How Unprecedented Success At Ipswich Town Made Sir Bobby Robson A Legend

The managerial great was born 90 years ago on Saturday
08:00, 18 Feb 2023

He was arguably the greatest English football manager of all time. He was a man of principle, a man of heart. He made his name as a massively successful leader of an unfashionable club, the became the person who came so very close to bringing home England’s first overseas World Cup triumph.

Sir Bobby Robson was untouchable. It says so much about him that on what would have been his 90th birthday, almost 14 years on from his sad death from cancer, he still feels omnipresent in the modern game. A success in England, a winner abroad, and so nearly a sensation with the Three Lions, Robson’s story was initially written with Ipswich Town.

He was handed the manager’s job at Portman Road in January 1969 to some raised eyebrows. After a 10-month stint with Fulham, with whom he’d won just six of 36 games and suffered relegation to the Second Division, he was being handed another top-flight role just a couple of months on from his sacking at Craven Cottage.


One of his predecessors at Ipswich, Jackie Milburn, had claimed that the only way for the football club was down. Perhaps that was because the legendary Newcastle United striker had followed in the footsteps of Alf Ramsey, who had won a miraculous league title with the Tractor Boys and would go on to lift a World Cup with England. But whatever the meaning of Milburn’s words, Robson saw opportunity in the offer which came his way.

“I’ve come here because I’m sure that there’s a great job to do here in football,” he explained to Anglia Television on his first day in the role. “Many people have given impressions of the state of the club here, I wouldn’t say that they’re true. This is a club which will allow me to manage and are prepared to give me a chance.”

He was arriving at a club enjoying only its fourth season in the top flight. They had no money and few prospects. Nothing was expected of them. In many ways, even less was expected of him.

But Bobby Robson led Ipswich Town to the sort of sustained success which seemed unimaginable. After developing the playing structure from the ground up in his first few seasons and still managing to keep the team in the First Division, he led them to a fourth-place finish in 1973 alongside a Texaco Cup win. The next four years they finished fourth, third, sixth and third again, and were Uefa Cup regulars.

The 1977-78 campaign saw them slip from their new heady heights for once in the league, finished fifth from bottom. But that was also the year little Ipswich Town went to Wembley in the FA Cup final and shocked the mighty Arsenal. Roger Osborne’s winner remains treasured as one of Suffolk’s greatest sporting moments.

But Robson wasn’t done there. They continued to challenge at the top end with four more top-six finishes, including two runners-up spots in 1981 and 1982. Yet he was to make the biggest headlines away from English shores.

In ’81 the Blues battered Saint-Etienne 4-1 away from home in the Uefa Cup quarter-finals, finishing off at 7-2 aggregate triumph at Portman Road in the second leg. They followed that by beating Koln home and away in the semis and booking a first European final in the club’s history. In the showpiece against AZ they were dominant, winning the home leg 3-0, and when they had to be resolute in the return in Alkmaar they were, seeing out a 5-4 triumph which brought unprecedented glory to the town of Ipswich.

After the 1981-82 season, he ended his 13-year spell with the club to become England manager. It was a role he loved, and one which so nearly brought the greatest of glory. At the 1986 World Cup his side were denied by the Hand of God. Four years later at Italia ’90 it was penalties which foiled them at the semi-final stage against West Germany.

“That far away from it,” he once gestured to Gary Lineker for a BBC documentary, with his thumb and forefinger almost touching. “I’ll never forget. I wouldn’t say [I think about it] every day, but many times in a year when we come to a big match. And I’ll never forget it. We were a whisker away, son. A whisker away.

“I just felt if we’d have got through we’d have actually beaten Argentina because they weren’t great. We were a good side, difficult to beat.”


After making the bold move to take the PSV job following his England reign, he won back-to-back Eredivisie titles, then headed to Portugal to coach first Sporting CP and then Porto, the latter of whom he won successive league crowns with too. Next up was Barcelona, with whom he won a magnificent treble of Copa del Rey, Supercopa and European Cup Winners’ Cup, signing the phenomenal Ronaldo at a nascent stage of the brilliant Brazilian’s career.

It was appropriate that Robson’s career should end with a five-year stint with his hometown Newcastle United, a five-year stint which highlight the glint in the great man’s eye. Under Robson they were transformed from a basket case to Champions League regulars, and Alan Shearer was never better than when Sir Bobby was sat on the bench. His love for football was unquenchable and even at the age of 71 he would have gone on longer if the club had allowed him.

His death in 2009 was no great shock after developing cancer for a fifth time, but that doesn’t mean it hurt any less. He’d given his final years over to launching the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation for cancer research, leaving a lasting legacy well beyond the football pitch as well as on it.

There is a statue of him outside St James’ Park honouring his position in Newcastle United history, and another in the shadows of Portman Road as a mark of just what an incredible job he also did at Ipswich Town. Few people touch multiple clubs so profoundly, but it says so much about Sir Bobby Robson that there is a corner of East Anglia which loves him like he’s one of their own.

Born in Newcastle. Made in Ipswich. Brought alive by football. There was nobody like Sir Bobby.


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