Sir Bobby fights cancer with a smile

He's close to the hearts of the Super Blues and recently took a starring role in the Evening Star's 30 Years of Honour celebrations. Generous in victory and gracious in defeat, a 16-year battle with cancer will not change Sir Bobby Robson's outlook on life, as he told PAUL KIMMAGE.

He's close to the hearts of the Super Blues and recently took a starring role in the Evening Star's 30 Years of Honour celebrations. Generous in victory and gracious in defeat, a

16-year battle with cancer will not change Sir Bobby Robson's outlook on life, as he told PAUL KIMMAGE.

AT a sun-soaked Wembley on May 6, 1978, Ipswich Town won the world's most famous football competition, claiming the FA Cup with a 1-0 win over Arsenal.

It would have been unthinkable to have celebrated Ipswich Town's 1978 greatest moment without the team's then manager - footballing legend Sir Bobby Robson.

But for the past 15 months he has been living with the bottom line. Time is running out.

His health is failing and a 16-year battle with cancer is beginning to come to an end.

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He walks with a pronounced limp these days. He has restricted use of his left arm and almost no use of his left hand. The loss of independence has been crushing.

He can't drive or play golf or tend his beloved garden. He can't tie his shoes or knot his ties (he has always loved ties) or fold his suits neatly or place them on hangers.

He eats fish, rather than meat, because he can't use a knife and it feels as if every second sentence he utters is, “Elsie? Are you there?” The frustration drives him crazy.

“I never thought I would finish like this, with this disability,” he complains sometimes to friends. “When I was 72, I was on the pitch every day; I had an active body, an active mind; I prided myself on being fit all of my life.”

But Elsie will just shake her head and say with a laugh: “What do you mean 'fit all your life?' You've had cancer five times!”

Cancer. He has always treated the most dreaded of illnesses like a mild dose of flu.

Round One.

The year is 1992, Bobby Robson is 59-years-old and living in Eindhoven and managing PSV. One day, after training, he mentions a persistent problem with bleeding piles to the club physician, Artur Woolf.

The physician accompanies him to a local hospital for tests and calls him with the results. “You need an operation,” Woolf announces. “You've got a bit of cancer in your colon and must have it removed.”

“How long will I be out of the game for?” Robson asks.

“At lease three months,” Woolf replies.

The Englishman is aghast. “Whaaatt! I can't be out for three months! What about the team?”

“I didn't understand the full implications of it,” he explains. “It was the first time that cancer had appeared in our family. None of my brothers had had it. My father lived until he was 86; my mother was 85, it didn't cost me a second thought. I just faced it, had it removed and moved on.”

Round two was slightly more serious.

The year is 1995, Bobby Robson is 62-years-old, it's the eve of his second season as manager of Porto and he is home on a summer break. He has been complaining for months about his sinuses. Elsie has arranged an appointment with a specialist and the obstruction - a thick black sludge - has been removed. A biopsy is conducted. The results aren't good. Robson is informed that he has a malignant melanoma on his face. He reacts as though it is nothing worse than a spot.

Huw Davies, the consultant surgeon, is not amused. “I understand you're a football manager,” he intones. “Well, you will not see this season out, Mr Robson. By January, this thing will have gone into your eye and then into your brain.”

Robson still can't believe it. “But look at me,” he protests. “I'm fit and strong. I feel fine.”

“We know. But you've got a malignant tumour inside your head, and we're going to have to go through your head to get it. We're going to have to cut you open, take your teeth out, go through the roof of your mouth and remove a fair proportion of the inside of your head to make sure we get it all out.”

The penny finally dropped.

“That rocked me,” he says. “He painted such a graphic picture... that was the first time I thought, 'Hmmmm, I don't like the sound of that'.”

Round three. The month is April 2006, Sir Bobby Robson is 73-years-old and has just accepted a consultancy post with the Republic of Ireland. His son Mark has invited him to Austria to go skiing. He's not sure. His friends in Eindhoven have invited him to a Champions League game, and then he's flying to Madrid to renew acquaintances with Ronaldo. “I can give it three days, Mark, but not a week,” he explains. There will be plenty of time for skiing when he retires.

His grandson, Alexander, has also made the trip. It's Robson's first return to the slopes in 16 years but he still believes he's a version of the great Austrian downhill skier Franz Klammer and bruises a rib in a fall. The rib is still hurting him three days later. He has it X-rayed in Eindhoven and the doctor discovers a shadow on his lung. Another biopsy, another bad result. There is a tumour the size of a golf ball on his lung.

