The day Sir Bobby Robson went on the attack – and his hurt at Newcastle United exit
Writer Miles Starforth has reported on Newcastle United for 20 years. This is the first of a series of recollections and anecdotes from his time covering the club.
I’ll start at the beginning, when it was a case of good timing. Within months of the late, great Sir Bobby Robson’s appointment as Newcastle United in September 1999 following the sacking of Ruud Guillit, I was covering the club.
It was a boyhood dream. I’d been in the Leazes End for Robson’s first home game in charge – the stunning 8-0 win over Sheffield Wednesday – and I was in the press box for the second half of the season.
The new-look St James’s Park was taking shape too – the stadium was being expanded to its present 52,000 capacity – as Sir Bobby started rebuilding on the pitch. Robson seemingly had the tougher rebuild. It would take time, as underlined by his first full season in charge, when the team finished 11th.
It hadn’t been pretty, but there were better times around the corner. The club, we all felt, had the right man in charge.
At Robson’s side for that season had been Mick Wadsworth, who had worked with him at the Football Association during his time as England manager.
Wadsworth, however, was gone by the start of the 2001/02 season – and Sir Bobby was furious.
Robson, fiercely loyal to his staff, wasn’t happy with the newspaper I worked for at the time – and me.
A colleague had revealed that Wadsworth was set to join Southampton as assistant to Stuart Gray on the eve of pre-season, and I’d been asked by my sports editor to canvass fan opinion on Wadsworth’s expected departure. The piece wasn’t particularly favourable towards Wadsworth, and Sir Bobby, understandably, was furious given his loyalty to his assistant.
I’d had the hairdryer treatment from reserve-team coach Tommy Craig just days after starting as a sports writer the previous year – I had been a news reporter before then – because of a headline I hadn’t written, but this was different.
Robson felt that he had had a chance of persuading Wadsworth – who had helped the club recruit a number of South American players – to stay at St James’s Park before the piece was published.
I got a call from the club, and was told Sir Bobby wanted to see me. However, before a meeting could be arranged, a press conference was hastily convened at St James’s Park on what was my day off. A colleague attended.
Robson, visibly angry, appeared dressed in shorts and a T-shirt and threw a bundle of copies of the paper on to a table. My colleague had an idea what was coming.
"We've lost a very solid, reliable guy,” said Sir Bobby, who blamed the reporting for what he felt was a premature exit for Wadsworth, a coach he said he would have recommended to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United had he not been employed at Newcastle.
“I'll tell you this, I have an administrative staff, I have a medical staff and I have a technical staff, and a lot of people at this club are absolutely devastated.
"On Monday we were very confident that Mick would be here to start pre-season training alongside me, but, because of the way that Southampton's approach was reported, he’s gone.
"I’m very bitter about it, and it has been handled with no class whatsoever. Mick arrived at the stadium on Monday ready to commit his future to the club, but now he has gone."
Robson, it emerged, also thought my byline was a nom de plume, a made-up name.
Life went on at St James’s Park. John Carver, a coach at the time, stepped up following Wadsworth’s departure – and Newcastle finished fourth and qualified for the Champions League. Gray and Wadsworth, meanwhile, left Southampton after less than half a season.
I was fortunate enough to follow the team’s fortunes at home and abroad under Robson, a manager – and a man – I’d long idolised. It was an incredible journey – and an education for me.
Sir Bobby took his beloved club, rock bottom at the time of his appointment after taking one point from six matches, back to the top of the game. It was an unforgettable time.
Of course, it ended all too abruptly in August 2004 – just months after a UEFA Cup semi-final defeat to Olympique Marseille – after a winless start to that season. But that’s another story.
My next encounter with Sir Bobby would be almost a year later in a suite at the Copthorne Hotel with a view of the River Tyne. He was there to promote his autobiography Farewell but Not Goodbye.
Robson was still hurting, and he had a lot to say about his departure, both on and off the record. Sir Bobby didn’t hold back, especially when the tape was turned off. He wondered if he should have been more forthright in the book when it came to his untimely dismissal – and “buried”, in print, those he felt were to blame.
We overran the interview slot, and I headed back up Forth Banks to the office after a fascinating and enlightening hour.
I’d been spoilt in my first few years in the job, and nothing that’s followed has quite compared to Robson taking the club to the top of the domestic game – and into the Champions League.