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Old 12th November 2010, 02:00   #1
tomclare
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Default United Captains - Bryan Robson

United Captains – Bryan Robson 1984-1994

Mention the name of Bryan Robson to Manchester United fans and they will eulogise about a man that carried the mantle of “Captain Marvel”, “Captain Fantastic”, and who had such an influence on the club during his 13 years at Old Trafford. There is no doubt that he is still remembered, and still revered by the legions of fans who were around during his playing career. Many would say that for almost six years of his tenure as captain, he single handedly carried the team through the early “Fergie Years”. More would say that he had too much influence on the players, especially the younger ones, and that the kind of influence that they are talking about, set many a promising youngster, and even seasoned professionals, on a downward spiral that eventually culminated with their departure from Old Trafford. Robson was not only a great player on the pitch, he was more than a player off it as well!

Born on January 11th 1957, in Chester-le-Street, County Durham, Robson came from an ordinary North Eastern, working class background. His father was a lorry driver and Bryan was the second of their four children. As a boy he was football daft like most boys of his age, and his favourite team was naturally, Newcastle United, with centre forward Wyn Davies being his boyhood idol. His boyhood years were spent playing for his local Boy Scout troop, and he also represented his schools, Birtley South Secondary Modern School, and later, Lord Lawson of Beamish Comprehensive school. In his early years it was apparent that Bryan was a natural leader so it was not surprising that not only did he captain his school teams, but also the Washington and District team.

It seemed that the young Robson was destined for a career in the Football League but the question was – with who? He had trials with Burnley, Coventry City, Sheffield Wednesday, his beloved Newcastle United, and West Bromwich Albion. Just when it seemed that nothing was going to materialize for the boy, and as he got close to school leaving age, West Bromwich Albion, who were then in the Second Division and were managed by Don Howe, offered the young Geordie a two year apprenticeship at The Hawthorns. For this he was paid the princely sum of 5 pounds per week in his first year, rising to 8 pounds per week in his second – a far cry from what today’s young pretenders in the game are compensated!


Young Bryan left his native North-East and settled down in the Midlands to begin his career. He was dogged, and very determined to make it as a league footballer, and it wasn’t too long before his performances in the “Throstles” junior teams were beginning to make people within the club sit up and take notice. In just his second year as an apprentice, he was making regular appearances in the Albion’s reserve team. His first professional contract came in 1974 for which he received a 250 pounds signing on fee, plus compensation of 28 pounds per week – he was in the money!

In April 1975, Don Howe was sacked by Albion and Brian Whitehouse became the caretaker manager. With just three games left, Whitehouse threw Robson in at the deep end and gave him his first team debut as an 18 years old teenager in an away game at Bootham Crescent against York City. It was a happy day for Robson and his team mates as Albion won 3-0. The following week was even better for the young Geordie as he scored his very first league goal in a 2-0 victory against Cardiff City at the Hawthorns, and he repeated the feat the following weekend away at Nottingham Forest in the final league game of Albion’s season. It could not have been a more impressive start to a promising league career – 2 goals in 3 games from midfield.

The former Leeds United midfield general, John Giles took over as player-manager of Albion during the summer of 1975. Albion were still languishing in the Second Division, and Giles utilized Robson sparingly, playing him in a number of positions namely centre back, full back, and in central midfield. It was a progressive season for Albion and they finished third from the top gaining promotion into the top flight of English football after a period of some three seasons. Giles had inherited a useful squad but he also made made some quality additions to it so it came as no surprise that he achieved this in his first season at The Hawthorns.

