Ever met your hero?
Whoever coined the phrase “never meet your heroes”, clearly never came face to face with Bobby Robson.
Wor Bobby has loomed large in my footballing life since I was a kid.
Obviously there was Italia 90. But peak Robson arrived for me when he rocked up at The Toon, cementing my admiration — and affection — for one of the greats.
When I eventually met Sir Bobby at a lunch in London I had 15 minutes of chat with him on his own. That small, inconsequential conversation ranks to this day as one of the best moments of my life.
Sir Bobby was just as I´d imagined.
We talked about footie, of course we did. But we also talked about Newcastle, growing up in the North East and why the South was, well, just a bit weird.
To coin that sappy line in Jerry Maguire, “he had me at hello”.
Humble, full of life, interesting, funny, genuine.
I knew he would be.
Anyone who’s seen that BBC doc where Gary Lineker is talking to Sir Bobby about what could have been that sweltering Italian summer surely couldn’t help but feel the same.
They get talking about the penalties and how close they got to lifting the golden trophy.
Cue a moment of silence as they stare out the window overlooking the Newcastle training ground.
Just an overwhelming sense Sir Bobby felt he’d let his lads down.
In that lingering shot the viewer can only feel respect — and yes, love — for Sir Bobby.
I was a teenager, when Gazza, Lineker, Platty & co were putting a smile on our faces in that tournament.
I watched most of the matches in my parents’ bedroom, cos I was the only one who really cared about the football in our house, and anyway, Delia Smith or something equally exciting was probably on, so I was forced upstairs.
Little did I know there were two young punks touring the Italian countryside desperate to catch a glimpse of the Scotland team, as well as some actual football.
John — my travelling companion for Euro 2016 — and his mate Keith Bunker set off for that World Cup with no mobiles, no Twitter (just imagine), seemingly no money and by the sounds of it, no clue — other than they were determined to enjoy themselves.
They seem to have caught some other games, but most of their tour involved watching the peely-wally lads from the North trying to mix it — unsuccessfully — with the footballing gods.
It sounded brilliant.
But I had one rule with John for the Euros this time round — we’d keep alive the spirit of his and Keith’s Italia 90 trip, but this time we’d make sure we did it in a reasonable degree of comfort.
I’ve heard too many stories about them staying so far from a Scotland game that they’d wake up and do the proverbial 500 miles there (and another proverbial 500 back) to see Andy Roxburgh´s boys run out on the park and promptly lose to Costa Rica — whilst sweating to death on dodgy buses and battling to find the odd grilled sandwich in random motorway stops on the way.
What I’ve never understood is why Keith, being an England supporter, ever put up with it.
But then maybe he just wanted to enjoy the buzz of the tournament and talk nonsense with JP in between the games like me.
John’s always talking about Keith.
Understandable I suppose, because he’s always sounded pretty cool.
After Pavarotti became a household name, the two of them — better mates than they’d ever been cos of their Italian adventure — slipped back into their normal lives.
Sounds like John was no slouch as a journalist — working in the Lobby and lording it with Blair & co around the world in the good old days, before having the displeasure of becoming my (now old) boss.
But Keith was producing sports programmes. I mean, come on. Talk about living the dream. Told you he was cool.
He’s mixed it with some of the good’uns — Pougatch, Chappers, Steve Bunce to name a few — and made some great programmes along the way.
As we’ve journeyed round France this week, John’s waxed lyrical about “when me and Keith were in Italy” or about the many years after that tourney, “have I ever told you about when Keith…”
Not — I don’t think — as a “it was so much better back in the day” throwback, but because I know he wanted Keith to be with us this week.
Tragically, the gut-wrenching sucker punch to this little tale is that Keith passed away last year.
And make no mistake we’ve missed him.
I´ve laughed a lot on this trip — but I think we´d have laughed a whole lot more if Keith had been here.
The beautiful thing is when John´s talking about his best mate, it never really sounds like it´s in the past tense.
The stories about the pair´s previous adventures are full of laughs and the best punchlines.
And as we´ve sat in the cafes of Paris, Lyon & Bordeaux talking about our day at the Euros, it’s sometimes felt like Keith might just walk around the corner to join us.
After John’s 16th explanation of why Scotland should be ashamed of themselves for not being here, I wish he would have.
I never got to meet Keith. I so wish I had. Sounds like he was quite some guy.
I know — like that day I met Sir Bobby — he wouldn´t have disappointed.