From teenage flop at City to Spanish 'Des', the opinionated life of Robinson

Rumbustious and rebellious views of centre-forward turned television pundit who dares to scorn United legend
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A well-heeled Spanish businessman enters a smart restaurant in Madrid. At least, he looks like a Spanish businessman. He is wearing an impeccably cut dark suit over a comfortable paunch. His black hair, greying elegantly at the temples, is slicked back, continental-style. He is greeted warmly, in Spanish, by the proprietor. They talk briefly of the Second Division football club, Cadiz, which he part-owns.

But appearances can be deceptive. The fellow comes not from the Iberian peninsula but the Ribble estuary, and was once English football's costliest teenager, when Malcolm Allison paid a mind-boggling £750,000 to take him from Preston North End to Manchester City. Later, in 1984, he won a European Cup winner's medal with Liverpool.

Today, Michael Robinson is one of Spain's most recognisable television personalities, writer/presenter of the hugely popular Saturday and Monday live football programmes on Canal Plus, El Dia Antes (The Day Before) and El Dia Despues (The Day After).

It is a little after 3pm, lunchtime in Madrid. I have come from Steve McManaman's home, where Macca has warned me that if Robbo has his "talking head" on, it could be a long lunch. He's right. We finally leave the restaurant at 9.50pm. For me, it's a long-lunch personal best. For Robinson, I suspect it falls some way short. In nigh on seven hours, I probably get about 100 words in edgeways. But I'm good at listening, so we play to each other's strengths.

Robinson is as garrulous a man as I have ever met, and gloriously opinionated, contending that Manchester United hardly deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Real Madrid (and this is some weeks before United add grist to his mill by failing to join Real in the European Cup final).

"Manchester United's legacy to European football is bugger all," he says. "In recent times they have won one European Cup, and that in the dying seconds. Yet they have walked across English football. Look at Liverpool. They walked across English football, too, but when the English league was the best in the world. They won four European cups in eight years. They left a legacy.

"English people still tell you that Manchester United are the greatest team in the world. Based on what? Based on the tremendous privilege reporters are meant to feel when Alex Ferguson deigns to speak to them?

"Valencia went there and wiped their arses, so did Deportivo La Coruña, so did Real Madrid. The Spanish league is now the best in the world, there's no doubt about that. When Real Madrid won all those European Cups in the early years, they did not represent Spanish football. But now they have won two European cups in three years coming fourth and fifth in the Spanish league.

"Alaves, who played Liverpool in the final of last year's Uefa Cup, are like a Norwich or an Ipswich Town. In the quarter-final they played Rayo Vallecano, which is Millwall. That's Norwich City against Millwall in the quarter-final of a European competition."

I could counter that Manchester United beat Deportivo pretty convincingly in La Coruña, but I would be riding a tricycle at a steamroller. Besides, the fact is that the facts are overwhelmingly on Robinson's side.

"Price Waterhouse did a study showing that there are 72 million Real Madrid fans around the world," he continues. "Manchester United came second with 24 million. But still English people say that Manchester United are bigger. It's fantasy. It's the same with England. Every time they lose it's a national tragedy, as though they are supposed to win. For God's sake, nobody's seen England win anything in colour!"

We'll come back to his views on England's World Cup hopes – "if England reach the final, the only person in the world more surprised than me will probably be Sven Goran Eriksson" – hopefully before Robinson bursts a blood vessel.

But I want to focus a little more on Real Madrid, who on Wednesday will be striving for their ninth European Cup win, a record by a mile. I invite Robinson to pass opinion on McManaman.

"Steven is unbelievably well-loved, by his team-mates as well as the fans," says Robinson. "When Steven leaves, he will be remembered here for generations. And if he left tomorrow, if it were not his wish to go, the fans would not easily pardon the club."

