Greatest Transfers: Bryan Robson- Captain Marvel

Manchester United Career Details:

Signed From: West Bromwich Albion, October 1981 for £1,500,000 by Ron Atkinson.

Position: Centre-Midfield

Appearances (Goals): 461 (99) between October 1981 & May 1994

Honours:

F.A. Premier League Winner (2): 1993, 1994

F.A. Cup Winner (3): 1983 (4-0 (replay after 2-2 draw) vs. Brighton & Hove Albion);

1985 (1-0 (after extra time) vs. Everton);

1990 (1-0 (replay after 3-3 draw) vs. Crystal Palace).

U.E.F.A. European Cup Winners’ Cup Winner: 1991 (2-1 vs. Barcelona).

Individual Honours:

Order of the British Empire (OBE) from Her Majesty the Queen, 1990

P.F.A. 1st Division Team of the Year (6): 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1989.

P.F.A. ‘Team of the Century’ member.

1st Division ‘Goal of the Season’ Winner: 1986

Sir Matt Busby ‘Player of the Year’: 1989

Inaugural Inductee to the English Football Hall of Fame, 2002.

Quite frankly there may not be many, if any, better footballers to have pulled on the famous red shirt of Manchester United than Bryan Robson in the last 35 years… those that were better than him could easily be counted on one hand. ‘Captain Marvel’ (as Robson came to be known) quickly made the then British record transfer fee of £1.5 million paid for his services to West Brom in 1981 by new United manager Ron Atkinson seem like an absolute steal!

‘Robbo’ hailed from Chester-le-Street in the north-east of England, a hotbed of passion for the game and for Newcastle United in particular, whom the young Robson supported as a boy. He showed great enthusiasm to learn the game from a young age, and having captained most of the under-age teams he played for, was the subject of quite a few trials at clubs around the north of England. However, it was then West Brom boss Don Howe who persuaded the young lad to sign a 2-year apprenticeship contract with the Baggies; it was a good decision for both parties.

Having continued to develop in West Brom’s reserve sides, Robson turned professional in summer 1974, but had to wait until April 1975 to make his 1st team debut against York City in the old 2nd Division. West Brom were by then under the guidance of player-manager Johnny Giles, the former Manchester United & Leeds United legend, and Robbo often found himself playing as a full-back since the Irishman would select himself in centre-midfield! His progress was further hampered by the first of what would become a catalogue of bad injuries at the beginning of the 1976-77 season- indeed Robson suffered THREE broken legs inside a 12-month period, which might have finished-off a lesser man.

With his club now back in the top flight and boasting a few very capable players indeed, such as Remi Moses, Cyrille Regis and Laurie Cunningham, competition was fierce for 1st team shirts but Robson gradually formed a partnership in midfield with Moses and became a regular in the side under new Baggies boss Ron Atkinson.

What followed was arguably the greatest period in West Brom’s history as the Robson-inspired team finished in a U.E.F.A. Cup place in 1978, and then 3rd in the Division in 1979, with Regis scoring goals for fun. After a disappointing 1979-80 season (during which he won the first of his 90 caps for England), Robson returned to top form the following season as the Baggies again stormed to a 4th place league finish.

That was enough to persuade Manchester United to hire flamboyant Baggies manager Atkinson to replace the lacklustre Dave Sexton, and thereafter the rumour that Robson would soon follow his boss to Old Trafford gathered steam; after team-mate Remi Moses did just that in September 1981, Robson followed suit, signing his new United contract on the Old Trafford pitch before his new team-mates kicked off against Wolves on 3rd October.

Just over a month later Robbo scored his first goal for the Red Devils at Sunderland, having already shown himself to be a tireless, driven competitor in the centre of the park. Indeed, it was Robson’s genuine all-round world-class ability as both a defensive & attacking midfielder which made him invaluable to the managers he played for, and that was never more in evidence than at International level. The following summer, having both become a regular for his country and helped United to a 3rd place finish in his debut season, Robbo was one of England’s great young hopes for World Cup ’82 in Spain. When he scored one of the fastest International goals of all time (after only 27 seconds) in the opening Group game to help beat France 3-1, it seemed the billing was accurate; however, a severe shoulder dislocation in the next game against the Czechs ended his tournament, and would, unknowingly, set the tone of ultimate disappointment for his entire England career. Without his drive, England limped out of the tournament with barely a whimper, failing to emerge from a Group containing West Germany and a mediocre Spain.

The following season was one of further frustration with injury but also the beginning of Robson’s experiences of becoming a winner with United. By now in his third season in Manchester, Robson was club captain and a very regular scorer from his berth in midfield; however, he continued to suffer niggly injuries, due in no small part to his ‘wholehearted’ approach to each and every single game he played in, and in his absence the frailties of some of those around him were cruelly exposed as United failed to put pressure on the more consistent Liverpool in the league. The cup competitions were more to the strengths of the side, and they reached both the League & F.A. Cup Finals; Robson’s injury curse struck again in the League Cup Semi-Final win over Arsenal, leaving him to watch helplessly from the sidelines as United lost the Final 2-1 to an extra-time wonder goal from Liverpool’s Irish ace, Ronnie Whelan.

