England and English football has always possessed this uncanny fascination with inspiration, lung-bursting midfielders. A midfield general that will take the game by the scruff of its neck and power his team through to glory using sheer will power, belief, and unmatchable work ethic. Over the years, the viewers haven’t been left disappointed as the likes of Roy Keane and Patrick Viera have graced the Premier League with their immaculate presence.
However, long before this duo enthralled the fans through their feisty tussles and extraordinary exhibitions of excellence in central midfield, one man ruled the midfield duels and is still widely regarded as one of England’s greatest players. That man is none other than Manchester United and English legend, Bryan Robson.
From winning the ball back with a crunching tackle to galloping forward with a lung-bursting run to playing a precise through ball or making a late run into the box to finish a move, Bryan Robson could do it all and was the complete package. Robson was adored for his fearless persona, rigorous work-rate, and never-say-die attitude. Among the many reasons for his global adulation, why he still remains a fan-favorite despite him plying his trade decades ago is due to his undying commitment to the cause and willingness to give it his all whenever he is on the pitch.
On the field, he was a player that wore his heart on the sleeve, stood up for his mates, covered every blade of grass and regularly conjured special moments of mind-boggling brilliance. Thus thoroughly professional when he put on the shirt but once the game ended, he was just another ordinary lad that loved nothing more than sipping a pint or two with his mates.
His incredible journey began in 1972 when at the age of 15. He was offered an apprenticeship at West Bromwich Albion. After three years, Robson made his first-team debut against York City at a nascent age of 18. He didn’t require much time to showcase his goal-scoring prowess, notching goals in consecutive matches following his first game.
Following his promising initial showings, Robson struggled to nail down a regular place or position in the first team under player-manager Johnny Giles. Nevertheless, all that changed under the stewardship of Ron Atkinson, as the English midfielder reveled under his new boss, becoming a lynchpin of the Albion side. Robson was an integral part of the West Brom team that finished third in the 1978-79 season, their highest finish for more than 20 years and helped his side reach the UEFA Cup quarter-finals.
His majestic displays in midfield grabbed the attention of the elite clubs in England as well as his national selectors. Soon, he was rewarded for his impressive performances by receiving his first international call-up, making his full debut for England in 1980. At this time, there was plenty of interest in his services back at home. Among the possible suitors were two of England’s biggest clubs: Manchester United and Liverpool.
These were two clubs with a rich history, glorious traditions, and gigantic fan bases. However, there was one significant difference between the two at that period. On one hand, the Merseyside club was at the zenith of their powers, challenging and winning titles on a fairly consistent basis with very little opposition from its adversaries. While, their arch-rivals, weren’t quite a powerhouse just yet, but were a team on the rise with an ambitious project and more importantly, Ron Atkinson at the helm, a manager who brought the best out of him. Robson ended up choosing the red half of Manchester as he completed a transfer for a record fee.
Robson’s United career did not get off to a fairytale start as he suffered a 1-0 defeat at the hands of Tottenham Hotspur on his United debut and then had to contend with a goalless draw against cross-city neighbours Manchester City on his first league appearance. Despite early results not going his way, there were flashes of his brilliance that had commanded the Red Devils to shell out a record fee for his services.
He finished the season with five goals to his name helping his side finish third in the league. His impressive showings earned him a spot on the 1982 World Cup squad for England, who were to fly out to Spain. Robson announced his arrival on the biggest stage of them all by scoring after 27 seconds against France, making history in the process by setting the record of the fastest goal in World Cup history at the time.
Unfortunately, his stay came to a premature end due to an injury he picked up in the second round of the competition. This is a trend that was set to follow in future editions of the World Cup as Robson missed the latter stages of the 1982, 1986, 1990 finals courtesy of frustrating injury concerns.
Following that World Cup campaign, he was given the captain’s armband after just a solitary season at Manchester United. This was a huge call and yet another proof of his undeniable quality, leadership, and indicative of the immense trust placed in him by his manager and fellow teammates.
Goals started flowing in for him as he plundered 15 times from central midfield, only finishing behind striker Frank Stapleton in the club’s goal-scoring charts. Alongside personal achievements, collective glory too followed for Robson as he lifted his first trophy as United captain by defeating Brighton and Hove Albion in the FA Cup final in 1983.
