Bryan Robson: Confessions of a window shopper

After a week in which transfers and agents have made the news, West Brom's Bryan Robson tells Sam Wallace about the pleasures and pitfalls of spending wisely on a limited budget
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Bryan Robson inclines his head towards the stack of videos and DVDs in the corner of his office with a degree of resignation - in the January transfer window the post is full of offerings from football agents promising, in the weary words of the West Bromwich Albion manager, "this good player or that good player". His two full-time scouts select only the best for Robson to view and the last week has been a reminder of the infinite complexities of completing a transfer deal that will improve the squad at a club steeling itself for a second battle against relegation in successive years.

Wednesday was Robson's 49th birthday and yet by the early afternoon it felt like anything but a lucky day as Ugo Ehiogu's transfer from Middlesbrough began to collapse and the player was recalled to Teesside even as he was on his way down to the Albion training ground. Come Thursday morning and Middlesbrough had changed their minds again, and by lunchtime Ehiogu was making his way to the West Midlands for a second time. The transfer was back on and Robson could start discussing his strategy with scouts Mick Brown and Bobby Hope over the next target for January.

Life at 17th in the Premiership after 21 games and with a match against indomitable Wigan tomorrow is no simple existence, especially when the team one place and two points below - Portsmouth - have spent more than £11m on players in the last week, but this is football management and there is nowhere Robson would rather be. It is 14 months since he took over at the Hawthorns, eight months since he steered Albion to a thrilling survival on the last day of the season, and this time the expectation is clear.

"I think our fans expect to stay in the Premiership, the players do and I do," Robson says. "But I'm not kidding myself and I said to our lads at the start of the season, '34 points kept us up last year but it won't keep us up this year'."

It was the lowest total for survival in the top flight for 13 years, and this time around Robson will have to repeat the magic with what he describes as "the lowest wage bill in the Premiership". He hopes to sign at least two more players to ease the dreadful injury problems that have afflicted his squad in the first half of the season and, in a week that Mike Newell has led a crusade against the dark netherworld of agents and football transfers, the business of buying footballers is not getting any easier. It is certainly a lot more complex than the day more than 24 years ago when a 24-year-old Robson told his agent he would do his own negotiations and travelled up to Old Trafford to sign for Manchester United without him.

"I had an agent but he didn't get involved in the transfer itself, I went to United with my accountant," Robson says. "For me, United knew what they were going to offer me and I knew what I wanted, but the big thing was that I wanted to move to United.

"You hardly ever talk to a player nowadays, you are always talking to an agent. I know with some managers that drives them daft but for me I just think if a player has got an agent you are going to have to deal with them and if you want the player you will have to deal the best way you can. The only thing I think is ridiculous is the type of fees that agents ask for, but they never get them from the clubs I am managing.

"There's only one player I actually lost because of an agent - I don't want to mention his name - but when I was at Middlesbrough I agreed to sign the player, did his contract and everything and then the agent turned around and asked for an amount of money from myself and Keith Lamb [the chief executive]. We just said, 'No, we're not paying that.' It was, we thought, a ridiculous amount and because of that the agent talked the player out of signing for Middlesbrough and he went elsewhere.

"Now in the January window, because your club is fourth from bottom and you are close to the relegation zone, Albion fans, same as any other fans, are saying, 'Who are we going to sign?' It's not as easy as that. Do you have any finances from within the club to buy a player or take his wages on? But then, mainly in the January window, it's always clubs who are getting rid of squad players who they don't particularly need and they want to get them off the wage bill. It can be really difficult because are you actually improving your team or your squad?"

The transfer window is just the latest test that Robson has faced since he took control on 9 November 2004 and those Albion fans who believe the grafting finished for two months after the euphoria of staying up on 15 May should know that the summer, according to Robson, was "hectic". He has been involved in the plans to develop Albion's modest training ground - currently one main building and two sizeable huts - as well as the indoor academy by the stadium. As well as taking training with his assistant Nigel Pearson he speaks to players individually during the week. Only the day-to-day discipline, Robson says, is left, for the large part, to the players. "They have rules between themselves and there is no one better at getting a fine out of a player than another player."

In between leaving Middlesbrough in May 2001 and taking over at Albion, Robson had a difficult, brief spell at Bradford City and completed his coaching qualifications. For a man who acquired an exceptional football education over a 24-year club career and 90 England caps he is positive about the different licences - "You can take bits out where you think, 'That's quite useful'." Most of all, however, that time between jobs was a period in which he was offered roles "lower down the leagues" but waited in trepidation for a chance to return to management at the highest level.

"It did surprise me to a certain degree that no one offered me a job high up in the Championship or in a Premiership club," he says. "I got Middlesbrough promoted, took them to three cup finals and I'm thinking, 'What am I supposed to have done wrong?' With the players I got in and where Middlesbrough had come from?"

Robson was offered the job of managing England after Terry Venables' departure in 1996. "I always said if was going to be England manager I wanted to have vast experience and do a cracking job. That's how I felt at the time. I had only had two years coaching with Terry [with England] and two years at Middlesbrough and I didn't think that was enough experience to be England manager."

It brings us to a discussion of opportunity and the chance that an aspiring British manager is afforded at the very top of the Premiership. There may now be 16 British managers in the division but from the current top five clubs, only one - Manchester United - is managed by a non-foreigner. Robson is four years older than Jose Mourinho, three more than Rafael Benitez and he is not sure United will not employ a foreigner as Sir Alex Ferguson's successor. Managing a side like Albion, he says, is "more difficult" than doing the same job at one of the country's top four sides.

