The former Manchester United icon was in Bangladesh last week, we sent Quazi Zulquarnain Islam to talk management, watches and cricket.
For a man renowned for his all-action style, Bryan Robson is unusually sedate even after breakfast and a few rounds of coffee. The press photographer is asking him to move to a better lighted location, but Robson seems adamant. “Can’t we just do it here? I am quite comfortable in this chair,” he says. The buzzing entourage goes quiet for a second and Robson’s poker face immediately breaks into a laugh. “I am just playing lads! Where ever you like,” he says, ushering us onwards.
Location sorted, Robson seats himself into a plush armchair. “This is comfortable,” he mutters. He seems laid-back, relaxed, like a retiree readying to read the paper over his morning cup of tea. There is no sign of the all-action Manchester United midfielder who drove his team onwards again and again and again.
Robson is in Dhaka for a whistle-stop tour with the Premier League trophy, fulfilling his duty as a club ambassador for the Red Devils; supporters of whom throng to him for autographs despite the fact that most are too young to have ever watched him play. But they all know who Robson is and speak his name in hushed tones. After all, this is a man who was recently voted the greatest Manchester United player of all time, ahead of George Best, ahead of Eric Cantona, ahead of Duncan Edwards, and ahead of even Bobby Charlton.
Robson smiles sheepishly when proposed this question. “It’s a great feeling,” he says, “…especially since it came for the players.”
“To be recognized ahead of people like Best, Edwards, Charlton and the players of the day is a great honour. It means even more because as a kid growing up all I ever wanted to do was play football, play for Manchester United and captain my country.”
Robson is lucky that all of those desires came to pass, especially since his was a career fraught with injury. The football commentator Alan Parry once said that “there is not an injury known to man, that Robson has not had” but despite that it is a testament to Robson’s strength of character that he managed to play more than decade and a half of top level football and amass 90 caps for his country. The former England midfielder laughs when reminded of Parry’s quote. “I am lucky I don’t have a plastic hip or knees like many of these guys now do! I can still get meself a round of golf and enjoy an occasional football kick-about,” he chuckles in his vaguely identifiable Northern accent.
But throughout his career steel was what got Robson recognized and made him revered. After coming through the age-groups with England he missed most of what should have been his Under 21 career with a broken leg. He managed to make the move to United in 1981 but Robson was quick to say that Spain 82 was crucial for his development as a player.
“I think that goal against France really gave me the confidence to go on and continue with my England career. Given the circumstances, scoring that goal was really important for me,” he admits.
But bringing up that goal automatically brings up the Seiko watch that was gifted to Robson for his exertions. Is it true he cheekily declined it saying that he ‘could not divide it into eleven pieces.’
“Well to be honest I did not really decline it. I just said that it was a little bit unfair to my teammates since they had been creating the chances for those goals and I couldn’t really split a watch with my teammates!”
Robson still wears the Seiko from time to time perhaps as a reminder of his halcyon days of dominance. Things haven’t gone as well for him lately, what with being diagnosed with cancer and a not-so-successful stint in international management with Thailand.
“Management gave me grey hairs!” he says with a wide grin. He isn’t very keen on going back into club management, because as he puts it, he has been ‘spoiled by the jobs he had at the top end with clubs like Middlesbrough and looking after players like [Fabrizio] Ravanelli.’
“It will be really hard for me to get back into managing a club like that again. Plus I don’t think I am up for the stress of day-to-day management anymore.”
But then again playing was always Robson’s forte and the man nicknamed Captain Marvel did that job quite well. Alex Ferguson once said that Robson could “tackle, pass, control, read the game and had the stamina to execute it all.”So did that make him the complete footballer?
“More of a jack of all trades!” he says, with more than a little humility. “Everyone always said that I was the all-round footballer who could do a little bit of everything. I mean people talk about stamina but it's something I worked so hard on even as a kid when I used to do cross-country and always wanted to win. During the latter stages in games, people get tired and the fitter you are the better you will be and I always worked on that consciously.”
It was a trait that set him apart, most famously perhaps, on the night he outplayed a certain Diego Maradona in the Cup Winners Cup in 1984 as United got the better of Barcelona. But for Robson, it is another game against the same opponents in 1991 that he reckons he had his finest hour.
“I always remember the game in 1991 in Rotterdam, funnily enough against Barcelona again when we won 2-1 and Mark Hughes got all the accolades. But I created both the goals and I have always felt that was the best all-round game I have played for Manchester United.”
Robson is also in the unique position to have played under both Ron Atkinson and Alex Ferguson. So how are both men different?
“They are more alike, than different” says Robson. “When you go into training everyday you can see just how passionate these guys are about football; it's something they love doing and they love talking about. But as regards management styles, Ron was more of a 'just go out there and enjoy yourself' kind of person, always encouraging you to express yourself on the pitch. Sir Alex was much more disciplined and organized and he knew exactly what he wanted you to do in the team.”
No conversation with an ex-pro is ever complete without asking him who his most difficult opponent was. In Robson’s case the answer was instantaneous.
“Jimmy Case in his Liverpool days. Tough as nails. I had plenty of great games against Liverpool but hardly ever came up on top, so I am thankful now that Sir Alex has finally managed to knock off the 19th,” says Robbo with a devilish grin.
A lot of credit for United’s rise, he adds, is also due to the quality of players they have in the team, and he singled out Ryan Giggs for particular praise. “I saw him as a 6 year old coming into the club and I have watched his career blossom and with him still playing the way he always has, is absolutely amazing.”
Robson is getting restless, particularly due to a flight he has to catch in a while. And Dhaka traffic can be damaging. But I can’t let him go without asking him one final question. This relates to cricket – you can’t come into Bangladesh and not talk about cricket.
“I heard as much,” agrees Robbo, so I have an interesting tidbit to share with you…..I once associated in a hundred run partnership with Clive Lloyd.”
“Lloyd? The West Indies captain and serial bludgeoner?”
“The very same.”
I am shocked, my meticulously researched notes show no such record.
“It was a charity game at Old Trafford cricket ground. Lloyd was involved with the Lancashire cricket club at that time and him and Farokh Engineer were playing.”
So was Robson more of a fast bowler or a batsman?
“Bowler, definitely a bowler,” he says quickly. “Which is why I got fourteen out of that hundred and let Lloyd get the other eighty-six.”
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