“This Sheffield United right back was kicking me in one game, giving me a few verbals and it affected me a bit. I said to Robbo “That right back’s just said he’s going to break my legs”, Robbo said to me “Did he? You come and play midfield, I’m going to play left wing for ten minutes”. We swapped positions. Robbo soon came back and said “Aye, you’re alright now, go back over.” Problem solved!”. Ryan Giggs.
“With this player you’re not taking a gamble, what you’re buying is pure gold”. Ron Atkinson.
Just two of the many quotes describing the kind of player Bryan Robson was during his playing career, a midfield general who was the finest of his generation and an England captain unequaled. Robson was born in 1957 in Chester Le Street in County Durham, to Brian and Maureen. Chester Le Street is right in the northern part of Durham, only seven miles or so from Newcastle upon Tyne. Robson was actually brought up in the village of Witton Gilbert until he was six years old, the family then moving the fifteen minute drive up the road to Chester Le Street.
Bryan has an older sister and two brothers, Gary and Justin who were both football players themselves. Gary would go on to play for West Bromwich Albion for eleven years, turning out for the Baggies from 1982 to 1993. Interestingly, the late great England and Ipswich manager Sir Bobby Robson was born in Sacriston, a spits distance from Witton Gilbert. As a boy Robson was a Newcastle United fan, his hero was Wyn Davies the welsh striker who spent five years at St James’s Park. Incidentally Davies would have a brief spell with Tommy Docherty’s Manchester United during the 1972 – 1973 season. Aged eleven years of age Robson began attending Birtley South Secondary Modern, shortly after he moved to the Lord Lawson of Beamish Academy. Obviously the young Robson was a keen footballer in his youth, turning out for the school team, not only that he was the captain of the team. At this time he was also in playing for the Washington and District side, again as team captain. As a youth Robson had trials with a few professional clubs including Sheffield Wednesday and his boyhood team Newcastle United. However it would be Staffordshire club West Bromwich Albion who would secure the young Robson’s signature during the summer of 1972. Aged only fifteen years of age Bryan Robson was now a West Bromwich Albion player albeit as an apprentice earning five pounds a week which would rise in his second year to eight pounds a week. The team manager of West Bromwich Albion at the time was Don Howe, a former West Brom right back who played for the club for twelve years from 1952 to 1964. Howe was from nearby Wolverhampton, only ten miles or so from West Bromwich. Don was a very decent right back who would earn twenty three international caps with England, however his time as team boss at The Hawthorns didn’t go as well as he would have liked. The West Bromwich Albion that the young Robson had just joined had seen some success in recent years. They had won the League Cup in 1966 beating West Ham; interestingly that ’66 League Cup final was the last time the League Cup final would be contested over two legs. They had reached the final again the season after but the red hot favourites from The Hawthorns were beaten by Division Three side Queens Park Rangers. In 1968 Alan Ashman’s West Brom had lifted the FA Cup, beating Everton 1 – 0 in the final at Wembley Stadium, the winning goal scored by club legend Jeff Astle. A season later they had shared the Staffordshire Senior Cup with Stoke City. They reached the League Cup final once again in 1970 but were beaten by Manchester City, a year later they made the final of the now defunct Watney Cup being narrowly beaten by Colchester United. Don Howe had played a major role in Arsenals double success of 1971; he was the number two to the then Arsenal team boss Bertie Mee. Howe was named team boss of West Bromwich Albion in the summer of 1971 but as I‘ve ready said his stay at The Hawthorns wasn’t a successful one. At the end of the 1972 – 1973 season West Bromwich Albion finished bottom of the old First Division. In those days only two teams were relegated from the English top flight, joining them in the Second Division for the following season would be Crystal Palace, Howe’s former employers Arsenal finishing runners up to Liverpool in the old First Division. The board of directors at The Hawthorns kept faith with Don Howe in the managerial hot seat believing their manager was the best man to guide them back to the top flight. The following season West Brom finished in eighth place in the old Division Two. Any hopes of an immediate return to the top flight were dashed by disappointing results and poor form which included a heavy home defeat to the tune of 4 – 0 to eventual divisional champions Middlesbrough. Now in the second year of his apprenticeship Robson made his appearance for the Baggies that season in a reserve team game away to Everton at Goodison Park.
