Somewhere amongst all the headlines made by Yaya Toure’s cameo performance that effectively sealed Manchester City’s name on the Premier League title at Newcastle on Sunday afternoon, the undercard role turned its teary eye into the direction of sentiment as they fittingly ended a superb campaign by unveiling a bronze statue of Sir Bobby Robson outside the Sports Direct Arena. The footballing plotlines barely saw time to stand and reflect on the symbolism of this behemoth of footballing gentry that served the club and the sport so dignifiedly throughout his life that was regrettably cut short to cancer at the age of 76.
His memory will live on in front of the building he used to know as St James’ Park and the setting here could not be in starker contrast. Perched proudly with his foot under a football, Robson peers across the plains of Newcastle, next to one of the most impressive grounds in the country where his journey to Ipswich, England, Barcelona and back again to the North East began as a small boy. Look further around however and the darker, far more sinister side of the game begins to rear its head. Emblazoned across the building is the bright lettering “SportsDirectArena”, serving as a reminder of the willingness of the club’s board to sell a significant part of the club’s heritage for profit in a game now inhabited by crooks and mercenaries that Robson would have been ashamed to be a part of.
The whole idea of the stadium re-naming has become a bit of a moot point in the North East, especially as media outlets still refer to it in its original capacity and owner Mike Ashley has reaped enough commercial benefit to post profits at the club and a rise in shares in his business, not forgetting a season of threatening to qualify for the Champions League and you get a feeling Sir Bobby wouldn’t have minded being a part of this at all. Manchester City won the game at Newcastle on Saturday as questions were asked of their fortitude in the face of a very impressive side forged by Alan Pardew. Mike Ashley and the Newcastle hierarchy answered their own questions almost as emphatically with the unveiling of their legendary statue that they haven’t totally lost sight of the club’s headlines amongst a public perception that they act in the sole interest of profit and greed.
It was a touching display, and to restore the memory of a man who stood for nothing but class and genuine footballing pride; everyday he served the game and he would have been enthusiastic over events a day earlier when his former England team-mate Jimmy Armfield, also touched by cancer, was given the opportunity to present the FA Cup to the winning captain at Wembley. The final itself may have been thrown around aimlessly to fit a TV-friendly kick off time in defiance of already long-standing accusations that the showpiece has lost most of its sparkle, but at the very heart of it, behind the sponsors and the overblown emphasis on event, class and humble sentiment still remain the order of the day.
It has been the season for it. Alongside Armfield at Wembley was Fabrice Muamba, impossible to pond on this footballing year without a mention of his miraculous recovery from a collapse in the earlier round of this esteemed competition. His story has not been one of grandiose fortune or even footballing achievement, but an incredible rise from the death when he had reportedly been pronounced dead for 78 minutes. Rightly or wrongly, footballing tribute to him was heart-warming and affectionate from all corners of the “footballing-family” that so often goes missing in the face of partisanship and unwilling subjectivity when it comes to the modern day supporting of a club. Football had a chance to ponder and that they did, magnificently, and for one Saturday night in March at least, the overwhelming majority pull together in the act of well-wishing. If that was not enough, the plight of Aston Villa’s Stiliyan Petrov tightened the grip of community further, as he was diagnosed with Leukaemia.
There has been an out-poor of emotion to these two, enough for football to take account of itself against the modern stereotype of heartless tribalism. In Italy, others were not as lucky as Muamba. Udinese’s Piermario Morisini sadly passed away on the pitch whilst playing for Torino, leaving his parent Serie A club, and most notably captain Antonio Di Natale, to pledge the care of his disabled sister who had been left behind by the most tragic of family stories. Even the most cold-blooded of human could shed a tear at the over-riding generosity afforded by Di Natale and his club that goes far beyond just the boundaries of professionalism.
There have been idiots of course, there always are. On the night of Muamba’s collapse, one imbecile took to the social networking site Twitter to plough a host of racist and heartless messages into the ether. He was duly sent down by the same criminal justice system aiming to get tough on the opportunists who seem to think the facelessness of a “Tweet” shields them from the commodity of the law. There was a grotesque sudden out-break of support for Sheffield United striker Ched Evans after a guilty verdict for raping a girl last summer from misinformed professional footballers and single-minded fans alike. There was news of quick judiciary punishment for the naming of the victim and also, the condemnation of certain players who had took to the airwaves to trivialise Evan’s crime. Football is reacting to the hatred and the bile now when once upon a time it was the sport’s unwanted melanoma. There is now nowhere to hide for those who use the game to spread ill-feeling and a mindless agenda as the authorities aim to sustain the same feeling of togetherness and solitude that was prescient upon Muamba’s incredible episode. This is the age of the rational thinking fan.
When that is compounded with the fact this is also the age for over-zealous spending in the quest for achievement, the same that has befallen Manchester City to the brink of Premier League greatness, it is a feeling of pleasantry and gratitude for the game could have easily lost sight of itself within the armada of foreign ownership that can share the same type of ineptitude and ignorance that sent Blackburn down to the Championship on Monday night. It is not quite a business yet, it is still beating some of the same blood and compassion that has made it a sport, so attractive throughout the years and which supporters flock in their droves to watch and we have been rewarded with the most exciting title race in years at the top of the table.
It has been an excellent season, one of incident, drama, copious amounts of goals, controversy and entertainment. Manchester City won the league at the last minute of the final game. What more could we ask for? There is nothing that a true footballing man like Sir Bobby, as he surveys the footballing land of England from his bronze-plated standing at Newcastle, would have wanted more than that.
Published with permission from Foot and Ball.