His return for the F.A. Cup Semi-Final with Arsenal was timely, as he scored the first goal in a 2-1 win. In the Final, he was instrumental in driving the Reds forward against a spirited Brighton team, who fought to secure a late equaliser at 2-2 to take the decider to a replay. That replay turned into a showcase for the magnificent player that Robson had developed into- he scored twice in a 4-0 mauling, showing in the process that he was a ‘team player’ rather than an individual by refusing to grab the ball from designated taker Arnold Muhren when United were awarded a late penalty; the Dutchman got his name etched in history as an F.A. Cup Final goalscorer rather than Robson claiming a deserved hat-trick.

The 1983-84 season wasn’t particularly memorable domestically for United, never really getting a proper challenge for the title going, and eventually finishing a distant 4th; it was, however, memorable for one particular game! United had made steady progress in the European Cup Winners’ Cup, but at the Quarter-Final stage had been paired with Spanish giants Barcelona, led by the brilliant Diego Maradona. The 1st leg at Camp Nou had gone to form, the hosts earning a comfortable 2-0 win; that meant United needed something extra special to rescue the tie in the return fixture….

So, on a mild March evening in front of a (literally) rocking Old Trafford full-house, Bryan Robson put in one of THE all-time great individual performances, scoring two of United’s three goals, as the Red Devils turned the tie on its head to run out 3-2 aggregate victors, and dominating midfield against players who were viewed as a ‘step up in class’ from English First Division players. At the final whistle, fans streamed onto the pitch and carried Robson back to the players’ tunnel on a sea of shoulders- he was now the undisputed ‘king’ of this United era. Alas, and as was becoming increasingly the case, he picked up another niggling injury the following week and missed both legs of the Semi-Final against Juventus, which United narrowly lost on aggregate. That didn’t stop the Italian giants from lodging a transfer bid of a then massive £3 million for Bryan in the summer of 1984, but United were quite rightly in no mood to sell their most prized asset.

The expected assault on the league title failed to materialise the following season either, but United again put in a strong showing in the F.A. Cup, battling past arch-rivals Liverpool in a Semi-Final which was decided over two enthralling games, the first a 2-2 draw after extra time at neutral Goodison Park in which Robson scored United’s opener; the second game at Maine Road was even better, with United recovering from a 1st half battering and 0-1 half-time deficit to win 2-1, Robson scoring the equaliser in the opening minute of the 2nd half, Mark Hughes later adding the winner. The Final against new league champions Everton will be remembered for Kevin Moran’s red card (the first ever sending-off in a Cup Final) and Norman Whiteside’s exquisite extra-time curled winner for United, enabling captain Robson to hoist the old trophy for the second time in three years.

The Cup success had buoyed expectations at Old Trafford going into 1985-86, with Robson widely expected to lead a strengthened United squad on a charge for the coveted league title, and the following summer was World Cup Mexico ’86 too….and after United started the season with ten wins in the opening ten games, the lofty expectations seemed totally justified. However, dropped points at Luton Town was the first sign of things to come, and by the time Robbo was helped from the Upton Park pitch the following March with yet another severe shoulder injury, United were already on the slippery slope to a hugely disappointing 4th placed finish, with not even an F.A. Cup run for cold comfort. Worse than that, Robson’s domestic season was over, and there were doubts that he would even recover in time for Mexico. In the end, he probably wished he hadn’t made the England trip, as his World Cup ended in only the second game with a recurrence of the shoulder injury that would require surgery; a miserable end to a miserable season.

The poor end to the 1985-86 season had dire consequences for manager Ron Atkinson when a similar start to the next season saw him relieved of his duties in November, to be replaced by Aberdeen manager Alex Ferguson, with United flirting with the relegation places. In contrast to the team, Robson had rediscovered his best form, and was one of very few ‘nice’ surprises for Ferguson in that first season as United struggled to a mid-table finish. Indeed, with the new boss stamping his considerable authority throughout the Club (not least in re-establishing the youth academy as a top priority), Robson was fundamental in helping United push rivals Liverpool all the way in the race for the 1987-88 title, although the outstanding Merseysiders still finished 9 points clear by May. Captain Robson led England into Euro ’88 in Germany, but that was disastrous, the Three Lions returning home early without a single victory.

Despite good personal form to compliment the return of fans’ favourite Mark Hughes from Barcelona, Robson couldn’t prevent United enduring a very disappointing 1988-89 season, finishing trophy-less again in 11th position, losing as many games as they won, although the whole season was overshadowed by the tragic events at Hillsborough on 15th April when 96 Liverpool fans died, mostly due to South Yorkshire Police negligence.

