Bryan Robson: 'I find it frustrating I haven't had a chance at a top club'
The Old Trafford icon who could have been England manager tells Nick Townsend that harder times have not dimmed his desire
Sunday 14 May 2006
Strange to think that, not so long ago, one particular character's reputation alone would have enabled him to breeze haughtily through all the Football Association's perverse selection strategy. He would have passed muster of England's harshest judges, the public and the media. He would have impressed his players by brandishing as many trophies as a battle-hardened warrior. From "Captain Marvel", he had seemingly made a facile transition to Robbo the Revered, a manager destined for greatness.
Yet recently, when the stock of Guus Hiddink, Martin O'Neill, Luiz Felipe Scolari and, ultimately, Steve McClaren, was rising and falling by the day and their managerial bloodlines were being scrutinised as if they were Derby-bound thoroughbreds, Bryan Robson could only look on impotently. Managing a West Bromwich team who were poised to take their leave of the Premiership wasn't going to win him a coffee morning in the company of Brian Barwick and Co in the Oxfordshire countryside.
Though he possesses too much dignity to articulate any bitterness, you sense the frustration within a man who assisted Terry Venables before and during Euro '96, but for whom the timing has never been quite right. "I had two years with Terry, which was great," he says. "He was a terrific coach and had a great manner with the players. I got offered the England job when he left. But I thought it was too early. I'd only had two years' experience at Middlesbrough as a manager. If I was ever going to be England manager, I wanted to have vast experience behind me."
He adds: "The aim of the FA at that time was for me to work with Terry for so many years, and then replace him when he called it a day. I think that might have happened if Terry had got the next World Cup, but for whatever reason, the FA weren't happy with his [business] dealings, although it was proven that there was never anything there. That was a shame."
Not least for Robson. So much for the continuity that the FA constantly espouses. It is 10 years on from Venables' departure from the England scene, a legacy of that moment when plain Alan Sugar, who, as Tottenham chairman, informed Venables "You're fired!" Robson has seemingly been in international purdah ever since, though he retains the same desire for the challenge that drove him through a career of 732 club games and a further 90 caps for England.
"It's something I wouldn't dismiss," he says of the possibility of succeeding McClaren. "But for me now to get back into the reckoning... well, it's about being flavour of the month, isn't it? The turning point for Middlesbrough's season was when they played us at The Hawthorns. We absolutely battered them, but we made two bad mistakes and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink scored a couple of good goals. If we had won, we would have gone above them. At the time, everyone was saying of Steve, 'He's got no chance of being England manager. They could be relegated'. But they had great runs in the Cup [Uefa and FA], and then all of a sudden, everyone's saying 'Steve McClaren is the man for the job'."
He adds: "It is what you do with your club. I've got to get West Brom back into the Premiership. Then if I can get on a run, where we're in the top half, all of a sudden I'm flavour of the month..."
That's for next season. For the moment, he is on his own promotional tour. Ahead lies a long day signing copies of his new autobiography* in bookstores. We meet in the breakfast room of a London hotel. He belies his 49 years, although he jokingly protests, as he strides in with that still imperious, well-balanced gait, that he has put on some weight round the belly. He could have fooled me.
As a former player, he harbours a natural affection for the Baggies, though it irks him that he was never offered the opportunity of club management at a high level, and specifically at United, for whom he made 465 appearances over 13 seasons. It remains an ambition. "That would still be my aim," he says. "I find it a bit frustrating that I haven't had a chance with one of the big clubs. Kenny Dalglish came through the ranks at Liverpool, was given a job and was quite successful; so did Graeme Souness."
We return to international matters. He must wait and wonder, like the rest of us, whether the Boy Wonder (the old one, not the new) enjoys more World Cup fortune than Robson did as a player who, even 14 years after his last international, remains a byword for English indefatigability, a man who dismissed a litany of injuries as if they were piffling scratches.
