Bobby Robson won trophies but did not get a second season in charge of Barcelona, as Jonathan Wilson explains in his new book
Bobby Robson had turned down Barcelona twice before, once out of loyalty to Ipswich and once out of loyalty to England. The third time he was not going to miss the opportunity. He wrote in his autobiography, perhaps a little optimistically, that his past record earned him respect but the truth is that whoever had followed Johan Cruyff was facing an immensely difficult task. Cruyff, Robson admitted, haunted my early days.
The tendency now is to write off that 1996-97 season, to see it as a disappointing campaign largely notable for the performances of the Brazilian striker Ronaldo, who was signed from PSV Eindhoven for $20m.
Robson even suggested it was intended or at least expected he should fail, that the terms of his contract which stipulated he could be shifted into a role as director of football after a year were an indication he was regarded primarily as a post-Cruyff buffer. Yet that year brought both the Cup Winners Cup and the Copa del Rey, while Bara finished the league only two points behind Real Madrid, who played 14 fewer games than them that season.
The issue, supposedly, was style, although it is not clear how anybody could have followed Cruyff in that regard. Robson was more heart, said the Bulgarian striker Hristo Stoichkov. He liked contact. Johan wanted to play more soccer. Robson wanted to play football but to play hard. With heart. Certainly its easy to see why Robson was bewildered after his side was criticised following a 6-0 win over Rayo Vallecano. But then he never understood that side of life at Camp Nou. It was a highly political environment and I wasnt a political animal he said. Hysteria would sweep around the ground at the smallest invitation.
Robsons claim that he had embarrassed Bara with his success is perhaps an overstatement but it certainly made it harder to bring in Louis van Gaal after one season. In the end, as the two men realised Josep Llus Nez [Barcelonas president] had signed contracts with both of them, Robson in effect stepped aside and clearly enjoyed his year acting as a sort of scout-cum-ambassador. His year in charge thus became an interregnum between the two great avatars of the Total Football philosophy and that perhaps is why it tends to be overlooked.
Robson also helped nurture the traditions antithesis. When he arrived at Barcelona he brought with him a sharp-featured, fresh-faced, dark-haired translator. But Jos Mourinho was always more than a translator. The 33-year-old had been born into football. His great-uncle had been president of Vitria de Setbal. His father, Jos Manuel Mourinho Flix, had been a goalkeeper. Mourinho wanted to be a player but after spells at Rio Ave, where his father was coach, Belenenses and Sesimbra, he recognised that his future lay in coaching.
That summer of 1996 Bara signed Ronaldo, who was then 19 but already one of the best strikers in the world. It was, the Dutch journalist Frits Barend suggested, a populist move to get fans back onside after Cruyffs departure, just as Cruyffs appointment had been a populist move following the Mutiny of Hesperia. Nonetheless, replacing Cruyff was always going to be an all but impossible job.