Captain Marvel clinging on for survival as storm clouds gather
The man from County Durham has been familiar with many tests of his indomitable spirit ever since, as a five-year-old, he would make the daunting climb from the family's house in the village of Witton Gilbert, along with his dad Brian, sister Susan and golden retriever Shane, up to the football pitch at the top of the hill for a kickabout. In a playing and managerial career famed for battles with adversity – "a miracle of commitment", as Sir Alex Ferguson once observed – surely his current difficulties at Sheffield United do not compare with relegation at Middlesbrough,the threat to his authority when Terry Venables was seconded to assist him there or relegation at West Bromwich Albion? Apparently they do. "This is the toughest challenge I've had as a manager," Robson said after training on Friday.
It is a challenge which, it appears, could end in ignominy for the 51-year-old, once revered as England and Manchester United's Captain Marvel but here regarded by many as Commander Cockup, after he was summoned to Brussels for talks with the club's plc chairman, Kevin McCabe, on Monday night. His team are 14th in the Championship, their promotion chances are diminishing, and his predecessor, Neil Warnock, having been a miracle worker here, has apparently acquired messianic tendencies at Crystal Palace.
But in McCabe there beats a heart not dissimilar to that of another of Robson's employers, Steve Gibson, the chairman of Boro. It requires much for either to bow to supporter disquiet. Despite the more vocal of the Bramall Lane faithful demanding the manager's dismissal since early autumn and the fans' threat to boycott today's FA Cup tie at home to Sven Goran Eriksson's Manchester City, the Belgium-based McCabe assured Robson he retained his support.
It will be illuminating to discover what effect that decision has on supporters who prefer to overlook the fact that Robson has lost the likes of the influential Phil Jagielka (to Everton), and is attempting to transform a side which, under Warnock "played very direct football, whereas I want us to be able to pass the ball in the last third".
However, the manager knows that expectations are "massive", with the faithful impatient toregain the promised land the Blades glimpsed all too briefly and departed acrimoniously following the Tevez affair last season. "I spoke to the chairman and we had a long chat about every aspect of the club. I've just got to get on with the job the best way I can," Robson said. "I know there are certain sections of fans who are disgruntled and I accept that. It's never nice, becauseyou want supporters behind you and to be successful in a club. Everybody has to pull together.
"Having said that, there are a lot of fans who have sent me great messages, wishing me all the best. They understand that sometimes it takes time to turn things round."
For all the magnificence of a playing career in which his name became a metaphor for midfield authority, Robson's management stints have never attained similar heights, despite auspicious beginnings when he achieved promotion with Boro in his first season and galvanised them to reach two cup finals in 1997.
"At Boro I got criticised for bringing in foreign players, at West Brom I had a bit of a fall-out with the chairman over scouting policies when we were well placed in the table, and at Bradford we were in the process of going into administration when I was there," he recalled.
One suspects he could do without the distraction of the Cup. He agrees. "Financially it's good, but we've a vitally important League game against Watford on Tuesday, so in terms of preparation it's not ideal for the players," he said. "I just hope the visit of Manchester City is a good omen, because I always had good results against them with United.I never lost in the League, and I want to keep that going here."
But it is the League that will decide his fate. Only time will tell if one of the game's great survivors can weather this as the storm clouds gather.
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