Profile: Mr Irresistible's big job: Ian Ridley analyses the qualities of the new Middlesbrough manager and the scale of his task

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The Independent Online
STAR-STRUCK football club chairmen can resist everything, it seems, except temptation, and the allure of Bryan Robson was bound to be irresistible. The heartbeat of club and country for a decade, a brave runner through brick walls, a rich inspiration with wide experience and many contacts. Impeccable management material, surely.

We are about to find out. The first day of the rest of Robson's life comes next Saturday when Middlesbrough, the club that hooked the prize catch as its player-manager, begin fishing for promotion to the Premiership against Burnley, newly promoted to the Endsleigh League First Division, at Ayresome Park.

The sight of Robson propelling England with that heart on his sleeve through the 1980s has left an indelible impression, one even more memorable than that unwise perm. Before his sad recall by Graham Taylor for a World Cup qualifying match against Turkey three years ago, when he was more Captain Oates, he had been Bobby Robson's Captain Marvel and Fantastic combined, leading the side out in 65 internationals under his namesake. Only Billy Wright and the late Bobby Moore captained England on more occasions, both 90 times.

Robson deserves to rank near those great men, but their experiences as managers offer salutary lessons about expectations of leaders on the field taking their talents off it.

Wright became manager of Arsenal in 1962 as the club sought to rediscover the success that had left them 10 years earlier. Their average league position under him was only 10th during his four-year tenure, however, and when Highbury hosted an unthinkably sparse crowd of 4,554, still Arsenal's lowest, for a match against Leeds in May 1966, Wright's time was up. Moore's stewardship of the then Fourth Division Southend in the mid-1980s was even more mediocre in terms of results. 'Four out of five ex-internationals don't do that well as managers,' says David Pleat, manager of Luton and an acute observer of the English game. 'But one in five gets some money to spend and does.'

For just that reason, Middlesbrough having convinced him that the resources will be provided, Robson may be more likely to succeed. Showing the canniness of his North-eastern roots, he has ensured for himself a place at a club willing to accommodate his aspirations and his entourage, including Viv Anderson as his assistant and Gordon McQueen as a coach, unlike Wolverhampton Wanderers, who also interviewed him. The comparision with Kevin Keegan, some 35 miles north at Newcastle, springs to mind, not just for their successful England captaincies.

'The potential was what attracted me,' Robson says. 'They have a smashing new stadium and training ground planned next year and they have big ideas. There is the nucleus of a good team and the changes will help attract players.'

There has already been a shrewdness to his transfer dealings, with Nigel Pearson from Sheffield Wednesday and Neil Cox from Aston Villa the sort of solid defenders needed in the First Division. His former Manchester United team-mate the dependable midfield player Clayton Blackmore is also likely to thrive on regular first-team football.

The Bolivian Jaime Moreno offers a hint of the exotic while talk of Mark Wright being signed from Liverpool illustrates Robson's pulling power. Wright, blessed with a high opinion of his own worth, would surely not have considered Middlesbrough before. Robson provides just the same kind of credibility that Kenny Dalglish did when Jack Walker enticed him to Blackburn Rovers.

Alan Hansen once said that he would never enter management, having seen what it did to Dalglish in his time at Liverpool. Robson, though, is as yet unconcerned. 'You don't know what it's going to be like until you get into it, do you?' he says. 'When you have been captain of England and at Manchester United for 13 years you don't worry about pressure too much.'

The drive that has always characterised him and will be much needed now - along with the doggedness that has seen him recover from more than 20 injuries - was first apparent to United in 1979 when he came to Old Trafford with Ron Atkinson's West Bromwich Albion and gave an astonishingly energetic performance in a 5-3 win. When Atkinson wanted to make Robson his first signing after taking over at United, the chairman Martin Edwards had no hesitation in signing a cheque for pounds 1.75m.

A club record of 359 appearances and 99 goals, coupled with international figures of 90 and 26, led to glowing testimonials. 'England were a taller, prouder team when he played,' Bobby Robson said. 'Some said his bravery bordered on stupidity, but without that courage he would have been just another good player.'

Ultimate fulfilment eluded him with England, not just in that unsatisfactory ending but also the injuries in the World Cups of 1986 and 1990. It was an irony that United won their two titles with him as only occasional contributor. An intriguing comment came from the Montpellier midfield player Wim Suvrijn after a European Cup-winners' Cup tie against United in Robson's latter days: 'Maybe he's not a great player any more, but he's a great coach. He tells the others where to play.'

Alex Ferguson never entertained thoughts of selling Robson and his influence, as he did with Norman Whiteside and Paul McGrath when stories of drinking habits appeared. 'Even after a skinful I don't have a hangover and can still be up with the others,' Robson said - referring to training, of course - three years ago.

Instead, the United manager described him and Eric Cantona as 'the only players I have never had to shout at', and was deeply impressed by Robson's commitment, which Middlesbrough paid pounds 1m for, shown in his appearances on touchlines to watch A team and youth matches.

'Bryan will stir Middlesbrough up to compete,' Ferguson said this week. 'He has been a great player himself, people know he knows what he's talking about. He is a born winner, a motivator.' Indeed, he sees Robson as a potential successor at Old Trafford, 'when he has made the mistakes he will need to make elsewhere'.

His one reservation about Robson, who at 37 says that he expects to play at least one more season in midfield or sometimes as a sweeper, is his continuing to play. 'I don't advocate it myself, but I was never as good a player as Robson. Wednesday nights are the problem, when you have to play but don't always get the next day off. But he wants to do it and he defies you all the time. He runs and runs and that's his problem. He never pulls in the reins.'

Indeed Robson's schedule will be punishing and will include occasional commuting from his home in Cheshire by plane. A promotional photo-shoot at 7am one morning last week was an example of how life is changing. He insists, though, that on some days he will be able to leave matters to Anderson, who in his previous role as manager of Barnsley gleaned considerable experience of the First Division.

Robson first decided he was willing to entertain such a way of life seven years ago, seeing management as 'the next best thing to playing'. His influences, he says, have been Atkinson, Robson and Ferguson as well as Terry Venables, in whose England set-up he serves as a junior coach: perhaps one day to be more senior. The trials of the job will clearly not bother a man of such steely attitude and his accommodating, industrious temperament will suit, along with his polite smile. His sometimes bland verbal reactions may also be appropriate.

What type of manager will he be? 'I want the players to enjoy what they are doing. I want them to be passing the ball about. I want good discpline and I'll handle that between the players and myself.' Can he expect a First Division team to pass the ball with the pace and grace he has been used to at United? 'If your players are good enough.' And are they? 'It's a difficult division to get out of and there are eight or nine teams who can. We are one of them.'

Certainly it has imbued Teesside with some of the excitement felt on Tyneside when Keegan arrived, though Robson plays any rivalry down. 'It gives you aims, but I am quite blinkered in what I can do for Middlesbrough,' he said. 'But Kevin has shown what the fans are like up here. I hope I can bring the same passion,' added the boy from Chester-le-Street.

In what looks like a predictable First Division, Robson should also add some spice in a potential rivalry with Taylor at Wolves: the young tyro pitting his wits against a proven club manager, one who called time on his international career.

It is time to see if the Robson reality matches the allure.