Gallery: Sir Bobby Robson was the man who belonged to all of us - remembering ITFC legend five years on from his death
13:09 31 July 2014
It is five years today since Sir Bobby Robson died and the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation has now raised over £7million to help those who have cancer. Liz Nice reports.
I never met Sir Bobby Robson, but like most football supporters, particularly those from Ipswich or Newcastle, I feel as though I did. I know hardened news reporters who cried when he died. I know of one, in particular, who can’t say his name without his eyes filling with tears.
There was just something about the man. Something good.
Just 18 months before his death, Sir Bobby, rather nervously, set up the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation, to raise money for a cancer trials research centre in Newcastle, where he had been receiving his care. He was concerned that people might not want to know, apparently oblivious to the way everyone felt about him. At the time, he was facing cancer for the fifth time and might have been forgiven for thinking about himself by then. But that wasn’t the man he was.
Bobby Robson always had time for everyone, except perhaps himself.
When I met his wife and two of his three sons, Andrew and Mark, a few weeks ago, they told me that the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation has become a really important part of their family now.
“It has given us all a purpose as a family,” says Lady Elsie, who now lives in County Durham, near where she and Sir Bobby grew up.
“You travelled a long way,” I said.
She smiles. “And then came back.”
Her middle son, Andrew, is also close to Newcastle, living nearby on the north east coast, but her other sons, Paul, the eldest, and Mark, who, at 50, is the youngest, live down south. “The other two boys live near London, so it’s a reason for us all to get together more frequently,” Lady Elsie says. “It will be for the grandchildren too. The legacy will grow and they will carry it on eventually because this is what happens. It has given us all a focus, which we are very grateful for.”
Lady Elsie, now in her 80s, works tirelessly for the foundation. On the day we meet, she is interviewed by close to 20 journalists, one after the other and she is warm and courteous to all of us, even though, by the end, she does admit to being “a little bit tired”.
We sit together on the couch and she pats my arm kindly as I squirm in embarrassment while the photographer takes pictures.
I ask her why she always refers to Sir Bobby as Bob. “I suppose, he was always, just…Bob, at home,” she says explaining with a slightly embarrassed grin that they were childhood sweethearts who met when she was 16.
A young nurse and a miner’s son who could never have imagined where life would take them.
Before they came back.
“Bob was born in [the north east village of] Langley Park and he is buried there,” Lady Elsie told me. “He never forgot his roots and the values he was taught by his family.”
One of the things about having Sir Bobby for a husband and father was that he wasn’t around that often because football took up so much of his time. Lady Elsie remarked that he was “very driven” and that “he wasn’t a slipper man”. When I ask Mark and Andrew about their memories of him as children, playing football together and so on, Mark says: “I didn’t really see a lot of him. He was always busy, scouting players, travelling all over. They’d say, ‘there’s a player called Mariner worth a look in Plymouth, but you’ll have to drive there. And he would. But I was happy at school. I didn’t really notice it.”
During this time Andrew and Paul were away at boarding school.
“Football management then was like it is now,” Andrew smiles, “not very reliable. So mum felt it was best if Paul and I were at boarding school so that we would have some stability.”
How it all started
Sir Bobby and Lady Elsie launched the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation in 2008 after a request from his oncologist, professor Ruth Plummer. Sir Bobby said he would give up a year of his life to the charity. In fact, he spent his last 18 months doing all he could to raise funds. He said it was “like being at the helm of a team again” and the initial fundraising target of £500,000 was soon exceeded. To date over £7million has been raised with last year the charity’s biggest fundraising year to date, a testament to our continued affection for him. Lady Elsie says: “The success of the foundation has been astonishing.
“I think that’s down to the memory people have of my husband and the warmth of him; the way he dealt with his illness in the final years and the way he related so easily to everyone he met. I am very proud of what has been achieved and I know he would have been. He always said: “This is the best thing I have ever done.”