By the end of 1989, Ferguson was under severe pressure, especially having sold popular players Norman Whiteside and Paul McGrath; United’s league form was dire, Robson was injured and an away tie at Nottingham Forest in the F.A. Cup 3rd Round was seen as pivotal in deciding the manager’s fate. A Mark Robins goal gave United a shock 1-0 win, and they never looked back. By the time Robson was fit to return for the Semi-Final tie with Oldham Athletic, the team had won every Cup tie away from home; he scored in the enthralling 3-3 draw at Maine Road, and then played well again in the 2-1 replay victory. A very open Final against Crystal Palace saw another 3-3 draw, Robbo again scoring for United; the replay, by contrast, was a very tepid affair, though United didn’t care too much in the end, left-back Lee Martin’s solitary goal securing Ferguson’s first trophy at Old Trafford. In lifting the famous old trophy for the third time, Robson became the first club captain ever to do so.

However, the upturn in club fortunes for Robson was not repeated at International level; he again led England into a major tournament, but World Cup Italia ’90 was another personal nightmare for the skipper as he was forced to return home to England with injury after only two group games, and had to watch on as Bobby Robson’s team fought their way to a heart-breaking Semi-Final penalty defeat by West Germany. It would be his last major tournament with his country.

The 1990-91 season would ultimately be remembered for United’s exploits in the European Cup Winners’ Cup competition, Robson returning from his World Cup injury woe by December to galvanise the side and lead them on to a 2-1 Final victory against Barcelona in Rotterdam, Mark Hughes getting both goals on the night. The league campaign was better by the team, finishing 6th, though Robson’s solitary league goal against Derby County was his lowest return as a professional, and was another indicator that his career was now ‘winding down’. Robbo had suffered with the rest of us as the League Cup trophy was lost in a 1-0 defeat to Sheffield Wednesday at Wembley, but the triumph over Barcelona more than made up for that disappointment!

Despite ‘righting-the-wrong’ of losing the League Cup to Wednesday in 1991 by defeating Nottingham Forest 1-0 courtesy of a Brian McClair strike to win the trophy a year later, the 1991-92 season as a whole ended in extreme frustration and disappointment as United conspired to let a fairly one-dimensional Leeds United side pip them to the Division 1 title; a failure to beat sides after Christmas was crucial, and this was mirrored by Robbo’s individual form, scoring 4 goals and playing well up to November, but failing to find the net for the rest of that season.

Although Robson was now in decline as a player, he was still viewed as an influential, experienced ‘winner’ to have around an increasingly youthful 1st team set-up by Alex Ferguson; the following season he found himself more often than not in the role of ‘useful substitute’, as United finally got it right in the league, storming away to win the inaugural Premier League competition, fending off a fierce challenge by Aston Villa. Robson had made 14 appearances and scored a single goal, and was therefore more than entitled to the league winners’ medal he received as he held aloft the new trophy alongside best mate Steve Bruce at an ecstatic Old Trafford after United beat Blackburn Rovers 3-1 on 3rd May 1993.

The signing of Roy Keane from Nottingham Forest that summer was effectively to replace Bryan Robson once and for all, and was an unqualified success. Keane undoubtedly benefited from having the ‘old warhorse’ around the training ground that year for advice and guidance as he stepped up to lead United’s midfield alongside Paul Ince; Robson made only 15 appearances in the Premier League, but that was enough to see him bow out with a second league title winners’ medal as United reclaimed their league crown, his final appearance coming in the goalless draw at home to Coventry City.

Robson had scored one of United’s goals in the 4-1 F.A. Cup Semi-Final replay win over Oldham Athletic earlier in the month, but that turned out to be his last ever goal for United, as much to his disappointment he wasn’t named in Ferguson’s squad for the Wembley Final clash with Chelsea; however, like the great man he was, Robbo never made any public complaint about missing out, as United claimed their first ever ‘Double’ with an Eric Cantona-inspired 4-0 win.

His time at United over, Robson returned to his native north-east as player-manager at Middlesbrough, with whom he had some decent success, leading them to several cup finals and promotions; he has since managed several other clubs, and also fought a successful battle against cancer…. ‘Captain Marvel’, one of United’s greatest ever players and a true warrior to the last! Bryan continues to have links to United as a Club ambassador, and remains one of the most popular players in the Club’s entire history, lauded wherever he goes. He received an O.B.E. in the Queen’s New Year Honours list in 1990 for his services to football.

About the Author

Rodney McCain
A passionate supporter of Manchester United since I was 6 years old. In life I'm a consulting civil engineer, but that's only to pay the bills. Originally from Northern Ireland, I was a regular at Old Trafford for many years, but now reside in the United States, which makes getting to games a tad difficult.... I love to write about football, which hopefully comes across to readers on these sites.