During the close season of 1974 Robson signed his first ever professional contract, a contract that included a two hundred and fifty pounds signing on fee, his weekly wage increasing to twenty eight pounds a week. The summer of 1975 was a very good one for Bryan Robson’s career, still finding his feet in the professional game the fledgling professional was called up for the England Youth team for what was termed the Mini World Cup. He was in the squad as a defender, a centre half. A midfielder by trade his performances as a utility player at The Hawthorns did not go unnoticed. It was great summer for the eighteen year old Robson; the English team went on to win the tournament beating Finland in the final by a goal to nil. Back at West Bromwich Albion, if the young and still inexperienced Robson needed influence and example of club loyalty and everything of that nature he had joined the right club in West Bromwich Albion. When Robson’s professional career was in its early days West Bromwich Albion had three players in its ranks that can be easily be considered legends of West Bromwich Albion of the modern era. Jeff Astle was still at The Hawthorns when Robbo was there; Jeff had scored the only goal of the game in the 1968 FA Cup final against Everton to give the Baggies their 5th FA Cup. Astle was a hugely popular figure in English football back then, he continued to be so long after he hung his boots up. Astle was at West Bromwich Albion for ten years from 1964 to 1974 and was an integral part of that successful late ‘60’s period for the Baggies. Len Cantello was another class act in the Baggies team, another great example for the young developing Robson. Mancunian Cantello was at West Brom for eleven years, playing over 300 games for the club. Cantello was a no nonsense hard tackling midfielder, pretty much exactly the same type of midfielder Robson would develop into. Also in that West Brom side was Tony Brown. Brown was born in Oldham but his family moved to the Wythenshawe area of Manchester when Tony was still a very young child. Not surprisingly Tony grew up a Manchester United fan, his hero was Denis Law. Like Cantello, Brown was a very capable midfielder who had a penchant for scoring great goals. Tony Brown would go on to claim a couple of records as a West Bromwich Albion player. He’s made the most appearances for the club, turning out for the Baggies in well over seven hundred games and he is their all-time top goal scorer with nearly three hundred goals. So yes, the young Bryan Robson had some very appropriate examples to draw upon in that West Brom team of the mid ‘70’s. The West Bromwich Albion side of the mid 1970’s were now treading water, the following season they finished sixth in the Second Division, their domestic cup campaigns that season were brief. They went out of the League Cup in the third round to Norwich City and Carlisle United put them put them out of the FA Cup in the fourth round. As West Brom endured some uncomfortable times the young Robson was working hard at The Hawthorns. Although now turning out for the reserves on a regular basis he was still waiting for this call up to the West Brom first team. 1975 saw Don Howe part company with West Bromwich Albion. With only three games of the season remaining Howe was replaced by Brian Whitehouse. Like Howe a former West Brom player, Whitehouse finished his playing career with Leyton Orient in the late 1960’s. It was Brian Whitehouse who gave the eighteen year old Robson his first senior game for the Baggies during an away match at York City, the Baggies winning the game 3 – 0. Robson scored his very first goal for West Brom in the very next game versus Cardiff City, the Baggies winning that match 2 – 0. Robson was on a roll, in the final game of the season he found the net again against Nottingham Forest.
Only weeks later Whitehouse was replaced by Johnny Giles who arrived at The Hawthorns from Leeds United. Giles was employed by the Baggies as player manager. Giles would more often than not pick himself for the central midfield role, therefore curtailing game time opportunities for Robson although Robbo would be used to an extent as a utility player playing in the defence by manager Giles. Baggies fans were celebrating at the end of the 1975 – 1976 season as their club won promotion back into Division One finishing in third place behind champions Sunderland and Bristol City. It was only down to goal difference that the Baggies finished in third place, they finished that season level on fifty three points with second placed Bristol City. It was a close run thing though; Bolton Wanderers finishing in fourth that season only a point behind West Bromwich Albion. So now the young Bryan Robson was a First Division player for the first time in his career.
Things were looking up for the young Robson as not only was his club now in the English top flight but as the new season gathered pace he was seeing more first team football. It was while playing as that midfielder turned defender very early that season, that Robson underwent the first serious injury of his professional career. During a match with Tottenham Hotspur Robson broke his left leg. After a period of recuperation he made his comeback in a reserve game against Stoke City, unfortunately for Robbo the same leg was refractured on the original break. These untimely injuries would be something that would dog Bryan throughout his playing career. After getting over that set back Robson returned to first team football for the Baggies that Christmas, thankfully no more injuries occurred which enabled him to enjoy an unbroken run of games in the first team. The March of 1977 was a great month for Robbo; firstly he received another international call up for the recently established England Under 21 squad, however his club put the kibosh on this as West Brom had an important league game against Manchester United at Old Trafford coming up and the club were once again battling for a European place. That match at Old Trafford ended in a 2 – 2 draw with the young Robson scoring one of the goals against the club where he would become a legend of English football. Secondly, it was during that month that Bryan scored his first hat trick, against Ipswich Town, the Baggies winning that match 4 – 0. It was around this time that Robson got his first international call up for the England Under-23 squad. However bad luck would strike again as he sustained another injury during a game with Manchester City, this time it was a broken ankle. As far as the club were concerned it was a good first season back in the First Division, they finished in seventh place on forty five points, two points behind Manchester United. During the April of that season player manager Johnny Giles resigned, he would later return to The Hawthorns in the 1980’s. Replacing Giles in the June of 1977 as team boss would be Ronnie Allen. Allen was a former Baggies player, playing for them as a striker from 1950 to 1961. He was sold to West Brom by Port Vale for a then record fee of twenty thousand pounds with Allen scoring on his debut against Wolverhampton Wanderers in a 1 – 1 draw. Allen left his position at The Hawthorns only months later that Christmas to take up the position of advisor for the Saudi Arabian national team. In came John Wile to take the managerial reins for only a matter of days, in the January of 1978 West Bromwich Albion appointed Ron Atkinson as team manager.