Their indignation would doubtless be soothed, though, by a high-profile arrival. What is the word in Madrid on prospective signings? Robinson smiles. "The president, Florentino Perez, wants to get off the plane surrounded by the most beautiful and most famous football players in the world," he says.

"Perez wants to buy Patrick Vieira, today or tomorrow. He wants to make one massive signing per year, one break-the-bank signing, not that there is another Zinedine Zidane (who cost Real £46.7m). Zidane is Frank Sinatra singing, he's Richard Burton acting. He's the monarch of world football."

Robinson's eloquent paeon is interrupted by his mobile phone ringing. He starts talking animatedly, in English, to somebody he calls Chuz. Evidently, Chuz is asking about the Celta Vigo player, Valery Karpin. "He's a good player, Chuz. He's a bit like you, Chuz, and he'll get sent off like you, but he's a real good player."

Eventually the call ends. "Graeme Souness," explains Robinson. Souness was a team-mate at Liverpool. "Graeme was a god," he says. Robinson seems to deal only in lavish praise or unfettered scorn, nothing in between. But still his immense knowledge of Spanish football is frequently tapped by Premiership managers – free of charge, he insists. "One day I got a call from Gérard Houllier. He said: 'Speak to me about forwards.' I said: 'Diego Tristan. Plays for Mallorca.' Gérard sent scouts but maybe thought Tristan couldn't do it in England. So Tristan went to Deportivo, and proved himself to be world-class. Houllier could have got him for tuppence."

In Tristan, Raul and Morientes, to name but three, Spain surely have the players to terminate their dismal record of under-achievement. How, I wonder, does Robinson expect them to fare in the World Cup?

"Spain," he says pensively, "is a tremendously humble nation. When the Spanish go abroad, they don't get drunk and beat bars up. When Spain play against England, they expect to get beaten. They say: 'England is a great nation and we're trying to be one'.

"Saying that, Spanish clubs have created the habit of winning. Players will remember what they have done with their club sides. I expected them to win the European Nations Cup in 2000, and I expect them to reach the semi-finals this time. England are quarter-final material, at best. They certainly can't win it. They have talent in midfield and up front, but I don't think the defence gives them good enough ball. If England play Spain, I would expect Spain to win."

And the €64,000 question, who would he want to win (bearing in mind that he actually played his international football for the Republic of Ireland, after Ron Greenwood "broke my heart" by rejecting him and Eoin Hand unearthed an Irish granny)?

A rare pause. "Spain is my home. Spain has given me an awful lot. In England I often felt like a square peg in a round hole. I feel at home here. I laugh and cry at the same things as they do. So, England against Spain in the World Cup? I would want Spain, but, if England won, I would still feel very proud of England."

How, then, did this son of Blackpool end up not so much switching horses, as donkeys? At Manchester City, Robinson was a flop. "I used to think Malcolm Allison woke up in the morning wondering how to complicate my life. He would speak to me about angles and zones. And I wasn't the only one. Mick Channon didn't understand a blind word either. But I archived it somewhere. Later, what Malcolm had been saying fell into place."

The Brighton manager Alan Mullery then took "a depressed and failed Michael Robinson and gave me back my self-esteem". Robinson scored lots of goals for Brighton, and attracted the interest of the club that had captivated him as a boy, Liverpool. For the Anfield side he wore the No 10 shirt, alongside Ian Rush.

"And I've never known a shirt to weigh so heavy. I felt silly playing for Liverpool. I thought all my team-mates were far better. When they signed Paul Walsh, who I thought was a great player, I went to Joe Fagan and said: 'I never want to feel bitter towards Liverpool, so will you let me go?' He told me to speak to QPR, and when I finally left Anfield, on Christmas Eve, as the first few fans were arriving for a match against West Ham, I cried like a baby. Even now, the greatest allegiance of my life, outside my family, is to Liverpool."