En route to the final, Bryan Robson had conjured several special performances. Among them, the stand-out game was the memorable comeback scripted by Bryan Robson and Norman Whiteside against Arsenal in the semi-final of the tournament.
The best of him was though reserved for the last as Robson smashed a brace in the final in a four-goal evisceration of the Seagulls. Moreover, in an act that epitomized selflessness and teamwork, Robson decided against taking a penalty to complete a hat-trick, instead choosing to handing the ball over to his teammate, Arnold Mühren.
If Robson had taken and scored the penalty, he would have become the first player in 30 years to score a hat-trick in the FA Cup final. Instead of making history and etching his name in the record books, Robson focused on maintaining the team morale, looking out for his teammates and lifting their confidence if they found themselves in a slump. This speaks volumes about the character and makeup of the fierce Englishman, who was nicknamed ‘Captain Marvel’ by his fans on the back of such exemplary and inspiring showings.
One of his most iconic moments in the United shirt arrived in the following season in the Cup Winners’ Cup competition. Reeling from a 2-0 deficit incurred by a star-studded Barcelona side led by a certain Diego Maradona, the home leg of the tie was supposed to be just another formality. It turned out, no one had informed the warrior donning the number seven shirt for the Red Devils of any such plans. In front of a boisterous Old Trafford crowd, Robson scripted a memorable remontada, tales of which would be told for generations to come.
Robson kickstarted the comeback with a diving header to open the scoresheet. Then, he leveled the proceedings by smashing the ball in from close range, which prompted an eruption inside the Theatre of Dreams. Three minutes after the equalizer, Frank Stapleton scored the winner to complete a famous win.
Sadly, a hamstring injury kept him out of the semi-final legs against Juventus where their memorable run ended as United desperately missed his influential presence in midfield. In the following seasons, Robson managed to guide United to two more FA Cup triumphs with some tremendous displays of individual brilliance. For five consecutive seasons from 1981 to 1986, the United midfield general was a regular fixture in the PFA Team of the Year and was England’s best midfielder, by a country mile.
However, injuries started acting as an impediment in his distinguished career as he paid the price for his all-action style that made him such a special and beloved footballer. His persistent fitness concerns unsurprisingly affected his club as United’s results dwindled without their leader and midfield metronome.
During this period, United were in the middle of an agonizingly long title drought as insurmountable pressure was mounted on the shoulders of Ron Atkinson despite their best efforts in European and cup competitions. The scrutiny was sky-high in the opening few months of the 1986-87 season as United’s results plummeted to extraordinary lows with the Red Devils lingering dangerously close to the relegation zone.
After a string of disappointing results, Atkinson was put out of his misery by United and was replaced by the highly-rated manager, Alex Ferguson. His appointment changed United’s fortunes as the struggling club slowly but steadily began improving and started morphing into a cohesive unit at the end of that disastrous season.
In Fergie’s first full season, United finished in second place behind rivals Liverpool that brought back some of that lost belief and reassured the fans of their ability to still challenge for top honors. It would take three additional seasons and some mediocre football and results before United lifted that elusive title in the 1992-93 campaign.
At that juncture, Robson was still the club captain but his incredulous powers had waned with constant injuries and age restricting his influence on the pitch. The once all-encompassing leader now had to take an unusual backseat as the exuberant youngsters made their mark.
United would go on to win their second consecutive Premier League title with Robson netting his 99th and final goal against Oldham Athletic in the FA Cup semi-final. On the last day of the season, he received a massive ovation from the fans recognizing his massive contribution to the club.
It was only fitting that a man who stood loyally by United in their less glorious days of transition finished his career at the club with two deserved Premier League titles, one European Cup Winners’ Cup and three FA Cups, making him one of the club’s most adored captains. After his 13-year spell at United ended, he hung his boots up after a short stint at Middlesbrough.
Gary Neville perfectly summed up Robson’s lasting legacy and influence in this excerpt from his autobiography, “Robson was my idol, he flogged himself to the end of every game and gave blood, sweat, and tears. When he burst into the box, it was like his life depended on it. Everything was a fight and a battle.”
And, more often than not, he emerged as a winner out of these battles. Robson was a warrior filled with gumption, gusto, and an unrivalled pertinacious approach. A technically flawless player, ferocious competitor, and an unflinching, authoritative presence, he was a special talent and will continue to be a role model for every single generation of footballers. To restate the age-old old cliché in football: they don’t make them like Bryan Robson anymore.