Atkinson had impressed as manager of Cambridge United, taking them to promotion to Division Three as Division Four champions. Atkinson had done sterling work at Cambridge; Scotsman John Docherty, Atkinson’s deputy at Cambridge, would replace Atkinson as Cambridge United manager and would lead them to promotion again, finishing as runners up to Wrexham with the team that Atkinson had put together. One of Ron’s first tasks as Baggies team manager was knocking out cup holders Manchester United out of the FA Cup in the Fourth round, it finished 1 – 1 at Old Trafford, in the replay Albion won 3 – 2. Now a first team regular the young Robson showed his worth in that cup tie against the team he would go on to be a legend of and Big Ron was forced to have a rethink about his emerging midfielder…
“I didn’t rate Robbo at first. All I could see was the permed hair that made him look like Kevin Keegan. At the time I thought that was all that they had in common. But I was wrong. I had to play him as centre half in an FA Cup replay early in 1978, ironically against United and he obliterated Joe Jordan. He was 19, and he was magnificent. A brain rocking revelation. He never looked back after that.” Ron Atkinson
That seasons FA Cup threw up quite a few surprises, not least the Fourth round tie between Blyth Spartans of the Northern Premier League and Stoke City of Division Two which saw Blyth beat Stoke 3 – 2 at the Victoria Ground therefore becoming the first non-league side to reach the Fifth round of the FA Cup in nearly thirty years, incidentally three days later Manchester United bought Scottish international Gordon McQueen from Leeds United for a fee of around £495,000. After a few seasons of managerial musical chairs and indifferent form following their return to the First Division Atkinson’s arrival at The Hawthorns breathed new life into the Staffordshire club. Atkinson’s first signing for West Brom was Brendan Batson who Ron brought in from his old club Cambridge United. That meant Batson was now playing alongside Cyrille Regis and Laurie Cunningham which meant the Baggies became the first team in British football to regularly field three black players. At the end of that season West Brom finished in sixth place, not really an improvement in league position but they were playing better football and Robson was an important part of that improvement and it did mean Robson and team mates had next seasons UEFA Cup to look forward to. Their first UEFA Cup tie of the 1978 -1979 season was against Turkish side Galatasaray; the first leg took place at the Ali Sami Yen Stadium, the then home of Galatasaray. It ended in smiles for the English team as they ran out 3 – 1 winners. Robbo scored his first goal in European football that night in Istanbul; it didn’t take him long, finding the Turkish goal in the sixth minute. Laurie Cunningham provided the Baggies with their other two goals. Back at The Hawthorns the Baggies carried on where they left off winning by the same score 3 – 1. Once again Robbo opened the scoring for West Brom, this time in the thirty third minute, John Trewick and again Laurie Cunningham also found the net. West Brom sailed into the next round on the back of an impressive 6 – 2 aggregate win. In the next round the Baggies faced Portuguese team Sporting Clube de Braga. The first leg took place in Portugal. No bother for the Baggies they flew back home with a 2 – 0 victory, both goals scored by Cyrille Regis. At The Hawthorns the Baggies won 1 – 0 courtesy of a Tony Brown goal. That meant they were into the third round and it was in the third round where the Baggies produced arguably their best ever result in European football. They were drawn against Valencia of Spain, the first leg taking place in Spain. The Baggies earned themselves a creditable draw, the game finished 1 – 1, the West Brom goal was scored by Laurie Cunningham in the 48th minute that leveled the game, Robson played beyond his years that night, gaining valuable experience for the years to come. By now Robson was being touted a future England star but his international call up would have to wait. Back at The Hawthorns the Baggies ran out 2 – 0 winners, therefore eliminating one of the tournament favourites. Unfortunately for West Brom their European adventure came to an in the quarter final against Yugoslavia’s Red Star Belgrade, losing narrowly 2 – 1 on aggregate.
Domestically the Baggies had their best season for some time, the developing Robson now a very valuable player for the club. The Baggies began that 78 – 79 domestic season in fine form with a 2 – 1 home victory against Ipswich Town, they then went to Loftus Road and beat QPR by a goal to nil, the next game they beat Bolton Wanderers at The Hawthorns 4 – 0. Robbo scored his first goal of the season during a home draw with Norwich City, the game finishing 2 – 2. Robbo scored fourteen goals in all competitions that season, like I said West Brom had a good season that year they finished in third place only a point behind Nottingham Forest in second place with sixty points. The Christmas series of games for that season were extremely good for Robson and West Bromwich Albion which began with a 3 – 0 away win at Wolverhampton Wanderers. They then went to Highbury where they beat Arsenal 2 – 1 with Robson getting on the scoresheet. West Brom then went to Old Trafford for a meeting with Dave Sexton’s Manchester United. The last match of the year for both teams saw the two side’s field strong sides. United’s starting eleven consisted of Bailey in goal followed by Brian Greenhoff, Stewart Houston, Gordon McQueen, Martin Buchan, Steve Coppell, Sammy McIlroy, Jimmy Greenhoff, David McCreery, Andy Ritchie and Mickey Thomas. Albion lined up with Tony Godden, Derek Statham, Brendan Batson, Tony Brown, John Wile, Ally Robertson, Robbo, Len Cantello, Cyrille Regis, Ally Brown and Laurie Cunningham. It was a match full of incident and goals, both teams having chances to score, United were even awarded an indirect free kick inside the Baggies eighteen yard box, both teams seeing the funny side as they enacted a mock rugby scrum before the free kick was taken. It was United who took the lead when the much missed United legend Brian Greenhoff hit a superb ball into the Baggies net following a Sammy McIlroy corner. Another footballing legend made it one each not long after, a pass into the United goal by Cunningham that was cleverly dummied enabled Tony Brown to level the game, Robbo being the first to congratulate Brown. The Baggies made it 2 – 1 in their favour following another piece of clever football on the edge of the United eighteen yard box that allowed Len Cantello to fire in a great shot past Gary Bailey. United gained parity when Gordon McQueen scored from a header after Stewart Houston had floated a ball into the Albion goal area. United