May 31, 2018
“Where do I begin, to tell the story of a greater love than this?” Sir Bobby Robson.
As sweeping and poignant as the above quote is, it was the question asked of filmmakers Gabriel Clarke and Torquil Jones as they contemplated how to condense a famed 54-year football career into a fitting 90 minutes.
Had it spilled from the pen of a Hollywood screenwriter, a tale adorned with such triumph, regret, dedication and compassion would command a multi-million-dollar budget and a three-hour running time – if not a trilogy.
But perhaps more fitting of the son of a coal miner from Sacriston in County Durham, Bobby Robson: More than a Manager is a moving, often funny and uplifting profile of one of the North East’s true icons.
“I was thinking about the failure and decline of English managers in the Premier League,” says Gabriel Clarke, the film’s co-director who has also written documentaries about Brian Clough and Steve McQueen, among others.
“The statistic that jumped out was that Bobby Robson is the last English manager to win a European club trophy, achieved when he won the European Cup Winners’ Cup with Barcelona in 1997.
“I initially thought there was scope for a documentary about that one season, but in terms of the footage that was available from his entire career, coupled with the lack of a definitive film about Sir Bobby, Torquil and I started to investigate the archives.
“We quickly realised that we’d have an incredible, A-list supporting cast if we could get them, so the idea germinated from there.”
Given Robson’s influence and the respect he amassed at home and abroad, that A-list cast – which includes Sir Alex Ferguson, Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho – wasn’t difficult to assemble.
“One by one they all got back to us and the reaction was very positive,” says co-director and producer Torquil, speaking ahead of a special screening of the film on the St James’ Park pitch last month. “They all felt compelled to talk about Bobby.
“There was no generic football talk – they all spoke with passion and such refreshing energy when it came to Sir Bobby, because he’d had such an effect on them.
“The film begins and ends in the North East, and we return to those heartlands throughout the story. It was vital to contextualise where Bobby came from and where he learned the values that were instilled in him from day one.
“It seemed like it didn’t matter where he went, be it Barcelona, Eindhoven or travelling as the England manager, he always stayed true to those values, and that’s what garnered such a reaction from all of those greats.
“The real concrete nature of his influence is underlined in the film,” adds Gabriel. “There’s a life-changing aspect to what he was able to do to these very illustrious individuals. In terms of influence, he was almost like a godfather-type figure.”
His time in the North East with Newcastle United – the team he cheered on as a boy from the terraces alongside his father – is just one part of a narrative that weaves through the years rather than following a more chronological format.
The growth and success of the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation is another element that the filmmakers felt hadn’t been appropriately covered in the past, and rather than using the Foundation as an appendage to stick on the end of the film, it plays a fundamental part of the story.
An extraordinary season with Barcelona in 1996/97 plays out against a backdrop of post-Johan Cruyff turmoil – a political maelstrom that perhaps only Barça and Real Madrid are capable of conjuring.
And there was a prominent episode during Robson’s time in Catalonia that almost lead to an early homecoming on Tyneside when he was approached to replace Kevin Keegan at St James’ Park in January 1997.
“That chapter alone offers us some good jeopardy in the story,” explains Torquil, “because initially, you get the sense that Bobby had missed out on managing his hometown club.”
History tells us, of course, that the chance to manage his boyhood heroes would present itself once more in 1999, and this time, Robson was all too happy to oblige.
“People from the North East rightly have a sense of ownership when it comes to Sir Bobby,” says Gabriel, “and the way he took the club from the bottom of the Premier League to the Champions League speaks volumes.
“When we announced that the film was in production, a lot of the initial feedback via social media came from the North East, and it basically said ‘we’re really looking forward to this, but you better get it right’.
“That represents that ownership, and anyone who has had the privilege to cover Newcastle home matches like I have quickly understands what the game means to the people of this region.
“I don’t think you can put into words what Bobby means to this area, but hopefully the film goes some way to capturing his connection to the North East and to Newcastle.”
Professor Ruth Plummer, director of the Sir Bobby Robson Cancer Research Trials Centre and Sir Bobby’s oncologist: “The film does a fantastic job of spanning the breadth of who he was. I first met him as a patient, but despite being poorly he threw himself into giving such incredible support at a time when we really needed it. When he launched the Foundation, he said he was going to give up a year to raise the money. He did it in six weeks.”
Sir Bobby Robson’s son, Andrew: “When I watched the film, I tried to take myself out of the football world, as some of the luminaries that featured prominently speak a different language to how I see it. My father was a very correct man. He was brought up a certain way and he knew the difference between right and wrong. Many of his players recall him saying ‘be a better person’ and encouraging them to be better off the pitch as well as on it.”
Former Newcastle United defender Nikos Dabizas: “I had many managers, but he was the most effective and he had the biggest impact. The most important thing was his influence off the pitch. It wasn’t all about the footballing aspect of things. He was very sharp, and I expanded every inch of my talent under Bobby Robson and maximised every talent I had. Collectively, everyone took huge lessons from Sir Bobby during the time he was at Newcastle.”
Bobby Robson: More than a Manager
Out now on DVD, Blu-ray and via digital download