Bryan Robson: With a harder heart, he can manage to be a Marvel again

West Brom's players will start with a clean slate but their old boy is determined to adopt a tougher approach.
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On the day that one of English football's most inspirational characters, "Crazy Horse", departed to those great pastures in the skies, it almost went unnoticed that another, "Captain Marvel", saw his career reborn. You suspect that the man who during the Seventies and Eighties was not merely Manchester United followers' comic-book superhero but that of the nation preferred his reintroduction to West Bromwich Albion to be accompanied not by a trumpet call of Glenn Miller's "In the Mood", but by something decidedly more restrained.

On the day that one of English football's most inspirational characters, "Crazy Horse", departed to those great pastures in the skies, it almost went unnoticed that another, "Captain Marvel", saw his career reborn. You suspect that the man who during the Seventies and Eighties was not merely Manchester United followers' comic-book superhero but that of the nation preferred his reintroduction to West Bromwich Albion to be accompanied not by a trumpet call of Glenn Miller's "In the Mood", but by something decidedly more restrained.

Previously, the managerial expectancy which surrounded Bryan Robson was defined by his extraordinary prowess as a player, which spawned a sobriquet for every season; from the matey "Red Robbo" to any one of a variety of Captains: "Marvel", "Invincible" or "Indomitable".

He returned to football last week as a man who must rediscover himself in a guise which no number of references to those battle-scarred playing days will serve to obscure any shortcomings. The hiatus in his career has yielded him much time to reflect on his own managerial methods, and no doubt those of on others, as he re-enters a Premiership world in which many of his peers were relatively impoverished as performers, but are highly refined as coaches.

He concedes: "There'll be differences in the way that I'll manage, because you learn from your experiences. There's areas where I'll be a bit more relaxed and areas where I'll be a lot harsher with different individuals to achieve things that I want to do as a manager."

Robson adds, in that sonorous, thoughtful tone which betrays none of his adventures beyond his North-east origins: "I always tried to coax players along rather than be really hard with them, because I always thought that would get the best out of them, whereas now I know that you've sometimes just got to hit them with a sledgehammer."

We are at the Hawthorns on Friday lunchtime. He has arrived, after training, clad in dark suit, open-necked check shirt. The lived-in features are those of a man who has taken something of a hammering himself, possibly in a variety of senses, over the years. Yet there is a charisma about Robson still that you imagine will enable him to instil authority, and doubtless influenced the club's chairman, Jeremy Peace, and his board.

When BBC Radio 5 Live announced repeatedly a few days ago that Bryan Robson would relish the opportunity to return to his footballing alma mater, the club he played for between 1975 and 1981, the more cynical among us assumed that here was just another former England stalwart desperately hoping that a chairman would be seduced by a celebrity name.

The former England captain was surely either past his sell-by date or at the very best in that reduced-price chiller cabinet, destined for the lower leagues or relative obscurity abroad. Or, most probably, for occasional stints as an analyst in the Sky TV studio. While it was true that if it was ever demanded that he should "show us yer medals", Robson could open a cabinetful, worthy of a five-star general, management is all about positive images.

The enduring one of Robson is not so much as a defiant captain but as a beleaguered Middlesbrough manager, rendered, to an extent, impotent by the installation of Terry Venables. The former England manager was ostensibly hired as an aide-de-camp, but actually dominated the vista of the Riverside Stadium, while Robson looked on, a forlorn figure. It was what could be described as trial by TV. "Looking back, I don't think that did me any favours," he concedes. "But as I said to people at the time, I did what was best for the club rather than for myself."

That season, 2000-2001, was his last in the Premiership. "I consciously made the effort to stay out of the game for a year," he explains. "I wanted to have family holidays. I hadn't been able to do that for 29 years. Maybe then, people tend to forget what you've done. Maybe I suffered from that. Anyway, there aren't always ready-made jobs to come back into. Once it's gone past the second-year period and all of a sudden nobody's approaching you to step back in, then you start saying to yourself, 'Hold on a minute, am I ever going to get back in there?' "

However, Robson insists: "I never got into that lifestyle of just going out on the golf course and then doing TV work; that's never been part of me. That's why I went and did all the [Uefa coaching] licences, because I knew that in the future it would hold me in good stead."