then took the lead when Sammy McIlroy dribbled his way into the Albion box before slotting ball past Tony Godden in the Baggies net, 3 – 2 United. It was Robbo who could have equalized for Albion after being put through on goal by Tony Brown with an inch perfect pass, luckily for United Bailey made the save. The Baggies leveled the game when Tony Brown, having a great name for his team, poked the ball into the United net from only yards out. That’s how it finished in the first half, the fans of both teams being treated to a forty five minute goalfest. West Brom took the two points with a couple of goals in the final fifteen minutes of the second half, Cunningham making it 4 – 3 to the Baggies with a well placed shot past Gary Bailey. Cyrille Regis made it 5 – 3 for West Brom with only moments left of the game, slotting past Bailey via a good pass from Ally Brown. It finished United 3 West Brom 5, despite the loss the United fans had to admit they had seen a great game of football. After that impressive win Robson would go on to score a further four goals that season, twelve goals in all competitions. The following February Robbo made his Under 21 debut in a 1 – 0 win over Wales. A few months later in June he made his debut for the England B team in a game against Austria, Robson scoring the only goal of the game. Domestically, the season after was a bit of a disappointment for the Baggies finishing mid table in third place. Despite this drop in form for Albion Robbo had been heavily touted for a full international debut, this he did in the February of 1980 against The Republic of Ireland at Wembley Stadium, England running out 2 – 0 winners. Robbo would have to wait until his thirteenth international to claim his first goal for England. Unfortunately for England Robbo’s debut goal came in a 2 – 1 defeat to Norway. It was the match that is famous for the post match words of Norwegian commentator, Bjørge Lillelien. “Maggie Thatcher, blah blah blah, your boys took a hell of a beating…”, well that game saw Robbo’s first England goal.
During the summer of 1981 Ron Atkinson left The Hawthorns to become the manager of Manchester United. Despite United having an impressive end to the 1980 – 1981 domestic season, winning their last seven games of the season which included a 2 – 1 win over West Bromwich Albion, the writing was on the wall for Dave Sexton. Sexton had been United team boss for four seasons and had failed to bring any honours to the club. Yes, there had been near misses, runners up in the FA Cup of the 78 – 79 season and a runners up place the season before in the First Division, only finishing two points behind champions Liverpool. However, the board of directors at Old Trafford were ready for a new pair of hands on the managerial reins at United and to be honest, so were the fans.
The first couple of players Ron brought to Old Trafford was Remi Moses and Robbo, Bryan Robson was about to begin his journey with the world’s biggest and best supported club, Robbo would go on to become a true legend of club and country. Of course, the day that Robbo sat at that table on the Old Trafford pitch before the Wolves game to sign his contract flanked by Atkinson and Edwards, has been well documented. It was actually the idea of the then club chairman Martin Edwards, an idea designed to convey the message to the fans and the rest of the football world that after the disappointing days under Sexton that United were committed to bring back the days of exciting football back to Old Trafford. Bringing in Atkinson after his success with West Bromwich Albion that saw him take the Staffordshire club to its best finish in the English top flight, not forgetting taking Cambridge United to promotion and making Bryan Robson the then most expensive player in British football, United were certainly making a concerted commitment for the future. Robson cost United a million and a half, with hindsight it was a drop in the ocean for what he gave United whilst he wore the red shirt, the bargain of the century. Robbo made his debut for United in a League Cup game, unfortunately United were beaten by Tottenham Hotspur. He made his league debut for United in the Manchester derby, a game that ended goalless; incidentally that game against City was the first time Robson wore the number seven shirt for the Red Devils
As the 1980 – 1981 season began at Old Trafford with a new dynamic manager installed there was a renewed sense of purpose at the club, Robson’s arrival pleased the fans no end, they were fully aware, fully aware what a great player he was at West Bromwich Albion. Robson wanted to go to United soon as he became aware United were interested in him
"Money wasn't my main motivation. I simply wanted to be a winner." Bryan Robson.
"Soon as I took the job, I wanted Robson. When I was at Albion he’d put in a transfer request, slipped a letter in my office when he’d come back from being away with England. So I called him in and he said, “Well United are after me.” “My reply to him was ‘I tell you now for nothing, the only way you’ll go to Man United is if I go there before you!’ The day I got the United job Robbo was out in Switzerland with the England team, and he’s on the ‘phone: “Gaffer, remember what you said?” Talk about managers tapping players up – he was tapping me!” Ron Atkinson.
Robbo scored his first goal for United during a 5 – 1 demolition of Sunderland at the then home of the Mackems, Roker Park. As the season wore on United’s new midfield general showed time and time again why United had made him the most expensive player in British football. Excellent performances on the pitch at Old Trafford and during away games in the First Division were to make him an England regular, England’s number seven for years to come. In the run up to the 1982 world cup in Spain Robbo found the net for England numerous times, including scoring a couple in a victory over Finland. Ron Greenwood was now the England team boss, and like Big Ron at Old Trafford, Robbo was the first name on Greenwoods England team sheets. A rejuvenated United finished that season in third place, the club was now playing that cavalier, attacking football that United had gained a reputation for, Robbo was one of the main reasons for that, combative, strong, with a cast iron will to win. If the United team was made of Robsons, goalie, defenders etc., United would have won the league by Christmas every season, as well as winning the World Cup, Grand National and Wimbledon, simple as that really. The last couple of games of the season saw Robbo score in both, a great way to sign off for the season. The penultimate match of United’s season was away at Robbo’s former club, West Brom, United came away with the points after a convincing 3 – 0 win, joining Robbo on the score sheet was Garry Birtles and Steve Coppell.