Mark, the youngest son, was the only one to grow up here in Suffolk, attending St Joseph’s, “which I loved, although I played rugby, not football. I also remember going out a lot, I certainly remember the pubs”, he laughs. The family had moved to Ipswich in 1969 when Sir Bobby was given the job at Portman Road.
Their links with Suffolk remain strong to this day. They lived in Capel St Mary, then Bentley and finally near Constitution Hill in Ipswich, where they retained a house until shortly before Sir Bobby died.
Mark tells me that there is “a hedge on the A12 into Ipswich that a friend and I used to cut every summer with a pair of hand shears. I think it’s still there”.
Lady Elsie trained and worked as a primary school teacher here and told me very proudly that they still present a Lady Elsie Robson Cup at St Mark’s RC primary school, where she taught. She also has a good friend, Jan, another teacher, whom she visits when she can.
Ipswich was a long way from Newcastle. “I used to pile the boys and the two dogs into the car to go home to visit my parents and the journey went on forever,” she recalls. “My mum had no real concept of how far it was. She’d say, “Where have you been, pet? I’ve had the kettle on for hours!”
I ask Mark what Ipswich represents for him. He doesn’t miss a beat. “Happiness” he says, while Andrew credits the FA Cup final in 1978 as his greatest Ipswich memory: “It was such a great day for dad.”
Andrew is the one who looks most like his father and I ask him if this is something he is aware of.
“People have said that,” he says. “It’s not something I really think about, although people have come up to me in the supermarket once or twice.”
I ask him to pose next to a picture of his dad and afterwards he looks up at him and points out the cardigan Sir Bobby is wearing in the picture. “I got him that,” he says, with quiet pride, then adds: “There was a part of him that always belonged to other people, but he was a very private man too, he was also my dad.”
Memories that belong just to the family must be all the more precious because so many people have a Sir Bobby memory or story. “He was amazing,” the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation press officer Liz Luff tells me. Her last memory of Sir Bobby is the same one I have – of the day he turned up at the match in Newcastle in his honour five days before he died.
“There were two supporters he was scheduled to meet,” she tells me. “An elderly lady who’d been coming to St James’ Park all her life and a little boy. He insisted on seeing them and having his photo taken with them. He was so ill by then I’m not sure he could even see them…” She wells up.
“But there was no way he would have let them down.”
Liz has many stories about Sir Bobby. “I know so many people whose life he changed,” she adds. “I know a man who watched a programme about Sir Bobby and quit his job the next day. He said: “I want to love my life and work the way Bobby Robson does. He was just so inspiring that way. He changed my life too,” she says. “It was he who gave me the confidence to set up my own PR business. I would never have had the courage to do that if it wasn’t for him. He met my mum at St James’ Park and when she told him I was her daughter he said, ‘You must be so proud.’ Liz’s voice tails off with emotion. “I always say, it’s an emotional business, Sir Bobbying.” Later, she takes me on a tour of the unit at the hospital where so much good work has been done thanks to Sir Bobby’s Foundation. Pictures of him are all over the walls and, although it is a place where people might lose hope, it doesn’t feel that way. It is a fitting tribute to a man who fought cancer five times, and never gave up.
I ask Lady Elsie, Andrew and Mark for their last memory of Sir Bobby and like Liz, they too all mention that last match at Newcastle five days before his death.
“The inner strength he showed to get through it,” says Mark, shaking his head. “But he wanted to be there, with his players and with the supporters. He never moaned or complained. I think 99% of people would have given up, but he didn’t.”
Lady Elsie remembers, “a very special day” while Andrew adds: “It felt good to be there with him, and see the way that people felt about him. He wanted to say goodbye.”
And so he did, to all of us together.
“Newcastle have had a poor season, but I’ll stick with them,” diehard Toon supporter Liz Luff tells me as she drops me off at the station. “I have to, because of Sir Bobby. Just before he died, he asked me if I had got my season ticket and I told him I had and then he said something which means I can never give up on the Toon, even if I wanted to. What was that? I ask her.
Her reply will stay with me always. It sounds so like him. And is true of him too.
“He said, we need more like you, pet.”