The flight to Bali is some twenty hours from Vancouver so I downloaded a few Netflix items on the iPad. One of them was the Bobby Robson documentary, More Than a Manager. On the way out I watched it and was blown away, so much that it kept my mind going during the two-week holiday. So as a result I watched it again on the way back. Why did it grab me, what made it so captivating?
Bobby Robson was a very successful football coach and an engaging media personality, but it was the way his life story was framed that made the movie so compelling. The makers, Gabriel Clarke and Torquil Jones let the story zip back and forth in time, but it is anchored in Barcelona where Robson managed the illustrious local team for one season, in 1996-97. In soccer terms this is the absolute top one can reach, yet even though Robson got some good results in the capital of Catalonia, the knives were out for him from day one. He had the unenviable task to step into Johan Cruyff’s shoes while the Barcelona’s management was already planning on hiring another Dutch soccer giant, Louis van Gaal. It is almost painful to see how Robson gets humiliated in this exercise. In particular as the documentary moves on and you realize what a phenomenal coach and extraordinary human being he had been.
Sir Bobby, as he became to be known, was what we today would call a ‘mensch’, which is best described as a person of deep human integrity and honour. And that was the foundation of his role as coach, his ability to deal with notoriously demanding talent and get them to do their very best. His success was driven by his ability to simply connect with the players at a human level, care for them, tell them to do better. He did that in a way in which the players would eventually go out on the pitch and do it for him as they felt they simply could not let their coach down.
Nowhere is this clearer when the filmmakers bring on Paul Gascoigne, Britain’s enfant terrible football star who throughout his life struggled with alcohol, violence, depression and drugs. Nicknamed ‘Gazza’ he was despite all the mishaps and dramas surrounding his career one of the most talented players England ever had. A talent, it has to be said, that was never fulfilled to its fullest.
Now well into his fifties, Gascoigne reminisces about the 1990 World Cup where Robson managed the England team that only just missed the final. It turns out that long after they stopped working together Robson would find time during his hectic career to call on Gazza, just to see how he was doing. As the story of the relationship between the two men unfolds you feel how the documentary is uncovering the coaching magic Robson applied and how it had kept the troubled talent going and motivated. Robson and Gascoigne last saw each other at a charity game only five days before Robson’s death in 2009. On that day, Robson, suffering from late stage cancer, came into the stadium in a wheelchair to a thunderous ovation and looked for Gascoigne who he knew was about to play. Gascoigne explains that Robson found him, had someone stop the wheelchair, looked up at the old payer and just said, “play well, play well, Gazza”.
Gascoigne cannot hold back his tears as he relays the story and nor could I watching this dramatic end of the documentary. You do not often get this raw emotion captured in such a forceful way. But also, beautiful as you realize it was only Robson who was able to put the talented player out of his misery to perform in a way that probably no one else could. And that’s what Gazza realizes too as he explains it on screen.
The emotional highlight of the documentary is also the essence of Robson and of coaching – be it in football or business – it all comes down to very basic and simple human understanding. The coach needs to get the player to do well, the players needs the coach to tell him that in the best possible, but above all, simplest way. We cannot say to ourselves when the day starts ‘do well, today’ but if someone else says it in the right way, it might just work. Gazza realized that the few good years he had on the pitch where Robson’s work and that those times were gone forever.