In January 1987, Robinson left QPR for the Spanish club Osasuna. He enjoyed three successful seasons there before retiring and drifting into the media. Although he has since bought into Cadiz, saving them from bankruptcy – "I've got a large detached house share," he says, "a large detached house on the banks of the River Thames share, but don't tell my wife" – coaching held no appeal.

"I have been offered coaching jobs in Spain, from businessmen who can sack me without knowing what I've forgotten about football. There's a merry-go-round of managers here, in England too, like Dave Bassett and Jim Smith, who get jobs, get sacked, get loads of money, then float around directors' boxes until a team isn't playing very well. I find it quite amazing. I want to abstain from that."

All the same, when Canal Plus offered him a presenter's job, Robinson hesitated. "I thought I would be un flor de un dia, as we say here, a flower for a day. But we're still on air, and we've won lots of prizes. In 1997 I won something called the Victor, for the best sports presenter in Europe."

So he is the Des Lynam of Spain? "I like the comparison with Des. He's a superstar. But I hate to be compared with Alan Hansen or Andy Gray. I get paid a million pounds a year for informing and entertaining people, and I start with a blank piece of paper, and at the end I've got to look like Des.

"What would Lawro [Mark Lawrenson, who, like Robinson, uncannily, graduated from Bispham Juniors to Preston to Brighton to Liverpool to broadcasting] do with a blank piece of paper? The video comes in, [Ray] Stubbs says to Lawro: 'What do you think?' And Lawro throws three adjectives and four verbs at him, and that's it.

"And Jocky [Hansen], however great a goal is, just talks about how badly they defended. They all talk in jargon, about diagonals and so on.

"Lineker should turn to Jocky and say: 'It's possible people don't understand what you're saying.' But he never does. The ex-pros in England don't illuminate football, they have kidnapped football. Nobody ever questions the buggers. You need a journalist in there, upsetting Jocky. So that when he says how terrible the defence was, there's someone to say: 'What else'?''

Robinson continues in this marvellously splenetic vein for another few hours. I dare not tell him that I am a fan of Hansen, Lawrenson, Lineker and Gray, for fear of him spluttering a mouthful of fine Rioja over me. "You know," he says finally. "When I was at Liverpool I used to look at Dalglish, and Souness, and I felt inadequate. It's all changed. I now feel like Dalglish and Souness. I'm good, very good, at what I do."

Michael Robinson: The life and times

Born: 12 July 1958.

Birthplace: Leicester.

Nickname: "Robbo".

Position: Centre-forward.

Clubs: Preston North End (48 Football League appearances, 15 goals), Manchester City (30, 8), Brighton and Hove Albion (113, 37), Liverpool (30, 6), Queen's Park Rangers (48, 5), Osasuna (Spain).

International honours: Republic of Ireland: 24 full caps, 4 goals. Debut v West Germany, 1981. Last appearance v Czechoslovakia, 1986.

Club career summary: Started as an apprentice at Preston North End, moved to Manchester City in 1979 for what was then a British record fee for a teenager of £750,000. Signed for Brighton in 1980 and played in the Seagulls' team beaten after a replay by Manchester United in the FA Cup final in1983, before leaving for Liverpool later that year. After a spell at Loftus Road (appearing in the Queen's Park Rangers side beaten by Oxford United 3-0 in League Cup final in 1986), he finished his playing career at Osasuna in Spain before moving into television commentary work in his adopted homeland.

Best season: League championship medal (24 appearances, 6 goals) and European Cup winners' medal (appeared as a substitute in win on penalties over Roma in final) with Liverpool in 1983-84. Came on at Wembley as a substitute for Craig Johnston in 0-0 draw with Everton in the FA Cup final in the same season, but was not picked for the replay which the Anfield side won 1-0.

He says: "As a footballer I was part of a team and I knew I didn't have what it takes. Now I head a fantastic team and I'm bloody good at what I do."

They say: "An odd mix of lovable jack-the-lad and intense soapbox preacher." (Spain Alive website).

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