How we could do with another ‘Captain Marvel’
Atkinson took to the West Brom job with relish and had them playing fast, attacking football. However, in his early days, Atkinson did not rate the young Robson. In later years he was to say in an interview with Ian Ladyman of the Daily Mail:
“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 Manchester United — and he obliterated Joe Jordan. He was 19, and he was magnificent. A brain-rocking revelation. He never looked back after that.”
However, that 1977/78 season was a season tinged with bitter disappointment. Albion improved one place on their league position from the previous season, and also reached the semi-final of the FA Cup. Atkinson chose to leave Robson out of the semi-final line-up. A lethargic first twenty minutes against Ipswich in that semi-final, found them behind by 2 goals. Despite pulling a goal back, Ipswich ran out winners by 3-1 and eventually lifted the FA Cup at Wembley by beating the much fancied Arsenal team by 1-0. Robson was recalled for the latter stages of the league games after that, and Albion qualified for the UEFA Cup, but it was scant reward for a season that had promised so much.
The Albion team at that time had lots of pace and power up front, with Laurie Cunningham and Ally Brown on the wings, supported by big Cyril Regis as striker. But it was their midfield that provided the engine to what had become a very attractive team to watch, and it comprised of Len Cantello, Tony Brown, Asa Hartford, and the young Robson. They were solid at the back with two of the quickest full backs in the game at that time – Derek Statham and Brendan Batson, and at the heart of that defence was the uncompromising but experienced, rock solid centre back and captain, John Wile, who had another uncompromising player as his partner in Ally Robertson. In goal was the dependable Tony Godden. Not many players you could ever called household names, but they gelled as a team under Atkinson’s tutelage, and were suddenly challenging for the major honours.
The 1978/79 season was again one filled with so much promise, and Robson stayed free of injury playing in 41 of 42 league games. They challenged in the league and got their first real taste of Europe in the UEFA Cup. But again, for all the experience gained – it was a season in which Albion ended up empty handed. They finished a very creditable 3rd in the league, their highest position for over 20 years. On their European campaign they dispatched Galatassary, Braga, and Valencia, before losing to Red Star Belgrade by the odd goal in a pulsating quarter-final tie. They also produced a wonderful display of attacking football at Old Trafford in a league game which saw them win by 5-3, and this was a game which was one for the purists, and made a lot of pundits sit up and take real notice of what was going on at the Hawthorns.
At the start of the 1979/80 season, Bryan Robson took over the captaincy from John Wile. Robson’s form, which was exceptional during a season that didn’t go quite as well as expected for Albion saw him deservedly win his first international cap in February 1980, against the Republic of Ireland – a game England won by 2-0. Albion had developed into a very good team by this time but it seemed they just could not go that one step further that would take them to become a title winning team. However, their displays on the field did give Ron Atkinson greater exposure as a manager, and he had become thought of as one of the prominent young managers that did give his teams the emphasis of playing a good attacking type of game
Once again, season 1980/81 saw Robson stay free of injury and he scored 10 goals in 40 appearances. Again, Albion challenged but eventually faded away in the league to finally finish in 4th position. But Atkinson’s gregarious and exuberant personality, plus the way he managed to get Albion playing attractive football, had a lot of the bigger clubs taking note. Over at Old Trafford, Dave Sexton was given his P45 and sent packing and United were in the hunt for a new manager. Initially they courted Lawrie McMenemy, then Bobby Robson, and finally Ron Saunders. Surprisingly, each one turned the job down. In June 1981, the approached Albion and Atkinson, and in a matter of days the deal was done. Unknown to Bryan Robson at that time, Atkinson’s move to Manchester United would have big implications for himself some months later.
At the beginning of the 1981/82 season, speculation was rife that Robson would follow Atkinson to Old Trafford. Atkinson had asked the legendary Bill Shankly how much should he pay to acquire Robson’s services, and the craggy, redoubtable Scot replied;
“Every penny that it takes, Ron, every penny that it takes!”
Albion did their utmost to keep Robson at the Hawthorns even offering him a contract that would pay him 1000 pounds per week, but he turned it down, handing in a transfer request instead. For Albion it was a lost cause, and all they could do was make sure that they cashed in on their prized asset. This they did, and Manchester United paid Albion a then British transfer record fee of 1.5 million pounds for his services – the contract being signed out on the Old Trafford pitch in front of the United faithful. At the time of his signing Atkinson was asked by a journalist whether it was a gamble, to which he retorted;
“It may seem like a lot of money, but it’s not a gamble. You’re not gambling with someone like him. This fella’ is solid gold.”
He went on to say;
“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 man 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!”
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