“I was lucky,” he says with a smile. “If I hadn't gone skiing, I wouldn't have known. I went and had this operation and they removed about a third of the right side of my lung. I wasn't going to run any more four-minute miles but I recovered quite well and I was fine.”

Round four. The month is August 2006, Sir Bobby Robson has just been made the honorary president of Ipswich Town and is sitting in the director's box at Portman Road for the first game of the season.

Shortly after the kick-off he develops a twitch in his face. “I couldn't talk,” he says. “I tried to tell my wife about the twitch and I couldn't get one word out. I thought, 'My God! What's happening to me? I'm having a stroke'.”

He was taken downstairs and examined. Suddenly, the twitching stopped and he was talking again. “Right, let's go back to the game,” he said.

“Wait, wait, wait,” the medics responded.

“What do you mean, wait? I'm all right,” he huffed. “The game's in progress; I've missed the first 12 minutes!”

“No, Bobby, let's just go to the hospital and have you checked out,” they said.

The scans revealed a small tumour on his brain. He was operated on at Newcastle General Hospital three weeks later. The surgeons successfully removed the growth but he haemorrhaged during the operation and was paralysed down his left side.

At first, they feared he might not walk again, but once more he battled back courageously.

Final round. The month is February 2007. Sir Bobby Robson has ticked off his 74th birthday and has an appointment with Professor Kelly at Newcastle General for the results of some routine scans. Elsie is feeling poorly and has stayed at home. Judith Horey, his personal secretary, has accompanied him to the hospital.

“Your brain scan is great,” the professor begins, “the swelling has gone down and it has recovered well... but we've discovered some small nodules in your lungs again.”

“Oh, don't tell me that,” Robson grimaces, steeling himself already to go under the knife again. But the professor hasn't finished.

“I'm afraid they're inoperable,” he says.

He paused and tried to gather his composure. “So... how long do you think I've got?”

“I don't know... eight... ten… 12… 24 months… you never know with cancer. It depends on whether we can control the tumours.”


Judith drove him home and he broke the news to Elsie. She was upset but incredibly strong. “Well, we've just got to make the best of it and you never know,” she said. “Be upright, be bold and enjoy your life.”

Fifteen months have passed since he got the news. He has treasured every one.

This interview was originally published in The Sunday Times.

WEARY and nauseous from the effects of chemotherapy, Sir Bobby Robson Foundation to raise an initial £500,000, for a cancer research centre being built at Newcastle's Freeman Hospital. The response from his friends in football and the corporate sector has been gratifying, but it's the generosity of the ordinary man that has most warmed his heart.

These months on borrowed time have been the busiest of his life - and some of the most enjoyable. He has just returned from a hectic weekend in Ipswich, and on Saturday he will travel to Wembley to present the FA Cup to either Portsmouth or Cardiff City on the 30th anniversary of his Ipswich Town side's triumph over Arsenal.

He thought long and hard before accepting. “I'm a bit worried about my disability, my hand, and I don't want people saying, 'Look at that silly old bugger'. I want it to be right for the FA as well, but I'm alive and it's a great opportunity and I think I can handle it.”

“What would you change if you had to do it again?” I ask.

“Not much,” he says. “I remember, as a boy, getting a composition in school, 'What career would you like to embark on?' I wrote that I wanted to be a professional footballer. I was a kid who played in the schoolyard kicking flints and stones and tennis balls. I never thought about playing for England; I never thought I was Tommy Lawton or Stanley Matthews; I just wanted to be a footballer.

“So I wouldn't change anything. I managed England; I managed Barcelona; I came home and managed my father's club - things as a kid I never even dreamed of. So to ask for more would be greedy. I stretched out as far as I ever could and my arm was longer than I ever thought it would be. I've had a wonderful life.”

He rises from his seat on the balcony, flashes a beautiful smile and invites you to enjoy the magnificent view of the Tyne.

The month is May 2008; Sir Bobby Robson is 75 years and 81 days old. But here's the miracle.

He's not counting.

The Sir Bobby Robson Foundation is a charity set up to help raise money to equip a new cancer trials research centre at the Freeman Hospital, in Newcastle.

The aim was to raise £500,000, but this amount was achieved so the target has been increased to £1million. The plan is to have the centre running by October.

It will then be known as the Sir Bobby Robson Cancer Trials Research Centre.

The foundation will initially focus on the early detection and treatment of cancer and will also help support clinical trials of promising new treatments to tackle the


To make a donation, visit or you can send a cheque to the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation, PO Box 307, Heaton, NE7 7QG.