The Greatest 'Geordie' of all Time?

The only time I met Sir Bobby was a matter of weeks before his passing. I was sitting at a round table in the Chairman's lounge at SJP, enjoying the pre-match meal before the Tyneside derby between Newcastle United and Sunderland. This was 2009, Mike Ashley, the owner of Newcastle United, was sitting on my right, and to my left was John Pratt, a good friend. Mike was always nervous before any game and, with the stakes being so high that afternoon, was lost in his own thoughts. 

Suddenly, the lounge went quiet, and then applause broke out. A man sitting in a wheelchair with a full head of white hair, wearing a fedora hat, a heavy coat, a Newcastle United scarf, and a travel rug covering his legs had entered. Sir Bobby Robson CBE had arrived. In August 2008, Sir Bobby had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, and his response was, "I am going to die sooner than later. But then everyone has to go some time, and I have enjoyed every minute". He died just under a year later. Sir Bobby was wheeled over to our table and inserted directly next to the right of Mike. What first struck me about Sir Bobby at that moment was not his frail body but his strong chin and radiant smile. Mike and Sir Bobby exchanged pleasantries. Clearly, they had met many times before. I sat there with my mouth wide open, humbled to be in this man's presence. "Richard, pleased to meet you," I muttered. Sir Bobby nodded, and we locked eyes for the briefest moment. He had played for and later managed England taking them to the semi-final of the 1990 World Cup. England's best run in the World Cup since 1966. Close to 600 club appearances between West Brom and Fulham. 

As a manager, Sir Bobby won trophies in England and Holland, Portugal, and Spain. Not many people will know that in 1967 he accepted a 3-year deal with Canada's Vancouver Royals as player-manager, but that ended before it started when Fulham offered him a contract to become their manager. Born in 1933 in Sariston, County Durham, he was a 'Geordie' first and last. You may have thought that anyone facing the challenge he was, probably on strong medication, might not have had the greatest appetite. Not so. A plate was put before him with a hearty steak and all the fixings. He devoured it. 

Between bites, Sir Bobby was chastising Mike about his handling of the club, rapport with the "Toon Army', and offering advice on 'the way forward.' Mike, who was no shrinking violet, sat there and was fixated on Sir Bobby, listening to his every word as though his life depended on it. Nodding every once in a while, with the odd, "Yes, Sir Bobby." I was transfixed, and the only move I made in those twenty minutes was to put my mobile on silent. Niall Quinn, the Chairman of Sunderland, came over to pay his respects to Sir Bobby, and he also got a few choice words of advice. Presently, Sir Bobby indicated he was done and wanted to take his seat for the match. 

In unison, those not standing stood and applauded. Possibly, the greatest 'geordie' of all time took his leave, raising his hand in salute. If I recall correctly, it was a 1-1 draw that afternoon. I remember nothing of the game, but I remember every second of those twenty minutes two seats away from an icon. 

For all of you who support your club week in week out, through the good and bad times, let me leave you with a few choice words from Sir Robert William 'Bobby' Robson CBE, "What is a club in any case? not the buildings or directors, or the people who are paid to represent it. It's not the television contracts, get-out clauses, or the marketing departments, or executive boxes. It's the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city". 

 

 

 

 

Very personable and charismatic, but by the time he got to Newcastle United as Director of Football, the game had moved on and passed him by. His tenure was shortlived, but I certainly enjoyed my interaction with Joe, and will remember the two brilliant one-liners he shared with me (see article below). Joe was a player in his own right, making 196 appearances for Spurs and turned out, 26 times for the Republic of Ireland. He did manage Newcastle from 2008-9 and did a very respectful job, before suffering a heart attack and having to step down. Oh, he did also cut his teeth as manager of India, and then Nepal in the late 19080's.

"Went down like a labrador in front of a fire".

I first met Joe Kinnear during the 2012-13 season, a home game against Southampton.  He was few months into his role as Director of Football for Newcastle United. He managed to keep a low profile following a disastrous interview with BBC Sport, where he had announced his own appointment. I was late to the game, missed the pre-match meal, and social in the Chairman's lounge. It was an uneventful first half, typical Alan Pardew tactics of 'wait and see,' don't lose the game early on. The half time whistle blew, and everyone scrambled back inside to the lounge. 

Joe was already appreciating a glass of red wine, coming across as more of a sommelier than a Director of Football at one of the most hallowed clubs in England. I was officially introduced to Joe, who eyed me up and down once he realized I worked for his boss, Mike Ashley. "Nice drop this, put your nose in that," he said, offering up his glass. "Drop of the Gods," I responded and looked for my Guinness. We started to dissect the first half, and I offered up that I thought the Toon should have had a penalty, to which Joe drained the last of his vino, rolled his eyes, and in that Cockney accent which seemed so out of place on Tyneside said, " Went down like a labrador in front of a fire," Thankfully, my Guinness was sitting patiently on the table otherwise it would have been sprayed everywhere. So, that was how I met Joe. Now, whenever I see a labrador, I shout, 'Penalty.' 

There were other 'Joe' interactions and stories as the season progressed. Hatem Ben Arfa was out of favor with Alan Pardew and had one year left on his contract. Hatem was less than stellar doing the dirty work, tracking back when Newcastle lost the ball. In the modern game, I suppose he is a 'luxury.' Joe asked me what I thought of Hatem, and I said he was the type of player that was great to bring on in the last twenty minutes to run and stretch tired defenses. Feeling very pleased with myself for what I thought was an astute analysis, I asked, "What do you think, Joe?". As I waited for some profound and prophetic words from Newcastle's Director of Football, he offered, "Could nutmeg a horse in a telephone box." And that's why he gets big money. I learned Joe is as blind as a bat but refuses to be seen in glasses and only whips them out to examine the label on a bottle of wine. 

