The Job that Wasn’t: Sir Bobby Robson’s First Managerial Appointment with the Vancouver Royals

Bobbby Robson, 1970

Bobbby Robson, 1970

It seemed nothing more than a routine friendly, remarkable only perhaps for providing the first proper international meeting between Canada and England in the modern era (earlier encounters were played between representative sides).  And while the result was closer than most bookies had predicted—a 1-0 win for England with Mark Hateley’s goal from a Glen Hoddle freekick in the 59th minute saving face for Sir Bobby Robson’s team—the warm-up match for the World Cup in Mexico played on May 24th 1986 at Swangard Stadium BC would have been routine to just about everyone.  Everyone, save perhaps Sir Bobby Robson.

While he made no comment on the subject, one cannot help think Robson had some idea of the significance of his visit to Canada prior to his first major international tournament as England boss.  It was, after all, British Columbia that gave the former Fulham star his very first managerial position — appointed by the Vancouver Royals of the United Soccer Association (USA) in May 1967.

The legendary manager’s first appointment was not a success.  In fact it wasn’t much of anything.  The year leading up to the birth of the North American Soccer League (NASL) was a tumultuous one, with two newly formed North American soccer leagues, the USA and the National Professional Soccer League (NPSL), locked in a death grip for supporters, television rights and FIFA-sanctioned legitimacy.

Neither league provided a sustainable model for growing the game in America. The USA was comprised in its first season entirely by proxy sides from Europe and South America—the Royals were in fact Sunderland on summer holidays—while the NPSL’s status as an unapproved FIFA ‘outlaw’ forced it to recruit from the professional dregs, severely curtailing the quality of play.  A merger was a practical inevitability, and as with all mergers there were layoffs.

Robson had been hired presumably to manage the Royals after the USA’s inaugural ‘proxy’ season, but things changed when the USA and NPSL merged to form the NAS. The USA’s San Francisco Golden Gate Gales joined the Vancouver Royals in BC.  The Gales’ player-manager at the time was Ferenc Puskas, whose name alone was enough to oust Robson from the top job with Vancouver.  According to the excellent Sunderland fansite, Sir Bobby was offered an assistant managerial position. He refused.  It would be the first of several early managerial missteps.

An article from the Toronto Daily Star in November 1968 gleefully tracks Robson’s subsequent failings.  Hired in January 1968 to manage Fulham, he bungled an attempt to sell injured Fulham and England legend Johnny Haynes to the New York Generals for $10 000.  Wrangling over Haynes’ injury dragged on until the Generals disappeared altogether with the birth of the NASL.  Fulham were relegated that May from League One, and while Robson escaped blame for the drop, he couldn’t evade the wrath of Fulham’s board members as the club slipped down the League Two roster early in the 1968-69 season.  He was sacked eight months into a three-year appointment.   Bitterest of all for Robson must have been Fulham’s subsequent decision to appoint Haynes as player-manager.

Robson had, of course, the strength of mind to go on to a successful thirteen-year stint with Ipswich, and then in 1982 to the England job.  While it’s impossible to know if his return to British Columbia in charge of one of the world’s most storied sides felt something like vindication for Sir Bobby, his customary charm didn’t show it.  As the Toronto Star (May 25, 1986) noted after the Canada friendly, “Bobby Robson had more praise for the Canadians than he did for his own team,” singling out keeper Paul Dolan and centre half Randy Samuel for their stalwart defending.  His vote of confidence for the Canadian defenders certainly must have been a boost a week before Canada’s first group match against France, which Canada lost by a dignified score of 1-0.  In any case his words lacked any hint of bitterness, an important gesture from a smiling conquerer returning to the far-off and inauspicious birthplace of his legendary career.

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