Robins still finishing in style

fa cup countdown: Home is where the goals go in for well-travelled strikers with Wembley in their sights
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By Phil Shaw

Back in 1990, when one was winning the FA Cup and the other global acclaim, it looked odds-on that Mark Robins would one day succeed Gary Lineker. Last month, by joining Leicester City, he finally managed it.

The England caps have not materialised for Robins - though at 25 he has time on his side - and right now his chances of following Leicester's favourite son into television appear supermodel slim. For all that, he might just star on Match of the Day himself this week. And in any case, poaching goals is more his forte than pinching crisps.

The new Leicester manager, Mark McGhee, paid Norwich £1m for Robins in the belief that his bite in the box might save their Premiership skins. Saturday's fifth-round trip to Wolverhampton Wanderers provides not only a respite from relegation worries, but also a reminder of the flame-haired striker's powers of salvation.

For although Robins left Manchester United two and a half years ago, he is enshrined in Old Trafford folklore as the man who kept Alex Ferguson in a job and thereby helped to launch the club's return to domestic dominance. If the sacking scenario seems far-fetched now, it headed the agenda when United visited Nottingham Forest in the third round five years ago.

"United are such a big club that they're expected to win trophies, but things were going badly in the League, and the Cup was the only thing left to us," Robins recalled. "We were definitely aware of the pressure on the manager that day, and I was fortunate enough to score the only goal."

Barely out of his teens and the first graduate of the FA National School to make an impact, Robins also netted at Newcastle to put United in the last eight. When he underlined his talismanic value with the winner in the semi-final replay with Oldham, there seemed every reason to be confident of a final place against Crystal Palace.

"I thought the script would be for me to score the winner at Wembley, but it didn't turn out that way," he said. "In fact I got on as sub in the 3-3 draw but stayed on the bench for the replay. I still received a winner's medal, but from a personal point of view it was an anticlimax."

Ferguson described Robins as "the best finisher at the club", a tribute that concealed reservations. He is indeed clinically efficient, a close- range marksman with the positional instinct of a Lineker rather than a player capable of scoring spectacularly, of whom Mark Hughes offers an apposite example. But alongside the brute force and link play of Hughes, or Brian McClair's work-rate and versatility, the Lancastrian's less robust style was deemed a luxury.

Even a five-goal flourish for England Under-21s against France did not allay criticism of his input outside the penalty area. The irony of United's £7m outlay on a forward against whom identical charges are laid is not lost on Robins, though he has ceased to be hurt by suggestions that he is too single-minded.

"I'm quite happy now to be talked of in those terms, and I'm sure Andy Cole is too. People say `all he does is score goals', but that seems a pretty good label to me. My all-round game has actually improved a lot. At Norwich I concentrated more on my contribution outside the box, which affected my goal ratio but made me a better team man. Now I want to get back to what I'm good at."

While admitting to frustration at not building on his Cup exploits at United, Robins has come to feel that being kept out by Hughes and McClair hardly makes him a failure. After an £800,000 transfer and two-goal debut at Arsenal, he scored regularly for Mike Walker at Norwich. Injuries then sidelined him, and John Deehan's desire to bring in his own players made a parting inevitable.

"I was disappointed to leave because I loved the place and felt I'd done well," Robins said. "The weekend I was considering the deal, the fans chanted my name and I've had a sackful of letters saying how disgusted they are with the club for selling me. That's nice, but I've got to get on with helping Leicester now."

By coincidence, McGhee also made his name under Ferguson's tutelage at Aberdeen. Robins likes to think he received a good reference from the manager he may well have saved, and part of the attraction of the move was playing for someone who could pass on high-level experience as a striker.

He has already gone some way towards vindicating Leicester's faith. His first two League appearances produced goals, starting with the decider at Manchester City (where Robins was a 10-year-old "Junior Blue" before converting to United, his father's first love). In between came a Cup conquest at Portsmouth, his first game in the competition since the Palace final.

Now for Molineux and the meeting of Midlands survivors. Wolves pleased McGhee by seeing off Sheffield Wednesday, but they also impressed Robins. "They drew twice with a good Premiership team and showed incredible nerve to come from 3-0 down in the shoot-out," he said. "It won't necessarily be easier playing a First Division side."

The opinion is offered with such objective clarity that it could be Lineker talking. When it comes to the crunch, Robins would prefer the comparisons to concern the crispness of the finish that leads Leicester a step closer to Wembley.