The 1976/77 season was one of consolidation for Albion, but for Robson it was a quite brutal one where injuries were concerned. This was his supposed breakthrough season at first team level and Albion started reasonably well back in the top flight. However, in a game against ‘Spurs, he tackled centre forward Chris Jones, but injured his left leg in the process. He was able to walk from the field, but x-rays taken later revealed that he had suffered a hairline leg fracture. It was the start of things to come. Coming back from the injury less than two months later, the leg again fractured in a tackle by Dennis Smith in a reserve team game against Stoke City and it put him on the sidelines once again. Once more he battled back to fitness and in December 1976, he was back again in the first team. He began a prolonged run of games and scored the first senior hat-trick of his career against Ipswich Town in March 1977. His displays in the ever improving Albion team began to get him noticed, and he was selected to play for the England under-23 team in mid-April. However on the Saturday before the international game, playing at Manchester City’s Maine Road in a league game, Robson suffered a broken ankle after a tackle by Dennis Tueart, and that was his season over. Not too many players have ever recovered from injuries such as Robson sustained in that season, and have then gone on to have a really successful career in top flight professional football.

This appalling run of luck came to epitomize Robson’s career. He was an outstanding player, and a born leader, but for a good proportion of each season that he played, he was out injured. It was probably because of his fierce, combative, competitive and fearless outlook towards his game, that he suffered these injuries. He never held anything back and in the main, injuries for Bryan Robson were never really the niggly little things like muscle strains and pulls. Most of the time the injuries from which he suffered in football was broken bones, fractures, or dislocations.

Notwithstanding Robson’s injuries, Albion finished 7th in their first season back in the First Division and 1977/78 saw them go even better. In December of 1977, John Giles was unhappy at the Hawthorns and there was a parting of the ways. In January 1978, the larger than life, ebullient character, Ron Atkinson got his first chance of managing at the very top level. He’d come from relative obscurity having started out with Kettering Town, but had moved on to Cambridge United where he guided them to the Fourth Division title in 1977. When Albion approached him, Cambridge were challenging for the Third Division title. The move to the Midlands brought Atkinson and Robson together, and it was a move and a relationship, which would have a big impact on Robson’s career.

Atkinson took to the West Brom job with relish and had them playing fast, attacking football. However, in his early days, Atkinson did not rate the young Robson. In later years he was to say in an interview with Ian Ladyman of the Daily Mail;

“I didn’t rate Robbo at first. All I could see was the permed hair that made him look like Kevin Keegan. At the time I thought that was all that they had in common. But I was wrong. I had to play him as centre half in an FA Cup replay early in 1978 — ironically against Manchester United — and he obliterated Joe Jordan. He was 19, and he was magnificent. A brain-rocking revelation. He never looked back after that.”

However, that 1977/78 season was a season tinged with bitter disappointment. Albion improved one place on their league position from the previous season, and also reached the semi-final of the FA Cup. Atkinson chose to leave Robson out of the semi-final line-up. A lethargic first twenty minutes against Ipswich in that semi-final, found them behind by 2 goals. Despite pulling a goal back, Ipswich ran out winners by 3-1 and eventually lifted the FA Cup at Wembley by beating the much fancied Arsenal team by 1-0. Robson was recalled for the latter stages of the league games after that, and Albion qualified for the UEFA Cup, but it was scant reward for a season that had promised so much.

The Albion team at that time had lots of pace and power up front, with Laurie Cunningham and Ally Brown on the wings, supported by big Cyril Regis as striker. But it was their midfield that provided the engine to what had become a very attractive team to watch, and it comprised of Len Cantello, Tony Brown, Asa Hartford, and the young Robson. They were solid at the back with two of the quickest full backs in the game at that time – Derek Statham and Brendan Batson, and at the heart of that defence was the uncompromising but experienced, rock solid centre back and captain, John Wile, who had another uncompromising player as his partner in Ally Robertson. In goal was the dependable Tony Godden. Not many players you could ever called household names, but they gelled as a team under Atkinson’s tutelage, and were suddenly challenging for the major honours.
The 1978/79 season was again one filled with so much promise, and Robson stayed free of injury playing in 41 of 42 league games. They challenged in the league and got their first real taste of Europe in the UEFA Cup. But again, for all the experience gained – it was a season in which Albion ended up empty handed. They finished a very creditable 3rd in the league, their highest position for over 20 years. On their European campaign they dispatched Galatassary, Braga, and Valencia, before losing to Red Star Belgrade by the odd goal in a pulsating quarter-final tie. They also produced a wonderful display of attacking football at Old Trafford in a league game which saw them win by 5-3, and this was a game which was one for the purists, and made a lot of pundits sit up and take real notice of what was going on at the Hawthorns.

