Football / Kick-Off '94-95: Life of Bryan takes on a new meaning: Captain Marvel has a new cape and a fresh crusade. Guy Hodgson on Bryan Robson, Teesside saviour

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The Independent Online
THE new broom sweeping through Ayresome Park had missed at least one corner. A football pink had been thrust in a rubbish bin in the press room with one article sticking out above a pile of waste paper. Why Lennie Lawrence had to go was the gist.

Not six feet away the man who replaced Lawrence as manager of Middlesbrough Football Club was holding court unaware that this past prophecy of doom was near his feet. It was as neat a juxtaposition of past and present as you could get: the old in the bin, the new spruced with good intent and aflame with ambition.

The expectation since Bryan Robson's appointment as player- manager last May has been so colossal you fear that any disappointment might be too cruel for the people of Teesside. The former England and Manchester United captain is seen as a symbol of hope among Middlesbrough people sick of false dawns and falser promises. His very presence at Ayresome Park is being seen as a declaration of faith that the board really mean to make Boro great this time.

'We're a real yo-yo club,' a man queueing to get into the souvenir shop said. 'We've spent years either getting promoted or relegated from the First Division or Premier League and the supporters had lost interest because they'd seen it all before. Robson coming has changed all that.

'We used to give him a bit of stick, like, when he used to come up here with United, I thought he was a dirty bugger if you want to know. But he's a North East lad and a winner. He wouldn't have come here unless the club was ambitious. You can taste the excitement.'

That flavour is an infectious one that has spread effortlessly throughout Teesside. Season tickets are up from 3,500 12 months ago to nearly 9,000; people were queueing from 6 am on the first morning the new strip was put on sale in the club shop and more than 11,000 watched a friendly last Saturday against Hearts. In the season of deepest discontent, gates last year were creeping towards 6,000.

Ray Robertson, who reported on Boro for 34 years for the Northern Echo, says the mood taps the same euphoria of the early Seventies when Jack Charlton was appointed manager at Ayresome Park and took a team bedecked with unpolished jewels such as Souness, Mills and Armstrong fleetingly to the top of the then First Division.

'Robson's arrival has lifted Middlesbrough,' Robertson said. 'The whole town. There are fans coming back to the club who gave up watching Boro 10 years ago. There's a belief, real belief that he can do for the club what Kevin Keegan has done for Newcastle.'

The pre-season matches - a defeat at Raith Rovers notwithstanding - have hardly dampened the flames but the first proper test comes today when Middlesbrough meet a Burnley team buoyed by promotion last season. A full house of 25,000 is expected to see if Captain Marvel can lead by example off as well as on the pitch. The anticipation could hardly be greater.

'It does worry me that people will expect too much too soon,' Robson said, his sensible grey jacket and careful choice of words already setting him adrift from the days when his responsibilities lay solely in playing. 'There have been advantages and disadvantages in my coming here. It's great that the people have got excited but the disappointment will be greater if we don't succeed.

'It is a pressure but when you've had 13 years at Manchester United and 10 years as captain of your country you learn to handle pressure as a way of life. The only target I've set myself is to improve on our position of 10th last year. I don't think it's beyond us to make the play-offs this time. I'll be disappointed if we don't'

Robson has invested around pounds 2m to insure against that disappointment, buying experience to stiffen a Middlesbrough team who were talented but too fresh-faced to mount a consistent promotion challenge last time. Neil Cox, Nigel Pearson, Clayton Blackmore and the Bolivian international, Jaime Moreno, have all jumped aboard the Boro bandwagon while Arsenal's England Under-21 goalkeeper, Alan Miller, was signed this week.

More important arrivals, however, may prove to be Viv Anderson and John Pickering, the new backroom staff. Such an influx counted against Robson when he was in contention to take over at Wolverhampton Wanderers but might make the difference between deification and derision at Boro.

'In my first season with West Brom we were in the old Second Division so I've some experience of playing outside the top division but obviously that's a long time ago and I'm out of touch. That's why I insisted on bringing in Viv and John - their experience will be vital.

'I'll also have to rely on them when I'm in the centre of the pitch. You can't see what's happening properly when you're in the thick of things. When I'm playing they'll decide who to substitute, etc. They're in charge.'

Which sets up the less than enticing prospect of trying to prise the old warhorse himself off the field of play. His old manager Alex Ferguson, who says he half expects Robson to succeed him at Old Trafford, for one would not relish the task. 'Bryan simply thinks he's the best. He couldn't understand why he wasn't in our team, even though he had competition from our most expensive signing (Roy Keane) and another who is perhaps England's best midfielder (Paul Ince). That's a brilliant attitude to have.'

It might also get in the way of objective thinking, though Robson has a brains trust behind him that could hardly be bettered in terms of experience and achievement - Ferguson, Ron Atkinson, Bobby Robson and Terry Venables. He has consulted all four this summer.

'They have made me aware of the pitfalls,' he said. 'I appreciate there's a danger I might try to take on too much myself and that I might expect players to do things that are beyond them. You have to play to your limitations, it's part of being a successful manager to be able to fit players into a system while giving them roles that their ability allows them to be comfortable with.

'I've been fortunate to play under some of the best managers of recent times and I want to take the best from each of them. They also made mistakes, things that irritated or struck me as wrong as a player. I'll avoid those.' With diplomacy that suggests he is fast learning managerial bland-speak he declined to say what Big Ron and Co had cocked up in the past.

But didn't he miss the hubbub and dreams of greater things at Old Trafford as the season grew closer? 'To be quite honest I've been too busy to notice,' he replied, 'and anyway there's been such a buzz around Middlesbrough that it's felt like Manchester. The pre-season has gone well. In fact, if it wasn't for our defeat at Raith I'd be getting carried away myself. A lot of good things have come out of the build-up and all I want the boys to do is carry them into the League programme. If they'll do that they'll not let people down.'

Robson, in 464 appearances for United and 90 for England, never let anyone down and you suspect he is going to take to being a manager with much the same accomplishment as his England contemporaries, Keegan, Glenn Hoddle and Trevor Francis.

'He is a truly amazing player,' Bobby Robson wrote about his international captain in his autobiography Against The Odds, 'the bravest, most committed strongest I ever had . . . he was a wonderful inspiration and could lift sides on his own efforts - not by what he said but by what he did.'

At Ayresome Park, Bryan Robson will still lead by example but what he says now will be as important as what he does. Middlesbrough is listening . . . and hoping.

(Photograph omitted)

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