I was told the following by someone reliable inside the club. Joe was at St. Andrews to scout a few Birmingham players and was rather impressed with the left-back that night. He made a favorable comment sitting next to his counterpart from Birmingham and asked if he would be prepared to send the player out on loan to Newcastle. I am told it was politely pointed out that said player belonged to Newcastle and was out on loan to Birmingham! Not really one for details Joe, and contributed to his downfall in the end.  

Playboy of the Western world. An incredibly talented player who battled his fair share of demons. Unstoppable on the pitch, and a sharp wit off the pitch. On wasting his money ... "I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered". On being born with a gift ... "I was born with a great gift, and sometimes with that comes a destructive streak. Just as I wanted to outdo everyone when I played, I had to outdo everyone when we were out on the town".

The Man From Belfast

How I came to be playing in a reunion game for the Portland Timbers against the San Diego earthquakes in the early '90s is beyond me. I'd never played for Portland during their NASL days, yet there I was looking across the halfway line at George Best. My first sighting of Mr. Best was that morning in the hotel bar during breakfast. He sauntered in carrying a copy of James A. Michener's novel 'Alaska.' There was a hush that descended as one might expect with the arrival of Soccer royalty. The book might have been for effect, but I was impressed. Like most of the great players I have met, he was smaller than I imagined but had that presence: the unkempt hair, the full beard, and that mercurial Irish accent. 

A real gentleman who stopped to say hello to everyone, even if he had to pretend to recognize old teammates and opponents. I'm sure he had been out on the town the previous night visiting old haunts but showed no sign of it as one might expect from someone with his renowned stamina for the nightlife. 

I only remember three things from the game itself. Not the score. One was San Jose's most famous fan, 'Crazy George' banging on his drum, then scoring a tap in from a Clyde Best pass, and most vividly, having George Best standing next to me in the box on a corner. I wouldn't say I was marking him as I was like a deer in headlights just staring at the great man, bolted to the ground. 

The post-game festivities were centered around replacing fluids, and George held court. Never refused an autograph or picture. Didn't seek to be the center of attention but happy to shoot the breeze and polite to a fault.

I can't say enough about the man from Belfast and even though it was only a reunion game, privileged to say that I saw George Best play in person, was on the same pitch.  A Special memory for me. 

 

Landon Donovan ... the 'gaffer' @ San Diego Loyal (USL) did more for the future state of soccer in 4 minutes this season, than many will do in a lifetime.

Landon Donovan: For Whom The Bell Tolls ...

Bill Shankly, the legendary Liverpool manager, said: " If you are first, you are first, if you are second, then you are nothing. "Maybe a little extreme, but that was Shanks. 

At 5' 8" and 145lbs, Landon Donovan would be in boxing circles, a Featherweight. Yet, through his class and actions over two weeks in October, he demonstrated the punch and gravitas of a Heavyweight. As a player, he has nothing to prove, but as a coach or, Brits say, 'gaffer,' he has everything. He's a new generation of leaders, ultra-competitive on the field, but someone who will embrace their social responsibility and use the pulpit that their professional standing affords for positive change.

Racism has been allowed to percolate in the global game for decades. With the advent of big money television contracts and sponsorships, FIFA has had to show genuine, overt concern and be seen as proactive. The coverage of games with advances in camera and microphone technology has meant that players and coaches have nowhere to hide for ninety-plus minutes once the whistle blows. Ask Rick Schantz, the Phoenix Rising coach. The tape captures everything and doesn't lie. Homophobic slurs are more recent in the game, and it's imperative that they, too, not be allowed the runway that racism was allowed. Respect is not just a verb for a badge to be sewn on a jersey.

Donovan, by his actions, eliminated San Diego Loyal from the USL Championship playoffs. In the great scheme, that's minor. There will be plenty of wins and silverware in San Diego's future. In gratitude and recognition, the USL should have credited San Diego six points for those two games. Donovan did service to a bigger cause, focussed worldwide attention, and percolated a much-needed dialogue. A benchmark was set. I'm under no illusion that the pressure of winning and making the leap to the next level for both USL players and coaches will see some revert to embracing old ways once this most recent storm passes. Let them remember a person's character counts for a lot in recruitment when handing out contracts. Hopefully, this resonates, and they mature, or should that be; evolve, adapt, grow up?

But, let's get back to Donovan. He clearly knows the game, and his Rolodex must be second to none. You get a call from this guy, and you're going to take the call or return the call pretty darn quick. That's going to serve San Diego well, putting together rosters, especially having access to loan players, which was certainly evident this past season's home stretch. The best coaches in the world aren't necessarily the best tacticians. The Jury is still out on him in this regard. They build a staff of assistants to compliment themselves. Most coaches don't have a significant part in preparing training sessions. Their role is more of a facilitator. Looking at chemistry, bringing order to chaos, having individual conversations, and inspiring talks with players. Managing the bigger picture, the conduit between ownership, front office, playing staff, fans, and media. Perhaps, that's where we got the term 'man management' from?

Donovan's certainly passed the test in this inaugural season. I'm certain when young talent looking to make the MLS grade want to learn their craft and understand what it takes to play at the highest level, this will be the guy and club that they turn to their agent and say; 'San Diego's my first choice, make it happen.' Donovan's calm demeanor served everyone well. We saw that as he worked through a string of mediocre results and found a way to win again.

John Donne, the English poet, wrote: " No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee ."

You lead by example. Solution driven, optimistic, and proactive. Donovan has been a refreshing voice of reason in a season and situation that did derail many of his peers. Time and actions will tell about his resolve and stamina, and I have a good feeling that whoever the visionary was that came up with the club name, 'Loyal' must have had an image of and spent time with Donovan.

A man for today, with a vision for a better tomorrow, while leading from the front.