Friday, 31 July 2015

We remember Sir Bobby with fondness and pleasure

One of football's modern managerial legends and great enthusiasts passed away six years ago today. Sir Bobby Robson's influence still endures to the top of the game today: Jose Mourinho and Andre Villas-Boas are his direct disciples. I had the privilege of interviewing Sir Bobby at two very different points in his career and here's my affectionate personal tribute to him:

Sir Bobby Robson, who lost his long-term battle with cancer aged 76, was a good player but it was his zeal for management which really marked him out. A life truly fulfilled with Ipswich, England, PSV, Sporting, Porto, Barcelona and of course, Newcastle United.

During his England days.
He nurtured players to greatness from Romario to Ronaldo; from Gazza to Gary. And if that's not enough, Mourinho and Guardiola, two of the most feted coaches in the world game were cultivated by the great man.

I had the pleasure to interview Sir Bobby with both England and Newcastle. He was the man who crafted Gazza into a senior England performer despite having branded him "daft as a brush". Backing Gazza to step up to the plate was a gamble at the time, but the boss was trusting and generous with ability. He was instantly rewarded as Gazza struck twice in a 4-2 win over Czechoslovakia, the first international I covered for radio.

Sir Bobby was already of pensionable age at Newcastle; he had a great contract and with nothing to prove, the pressure was off. The job was a labour of love. His enthusiasm was so infectious, I smiled with him during our live interview on Prem Plus and he increasingly chuckled back at me. His answers were so long, I had to switch from arm to outstretched oxygen-starved arm to keep the mike under his chin!

Sir Bobby was still on the ball in his Newcastle days
Sir Bobby was famed for mix-ups. On England duty, he wished Bryan Robson a cheery "Morning Bobby!", Bryan dutifully replied "You're Bobby, I'm Bryan, boss!". At Newcastle, Shola Ameobi claimed the boss dubbed him "Carl Cort".

But a less well-known story was relayed to me by former Chelsea and Queen's Park Rangers defender, Steve Wicks.

Wicks had just completed the best season of his career at Loftus Road and had been picked for an England B international in Mexico just months before the 1986 World Cup. Bobby was still pondering the 22-man squad he was going to take to the Finals with rumours that 3 or 4 places were still up for grabs. To add tension to the B game, the boss was going to pick the last available places from the best performers. He popped down to the England dressing room before kick-off to prepare the would-be World Cup stars:

His influence still endures today
"Now, I know you might be nervous 'cos I'm here, but just do your best and good luck to each one of you!", said the England boss.

He then went round the dressing room shaking each of the player's hands with a "good luck son". He arrived at Wicks, an imposing 6 foot 2 inches tall with the physical attributes of a goalkeeper as much as the central defender he was:

"I want you to know son, that you've had a brilliant year... yes, I've monitored you all season!". Wicks couldn't believe it. It sounded like Bobby's mind was made up to take him to the World Cup even before the game had started. "Wow, thanks boss!", Wicks choked out.

"Yes son..... your save at Aston Villa was one of the best I've ever seen!"

In a classic Bobby moment, he'd mixed up Wicks with Woods. Norwich City's Chris Woods, so it was the goalkeeper not the centre-half that went to the Finals.

I've spoken with a lot of friends and fellow fans and the tributes have been no more heartfelt than that of my friend, Jamie Gould. A Geordie and lifelong Newcastle United fan, who told me this:

"It was so sad to see him decline, but he still made it to matches regardless of the difficulties. It was great that he got to manage Newcastle but he was treated terribly at the end. He was the perfect ambassador for the game - but he was more than a Toon manager, more than an England manager, more than a Barca manager. He was a great man of football generally and, moreso, a great man, a great human being. The loss is surely felt well outside the confines of the football world; even people who never met him will say, hand on heart, 'I loved Sir Bobby Robson'".

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Benteke to Liverpool? Villa should strive to hold on to him

The Beast of Bodymoor
It's all over the papers: Liverpool want Aston Villa striker Christian Benteke.

With thirteen goals in fourteen games, it's no wonder he's on the radar of every Premier League club with ambition.

But Liverpool? They're no longer a Champions League perennial and both fans and players alike looked as though they couldn't wait for the season's end.

With lame duck Brendan Rodgers at the helm admitting he'd accept the sack, what would Benteke be walking into?

Steven Gerrard, arguably the greatest to don the Red shirt played his last game in a 6-1 thrashing at Stoke which followed a final Anfield bow, a poor 3-1 reverse to Crystal Palace.

Raheem Sterling was pilloried, mocked and jeered by the travelling away support – Rodgers had urged the fans not to give him a hard time.

This is how they revere their star
So while Benteke prepares for the FA Cup Final with the inspirational Tim Sherwood coaching him to better form, why on earth would he switch to Anfield. Because they were famous once?

If a Champions League club came calling, it'd be more understandable for the 24-year-old Belgian striker to move on. EURO 2016 is on the horizon. Could Villa repel interest from Wolfsburg or Sporting Lisbon? It'd be harder.

No, this is a moment for Villa to use mere Anfield interest to secure him on improved terms over a longer period.

He's on a four-year deal until 2017 so adequate compensation for one of the Premier League's hottest properties is assured - but if Villa are to build on a bright young manager and his more focused squad, they need to treat Benteke as if he were a new signing.

I say pay him what he wants - and when his stock rises even higher next season, then accept his departure.

Benteke's farewell needs to be on Villa's terms. It's not now and it's certainly not to Anfield.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Wembley: Fans Howard Hodgson and Jonny Gould roundup an emotional FA Cup semi-final victory for Aston Villa

Villa give Stevie G the bum's rush.

Aston Villa reach their first FA Cup Final since 2000 after a 2-1 win over Liverpool in the semifinal.

Manager Tim Sherwood said they bamboozled the Reds who didn't perform to their highest capability but Villa, through goals from Christian Benteke and Fabian Delph showed great determination to win.

It was the Reds who'd scored first through Philippe Coutinho. But as Brendan Rodgers contends with why Liverpool didn't show up for the big occasion, Sherwood is measuring up Villa's Cup Final suits!

What a turnaround since his appointment after the defeat at Hull!

Here's Howard and Jonny reliving the game right at the final whistle.

Wembley: Mat Kendrick, Howard Hodgson and Jonny preview the Aston Villa v Liverpool FA Cup semifinal.

Tim Sherwood has changed Villa
Mat Kendrick
Tim Sherwood stands on the verge of reaching an FA Cup Final with less than a season of managerial experience.

But can Aston Villa beat Liverpool to face Arsenal in the Final on May 30th?

Mat Kendrick from the Birmingham Mail, Howard Hodgson from the Aston Villa Supporters Trust and Jonny met under the Bobby Moore statue at Wembley just before kick-off to discuss!