Before players were introduced to pasta (how fancy pants!) and vitamin shakes (oh, you’re spoiling us) their diet consisted of lager and whiskey chasers and a half-time fag – so the story goes. The games were, thus, slower, as were the players (although no less entertaining) … this was of course, at least in United’s case, for one man … Bryan Robson.
When we talk of players with ‘engines’ now we are in the most part referring to what is, in effect, a highly trained athlete. Football in the 80s didn’t have dieticians, with computer generated and calibrated fitness programmes. If you were to recreate the scene from Rocky 4 with Robbo as Rocky and A.N.Other Premiership footballer playing the part of Dolph Lundgren, the outcome would be the same. Robbo on the mountain top. Premiership player legs akimbo at the foot of the treadmill.
His heart and desire were there for all to see. His all-action style was the envy of players and fans the world over. But this belies another truth about him: behind those attributes more readily observed of him, was a very talented and technically gifted footballer. His combative style was almost like a highly evolved smokescreen for a deadly finisher, and extremely proficient user of the ball. He seemed to score every week, although statistically he was a roughly a 1 in 4 man – still not bad for a midfielder.
If ever any player epitomised the footballing cliche of leading by example, then Robbo was that player. He was simply an irresistible force. He didn’t need to intimidate players with big tackles (not that he shirked them, or was shy of the odd one or two), he intimidated them with his unwavering drive. I remember watching some games and feeling like we were a man up on the opposition, such was his wont. If a professional footballer isn’t inspired by a player like Robbo in their dressing room, then they should probably consider a different vocation. As a team player there can probably be no clearer an example of his selflessness than when he turned down the opportunity to score a hat-trick in the final of the F.A cup in ’83. He was and will remain ‘Captain Marvel’.
His influence carried through and was arguably the catalyst for the generation that spawned the most successful period in the club’s history. When a player shows so much of the character that Robbo did, and the tangible response from the fans is there for all to see, it’s only natural for the players coming up through the club to strive to emulate that. Becks worshipped Robbo; he claims it was in fact Robbo who inspired him more than any other player. All of the youth players who came through in the early 90s earmark Robbo as a stand out influence on their career. It’s fitting that he was able to help lead the club to its first title in donkey’s years, and in turn lay down the foundation for things to come.
Being installed as ambassador for the club, speaks volumes of his legacy at the club. Rarely does a player embody the spirit and passion on the pitch of the archetypal captain like Robbo. It’s these things that will live long in the memory of the fans. He would now, had his initially promising managerial career not curtailed off in a downward trajectory, be considered a natural successor to SAF (although it’s convenient to say this ignoring an infinite count of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’).
I imagine that people would argue that it’s difficult to talk about Robbo’s legacy and reputation in light of the recent Dispatches documentary footage, without mentioning it. Well there you go I just did. Put it into a search engine if you missed it entirely. I rarely concern myself with player’s off-field affairs, that’s not to say I ignore them, but to me they exist as heroes and villains within the confines of the football pitch first and foremost and sometimes within the tunnel and then sometimes within the press rooms. How they really are when the insipidness and cliché of media training peals away and they turn out to be just as human as the rest of us is no more interesting, as it is unsurprising. (Yes. I’m aware of all the stories of footballers in the press and enjoy them and cringe at them in equal measure to a point.) Nothing can change how much of a hero Robbo was to me growing up, because he was just that at that time. That’s how I will remember him.
More telling of his legacy, is that he was recently voted the club’s greatest ever player by United legends themselves in the new book 19. He was THE United player of the 80s. His name will be forever woven into the fabric of our club. I fell in love with football because of Bryan Robson.