While it would be far from the truth to place Robson among the "legends" who have failed once they have assumed the role of guv'nor - that trio of knights, Bobby Charlton, Geoff Hurst and Bobby Moore, come to mind, not forgetting those lesser mortals such as David Platt, John Barnes and Chris Waddle - his seven-year career at Boro was a capricious one.

The club were 14th in the old First Division when he arrived in 1994, just about to move to a new stadium and without a training ground. Under his stewardship, Boro won two promotions and reached three cup finals, that two of those finals were in 1998, the year Boro were relegated.

Robson spent £78m of chairman Steve Gibson's money, and in the process broke the club's transfer record five times, with the accumulation of Neil Cox, Jan-Aage Fjortoft, Nick Barmby, Fabrizio Ravanelli and Ugo Ehiogu for a combined £22.5m. Under Robson, Boro's highest Premiership position was ninth.

Among the criticisms of him were suggestions that Robson not only condoned but encouraged a drinking culture in an attempt to enhance "team bonding", an accusation that he rebuts. But as the Hawthorns prepares to hail a prodigal son this afternoon, appropriately enough, against Middlesbrough, Robson does confess to considerable soul-searching over his first venture into management.

"When you have a year off and have those holidays, you sit on the beach and assess everything you did in the years you were at Middlesbrough," Robson says. "You say, 'Right, what did I do wrong there, what did I do right here?'

Now I've come back in, I believe I'll be a bit more methodical in my thinking and my approach because I've seen it all before. Maybe I won't get as stressed-up about a situation on the pitch now as I did first time around."

During his absence from management, Robson has quietly honed his coaching skills. He was invited to help with training at Old Trafford by Sir Alex Ferguson, who was one of those who provided Robson with a favourable reference when he was interviewed at the Hawthorns.

"Sir Alex was great, in that he allowed me to go in there whenever I wanted to, and work with Brian McClair and the squad players and reserve players," he says. "It keeps your hand in on the training pitch and keeps you in touch with the game."

Robson adds: "People are aware you're doing that and respect you a bit more as a coach, rather than just thinking, 'Well, Bryan was a good player. He demands things of people. He's good at man-management'. Instead they're thinking, 'I didn't realise he could work like that on a training pitch'. You get that kind of recognition."

Already, Robson has talked much of "clean slates" where certain out-of-favour players are concerned at West Brom. "I know Gary [Megson] was one of those managers who did push people to the side if he'd fallen out with them," says Robson. "They were completely out of it. My management style is a little bit different to that. I want to keep the first-team squad all involved, and try to get the best out of each individual." He warns, though: "Just because they're an international player and say, 'I want to be in the team' is not enough. They've got to prove to me that they want to be in the team."

Assuming control of a relegation-threatened club is a daunting prospect. Among others, Robson sought counsel from the man he followed to Old Trafford in 1981, Ron Atkinson, before agreeing to a one-year rolling contract. "Big Ron thought it was a great opportunity for me," he says. "It's a good club. It always has been. This [the Premiership] is where they deserve to be. The structure is solid, the fans are excellent and though the chairman's maybe not in a position to put millions and millions into it, his ambitions are right in that he wants to take the club forward."

Robson adds: "The only thing he [the chairman] has said is that in the January transfer window there will be funds available to bring people in. What level that's going to be, I don't know.

"The only thing that's got to be put right is making sure they don't become a yo-yo club, ensuring they remain a Premiership club, year in, year out, similar to what Charlton and Middlebrough have done." And emulate their achievements under Atkinson? "Ultimately that's my aim. To get this club into Europe."

But first he must confirm Albion's Premier League membership. And, in doing so, reassert himself as Manager Marvel.

Biography

Bryan Robson

Born: 11 January 1957, Chester-le-Street.

Height: 5ft 11in. Playing career: International: England 1980-1992 (90 appearances in midfield, 65 as captain, 26 goals).

Club: West Bromwich Albion 1975-81 (249 appearances, 46 goals). Man Utd 1981-94 (joined for then British-record £1.5m, 485 appearances, 98 goals).

Honours: FA Cup 1983, 1985, 1990, 1994. European Cup-Winners' Cup 1991. Premier League title 1993, 1994.

Managerial career: Middlesbrough (1994-2000). Bradford (2003-04). Joined West Bromwich Albion 9 November 2004.

Managerial honours: First Division title 1995 (Middlesbrough).

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