Robson's desire is to escape on merit

Survival game: Albion manager rues the scorned chances as mission implausible heads for final act
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The Independent Online

Just in case the nature of West Bromwich's predicament needed clarifying, Bryan Robson, proud owner of 90 England caps and Manchester United's Captain Marvel for 12 years, insists that keeping the Baggies in the Premiership would be "my best achievement". It's as well, then, that Albion have a manager with a well-earned reputation for enjoying a challenge.

Just in case the nature of West Bromwich's predicament needed clarifying, Bryan Robson, proud owner of 90 England caps and Manchester United's Captain Marvel for 12 years, insists that keeping the Baggies in the Premiership would be "my best achievement". It's as well, then, that Albion have a manager with a well-earned reputation for enjoying a challenge.

The four-club scramble to claw a way to safety will end in disaster for three, and the betting fraternity are not the only ones to refrain from inclining towards a West Bromwich who not only have to play Arsenal tomorrow but then travel to Old Trafford next Saturday before finishing up with a home game against Portsmouth.

It's the toughest run-in by far of the struggling sides, rendered even more taxing by the fact that Arsenal and United are locked in a race for the runners-up spot before they meet in the FA Cup final, so will not be disposed to hand out anything remotely resem-bling a favour. Which suits Robson, because if he escapes he wants it to be on merit.

That things have improved at the Hawthorns since Robson arrived in early November is undeniable, but he needed time to turn this badly holed vessel towards shallower water. There had been only one win in the first 12 matches, and an Albion under new management endured a further 11 without a win. The nadir came over Christmas, when nine goals were leaked in two outings, four at Birmingham and five at home to Liverpool.

By then, West Bromwich were eight points adrift and preparing to confirm the grim statistic that no Premiership club bottom of the table at the turn of the year have ever escaped the drop. Since then, Robson has injected will and spirit. His players have not lost at home for eight games, despite a distressing inability to wrap up occasions when they have gone in front.

It is this failing which most disturbs the man who joined Albion as a 15-year-old in 1972 and made almost 250 appearances before finding his destiny with Manchester United nine years later. "Failure to finish off our chances has cost us," he said, claiming that opportunities were spurned to collect three points against Aston Villa, Tottenham and Blackburn because of the inability to build on a lead. Robson even reckons that a humiliating 4-0 loss against the club he used to manage, Middlesbrough, could have been different. "We should have been 3-0 up before our defence had a madcap 10 minutes. It is sheer bad finishing which has been letting us down."

The dropping of two points at home last Tuesday against Blackburn was the bitterest blow, however. That was when when Robson needed the boost of a win before facing up to the prospect of taking on Arsenal and Manchester United, though no one should knock him for looking on the bright side. "Against Arsenal we are talking about home advantage, and we have plenty to play for. OK, they are a very good side, but if we are organised and disciplined, and if we get a break, we can get a good result. But we definitely need at least a point to give ourselves a chance." His battle plan was revealed with the comment that "sometimes when you get at the bigger teams, that's the better way," a view supported by Kanu, who went to the Hawthorns this season after four years at Highbury.

"Arsenal won't lower their sights," the Nigerian international warned, "but they have weaknesses. They don't like it when you don't allow them to pass the ball, when you go in on them. It is difficult to stop them, but you have to forget the names you are playing against."

Easier said than done, but it is a challenge Robson is grateful to be tackling. "This is what you are in football for, the challenges, and I knew it was going to be a big challenge when I came to this club. What I am pleased about is that we are going into the last three games with a fighting chance, because a couple of months ago I was just hoping it wouldn't be all over with four or five games of the season left and nothing to play for. To still be on an even keel and with two at home out of the last three is all you can ask for."

Robson has given up plotting the various permutations and possibilities. "It's a waste of time. You see Norwich are playing Man United and say to yourself Norwich will do well to get a point, and they end up with all three.

"A few weeks ago I said if we got 10 points that would probably do it for us. Then Norwich win three games, and Liverpool play a weakened side at Palace because of their Champions' League semi-final and get caught out. So you just prepare yourselves mentally and physically for what you need to do. The approach has got to be like that."

Having agreed to a 12-month rolling contract, Robson is well aware that his distinguished head is on the block, too. So the well-known and much-admired motivational skills he employed on the field will figure prominently over the next crucial fortnight. "I know the players will give a fighting performance against Arsenal," he said. "That's what they have been doing since Christmas, and that's why we are in the position we are in now. They have given themselves a chance and will not let up."

As Robson well knows as a former Albion player, the admirably dedicated fans will be an important factor. "They can really lift you if you get a low point. If they get behind you because of one tackle or one pass it can raise you to another level, and that's where we have to be for our two home games, on a different level to where we have been so far."

If that happens, the Baggies followers may be trumpeting their theme tune, "The Great Escape". But, being a realist as well as an optimist, Captain Marvel reckons it could be decided on goal difference.

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