Before Eric Cantona, David Beckham, and Cristiano Ronaldo there was Bryan Robson. The number seven shirt has housed many a legend at Manchester United, and Bryan Robson is one of the best to have adorned it. Roy Keane is my generations Captain, the man that dragged United through the bad times and turned them into great during the success enjoyed under Sir Alex Ferguson, but it was all a lot easier for the Irishman. Robson didn’t get the chance to enjoy such riches and yet is remembered by those that were lucky enough to watch him every week as the best they’ve seen. Those that weren’t so fortunate seek out ways to watch him, and for good reason.
I have been lucky enough to meet Robson, and although I never saw him play the reception he received on introduction from those around me put his influence well into perspective. There isn’t a bad word to say about the man that joined United in 1981 – following manager Ron Atkinson and teammate Remi Moses and after rejecting West Brom’s contract offer of around £1,000 per week. It took a then British record fee of £1.5 million to prise Robson from the grasp of the Midlands club, and it was money extremely well spent. The service he gave for 13 years preceding the move is testament to that.
It took the midfielder just a month to score his first goal for United. 7th November 1981 in a 5-1 hammering of Sunderland at Roker Park, it was the first of five he hit in 33 games in his debut season and as the World Cup approached his International form hit a purple patch also. He endeared himself to his new fans, a no-nonsense approach indicative of the time and matched with a good technical ability that entertained also. He had the complete package.
His second season took much the same shape. Though it was hit by a severe injury in the Semi-Finals of the League Cup against Arsenal, torn ankle ligaments ruled Robson out for the lion’s share of the back-end of the campaign. He recovered just in time for the FA Cup Semi-Final (again against Arsenal) and scored what proved to be the winner in the 2-1 win. Another two goals followed in the Final against Brighton in the 2-2 draw (back in the days when Finals were replayed!), and he wasn’t finished there. In the replay, Robson scored another 2, and rejected the opportunity to make history by scoring his hat-trick – had he taken the penalty rather than selflessly handing the chance to Arnold Muhren it would have made him the first player in 30 years to score a Final hat-trick – in the 4-0 triumph.
He was key in the run in the Cup Winners Cup with two goals in a 3-0 Quarter Final win over Barcelona (overturning a 2-0 first-leg deficit). He was to miss the Semi’s against Juventus with a hamstring injury, but whilst in Turin was granted permission to speak to the Italians regarding a £3 million move, how different things could have been. 1985 heralded another FA Cup win, one that Robson captained the side too, and was helped by that goal from Norman Whiteside.
It wasn’t until 1990 that Robson would be able to feel the silver of a trophy in his hands once more, and injuries started to plague his career. Despite the sacking of Ron Atkinson, Sir Alex Ferguson (then just Alex) kept the England man in the forefront of his plans and the armband stayed in his possession throughout the rest of his troubled career. It is another mark of the man that he continued to be such a big influence under Ferguson in his early days. Where so often players are chopped and changed, the ability to hold onto his place even through his fitness worries.
The FA Cup in 1990 was Robson’s third in nine years, he backed this up with a vital role in winning the Cup Winners Cup in 1991, and added to this a Premier League winners medal in 1993 (in spite of making a mere 14 league appearances for the Red Devils) and again in 1994 (where he made 15 appearances) but it was coming to the end for the clubs longest-serving Captain. Left out of the side that won the FA Cup against Chelsea (a decision Sir Alex Ferguson later described as one of the hardest decisions of his career), stripped of his number seven shirt and also the captaincy, Robson left for a player-manager role at Middlesbrough bringing his 13 year association with United to an end.
His downfall was injuries and the aging process. It happens to every player. But the time he spent in and around the first team (even beyond his 36th birthday) is extraordinary, and sums up his career without needing words really. 461 appearances and 99 goals, a captaincy that spanned 12 years and a list as long as my arm of stellar performances (few that saw it will hesitate to tell you of his influence in the Cup Winners Cup game against Barcelona), as far as legends go, Robson is king of the pack.