Exit Robinson with a warning

At the crossroads: Ex-Charlton player turns his back on a game that became 'work' to him
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The Independent Football

John Robinson did not command too many headlines when he announced he was terminating his contract at the Championship side Gillingham to step back from professional football. But the former Charlton and Welsh Player of the Year's story is worth elaborating on. For Robinson, who still needs to earn a living, has not given up on the game he loves; he feels it is giving up on him.

Robinson was born in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, 33 years ago. His father's job in the services soon took the family to Durban, South Africa, where a talented young footballer began to emerge. Unbeknown to him, the family Robinson gave up everything to give young John a chance to fulfil his sporting potential in England, the "home of football". They settled in Sussex, where Robinson, treading a path for the likes of David Beckham, was the first "star" to emerge from a Bobby Charlton Soccer School and become a successful professional.

Brighton gave him his first contract, and a move to Charlton, as Alan Curbishley's first signing, followed. Charlton's emergence as a Premiership force was mirrored by the midfielder's rise to prominence as he capped admirable club performances by being voted Wales Player of the Year in 2000, ahead of such luminaries as Mark Hughes, Ryan Giggs and Neville Southall.

When Curbishley indicated his regular first-team place was under threat last summer, Robinson sought a new challenge and linked up with the former Charlton manager Lennie Lawrence at ambitious Cardiff. The strain of being away from his wife and three young children, and an illness suffered by his mother, Edelia, soon drew him to Gillingham, however, and that is where the footballing trail ended, somewhat prematurely.

"Robbo" still walks the footballer's walk and looks the part in his gaudy Robert Cavalli clothes, but after the death of his father, Robbie, two-and-a- half years ago and with 11 years of Charlton family days behind him, Robinson has slowly fallen out of love with pro football, having discovered that the harsher realities of the business no longer appealed.

"I still love the game and could end up playing in America or playing and managing non-League near home, but it's a different world being a footballer outside the Premiership these days," Robinson said. "I was one of the lucky ones at all my clubs, with good people looking after me, but players generally get treated and traded like commodities. They don't have their best interests looked after. I've had an agent, Andrew Mills, who is special in that he has always wanted what is best for me and not just for him. I spoke long and hard to Andy, Curbs and Lennie before deciding this. Financially, Andy would probably have advised me to stay at Cardiff, but the people close to me knew that it was time for me to move on.

"I could have played on, picking up a good living, but I couldn't do that without being 100 per cent committed and deprive someone else, who would be wholehearted and ambitious, of the chance. I haven't fallen out of love with playing football, it's the politics of football and becoming a commodity I don't like."

The rarefied multi-million pound atmosphere of the Premiership is unique, and although a player of Robinson's calibre could still earn a few hundred thousand pounds a year in the Championship, most clubs are battling for financial survival and managers always feel just a few defeats from the sack.

"I was probably shielded from the real world at Charlton," Robinson added. "There you were given the chance to be the best footballer possible and not worry about anything else. When I came out of that special environment I found a different reality, where some players might not get picked because it could trigger a bonus clause in a contract or transfer fee, and managers feared for their jobs.

"I could have stayed at Cardiff for another year or two, but that would not have been fair on Lennie or the club, because my passion for the game was not as strong as before. Gillingham were great to me too, but I didn't want to take any more money from them when I knew I didn't want to stay and they could use it on another player.

"I won't play football for the money in future. If I play again it will be because I want to. I've still got my family to look after and new challenges such as a property business and my soccer school."

Robinson's story is a cautionary tale: "Football finally became 'work' to me, and any player who is motivated mainly by money will get a shock when they come out of the Premier League. The difference between there and the rest of the game is getting more and more apparent; attendances are dropping and the Sky money will probably dip too. It's not very pleasant."