Before yesterday's West Midlands derby between bottom-placed West Bromwich Albion and Birmingham City, that doom-monger William Hill was offering odds of 25-1 against the Baggies being in the Premiership next season. A 2-0 win lifted Albion off the bottom, but the odds haven't shortened much; after all, the next foray for three vital points comes against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
Still, Albion's fans have been there before and so has their manager, Bryan Robson, who became all too well acquainted with the spectre of relegation during his seven years with Middlesbrough. He renewed the acquaintance during his ill-starred year with Bradford City. So although I find him purple-faced in his office at the training-ground, it's not my mention of the R-word that's done it, it's a morning's training in the bitter cold.
"No matter what happens I'll be here next year," he says. "I knew I'd taken on a real difficult job, but the club is structured really well so if we do get relegated I won't have to release any players. And if I can keep the squad together then there's a great chance of coming straight back." A pause, and a smile. "But hopefully I won't be talking this way in May."
I don't get many smiles from Robson, not least because I dare to mention his relationship with the demon drink, which puts him into a right old huff. More of that later. But it is also because he has curiously expressionless features. He is a handsome man, but there doesn't seem to be much light dancing in his dark brown eyes.
I have heard that in person he is highly charismatic, and so he is, but it is his Captain Marvel reputation, more than his actual presence, that imbues him with charisma. It's quite strange. I once sat in the same office with his predecessor, Gary Megson, who was twice as articulate and radiated more passion, yet there is an aura around Robson that Megson didn't have. And when he does smile, the effect is that of the sun coming out from behind a blanket of cloud.
I ask him whether he thinks that Albion, should they be relegated, will be able to get back into the Premiership playing the same attractive football that they have undeniably played without much reward these past few months? Can you "football" your way out of the Championship, or must you put the ballet shoes away and pull the Doc Martens on?
"I think you can play good football in that division," he says. "I did it twice with Middlesbrough. If you do get relegated then the main thing is how you start the next season. Some players get down because they've been relegated and it takes a long time for them to recover. Wolves this season have been a perfect example of that. They went down, they didn't lose many players, but they kept on losing games. So sometimes it's a mental thing, and you have to make sure that in your pre-season preparation you build the players back up."
But this is negative talk. Whatever William Hill or anybody else might say, West Brom are far from relegated yet. And if they do stay up, then it will surely count as Robson's finest managerial achievement to date. But even if they go down, he has already won over most of the fans who, despite the heroic stature bestowed on him by his six years there as a player, were dubious about his appointment. One Albion- supporting friend of mine reckons that only 20 per cent of fans approved when the board made its choice, but that now it is the dissenters who make up the 20 per cent.
Most acknowledge that Robson seems to be able to tease something out of players who were under-performing before, such as Ronnie Wallwork, formerly derided as "Ronnie No-work". And Robson concedes that he too has improved, that he is a better manager than he was at Boro.
"Coming back into the game, I decided that I wouldn't give players as much room as I had before. You try to treat them as men, and sometimes they let you down. So I decided that I would focus more on what I want for them rather than on what they want for themselves. That doesn't mean that I'm not open to players' opinions. I think they have more comeback with me than they did with Gary. He did it one way and that was Gary's way. But at the end of the day, I make the decisions."
When Robson was offered the job, he consulted his old mentor, Ron Atkinson. Both of them had established their reputations at The Hawthorns in the 1970s, and Big Ron advised him to go back.
"I was offered another big job at the same time, and I would have taken it, but I'd learnt my trade here as a player, I still have lots of friends in the area, and I felt this would be a good challenge for me.
"When I was here as a player there were signs that the club was going into a decline. We'd played in Europe for four years on the belt, we were comfortable in the old First Division, but then they sold Len Cantello to Bolton and Lawrie Cunningham went to Madrid. I realised I had to move on if I was going to win things in the game. And I was right, because the club did decline quite rapidly. But all of a sudden they have the capacity to build again. The club's ambitions match mine."
That's not entirely true. Robson thinks he can prove himself to be a great manager, but knows it isn't likely to happen at The Hawthorns. I ask whether it is a source of frustration that he is still some distance from being as good a manager as he was a player?
"Yes, but I've never had the opportunity because I've never managed a top club. I don't see anyone, apart from Brian Clough, who achieved greatness as a manager outside one of the top six or seven clubs. I knew when I became a manager that there'd be a stigma about this great player thing. But I thought I did as good a job as I possibly could have done at Boro, getting them promoted twice, getting to three cup finals. I thought that was good management, and I'm pleased the club has gone forward with Steve McClaren, because the fans and the chairman especially deserve that.