The final game of the season was at Home to Richie Barker’s Stoke City, Robbo and Big Norm gave United a 2 – 0 home win. Robson had just enjoyed a great first season with United, no silverware but United were now playing better football, the old United way, under a very good team boss in Atkinson with new players such as Frank Stapleton and Norman Whiteside and a new captain in Bryan Robson. Atkinson made a good start as United boss, but he did make the odd strange decision, such as the decision not to re-sign Gordon Hill for United when he had the chance. With the 1981 – 1982 season over, Robson had the 1982 World Cup to look forward too, not to mention European football with United when the next domestic season began. England played their final qualifying game for World Cup the previous November, a 1 – 0 victory over group winners Hungary at Wembley Stadium.
England qualified as runners up, level on points with Hungary the Hungarians qualified as group winners courtesy of goal difference. In Spain England were based in the northern city of Bilbao they would play their group games at the San Mamés Stadium, home of Athletic Club of Bilbao. Ron Greenwood’s sides were drawn into Group 4, along with France, Kuwait and Czechoslovakia. England’s opening game with France was all about Bryan Robson. Mick Mills of Ipswich Town was the England team captain for that world cup, Robbo would see the captain’s armband shortly but for now he was on the pitch as a midfielder alongside United team mates Steve Coppell and Ray Wilkins. Robbo, wearing the number sixteen shirt, didn’t wait long to announce himself on the international stage, just twenty seven seconds into the game up pops Robbo to put England one nil up. That goal by Robbo had United written all over it, as soon as the game kicked off Ray Wilkins found Steve Coppell on the right with a long pass, after a French challenge the ball went out for an England throw in, Coppell threw the ball into the French eighteen yard box, the ball was flicked on which found Robbo only yards out, United’s record transfer player blasted the ball into the French goal, 1 – 0 England in less than thirty seconds.
Robbo’s world cup record for scoring the fastest goal in a world cup game would stand for twenty years; in 2002 Hakan Sükür of Turkey took the record scoring in ten seconds against South Korea. Just over twenty minutes later the French leveled the game. About twenty minutes into the second half Robson makes it 2 – 1 for England with a skillful header following a cross into the French area by Trevor Francis. England made sure of the win with a Paul Mariner goal about six minutes from time, England winning 3 – 1. England won the group, winning all three of their games which meant they would progress into the second round group stage, into Group B with West Germany and host nation Spain. England drew 0 – 0 with both nations, West Germany beat Spain 2 – 1 so they progressed into the semifinals. England were going home, knocked out of the tournament despite remaining undefeated. Once back at Old Trafford for the beginning of the new season, Atkinson made him club captain. United had a decent start that season, the opening game of the season had finished in a 3 – 0 victory for United over Birmingham City, the goals coming from Kevin Moran, Steve Coppell and Frank Stapleton. Robbo now wearing the captain’s armband scored his first goal of the season in the next game, away to Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest which ended in another 3 – 0 win for the Red Devils, joining Robbo on the score sheet was young Norman Whiteside recently brought into the first team from the youth set up, and Ray Wilkins. United it seemed, were motoring along very nicely.
There was a buzz about Old Trafford back then, the club had a young and dynamic captain, quickly proving himself the best midfielder in the game, the manager was outwardly positive and extrovert, the team was full of class players, it had in Norman Whiteside the finest youngster in world football who had broken records at the recent world cup in Spain. However, the United team back then wasn’t immune from the occasional disappointing result and that’s what happened after the victory at the City Ground. United went to The Hawthorns, to Robbo’s former club West Bromwich Albion, despite Robbo scoring again for United the Red Devils were beaten 3 – 1. The following game was Everton at home, this time United put a shift in and won the game 2 – 1, Robbo scoring again with young Whiteside getting the other. Unfortunately, United’s European exploits that season would come to an end before they could really get started.