At the start of the 1979/80 season, Bryan Robson took over the captaincy from John Wile. Robson’s form, which was exceptional during a season that didn’t go quite as well as expected for Albion saw him deservedly win his first international cap in February 1980, against the Republic of Ireland – a game England won by 2-0. Albion had developed into a very good team by this time but it seemed they just could not go that one step further that would take them to become a title winning team. However, their displays on the field did give Ron Atkinson greater exposure as a manager, and he had become thought of as one of the prominent young managers that did give his teams the emphasis of playing a good attacking type of game

Once again, season 1980/81 saw Robson stay free of injury and he scored 10 goals in 40 appearances. Again, Albion challenged but eventually faded away in the league to finally finish in 4th position. But Atkinson’s gregarious and exuberant personality, plus the way he managed to get Albion playing attractive football, had a lot of the bigger clubs taking note. Over at Old Trafford, Dave Sexton was given his P45 and sent packing and United were in the hunt for a new manager. Initially they courted Lawrie McMenemy, then Bobby Robson, and finally Ron Saunders. Surprisingly, each one turned the job down. In June 1981, the approached Albion and Atkinson, and in a matter of days the deal was done. Unknown to Bryan Robson at that time, Atkinson’s move to Manchester United would have big implications for himself some months later.

At the beginning of the 1981/82 season, speculation was rife that Robson would follow Atkinson to Old Trafford. Atkinson had asked the legendary Bill Shankly how much should he pay to acquire Robson’s services, and the craggy, redoubtable Scot replied;

“Every penny that it takes, Ron, every penny that it takes!”

Albion did their utmost to keep Robson at the Hawthorns even offering him a contract that would pay him 1000 pounds per week, but he turned it down, handing in a transfer request instead. For Albion it was a lost cause, and all they could do was make sure that they cashed in on their prized asset. This they did, and Manchester United paid Albion a then British transfer record fee of 1.5 million pounds for his services – the contract being signed out on the Old Trafford pitch in front of the United faithful. At the time of his signing Atkinson was asked by a journalist whether it was a gamble, to which he retorted;

“It may seem like a lot of money, but it’s not a gamble. You’re not gambling with someone like him. This fella’ is solid gold.”

He went on to say;

“Soon as I took the job, I wanted Robson. When I was at Albion he’d put in a transfer request, slipped a letter in my office when he’d come back from being away with England. So I called him in and he said, “Well man United are after me.” “My reply to him was ‘I tell you now for nothing, the only way you’ll go to Man United is if I go there before you!’ The day I got the United job Robbo was out in Switzerland with the England team, and he’s on the ‘phone: “Gaffer, remember what you said?” Talk about managers tapping players up – he was tapping me!”

Robson made his debut for United just five days later in a League Cup match at Tottenham which ended in a 1-0 defeat. His League debut came just six days later against Manchester City in a goal-less draw at Maine Road. It was to be the start of a long and illustrious career in United’s red shirt.

Robson also blossomed at international level as well and became a permanent fixture (when not injured!) in the England side. United finished up third in Division One that season, and Robson played in 32 games. When the season ended, it was off to the World Cup in Spain. He could not have made a more spectacular start. After just 27seconds of England’s opening game against France at the Estadio San Mames in Bilbao, from a throw in by Steve Coppell, and headed on by terry Butcher, Robson ghosted in on the blind side of the French defence to thump the ball home. It was the fastest goal ever scored in the World Cup Finals and that record was to stand for some 20 years. Although England never lost a game in that World Cup and won all of their three Group 1 games, two scoreless draws against hosts Spain, and West Germany saw them eliminated at the 2nd Group stage.