"I am still ambitious. I want to win as many things as a manager as I did as a player but it's getting the opportunity," Robson says. "This is what I say about the British managers: are they going to get a chance to run a top club like the Arsenals or the Liverpools? Most of them, apart from United, have gone foreign and is that going to be the way now? If you take myself, Paul Jewell, Sam Allardyce or Alan Curbishley, would we be winning things and doing a really good job if we were in charge of teams like that? They have got the resources and all the top players are happy to go to those clubs whereas when we go in for a top player they will say, 'I'm not going to West Brom'. When I was at Middlesbrough I turned that around with people like Fabrizio Ravanelli and Juninho coming to the club.

"I think it was Arsène Wenger doing so well at Arsenal. Because he did such a terrific job, teams like Chelsea [and] Liverpool took that mantle on. Manchester United were OK because they had great success and had a British manager and didn't have to make that decision. It will be interesting when they have to make that decision, whether it is in two years or four years or whenever.

"I have never been manager at a top club but managing a club like this is more difficult than managing a club like United or Arsenal. Because [at a top club] I would be working with the best players and I could afford to go out most summers and buy another top player. Even when Martin Jol went to Tottenham, the amount of players that came in made a massive squad - so Tottenham are a big club. The only club who are not quite achieving what they should be is Newcastle.

"[As a manager] you are always balancing. We have the smallest wage bill in the Premiership so I have to work in that range all the time. I've brought Ugo in, now I will probably have to release a couple of the squad players so I can finance that. Your decision has to be right because when you are working with a small squad and you get a few injuries that can affect your season big style. It's trying to get the balance right."

Injuries have hit Robson hard this season, not least the fractured cheekbone that will rule Nwankwo Kanu out of the opening stages of the African Nations' Cup later this month. He has missed Zoltan Gera, Junichi Inamoto, Neil Clement and Nathan Ellington for periods but he believes that a "scrappy" start can be put right in a run of games that, after Wigan, takes in Sunderland (home), Charlton (away), Blackburn (home), Fulham (away) and Middlesbrough (home). Before Chelsea visit on 4 March Robson says he hopes to have taken between nine and 12 points. After the match at Wigan, however, he will be allowed an evening's respite from the fight for Premiership survival.

Robson is being honoured by the Football Writers' Association with a dinner at the Savoy Hotel that will also pay tribute to a playing career that ended almost exactly nine years ago with his final match as player-manager for Middlesbrough. The full playing career of Robson is a separate story altogether, and he has a new autobiography out later this year, but asking him to pick the highlights is an interesting diversion. There is much to choose from among the two Premiership titles won at the end of his time at United and the three FA Cups, one League Cup and one European Cup-Winners' Cup won earlier on.

For many United fans the vintage Robson performance came against Diego Maradona's Barcelona at Old Trafford in March 1984, facing a two-goal deficit from the first leg of the European Cup-Winners' Cup quarter-final. United's 3-0 win was inspired by two goals from Robson, an evening he remembers just as much for a phone call that followed it.

"Trevor Francis was playing for Sampdoria at the time," he says, "and he phoned me up to say he had watched it with the Sampdoria players. They had told him after that performance all the Manchester United players must be on drugs."

It is not just the 12 years at United that Robson remembers fondly, however. He still meets up for lunch in a pub near the training ground with former Albion players Tony Brown, Alistair Robertson, Cyrille Regis and Brendan Batson to talk about old times. Steve Bruce, Paul Ince and Roy Keane stay in touch. There is a great deal from the life of Bryan to be crammed into the new autobiography but the task that absorbs him the most will be the next 17 Premiership games and the job of keeping his club in the Premiership.

Managing on a shoestring: How Robson has fared in the bargain basement

* KEVIN CAMPBELL From Everton. Fee: Free. Signed 11 Jan 2005. Age at time 34. Four goals in 22 games might not sound impressive, but his experience helped to keep Albion in the Premiership. HIT

* RICHARD CHAPLOW From Burnley. Fee: £1.5m. Signed 31 Jan 2005. Age 19.

Doing little to justify his move as has not featured much. But the midfielder does have time on his side. MISS

* KIERAN RICHARDSON From Man Utd. Fee: Loan. Signed 29 Jan 2005. Age 20. His form, on loan at Albion, won him an England place. But then chose to return to United. HIT

* DARREN CARTER From Birmingham. Fee: £1.5m. Signed 4 July 2005. Age 21. The midfielder scored a fantastic goal against Arsenal at the start of the season but has been inconsistent since. MISS

* CHRIS KIRKLAND From Liverpool. Fee: Loan. Signed 27 June 2005. Age 24. Brilliant start, then hit by injury again. Now kept out by Tomasz Kuszczak. HIT

* STEVE WATSON From Everton. Fee: Free. Signed 5 July 2005. Age 31. Good short-term buy. Dependable and versatile defender/midfielder. HIT

* DIOMANSY KAMARA From Modena. Fee: £1.5m. Signed 26 July 2005. Age 24. Exciting striker but often fails to provide end product. MISS

* NATHAN ELLINGTON From Wigan. Fee: £3m. Signed 14 Aug 2005. Age 24. Took a long time to score his first goal but the striker is finding form. HIT

* CURTIS DAVIES From Luton. Fee: £3m. Signed 31 Aug 2005. Age 20. Big, strong and mature centre-half. Still learning his trade but a good prospect. HIT