With hindsight the old adage of close but no cigar would be the story of United’s European endeavors during the 1980’s. That season United went out to Spain’s Valencia in the first round of the UEFA Cup. It was a narrow loss, after drawing 0 – 0 at Old Trafford United lost 2 – 1 in Spain. United’s scorer in Spain? Yep. Bryan Robson. However, that disappointing introduction to cup football for that season for Robbo and United would soon be forgotten as United began to gain a reputation as the best cup side in the land. Robbo’s career and reputation as a world class midfielder and leader on the pitch was snowballing. Only days after England had been knocked out of the world cup in Spain that summer, Bobby Robson the then Ipswich manager was made the new England manager. It was the late great Sir Bobby Robson who made Bryan Robson England captain, Robbo’s first match as England captain occurred that November. A European Championship qualifying match against Greece in Salonika northern Greece, saw Captain Robson’s England run out 3 – 0 winners. At United that season Robbo would lead United to third in the league and two cup finals. After defeating Bournemouth, Bradford City, Southampton, Nottingham Forest and Arsenal in the two legged semifinal, United found themselves in the first League Cup final in the clubs history. They would face Liverpool in the final at Wembley Stadium. Unfortunately for Robbo and United he had sustained an injury in the semifinal against Arsenal, he had actually torn his ligaments in his ankle. In Robbo’s absence Ray Wilkins wore the captain’s armband in that final. The Shankill Skinhead Norman Whiteside opened the scoring for United early in the game in the twelfth minute, Liverpool didn’t equalise until late in the game, in the seventy fifth minute. The final went into extra time and it was Liverpool who nicked it courtesy of a Ronnie Whelan goal. Liverpool saw a lot of luck in that final, the biggest slice of luck they had was seeing Robbo having to sit this final out. During his playing career Bryan Robson lined up against Liverpool many a time and many a time he bossed the midfield, getting the better of the Liverpool midfield. The FA Cup of that season was an entirely different matter for United and Robbo. In the third round of that Season’s FA Cup United faced West Ham at Old Trafford, no bother United winning 2 – 0. The fourth round brought a game with Luton Town away at Kenilworth Road, again United emerged the winners to the tune of 2 – 0. Round Five Derby County were the opposition, United travelled to Derby’s then home stadium, the Racecourse Ground, they left with a 1 – 0 win the goal scored by Norman Whiteside. In Round Six United faced Everton at home, Frank Stapleton’s goal giving United a narrow 1 – 0 win. United were now in the semifinal, facing them at Villa Park would be Arsenal, the same team they faced and beaten a couple of months previous in the semi of the League Cup. Robbo had by now recovered from those torn ankle ligaments and was ready to lead his team to victory at Villa Park. Arsenal actually had the audacity to take the lead, a goal by Tony Woodcock putting the London club ahead in the thirty sixth minute. Arsenal may have taken the lead but it was against the run of the game. Aided and abetted by Norman Whiteside Robson was running the midfield, those strong runs from the middle of the park giving Arsenal much to think about.
When the ref blew for half time Arsenal were still leading by a goal to nil. Well, we all know what happened, United came roaring back to win the game 2 – 1. If you had read the magazine articles about that semifinal back in 1983 you would have found out that in the dressing room at half time being a goal to nil down Big Ron and the United players had taken the decision to go for it in the second half. United had been the better team in the first half and they knew it but they found themselves a goal down, feeling a tad hard done by they decided to do something about it. The second half began like the first half had, with United on the front foot. Not surprisingly only four minutes into the second half United gain parity with Arsenal. After a neat ball from Ashley Grimes Robbo got the ball and went past Brian Talbot like he wasn’t there, Robbo then fired a great shot into the Arsenal goal, United were level.
As the second half wore on United were gradually turning the screw on their London opponents. With about twenty minutes left of the game United made sure of another Wembley appearance when Big Norm rocketed a shot into the Arsenal goal. United Great Arthur Albiston was the architect when he put the ball into the path of Norman, with the ball bouncing Norman hit a beautiful volley past the Arsenal goal keeper. Arsenal made an effort to get themselves back into the game but it was no use, United were bossing the game. Even an injured Kevin Moran having to be stretched off wasn’t enough to put the Red Devils off their game. When the ref blew for full time United became the first team in English football history becoming the first team to get into the finals of both domestic cup finals in the same season. This match was another example of Bryan Robson taking the bull by the horns. After having to go through the disappointment of missing the League Cup final through injury, he wasn’t about to miss out on another final and with him being on the pitch he was able to do something about it, Robbo bossed the midfield from start to finish in the FA Cup semifinal at Villa Park.
"It was probably my favourite away ground to play at. I enjoyed the big pitch, it was almost always in good condition and I liked the fact that it was a proper traditional football ground. Tony Woodcock had put Arsenal 1-0 up, but then just after half-time I managed to get the equaliser, it was a great moment. To have won the semi-final and be on the way to Wembley was fantastic." Bryan Robson.
Atkinson’s side, led by Robbo, would face Brighton & Hove Albion in the final at Wembley. The south coast team had beaten Sheffield Wednesday in the other semifinal at Highbury in London, United were the hot favourites to lift the cup. The final was penciled in for the twenty first of May, both managers, Atkinson and Jimmy Melia, could pick from a fully fit squad. With both teams playing a 4 4 2 system it was Brighton who gave United something to think about. Brighton had got to the FA Cup Final on the back of disappointing domestic season in the First Division, despite making the first FA Cup final in the clubs history they were relegated to the Second Division, along with Manchester City and Swansea City. So the Seagulls weren’t going to go down with a fight, they could yet end the season with a smile and out some serious silverware on the mantelpiece for the first time in their history.
Robbo came out of that FA Cup semi victory over Arsenal without injury, the way he put himself about on the pitch at Villa Park and emerge unscathed was a victory in itself. A hundred thousand fans greeted the teams as they emerged from the tunnel and made their way onto the hallowed turf of Wembley Stadium. Of course it was final that would need a replay, the first game was an edge of the seat affair, the south coast team playing above themselves. Indeed it was Brighton who took the lead courtesy of a Gordon Smith goal. United wouldn’t draw level until ten minutes into the second half thanks to a goal from Frank Stapleton. United took the lead in the seventy second minute when Ray Wilkins scored a beauty from the edge of the Brighton eighteen yard box, yet Brighton weren't finished equalizing with only three minutes to go, Brighton could have won it in the final moments of the match had Gary Bailey not been on his game. The replay was five days later and this time United rolled up their sleeves and made sure of another cup win with a commanding display, not least from team captain Bryan Robson. Robbo opened the scoring in the replay after about twenty five minutes into the game, five minutes later up popped Norman Whiteside to make it 2 – 0 in United’s favour. With only moments left of the first half remaining Robbo found the net again, 3 – 0 United were coasting, fully in control of the game. About half way into the second half Dutch ace Arnold Mühren scored from the penalty spot to make it game, set and match to the Red Devils. Robbo lifted his first trophy as United captain, there would be more to come. It was a fitting end to the season for United and Robson, their best finish to a domestic league campaign for years and a FA Cup win with a record score line for an FA Cup final. That summer United met Liverpool again in the Charity Shield, this time United had Robson on the pitch, fit and ready to face Liverpool. The game finished 2 – 0 to United, Robbo scoring both goals, Liverpool were beaten again, you can’t help thinking the League Cup final of only a few months before would have turned out differently had Robbo been fit and on the pitch.
