Lady Elsie Robson on Bobby, £12m in 10 years, and stepping out of the shadows
- Credit: Archant
‘It meant such a lot to Bob to be able to give something back,’ she says, as his charity foundation celebrates birthday
A week after Sir Bobby Robson died, his widow, Lady Elsie Robson, made a decision. She had spent her entire married life “standing back” because that was how she preferred things.
Few people recognised her.
She could go about her life quietly.
While her husband became the most famous football man in the world, she worked as a school teacher, then ran her own dress shop.
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The girl who had grown up in the pit village of Langley Park didn’t want the limelight. That was never who she was.
But with Sir Bobby’s death, that was about to change.
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“It was just a week after he died when Lady Elsie decided she wanted to carry on with the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation,” says her good friend Liz Luff, who does the charity’s PR.
“She knew what that meant: that she would have to do the one thing she had always tried to avoid – being more in the public eye – but she did it anyway.”
Tomorrow, the foundation celebrates its 10-year anniversary.
It was begun in 2008 by Lady Elsie and Sir Bobby 16 months before his death, after they were approached by Professor Ruth Plummer while Sir Bobby was being treated for the cancer that had returned to plague him a fifth time.
Professor Plummer had asked if they might be able to help raise £500,000 to equip what became the Sir Bobby Robson Cancer Trials Centre at the Northern Centre for Cancer Care in Newcastle, and after a little while “thinking about it” they both embraced the cause. From the funds that poured in out of the widespread affection for Sir Bobby, the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation was born.
“It meant such a lot to Bob to be able to give something back,” Lady Elsie says. “We just began it and hoped for the best, but in the end the best was what we achieved.”
About £12million has been raised so far and the fundraising continues; not by professional fundraisers but entirely from the public who are continually inspired to help, in memory of loved ones lost to cancer, and because of their great respect and love for Newcastle’s – and of course Ipswich’s – favourite son.
Sir Bobby described the charity as “his last and greatest team” and the work the foundation does in his name brings hope: not only to those taking part in the trials, but also to those yet to come.
“Bob would be so proud today if he could see what has been achieved,” Lady Elsie said. “I think he would have said, ‘well done and carry on’ – and he would have picked us to play again next Saturday!”
Lady Elsie is 84 next birthday but carrying on is very much her plan.
She credits “the amazing team” around her, her three sons – Paul, Andrew and Mark – her four grandchildren and all those involved on the committee. But she takes no credit for herself.
I often wonder how it must be to be the wife of somebody so famous. Doesn’t she wish someone would ask about her for a change?
She looks at me, baffled. “I don’t think that way. Bob was the driving force of the foundation when we began it and he is still the driving force behind it now. His honesty and his humility were the great things about him that you think about and we still draw on that now.”
Lady Elsie has great affection for Ipswich, where the Robsons kept a home for many years. She still visits friends here and returns for foundation events.
While here, she worked as a primary school teacher at Chantry Infants and Juniors and also at St Mark’s, where they still present the Lady Elsie Robson Cup for football – a fact she has mentioned to me before, because it clearly makes her very proud.
I was surprised to learn that while Sir Bobby was England manager, she had opened a dress shop in Eagle Street, called Zeta Robson (Zeta is one of her middle names).
“I always tried to make a life for myself,” she said. “It’s important. I thought I might help Bob more when he was England manager but there wasn’t really a role for the England manager’s wife so I started the shop.
“A football manager is away a lot. It wasn’t like being married to a businessman. I always stayed in the background; that was the way I wanted to live my life.”
Wherever the Robsons went in the world – Liz Luff estimates that they moved house around 27 times – Lady Elsie never sat back.
The ubiquitous image of the pampered football wife couldn’t be further from the truth.
She even worked as a teacher at an English school in Portugal, where she made “great friends I loved”.
Now, in widowhood, which was “very hard to come to terms with but he wouldn’t want me to be sad”, it is her friends and family who sustain her, along with her tireless work for the foundation.
She is still no fan of the limelight but says she doesn’t mind interviews as much as she used to.
“Maybe I’ve matured?” she wonders, smiling.
Sir Bobby’s legacy is a great one. “He achieved so much,” says Lady Elsie with pride.
But there was also a woman beside him who never took a second of the credit, never expected anything for herself, got on with it, made her own life, and achieved a great deal in her own right.
Any Ipswich fan would be proud to support the work of the foundation in memory of Sir Bobby.
How about we do it for Lady Elsie, too?
A new film, Bobby Robson: More Than A Manager, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the foundation and featuring contributions from, among others, Gary Lineker, Alan Shearer, Lady Elsie, Mark Robson and Sir Alex Ferguson, is being released in May.