I’d be grateful if somebody out there could have a word with whoever it is who’s in charge of the calendar. No sooner have we celebrated the 70th birthday of Willie Johnston than Bryan Robson turns 60. Doesn’t anybody realise these people are immortal?
Let’s not be coy here. In terms of sheer game affecting ability, Bryan Robson is up there with a handful – and a small one at that – of the best footballers we’ve ever had. The man went on to win 90 England caps and, but for the failings of Ron Greenwood as England manager and a number of injuries, that figure would have been swelled by another 30 or so. Since he packed it in, England hasn’t produced another midfielder worthy of mention in the same breath as Bryan.
Robson was with us for a comparatively short space of time, certainly as a regular first teamer, bit having come here as a spindly youth, the Throstles can lay just as big a claim to him as Manchester United. Built up on a diet of steak and Guinness, with the courage to come through three separate leg fractures inside one season, by 1978, Robson was already looking like an Albion legend in the making.
Learning his craft from the exceptional coaching of Don Howe and then the peerless example of John Giles, Robson was the complete modern midfielder.
While at The Hawthorns, he featured in 259 games and scored 46 goals, a highly impressive ratio given that he played a fair chunk of football filling in across the back four early on in his career.
Such was his innate understanding of the game and the way it came so naturally to him on the pitch that he took to those roles with the same comfortable ease that he displayed when playing in his best position, the centre of midfield.
It’s a much used phrase, but Robson genuinely was a colossus. Supremely physically fit, he could go rampaging all over the pitch, the archetypal box to box player. But there was always purpose about his football, always a reason for where he was on the field unlike other, similarly energetic midfielders who display the characteristics of the headless chicken as they run here, there and everywhere, all over the place, but never in the right place except by accident.
That was never the case with Robson, a player who had an unerring knack for being in the right place at the right time, wherever it was on the pitch, be it breaking down attacks before they ever got near the Albion goal, collecting the ball from John Wile or Alistair Robertson in order to launch attacks, or arriving on the end of a cross into the box to plan the ball past another hapless goalkeeper.
In a team that already boasted His Holiness Tony Brown, perfect finishing was an art we knew plenty about but if Bryan wasn’t quite in Bomber’s league – who was? – he was still a genuinely brilliant goalscorer from midfield, every bit as good as the likes of Frank Lampard and Paul Scholes who clearly learnt a thing or two from watching him as they grew up and who had few of the defensive responsibilities that Bryan also thrived on.
Even then, goalscoring wasn’t the most important aspect of his game, critical as football’s deadliest and most difficult art always is. Instead, it was his role as the heartbeat of the last genuinely great Albion side, one that could take on all comers at home and abroad, that was paramount.
In a team where he was surrounded by the likes of Tony Brown, Derek Statham, Laurie Cunningham, Cyrille Regis and the like, it was Robson who was the man of the match week after week after week.
Robson became the first name on Ron Atkinson’s teamsheet, but for reasons utterly inexplicable at a time when he was already quite clearly the finest midfielder in the land, he very rarely found himself on Ron Greenwood’s teamsheet at all, another reason why Brian Clough should have got the England job ahead of the avuncular former West Ham man. Clough would surely have taken him to Italy for the European Championships of 1980, England would surely have done better and Robson’s stellar England career would have been off and running.
Instead he was on the periphery, little more than a squad man, a fate that also befell Derek Statham and Cyrille Regis and had, over the years, blighted the careers of Brown, Astle, Allen and the great Ray Barlow among plenty of others.
And in that failing of the national hierarchy came the seeds of Robson’s departure from The Hawthorns. Robson was good enough for England and, understandably, wanted to play for his country but midlanders were regularly overlooked in place of those who lived in the capital, Liverpool or Manchester.
Once Ron Atkinson left for Manchester United, it didn’t take a genius to see what was coming next. Of course he wanted Robson as the fulcrum of his team, and though it dragged on for a few weeks, the switch to Old Trafford was inevitable. Robson had ambitions and we could not fulfil them, for he had seen us let Laurie Cunningham and Len Cantello go, Giles, Allen and Atkinson too.
Robson was the best and he wanted to play with the best and his judgement regarding what was happening here and the decline that was coming was spot on. The £2million we pocketed for him and Remi Moses who moved at the same time was not enough to stop the team from disintegrating and, within five years, we were on the way to the worst times in our history.
Meanwhile, Bryan was England captain and had played in two World Cups. That would never have happened had he stayed here.
Don’t blame him. Blame the FA.