Robson chasing a trophy on Tyneside

Bobby Robson jetted out of Newcastle today intent on taking his beloved Magpies back into the Champions League.

Bobby Robson jetted out of Newcastle today intent on taking his beloved Magpies back into the Champions League.

The 70-year-old headed for Serbia and Montenegro with his players for their showdown with Partizan Belgrade with the same enthusiasm for the game he has shown for more than half a century.

The hunger for success which has fuelled his 53-year professional career remains as acute as ever.

Enthusiasm alone though cannot fully explain his longevity in the game the bottom line is that the miner’s son from Sacriston is good at what he does, and indeed seems to be getting better the longer he does it.

Robson made his name at Ipswich, transforming the sleepy Suffolk club into a genuine force in Europe before guiding England to within a whisker of the World Cup final in 1990.

Success in Holland, Portugal and Spain confirmed his ability but it is perhaps at Newcastle, the club he supported as a boy, where his achievements have been most remarkable.

True, he is yet to bring trophies to Tyneside – as he did at Ipswich, PSV Eindhoven, Sporting Lisbon and Barcelona – but the turnaround he has inspired at St James’ Park has been astonishing.

When Robson came home to the north-east in September 1999 he inherited a crumbling and dispirited team which had spent up.

On the pitch, skipper Alan Shearer, Rob Lee and Nikos Dabizas – three men who would form the backbone of his side – had been effectively discarded by previous boss Ruud Gullit.

Away from the football, the club had taken out a massive securitisation deal to fund the final phase of the £70m (€100m) redevelopment of the stadium.

Relegation was simply not an option, but only Sheffield Wednesday separated United from the foot of the Premier League table the day the new manager took charge of his first training session, and the drop was a very real possibility.

A narrow 1-0 defeat at Chelsea in his first game in charge was followed by UEFA Cup victory over CSKA Sofia in Bulgaria before Wednesday felt the full force of the black and white revival in an 8-0 demolition job at St James’, and the Robson revolution was up and running.

Progress thereafter was initially steady – the Magpies finished 11th with 52 points at the end of that first season and as injuries hit hard during the following campaign to rob the manager of Shearer and Kieron Dyer in particular for long periods, could only match that position 12 months later with one point fewer.

However, having built the foundations, it was then that Robson made his move, investing £16.5m (€23.4m) in Laurent Robert and Craig Bellamy.

The pace of the Welshman and the new lease of life which he has given Shearer propelled Newcastle into a new dimension, but few could have predicted their fourth-place finish and Champions League qualification it earned them at the end of the 2001-02 season.

Even then, there were those who predicted that the Magpies’ flight was a flash in the pan. But the addition of talented youngsters Jermaine Jenas, Hugo Viana and later Jonathan Woodgate, ensured that Newcastle went one better last season.

However, Robson – who watched from the terraces as Newcastle won the FA Cup three times in the 1950s – knows only too well that the piece of silverware which would cement his reign is still to arrive.

The feeling that he would not even contemplate retirement until that 34-year itch has been scratched seems to grow with each passing season.

Manchester United and Arsenal will continue to lead the way once again this season and big-spending Chelsea are being tipped to challenge for the title too, but Robson is confident his side are making progress.

“If you say to me what do we have to do to get near to Arsenal and Manchester United, it’s to improve the depth and quality of our pool,” he said.

“As long as we stick together as a side and keep working hard on certain things in training, I think we’ve got the players and the talent and the ability. It’s about consistency.

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to do a bit better. We had a good run in the Champions League last season, but now we’ve got that experience from last year, maybe we’ll be able to develop that and go further.

“We weren’t that far away from the quarter-finals last season. We finished fourth in the league the season before last, and we finished third last season.

“A slight improvement next season and you never know. It’s all about improving.”

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