He returned to Old Trafford for the 1982/83 season, and at this time, Martin Buchan was still the Club Captain but was not playing in the first team. The season was a long hard one and United challenged on all three domestic fronts, finishing third in the League, runners-up in the League Cup, and winning the FA Cup at the second attempt in a replay at Wembley against Brighton. Robson did not play in the League Cup Final against Liverpool because he had torn ankle ligaments in the semi-final against Arsenal and was not fit to play. However, after seeing off Arsenal again in the FA Cup semi-final, it was a storming performance from Robson that paved the way for United to win the Cup in the replayed game. He scored twice and actually refused to give himself the chanceto score a hat-trick when United were awarded a penalty kick. Instead the job stayed with Dutchman Arnold Muhren, who duly converted. So it was a proud Robson, who as team captain, led his troops up those famous old 39 steps and then hoisted the old trophy high above his head to the delight of the Manchester United hordes in attendance. It was his first medal in senior football.

After Martin Buchan had left the club in 1983, Ray Wilkins became Club Captain albeit for a very short time, and Robson replaced him. It was a post that he was to hold for 10 years. He became such an important figure in the United team. After the FA Cup win of 1983, they won the old trophy again in 1985, beating the much fancied Everton team 1-0 after extra time, despite having Kevin Moran sent off in the second half when it was 0-0. Robson drove the team onward just as he had on the famous night at Old Trafford when battling against a 2-0 deficit in a ECWC tie against the mighty Barcelona at Old Trafford in 1984, which ended in United prevailing by 3-0. Some would say that was his finest hour in a Manchester United shirt.

By the sheer skill, weight, and determination in his performances for United, and the way that he led by example, Robson had won over the admiration of all the adoring Manchester United fans. “Captain Marvel” became his common nickname. He and Atkinson had a great rapport with each other and United were playing well and were competitive, but they just did not seem to be able to go that one step further which was needed to win the League. Why? people would ask, could a team with so much talent, not go the whole way? They had an abundance of skill, flair, and also of steel when needed, but that first title since 1967 seemed just so elusive as ever. Robson was the supreme athlete in the eyes of the football fraternity. Gifted, determined, brave, courageous, inspiring, and a born leader - all the accolades were there for him. His team mates would follow him anywhere – and many did – not only out of the pitch, but off it as well.

Robson was as fit as the proverbial butcher’s dog, and had a metabolism and constitution that was beyond belief. But not all of his team mates were of the same mould, or had the same engine. However, he developed into the main character in the dressing room and the one whose lead was followed. He did part of Atkinson’s job for him in that whenever there were poor performances, Robson would not wait for Atkinson’s input. He would call a team meeting but not at the Club – at a local Cheshire pub. He had the ethos that the team that drinks together plays together. In some ways, Atkinson contributed to his own eventual fall from grace at Old Trafford, because although he knew what was happening, he turned a blind eye to it. As long as the lads were doing it out on the park, his philosophy was – let them get on with it. Eventually, it all took its toll.

Atkinson spent little or no time with players who were outside of the first team circle, and that hurt some of those fringe players. For Robson, drinking was part of the bonding process and of the coming together for players who had gripes. It was an all for one, one for all, thought process. While he had the physical and mental capabilities to handle it – many other players didn’t – especially some of the younger players. Gordon Strachan said in his autobiography that after leaving training each day, once they got into Cheadle village it was either turn right to go home, or turn left for a session in the pub, and 5-10 pints. He was one player who opted out. Players like Whiteside, McGrath, Gidman, Moran, McQueen, Hughes, all liked a taste of the barleycorn, but with some other players, the drinking culture began to cause divisions. Some, established internationals themselves, believed that if it hadn’t been for the drink, then United would have won that elusive First Division title during Atkinson’s tenure.

