Robson relishing the Riverside challenge

Glenn Moore meets a former England captain whose style of management is making its mark on the Premiership
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The Independent Online
Odd, really, that while everyone wondered why on earth Juninho wanted to move to Middlesbrough no one appeared to wonder, 18 months ago, why Bryan Robson was going there. After all, Robson, arguably the best all-round English footballer of his generation, could have waited for any number of Premiership possibilities. The Manchester City job comes up every year while Aston Villa is another regular vacancy.

Now it seems obvious. Robson was off to become Teeside's answer to Kevin Keegan, Middlesbrough's very own Messiah. He would bring world-class footballers to an area previously undisturbed by footballing glory which was still living on the memories of Mannion, Hardwick, Camsell and Clough.

Yet it did not seem like that at the time. Even to Robson. "When I went to see them I was really thinking that I probably would not sign," he said this week. "I was looking for a bigger club than Middlesbrough appeared to be.

"But, after I had seen the situation the chairman [Steve Gibson] talked me into it. I knew there were some decent kids here and he told me how he would support me in the transfer market."

As a North-east lad himself, from County Durham, Robson could imagine the potential. "I knew that, given success, we would get good crowds." So it has proved. Today Middlesbrough's new Cellnet Riverside stadium will host its seventh full house in seven Premiership matches when Liverpool are the visitors.

The Robson revolution began across town, at Ayresome Park last August. Robson had brought Clayton Blackmore with him from Old Trafford and spent pounds 2.25m on a goalkeeper, Alan Miller, and two defenders, Neil Cox and Nigel Pearson.

The rebuilt team began with four straight wins before the impetus faltered as Robson, inevitably, spent long periods out of the side. Yet they never slipped below fourth and were third moving into February. Robson then added goals to his solid, but rarely inspiring side. Uwe Fuchs came on loan from Germany to score nine times in 15 games then Jan Age Fjortoft joined for pounds 1.3m. He scored three goals in the last four games as Middlesbrough claimed the only automatic promotion place.

Despite their manager's aura, their chairman's money, and a solid backbone, pre-season forecasts were grim. But, while promotion partners Bolton lie 19th Boro are ninth, four points off third place.

Their success has even surprised Robson. "I knew we had some decent players, even before we brought in Nick Barmby and Juninho, and I thought we would hold our own. But we started better than I thought we would.

"Mid-table would be a success this season, it would be a good foundation. If we win a Uefa Cup place that would be the icing on the cake. We have a lot of young players. It is a case of them realising the Premier League need hold no fears for them.

"I am enjoying management. It has gone well so far but I have got to keep my feet on the ground. It is a hell of a difference to playing. I miss playing, but not as much as people think. I do enjoy it when I get out there but it is hard doing both.

"It is very difficult to get enough rest to play in the Premiership. It has helped that the team have played so well, especially Jamie Pollock and Robbie Mustoe in the middle. I have not had to play much."

As he showed in the recent Coca-Cola Cup win over Crystal Palace, when he produced the pass of the night to release Alan Moore to create the opening goal, he still has plenty to offer. There even was a time last year, when Terry Venables was searching for someone to fill the midfield anchor role, that a 91st international cap did not seem fanciful.

Such was Robson's range of talents during his prime that his passing was overshadowed by his thunderous tackling and goal- scoring runs into the box. After beginning at West Bromwich Albion, where he established his long-standing relationship with the treatment room, he spent his career at Manchester United, winning every domestic honour. He also played for England for 12 years.

Yet many people were surprised to discover, when Juninho signed, how venerated Robson was in Brazil. Juninho was clearly impressed by Robson's reputation (and his friendship with Dunga, the Brazilian captain), even if he is not quite as awed as Barmby, Robson's other major signing.

The signing encapsulated Robson's "can do" philosophy. "We underestimate ourselves in this country. If you fancy a top player in the world, go out and get him."

It also illustrated another Robson creed: the need to entertain as well as win. "He [Juninho] is a creator, he will excite fans. It is not just about results, fans have got to be entertained. I learned that at West Brom. Whenever I go back there fans talk to me about the team of Cyrille Regis and Laurie Cunningham. We played some tremendous football under Ron Atkinson. I want fans to be talking of Juninho and Barmby."

It is an approach followed by both of Robson's main managerial influences, Atkinson and Alex Ferguson. "Alex was very good to me. In the last couple of years he let me go in with the coaches every morning to see what goes on, all the organisation."

Ferguson himself has been impressed with Robson's start. "He has adapted to management well," the Manchester United manager said this week. "It is a very different job to when I started. There are so many pitfalls now. You need a bit of luck and he had that in going to Middlesbrough at the right time, when there was a chairman who could plough money into it and allow him to buy big. He has been able to buy good players.

"His strengths as a manager are the same as they were as a player. He is single-minded, stubborn even, very determined. He has great concentration and is very thorough. I went to see him before the Coca-Cola Cup game with Crystal Palace and he was in his little room, surrounded by all his data on them."

The sight of the buccaneering Robson poring over statistics and scouting reports is hard to envisage. Not that he has changed that much. At Bisham Abbey earlier this month, during an England practice match, a familiar figure sprinted late into the box and rose to meet a cross only to head it wide. Curses filled the autumn air.

The England connection - he is one of Venables' coaches - is an enjoyable one. "It is a bit more relaxing. You want the team to win but the boss picks it and the pressure is on him. It is good to mix with the best footballers and work with people like Terry and Don Howe."

Robson is obviously a candidate to succeed Venables. He is also talked of as a potential successor to Ferguson, the speculation fuelled by Robson's continued residence in Cheshire (he commutes to Middlesbrough by plane).

"I am not looking to move house at the moment because my children are facing an important time for their schooling [they are approaching GCSE exams]. At the moment I am just looking to improve Middlesbrough."

There is a sense that Robson is destined for Old Trafford or Lancaster Gate, but he may be tempted to stay. He admits even he has been surprised at the enthusiasm on Teeside.

"This season has been above expectation. I did not expect to fill 30,000 seats. The players respond to the atmosphere, the fans are right behind the team. We are still growing - 15 months ago we finished ninth in the First Division."