"But you're never going to be classed as a great manger until you join a top club. If I achieve the kinds of things here that I did with Middlesbrough, I will feel that I deserve a crack at one of the top clubs, by which I mean Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea, and Newcastle. Clubs with stability, charisma, and a strong financial set-up."
There is something engagingly guileless about these remarks. Most managers in his situation, whatever ambitions they might be harbouring privately, would publicly admit to craving nothing more than success with their present club. Robson is too honest for that, or maybe not sufficiently media-savvy, even now. I point out that he was once offered a top job; the Football Association offered to make him England manager before they appointed Glenn Hoddle.
"But I don't regret not taking it. The time wasn't right. If I ever manage England I want to make a hell of a success of it, and I needed more experience. I'd only been at Middlesbrough for two years at the time."
Sven Goran Eriksson could hardly have wanted for more experience in club management, I venture roguishly. And he doesn't seem to be making a hell of a success of the job. Another of those rare smiles. "Aye, well, people will say that. I don't think he's done bad, although maybe Portugal was a backward step for him as a manager." Meaning? "Well, maybe his tactics and substitutions in the last few games weren't too clever. When you're in front, and Scholes and Gerrard are your best passers, the best at keeping possession of the ball, and you take them off... well, how are you then going to keep the ball to take the pressure off? But that's hindsight. If we could make decisions with hindsight, we would all make different decisions."
What would he have done differently, then? At Middlesbrough, for instance? "It's difficult to say. I would certainly bring in Juninho, Ravanelli and Emerson again. But, maybe when we were relegated, I made a mistake in going for five or six squad players. Maybe I should have brought in two or three top-drawer players, rather than five average ones. But you learn from these things. I've trimmed the squad here from 32 to 20, and that gives me scope, no matter where we are at the end of the season, to build in a certain way."
Before then he must take his team to Stamford Bridge. How on earth does the Premiership's second- bottom club prepare to take on the top dogs? "By trying to give our players the belief that they can get something out of the game. Nobody will give us any chance whatsoever, and maybe we can make that work for us. In my second game here we went down to Arsenal and drew 1-1."
The strategy for playing the top teams these days seems to be to crowd the midfield, I remark. "Yes, a lot of people are looking at 4-5-1. Even Sir Alex Ferguson, when he was playing against the better teams in Europe a couple of years ago, started playing five in midfield. That's the way to play European teams, or teams with a lot of European players, like Chelsea. But it can stifle the game, take away the excitement."
Since he mentions Ferguson, and knows him about as well as anyone in football, I ask how long he thinks the Manchester United manager will remain at the helm?
"I think he'll be another Bobby Robson, I really do. He's still the first in to the training ground, still got loads of passion. I hope there are things that I've picked up from him, especially his discipline with the young kids, because what you learn in the early years you hold on to."
Was he ever on the receiving end of the fabled hairdryer treatment? "Only once. We were up at Newcastle, getting beat 1-0 at half-time, and this young Geordie kid, 18-year-old, name of Gascoigne, was running the show against us. We just couldn't get near him and when we came in at half-time, I'm not sure whether it was me and Ray Wilkins or me and Remi Moses, but he's gone 'you're an absolute joke, this kid's taking the piss'. I said 'hold on a minute, gaffer. Do you think I want to play bad against Newcastle? I've got a million friends up here, all my family. The kid's a decent player. We're trying our best to get near him.'"
Ferguson took all this on board. "Well, don't try your best, fucking get near him!' he bellowed.
My time with Robson is nearly up so I decide to run the risk of getting the same treatment from him, by bringing up the subject of alcohol. In his playing days he was known as an awesome drinker, and I have read that the Albion board asked him outright, before offering him the manager's job, whether he had a "problem".
"No they didn't," he says, looking at me with suppressed fury. So it's fiction? "Yes." Silence. Does it annoy him that he can't shake off this hard-drinking reputation? "It's only the media who keep bringing it up, and it's a load of bollocks. I played top-level football until 11 days short of my 40th birthday. I could never have done that if I'd drank as much as I was supposed to. Look, everyone knows there was a drinking culture in English football, and in the lower divisions it's still a bit like that, but at the top it's all changed. Players at the highest level have to be much more disciplined, and I remind them of that all the time."
The next six weeks will determine whether Robson can keep his players at that highest level: I won't be betting against it.Reuse content