Tribute to a sporting giant

SIR Bobby Robson is a true sporting giant.The legacy of his love affair with Ipswich Town is immortalised with today's unveiling of the statue dedicated to one of football's greats who did so much to put Suffolk on the national and international stage.

By Mel Henderson

SIR Bobby Robson is a true sporting giant.

The legacy of his love affair with Ipswich Town is immortalised with today's unveiling of the statue dedicated to one of football's greats who did so much to put Suffolk on the national and international stage.

The irony of the official unveiling is not lost on Sir Bobby.

"You know the most wonderful thing about this?" he said. "That I'm still alive to see it. Most people honoured in this way never actually see the statue, so this really is quite rare.

"It was a very strange feeling to see myself in statue form. Hard to put into words. Obviously, I had never seen anything remotely like it before."

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Until a similar tribute to Manchester United legend Denis Law was unveiled at Old Trafford earlier this year, no living sportsman had been honoured in this way.

A clearly emotional Sir Bobby is genuinely touched that the people of Ipswich are paying him what must be considered the ultimate compliment.

Football's newest knight adds: "I feel very privileged and honoured to know that the town has this sort of warmth towards me.

"I have always had a strong affiliation with Ipswich, not just the football club but the town itself.

"I spent almost 14 years at Portman Road, which is a long time in management by any standards, and I still have a home there."

Indeed, had it not been for the fact that England came calling in 1982, Sir Bobby agrees he might never have left.

"Who knows, maybe I would still have been there," he says in matter of fact fashion. "It was only the lure of managing my country that eventually pulled me away.

"Mr Patrick (Cobbold) was the chairman and he wanted me to stay. It came down to me deciding whether I went or stayed - and the pull of England won.

"I always said that would be the only job to end my time with Ipswich. I lost count of the number of jobs I was offered and rejected.

"Derby wanted me to succeed Cloughie. There was Leeds, too, after Don Revie went and I also turned down Barcelona twice, as well as Athletic Bilbao.

"After we won the UEFA Cup at Ipswich in 1981 I was offered the Manchester United job. Sunderland, when Tom Cowie was chairman, also wanted me and I said no to Everton on two separate occasions."

He need hardly add that he has no regrets about his chosen career path, his eight years as national boss being followed by a further nine during which he took his talents to Holland, Portugal and Spain, where Barca finally got their man.

Almost three years ago he answered an SOS from boyhood favourites Newcastle and now he is the North East's favourite son after steering a club previously renowned for its under-achieving into the Champions League.

Another aspect of this latest honour that appeals to Sir Bobby is that his own statue will be situated close to that of another local hero.

While his own impressive CV reminds us of England's agonising penalty shoot-out exit to Germany at the semi-final stage in Italy 12 years ago, the World Cup triumph engineered by Sir Alf Ramsey in 1966 is forever etched in our minds.

"You know, it is really something that Ipswich supplied England with two managers - and their best two if you go by what we achieved in the job," he adds.

"It is not a giant of a club but they can't take that away from them. It is a unique achievement, something that sets it apart and nobody else can match. The club, the town, they must be proud of that."

Sir Bobby was genuinely surprised at the attention to detail shown by sculptor Sean Hedges-Quinn, who prefers to be known simply as Coach.

He borrowed the suit that the then Ipswich boss wore to lead out his team prior to the FA Cup triumph at Wembley in 1978, so he has concentrated on the right era.

"Just one problem," laughs Sir Bobby. "The kipper tie…but then we were all wearing them in those days.

"Coach was so methodical, taking measurements - things like my fingers and even my fingernails - and the job he has done is quite remarkable.

"I came down to see him several times and we spent a lot of time together. He has done a thorough job and I am delighted with it.

"I must also thank everyone responsible for this tremendous honour - the Ipswich supporters' club who had the original idea, the borough council, the football club and the sponsors, TXU Energi."

Sir Bobby was surrounded by family and friends on his big day, but he also took time out to send a message to those who were unable to attend.

"Tell them to take a handkerchief down now and again, so they can give me a polish," he laughs. "We should try to keep the bird mess off!"

Sculptor Sean Hedges-Quinn, who is still awaiting his wife, Hayley, to give birth to their second child said today: "If Hayley goes into labour tonight I don't think I will ever have a day to match it.

"It will be like 15 Christmas' all at once.

"I am really excited. It will be the proudest day of my professional life and the proudest day of my personal life."

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