory bank, Robson is concentrating on the domestic campaign that, hopefully, will earn him and his side a passport into the European Cup in 1991. "I know what I have to do," he says with a grin that wasn't always present during his spell with England. "Last season PSV were second in the League and won the Dutch Cup. Anything less and I won't have been a success."

This article originally appeared in the August 1990 edition of World Soccer. Subscribe here for a limited time offer.