Twelve games into the new season of 1983 – 1984 United had won eight, lost three and drawn one, Robbo at that point had scored three goals. United were unable to sustain a serious challenge for the title eventually finishing that season in fourth place. The FA Cup holders relinquished their hold on the trophy after an embarrassing defeat in the third round against lower league Bournemouth, their interest in the League Cup would end in the fourth round following defeat to Oxford United. Because of that FA Cup win the season before United were entered into the European Cup Winners Cup for the following season. Although United would fail to reach the final that season, once again Bryan Robson would once again prove his worth to United, providing another example of the kind of player he was in the red shirt of Manchester United. United’s first round opponents were Czech side Dukla Prague, the first leg at Old Trafford ended in a 1 – 1 draw, Ray Wilkins scoring for United, over in Prague at Dukla’s Juliska stadium United came away with a hard earned 2 – 2 draw, the goals scored by Robbo and Frank Stapleton, so United were through to the second round via the away goals rule. Another eastern European side awaited the Red Devils in round two in the form of Bulgarian outfit Spartak Varna. United had an easier time against Spartak. The first leg was away, taking place in the Black Sea city, United winning 2 – 1, Robbo once again finishing the net along with Glaswegian Arthur Graham. Back at Old Trafford the Bulgarians were put to the sword courtesy of a couple of goals from Frank Stapleton, United winning the tie on aggregate 4 – 1. United were in the quarter final, facing them Spanish giants Barcelona, a side which featured Diego Maradona and Marcos Alonso.
The first leg took place in the Nou Campe, Barcelona winning the game 2 – 0. On paper that 2 – 0 victory looked quite comfortable foe the Spanish team, but in truth that’s not the case.
It was a close game, neither team looked as though they were going to run away with it, Barcelona had class players on the pitch but so did United and the Spanish club only took the lead courtesy of a mistake from United defender Graeme Hogg who was unfortunate enough to score an own goal. 1 – 0 became 2 – 0 in the last moments of the match when Juan Carlos Rojo found the United net. The Red Devils could think themselves hard done by although they now faced something of a mountain to climb to reach the semifinal of the European Cup Winner’s Cup. A couple of weeks later Barcelona arrived at Old Trafford, only ninety minutes away from a European semifinal. Atkinson had told his team to forget about the undeserving disappointment of a fortnight before and concentrate on winning the game at Old Trafford, hoping it would be enough to see them through. As the Italian referee blew for the game to commence the terraces of Old Trafford were rocking. In those days Old Trafford was a much more compact ground to how it is today, a few days after my sixteenth birthday myself along with 58,000 other fans in the ground that night made sure this game would go down in the history as one of the great nights of Manchester United. Of course United had to take the game to their Spanish opponents and that’s exactly what they did. Robbo put United ahead with little more than twenty minutes gone, a diving header only yards from the Barcelona goal line but there was no denying Robbo that night, as the ball hit the onion bag Old Trafford exploded with noise and cheers. Robbo made it 2 – 0 a few minutes into the second half, again putting the ball in the Barcelona goal from not very far out.
It was 2 – 2 on aggregate and to be honest the Spanish side were on the ropes, Maradona and his famous skills nowhere to be seen to be honest. Only a couple of minutes or so after Robbo making 2 – 0 Frank Stapleton made it 3 – 0, the Old Trafford crowd going ballistic, the Spanish team had no idea what had hit them. In the semifinal United met Juventus of Italy. As I said earlier that United side had a few close but no cigar moments, they were narrowly defeated by the Italian team 3 – 2 on aggregate, Juventus would go on to lift the trophy after beating Portuguese team Porto in the final in Basel, Switzerland.
