Robson gives no quarter in the battle of born winners

Albion's manager wants a team his mentor, Sir Alex Ferguson, would be proud of. Today, he hosts his role models
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The Independent Online

Bad news for all who aspire to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson - the human hairdryer will still be managing Manchester United with all his trademark fervour when he is 70. So says one of his closest confidants, Bryan Robson, who will today be striving to put years on his mentor by plotting victory for 19th-placed West Bromwich Albion.

Bad news for all who aspire to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson - the human hairdryer will still be managing Manchester United with all his trademark fervour when he is 70. So says one of his closest confidants, Bryan Robson, who will today be striving to put years on his mentor by plotting victory for 19th-placed West Bromwich Albion.

Ferguson turns 63 on New Year's Eve, but Robson, the captain he once described as "a miracle of commitment", cannot envisage his stepping aside even if United recaptured the European Cup. "Winning the Champions' League again is his burning ambition, but I don't think he'd retire if it happened," the new Albion manager said. "As long as his health is OK, he'll be there until he is 70."

Robson, 47, was impressed by the way United beat Lyon at Old Trafford on Tuesday and believes Ferguson retains an "inbuilt" appetite for the fray. "I spoke to him when Arsenal and Chelsea were pulling away and United were drawing or losing," Robson said. "You could see he was angry. That's the desire he has, why he works like he does. You can call him in his office at 8am because you know he'll be there. He's the first to arrive and last to leave.

"Sir Alex will want to achieve with the new generation - the younger players such as Rio Ferdinand, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney - what he has with the likes of the Neville brothers and Roy Keane. He preaches the need for the hunger to keep winning, though like all great players, Keane and the Academy graduates all have it anyway. They have set a standard and they get annoyed with each other on the training pitch when they drop below it. That's why Keane and Gary Neville have criticised their team-mates and themselves."

Robson is in charge of Albion for only his third match, whereas the game at The Hawthorns will be Ferguson's 1,001st with United. Pupil and teacher tangled during the former England captain's seven years at Middlesbrough, Robson winning once and losing eight out of 11. "The week leading up to the games between us is probably the only time we don't call each other," he said, echoing another Ferguson "protégé", Birmingham City's Steve Bruce.

"If you assess Sir Alex's teams, he tries to get strong-minded players around him, people who speak their mind. He has never liked 'yes' men. But we didn't really have any ding-dongs. He'd listen to your opinion, then give you his - and his was always right! For me, it's important to listen to your players. Their views can be genuinely helpful. Sir Alex has always wanted to know what players are thinking and given them licence to talk."

Robson claims the Scot has "mellowed a lot", a trait he detected near the end of his own playing career and which he argues runs parallel to the driven, domineering side of a complex, often contradictory character. This softening will be news to many, yet it refers more to the man than the manager.

Ferguson's outbursts certainly influenced Robson before he forged his own managerial style. "The first few times I lost my temper and wanted to rage at Middlesbrough, it was similar to what he did," he said. "Once I kicked a stool and hurt my foot. Knocking tea cups over would have been far easier."

If October was a time for hiding the crockery from Ferguson, this month United have looked as classy as fine-bone china. They are nine points behind the leaders, Chelsea, but are not out of the Premiership title race according to Robson. "If there's one team capable of reeling off 12 or 15 wins on the spin, it's them. I'm just hoping it starts next week."

Last Saturday, Albion did United and themselves an unexpected favour by fighting back to draw at Arsenal. True to his schooling by Ferguson, Robson will demand the same intensity of performance against, say, Portsmouth, as against the champions. "We can't rest on our laurels against United. If our players think they've done the hard part, they're kidding themselves and we'll be beaten."

Robson knows "exactly" how his old club will approach the contest. "To win it. Sir Alex will believe he has the better team and superior players, and he'll want to open it up. Even when we weren't successful in his early days, the one thing he always did was to send you out to win."

Ferguson used to say of Robson the midfield warhorse that winning was almost as important as breathing. Albion's followers trust it will prove as true of his team. The reunion will be toasted in post-match wine, perhaps fostering that new-found mellowness in the visiting manager. "I drink only white and he'll be on the red," the younger man revealed. "Otherwise I'll get a bollocking."

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