Bryan Robson had an impressive career encompassing 730 club appearances and 147 goals for West Bromwich Albion, Manchester United and Middlesbrough. He made his England debut in February 1980 in a 2-0 win against Republic of Ireland at Wembley, 20 months before a British record £1.5m transfer to United, and retired from international football in 1991 having amassed 90 caps and 26 goals. An all-action, often recklessly brave and hard-living midfield all-rounder with terrific technique and infinite energy, he was without question the most complete Englishman of his era, a leader and Captain both for club and country.
The standout individual at United throughout the 1980s at a time when he rarely had the team around him that his commitment and ability deserved, he finally won the Premier League title at the age of 36 as the club at which he spent thirteen years rose once more to the pinnacle of the English game. A second was won a year later, to add to his three FA Cups and the European Cup Winners’ Cup Alex Ferguson’s side so famously won against Barcelona’s “Dream Team” in Rotterdam. The trophies that his greatness deserved finally arrived at club level but eluded him for his country.
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Robson played in three World Cups, where he had the chance to shine at a level that his clubs were largely unable to provide and yet, despite his brilliance, his impact in the FIFA showpiece event was ultimately negligible. In his first game at the finals against a highly rated France side that would reach the semi-final and win the European Championship two years later he scored twice, the first famously arriving after only 27 seconds of the match. The second, a typically powerful header, helped England to a 3-1 win. Little did he know that, at the age of 25, that first ninety minutes at a World Cup would represent the pinnacle of his achievements at that level. He played only 45 minutes in subsequent victories over Czechoslovakia and Kuwait, picking up a knock against the former, as England qualified for the second group stage.
Robson returned to the side for the matches against Germany and Spain but Ron Greenwood’s team, without injured star players Trevor Brooking and Kevin Keegan until the last twenty-six minutes of the decisive game against the Spaniards, drew both ties 0-0 and exited the tournament. Both Brooking and Keegan, painfully rusty, missed gilt-edged chances to set up a semi-final against the already vanquished French as England suffered familiar disappointment.
Four years later, at 29, he was Captain of his country under Bobby Robson, experienced and at the peak of his powers, as England qualified for Mexico ‘86. Robson entered the tournament nursing a shoulder injury however, and after playing eighty minutes in the 1-0 group stage defeat to Portugal he lasted only forty-one in the second match against Morocco in Monterrey.
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He had dislocated his shoulder for the first time in January 1985 playing for United in a defeat to Coventry City, falling awkwardly on the transformer box for the Old Trafford undersoil heating system, and did so again in an FA Cup tie at Upton Park three months before Mexico, facing a race to heal in time for the tournament. With an ongoing susceptibility to further dislocations and denied an operation by his then club manager Ron Atkinson, it happened for a third time in a pre-tournament friendly against Mexico in Los Angeles and then, fatefully against Morocco. Defender Mustapha El-Biyaz grappled with Robson in the penalty area, a tug on the injured shoulder pulling the arm out of its socket once again. His tournament was over, although there was some speculation that Captain Marvel may once more rise from the ashes, and England progressed to the quarter finals and that famous defeat to Diego Maradona’s Argentina without him.
Critics suggested that Bobby Robson’s team benefited from the tactical changes his absence allowed, arguing that setting a team up to protect its wounded leader had inhibited its attacking potential. Having not scored against Portugal or Morocco, England minus Robson scored seven goals in the next three games.
His third and final shot at World Cup glory came again under Bobby Robson at Italia ‘90. Now 33 and past his peak, the England Captain was still considered to be an important player by his manager. Robson came into the tournament on the back of winning the FA Cup, scoring in the first match, a 3-3 draw with Crystal Palace, before lifting the trophy after a replay victory. He played the full ninety minutes in the opening 1-1 draw with Republic of Ireland, but in the second match against Holland injury struck once again and after just over an hour he was withdrawn and later ruled out of the rest of the competition. In Mexico he had stayed with the squad until they were eliminated, but he immediately flew home from Sicily knowing that his final chance to shine on the biggest stage had passed.
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As in 1986, England changed formation without their Captain and improved, reaching the semi-finals and a tie with Germany, a platform on which Robson must have known he had the ability, experience and determination to shine. Watching his squad-mates progress to that stage must have been a bittersweet experience for the ultimate team player, motivator and leader by example. He returned to idolatry at Manchester United and finally won the domestic and European trophies that his dedication, talent and bravery deserved.
Perhaps that glorious end to his time at Old Trafford cushioned some of the blow and he left the club with memories of great games and performances, not least the remarkable night in 1984 when Robson rose to the occasion, scoring twice and playing at his barnstorming best as his Ron Atkinson’s team beat Maradona’s Barcelona 3-0 to overturn a 2-0 deficit in the European Cup Winners’ Cup. United and England benefited greatly from the leadership and brilliance of the man who became the Captain and talisman of both.
At World Cups however, on the biggest stage of all, that two goal salvo against France on his tournament debut in 1982 would sadly be as good as it got for Captain Marvel.