Phil Shaw: Robson's sudden departure rooted in old doubts over coaching capabilities

His managerial credentials have long been questioned despite his reputation as a great player
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Great players don't always make great managers. When that statement was put to Roy Keane at his unveiling by Sunderland, he snapped back that he "wasn't a great player anyway". Bryan Robson did qualify for the epithet, beyond any doubt, but increasingly his managerial career has lent credence to the assertion.

The first time Robson left West Bromwich Albion, to join Manchester United a quarter of a century ago next month, his exit was bitterly lamented. The faithful were losing the most dynamic midfielder of his era, who became England's "Captain Marvel" in the course of 90 international appearances.

When Robson packed his bags again yesterday, the reaction on internet message boards and radio phone-ins was at best mixed. Those fans with long memories never forgave his defection to Old Trafford. Others simply did not envisage Albion fulfilling their potential under his stewardship.

If he is not quite the modern-day Bobby Moore some have portrayed him as, there remains a curious stigma about Robson the manager. After being forced from his first post at Middlesbrough, he took three and a half years to get back in at the same level with Albion. Nor was he the popular choice when they chose him in November 2004.

Robson mused upon the apparent lack of enthusiasm for his talents and knowledge - which were, after all, honed by first-hand experience of Sir Alex Ferguson's methods at United - in his autobiography, Robbo, published this year.

Candidly, he wondered whether it had anything to do with his "reputation" as a prolific social drinker. Robson also acknowledged that the events of early 2001 had damaged his image. With Middlesbrough struggling in the Premiership, he invited Terry Venables in to help coach his squad. The upturn in results ensured they avoided relegation but also undermined his position at the club. The perception took hold that Robson needed a tactician to show him how it was done.

After he was sacked that spring Robson was repeatedly overlooked by clubs seeking a manager. He later confessed, somewhat plaintively, that he often thought: "Why hasn't anyone looked at my record and realised what I've done?"

His record on Teesside certainly had its highs. Promotion at the first attempt to the Premier League; Boro's first FA Cup final, with another run to Wembley in the League Cup for good measure; an unprecedented influx of high-profile players; and vastly increased crowds.

The chances of Robson's finding suitable employment looked more promising outside England. He was on the verge of becoming coach to Nigeria when the government overruled the sports minister, and the Republic of Ireland considered him before opting for Brian Kerr.

When he did return to club management, with Bradford City during 2003-04, it proved an ill-fated liaison. The club were in financial free-fall and ended up plummeting into the third tier.

So it was a surprise when Albion picked him to succeed Gary Megson. His reign began with a home defeat by Middlesbrough, of all clubs, though it would have been a draw had Kanu not perpetrated the miss of the season at the death. Robson finally enjoyed a win at the 12th attempt and, after scraping together only 10 points in the first half of the season, Albion collected another 24 to survive against the odds.

Last season they stood six points above the relegation zone in February. However, Robson's attempts to build on that position by signing Ugo Ehiogu and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink were not sanctioned. Albion failed to win any of the last 13 matches and had their fate sealed with two games to play.

Back in the Championship, he fended off bids for Curtis Davies and Zoltan Gera, and brought in John Hartson and Kevin Phillips with initially positive results. But still Albion could not win away, and, ironically, the catalyst for Robson's demise was probably an abject defeat by a Sunderland team fired up by the presence of their soon-to-be manager Keane, the very player Ferguson bought to assume Robson's mantle.

If that setback did not help his cause, Robson still looked unassailable at such an early stage in a 46-game campaign. Jeremy Peace and his directors felt otherwise, although as the caretaker manager, Nigel Pearson, reflected yesterday, the cigarette paper separating success from failure was seldom better illustrated than when Phillips' shot thumped a post late in Saturday's stalemate with Southend.

Comments