Twenty years ago, he went to the World Cup in Mexico with concerns over a second dislocated shoulder he had suffered, and worries over hamstring and Achilles tendon injuries incurred during the season. But England, and specifically Bobby Robson, needed his talismanic qualities. Just as England and Eriksson need Wayne Rooney now. "If I'd had any doubts... I would have held my hands up and pulled out," he says. Less than halfway through his second game, though, it was his shoulder that was "pulled out" (pictured), by the Moroccan Mostafa El Biaz. Even the redoubtable Robson couldn't force his broken body back into the fray. The England captain remained in the England camp, for the sake of camaraderie, though Robson was a helpless bystander as Maradona's "Hand of God" goal assisted Argentina through to the quarter-finals.
Robson is not convinced that Rooney should travel this time unless he has recuperated fully. "I think he could be a distraction for the other players," he says. "I feel the only way you take him is if he is going to be able to play. If you pick up a few injuries early on, you'll need your full squad."
However, he adds: "Even if Rooney doesn't go, we've still got great players who've got a chance of really impressing: people like Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Ashley Cole, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, David Beckham." Yet, there is an addendum: "The rest of the team is still strong enough... but you've got to ask if both Rooney and Owen aren't there, where are we going to get goals from? That's a big question."
From midfield? "Well, Beckham can always score from a free-kick; Lampard can always get you a goal from midfield; but if Lampard's playing then Gerrard's probably having to have a sitting role," he swiftly analyses Eriksson's dilemmas. "If you've got Rio Ferdinand and John Terry, and bring Peter Crouch on, then all of a sudden you can be a real handful at set-plays. That could be useful for England as well." He pauses, and adds quietly: "But you just hope Rooney is fit, and he goes."
Remarkably, the elevation of Theo Walcott has dislodged Rooney's plight from the back pages. "Sven has made some interesting choices," Robson muses. "Obviously he and his staff have seen something in the kid Walcott, to put him in at that young age." But to ask the Arsenal player to make a triple jump from Championship to Premiership to international stage, to World Cup? "Usually, young lads don't have any fear, because there's no expectation on them," says Robson. "It's a massive step, but everyone's going to encourage him."
Ask Robson if he can recall any similar occurrences of such precocity being tapped, and he smiles. "I can remember Norman Whiteside being picked by Northern Ireland," he says. "I'd come through at United with him. But he was a man. He had a beard when he was one, did Norman. At 16, he was just so mature, in terms of the development of his body - and in his head as well. He was really strong. But he was a bit different from Walcott."
We discuss captaincy, and I remind him of one line in his book on the qualities of an England captain: "Becks wouldn't have been my choice." Robson believes that Eriksson is fortunate that his side is endowed with several leaders on the pitch. "Gary Neville is a captain, John Terry is a natural leader, Steven Gerrard, too," he says. "So, apart from Beckham, you've got three strong personalities who've all been used to being captains and who demand from players.
"Off the field, David's got this charisma. But in the footballing world, straightaway, you'd go for a Terry or a Gerrard, people like that. They've got a natural desire to really set a standard for the other boys. They can raise people. David finds it more difficult on the pitch because he's not naturally aggressive. When he does try to be, he nearly always gets himself in trouble. He's naturally talented and works very hard, but he can't go into a crunching tackle to set an example and lift the crowd."
Robson was one of the few who could, at any level. What wouldn't England give for a player of his qualities now? Or failing that, his galvanising presence among the coaching personnel? Something convinces you that it may turn out to be more than a fanciful suggestion.
"Robbo: My Autobiography" (Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99)
Life & Times: Adventures of Captain Marvel
NAME: Bryan Robson.
BORN: 11 January 1957, Witton Gilbert, Co Durham.
VITAL STATS: 5ft 9in, 12st 5lb.
CLUB CAREER: West Bromwich Albion 1975-81, 240 games, 46 goals; Manchester United '81-94 (£1.5m fee), 470, 103; Middlesbrough '94, 27, 1. Total: 737, 150.
MANAGERIAL CAREER: Middlesbrough '94-2001; Bradford '03-04; West Bromwich '04-current.
INTERNATIONAL CAREER: Debut v Rep of Ireland, '80; 90 England caps (65 as captain), 26 goals.
HONOURS: Premiership '93, '94; FA Cup '83, '85, '90, '94; League Cup '92; Cup Winners' Cup '91 (as player). First Division '95 (as manager). Awarded OBE '90.
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