As Club Captain, Robson should have been more responsible – especially where the younger players were concerned. Whatever he says about bonding, surely there were far better ways to do it than looking down the bottom of a pint pot? How did the junior players take to all this and what example did it set them? And surely, the divisions it caused in the team was not a good price to pay for the sake of a few afternoons or evenings on the piss? But it was not uncommon at that time to see more than the odd United player looking the worse for wear in local watering holes – predominantly the Four Seasons Hotel in Hale Barns, The Griffin in Bowdon, and the Amblehurst Hotel and Little ‘B’ in Sale. And leading the pack would be Robson who seemed oblivious to the damage that it was causing. For him, he could run it off – and did. But other players couldn’t. Did he never think of the damage it was causing to himself though? How did it effect his recovery process after injury? Atkinson should also shoulder the blame also because he turned a blind eye to it all. He simply refused to accept that the drinking had got out of control – and ultimately he paid the price for it.

In 1986 Atkinson was sacked after a poor run of results, and it has to be said signings. In came the tough Alex Ferguson who had done great things at Aberdeen, which included not only knocking the Glasgow “Old Firm” right out of their stride domestically, but had also managed to win a major European trophy when his unfancied team had beaten Real Madrid in a ECWC Final. Gordon Strachan had played under him at Aberdeen before his move south to United, and he warned the United players once they had heard who their new “boss” was to be – that they were in for a culture shock. Ferguson found the playing side of Old Trafford to be in as poor a state as you could get and he was astounded by the player’s lack of fitness. However, he did not wield a big stick initially and did as he had promised the players that he would do – give every one of them a chance. Sadly, the drinking culture continued and after one particular bad result at Wimbledon, he set out to tackle the problem.

His initial evaluation of the United squad was that most were not good enough to play for a club of such esteem – he reckoned no more than six players met the standards he required. But he needed time, especially as he set about reorganizing the whole playing structure in the club from top to bottom. When he had arrived in Manchester the club rule was that the players were not to touch alcohol for 48 hours before a game. It was apparent that this rule was being abused and he gathered the squad together and lectured them, and instituted a new rule that the players were not to drink whilst they were in training. One by one he got rid of the miscreants and other players he did not rate were moved on. Slowly but surely, Ron Atkinson’s old guard were moved out, and by the time 1990 came, Robson (still club captain) was the sole surviving member.

Throughout the previous three seasons, injuries were taking their toll on Robson’s body. However in 1990, when United reached the FA Cup Final, he was fit to lead United to another FA Cup triumph and played a huge part in the run up to it. The following season he captained the team in Rotterdam when they defeated the mighty Barcelona to win the ECWC. In 1991/92 he captained United to their first League Cup success at Wembley in a 1-0 victory over Nottingham Forest but that elusive First Division title slipped away from them when they threw it away over the last few games of the season handing on a platter to arch rivals Leeds United. Season 1992/93 was the inaugural season of the FA Premier League, but Robson’s body was succumbing more and more to injury. Robson made just 15 league appearances during that season. He scored on the final day of the season against Wimbledon. By that game United were Premiership champions and Robson finally won the league championship medal that he had sought for the last decade. It was not just injuries that were restricting the 36-year-old Robson's first-team chances. Éric Cantona had been signed during the 1992–93 campaign and played up front with Mark Hughes,while Hughes's former strike-partner Brian McClair had been converted into a midfielder. This counted against Robson and the biggest blow came in the summer of 1993 when United signed Nottingham Forest's Roy Keane.

But Robson was still able to make enough appearances for another Premiership champions medal in 1993–94, and scored one of their four goals in the FA Cup semi final replay victory over Oldham. Unfortunately, he was dropped from the squad for the FA Cup final against Chelsea, a decision which manager Alex Ferguson later admitted was one of the hardest of his career. His career at old Trafford came to an end that summer when he accepted the position of manager at Middlesborough.

Robson will always be remembered as an icon and legend by Manchester United fans – and rightly so. He never ever gave less than 100% when out on the field of play. But as a Captain, he did have failings.




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