In the first of a series of pieces looking at some of United’s captains from recent years we profile Bryan Robson. With Vidic receiving so much praise for his performances whilst wearing the armband you have to think of the original ‘Captain Marvel’ and his astonishing 12 year spell as United’s captain.
United Captains – Bryan Robson 1984-1994
Mention the name of Bryan Robson to Manchester United fans and they will eulogise about a man that carried the mantle of “Captain Marvel”, “Captain Fantastic”, and who had such an influence on the club during his 13 years at Old Trafford. There is no doubt that he is still remembered, and still revered by the legions of fans who were around during his playing career. Many would say that for almost six years of his tenure as captain, he single handedly carried the team through the early “Fergie Years”. More would say that he had too much influence on the players, especially the younger ones, and that the kind of influence that they are talking about, set many a promising youngster, and even seasoned professionals, on a downward spiral that eventually culminated with their departure from Old Trafford. Robson was not only a great player on the pitch, he was more than a player off it as well!
Born on January 11th 1957, in Chester-le-Street, County Durham, Robson came from an ordinary North Eastern, working class background. His father was a lorry driver and Bryan was the second of their four children. As a boy he was football daft like most boys of his age, and his favourite team was naturally, Newcastle United, with centre forward Wyn Davies being his boyhood idol. His boyhood years were spent playing for his local Boy Scout troop, and he also represented his schools, Birtley South Secondary Modern School, and later, Lord Lawson of Beamish Comprehensive school. In his early years it was apparent that Bryan was a natural leader so it was not surprising that not only did he captain his school teams, but also the Washington and District team.
It seemed that the young Robson was destined for a career in the Football League but the question was – with who? He had trials with Burnley, Coventry City, Sheffield Wednesday, his beloved Newcastle United, and West Bromwich Albion. Just when it seemed that nothing was going to materialize for the boy, and as he got close to school leaving age, West Bromwich Albion, who were then in the Second Division and were managed by Don Howe, offered the young Geordie a two year apprenticeship at The Hawthorns. For this he was paid the princely sum of 5 pounds per week in his first year, rising to 8 pounds per week in his second – a far cry from what today’s young pretenders in the game are compensated!
Young Bryan left his native North-East and settled down in the Midlands to begin his career. He was dogged, and very determined to make it as a league footballer, and it wasn’t too long before his performances in the “Throstles” junior teams were beginning to make people within the club sit up and take notice. In just his second year as an apprentice, he was making regular appearances in the Albion’s reserve team. His first professional contract came in 1974 for which he received a 250 pounds signing on fee, plus compensation of 28 pounds per week – he was in the money!
In April 1975, Don Howe was sacked by Albion and Brian Whitehouse became the caretaker manager. With just three games left, Whitehouse threw Robson in at the deep end and gave him his first team debut as an 18 years old teenager in an away game at Bootham Crescent against York City. It was a happy day for Robson and his team mates as Albion won 3-0. The following week was even better for the young Geordie as he scored his very first league goal in a 2-0 victory against Cardiff City at the Hawthorns, and he repeated the feat the following weekend away at Nottingham Forest in the final league game of Albion’s season. It could not have been a more impressive start to a promising league career – 2 goals in 3 games from midfield.
The former Leeds United midfield general, John Giles took over as player-manager of Albion during the summer of 1975. Albion were still languishing in the Second Division, and Giles utilized Robson sparingly, playing him in a number of positions namely centre back, full back, and in central midfield. It was a progressive season for Albion and they finished third from the top gaining promotion into the top flight of English football after a period of some three seasons. Giles had inherited a useful squad but he also made made some quality additions to it so it came as no surprise that he achieved this in his first season at The Hawthorns.
The 1976/77 season was one of consolidation for Albion, but for Robson it was a quite brutal one where injuries were concerned. This was his supposed breakthrough season at first team level and Albion started reasonably well back in the top flight. However, in a game against ‘Spurs, he tackled centre forward Chris Jones, but injured his left leg in the process. He was able to walk from the field, but x-rays taken later revealed that he had suffered a hairline leg fracture. It was the start of things to come. Coming back from the injury less than two months later, the leg again fractured in a tackle by Dennis Smith in a reserve team game against Stoke City and it put him on the sidelines once again. Once more he battled back to fitness and in December 1976, he was back again in the first team. He began a prolonged run of games and scored the first senior hat-trick of his career against Ipswich Town in March 1977. His displays in the ever improving Albion team began to get him noticed, and he was selected to play for the England under-23 team in mid-April. However on the Saturday before the international game, playing at Manchester City’s Maine Road in a league game, Robson suffered a broken ankle after a tackle by Dennis Tueart, and that was his season over. Not too many players have ever recovered from injuries such as Robson sustained in that season, and have then gone on to have a really successful career in top flight professional football.
This appalling run of luck came to epitomize Robson’s career. He was an outstanding player, and a born leader, but for a good proportion of each season that he played, he was out injured. It was probably because of his fierce, combative, competitive and fearless outlook towards his game, that he suffered these injuries. He never held anything back and in the main, injuries for Bryan Robson were never really the niggly little things like muscle strains and pulls. Most of the time the injuries from which he suffered in football was broken bones, fractures, or dislocations.
Notwithstanding Robson’s injuries, Albion finished 7th in their first season back in the First Division and 1977/78 saw them go even better. In December of 1977, John Giles was unhappy at the Hawthorns and there was a parting of the ways. In January 1978, the larger than life, ebullient character, Ron Atkinson got his first chance of managing at the very top level. He’d come from relative obscurity having started out with Kettering Town, but had moved on to Cambridge United where he guided them to the Fourth Division title in 1977. When Albion approached him, Cambridge were challenging for the Third Division title. The move to the Midlands brought Atkinson and Robson together, and it was a move and a relationship, which would have a big impact on Robson’s career.
Click here for the second part of Bryan Robson’s story