About a year later another excellent performance from Robbo happened in the FA Cup semifinal of the 1984 – 1985 season. Ron Atkinson’s United had reached the semifinal of that seasons FA Cup after defeating Bournemouth, Coventry City, Blackburn Rovers and West Ham, awaiting them in the semifinal match, arch rivals Liverpool managed then by Joe Fagan. The game took place at Everton’s Goodison Park, supposedly a neutral venue but the Liverpool fans could have been forgiven for having a wry smile at the choice of neutral venue given it was only a short distance from Anfield. That day United took to the field with Gary Bailey in goal, the outfield players were John Gidman, Arthur Albiston, Norman Whiteside, Paul McGrath, Graeme Hogg, team captain Bryan Robson, Gordon Strachan, Mark Hughes, Frank Stapleton and Jesper Olsen. Liverpool had many of their best players of the modern era on the pitch to face United, including Kenny Dalglish and Alan Hansen. As you would have expected this was a close game, both teams had the odd chance but that was all, by half time it was still goalless. As the second half got underway Robbo was beginning to claim control of the midfield area of the pitch, Liverpool’s Kevin MacDonald and Ronnie Whelan having the huge job of containing Robson and Norman Whiteside. With about twenty minutes left of the game Robbo, did what he did best by putting the ball in the net against a hated rival. United had earned a corner, Gordon Strachan took it and put a low cross into the Liverpool area, it was bit of a scramble yet Robbo was able to get hold of it and from close distance fired in a shot that actually ricocheted into the Liverpool off Mark Hughes ankle, either way United were in the lead. With about three minutes left of normal time Ronnie Whelan scored a fantastic goal to level the game, extra time would be needed. In extra time it was United who struck first following a goal from the Republic of Ireland international Frank Stapleton, it needed a small deflection to beat Bruce Grobbelaar in the Liverpool net but it no more than United deserved, they had been the better side as the game progressed, mainly down to Robson in midfield. However, Lady Luck was really smiling upon Liverpool that day as they managed to get another equaliser, this time it was Paul Walsh who scored for Liverpool with only seconds of extra time remaining. It finished 2 – 2 at Goodison Park, a replay was needed to decide who was going through to the final at Wembley Stadium.
The replay took place at Maine Road, the then home of Manchester City. It was Liverpool who drew first blood with about five minutes left of the first half, the goal occurring during a goal mouth scramble. Depending who you listen to it was either John Wark who scored or it was Paul McGrath who was unfortunate enough to score an own goal, either way come half time Liverpool were in the lead. The second half was only moments old when Robbo made his presence known. Winning possession of the ball in the middle of the pitch he took the ball and ran with it, and ran, and ran. He was about twenty five yards out when he let a thunderous go, it went flying past Grobbelaar into the goal, it was a superb solo effort, one goal defining what Bryan Robson was all about, it was a brilliant goal by the United and England captain.
So, it was game on. About ten minutes later Mark Hughes made it 2 – 1 in United’s favour, the shot from Sparky, like Robson’s, taken from outside of the Liverpool eighteen yard box.
It was a night when Robbo took the game by the scruff of the net, a vastly improved performance in the second half orchestrated by Robson sending United through to another FA Cup final. Well, United were through to face another Merseyside club, Everton. As we know United lifted the cup thanks to a goal from the Shankill Skinhead himself, Norman Whiteside. Robson was a potent weapon for United against Liverpool and Everton back in the 1980’s, nine times out of ten Robbo would often win the battle’s in the middle of the park.
As the 1980’s drew to an end United would see a change in manager, Alex Ferguson would travel south of the border from Aberdeen, taking over from Ron Atkinson in 1986. The United of the late 1980’s were a team in major transition. Ferguson was brought in to bring the title back to Old Trafford, of course Fergie succeeded big time in that task. Players would leave the club and new players would come in in those transitory years, one name that would remain on the team sheet was Bryan Robson. Another FA Cup final for United arrived at the end of the 1989 – 1990 season, giving Ferguson his first trophy as United boss and it gave Robbo his third FA Cup final victory as United captain. For the 1990 – 1991 season UEFA lifted the ban on English clubs in European competition, the ban initially brought about by the behaviour of Liverpool fans during the European Cup final of 1985. Robbo would at last get his hands on a European trophy as United captain that season. The season of 1990 – 1991 was one of improvement for Manchester United. As soon as he arrived at Old Trafford Ferguson got to work turning the club around, rejuvenating the clubs youth set up, bringing change within United that enable them to challenge for major honours for years to come. In the January of that season Robbo was awarded an O.B.E. for his services to football, a much deserved award. Ferguson had come in for some fierce criticism during his early days as United team boss, as the years continued those seeds sown by the Scotsman began to bear fruit. As far as the league was concerned United were now recording finishing positions towards the top of the table, no longer a mid-table club. There had been many changes for United in those days but one constant was Bryan Robson, from his position as manager off the pitch Ferguson was guiding the club towards better days, Robbo was doing the guiding on the pitch. After lifting the FA Cup the season before United got to Wembley once again, this time in the League Cup final. Unfortunately they lost out to Sheffield Wednesday, however United had bigger fish to fry. In that seasons European Cup Winner’s Cup United had won victories over Pécsi Munkás of Hungary, Welsh Club Wrexham, Montpelier of France and Legia Warsaw, therefore they had earned a place in the final to take place in Rotterdam against Barcelona of Spain. Once again Robbo came out on top against the Catalan side, United winning the game 2 – 1. After – match celebrations saw Robbo lift the cup, United had won its first European Trophy since the late 1960’s. A couple of years later Robbo finally got his hands a league title medal when United won the inaugural Premier League, he picked up another a year later. Robbo was a superb captain for club and country, as captain of the world’s biggest club Robbo won two Premier League winner’s medals, three FA Cups, a League Cup, three Charity Shield’s, a European Cup Winner’s Cup and a UEFA Super Cup. When Robbo hung his boots up he went into management with Middlesbrough winning the Football League Division One at the end of the 1994 – 1995 season, he then took Middlesbrough into the most successful period in the clubs history. Robbo now works as a Global Ambassador for Manchester United, is there a better candidate for such a job?. Bryan Robson without doubt is the greatest United captain of the last forty years, hands down, no question about it.
Richard Fenton. October 2015.Follow @ricky_red_manc