The number seven shirt has a long history at Manchester United. Despite the lack of pedigree in recent years, it has grown to become one of the most prominent sights in football, with the club’s finest sporting it on their backs over the course of history. From George Best to Eric Cantona, David Beckham to Cristiano Ronaldo, United greats have made the shirt famous. But the man who was the bridge between the Ron Atkinson and Sir Alex Ferguson eras, Bryan Robson, was arguably its most accomplished holder.
Robson’s job wasn’t to propel his shirt number to the top, though. He had the responsibility of a whole football club, as well as the pride of a city, to account for. The shirt was a minor factor in his success; a gnomish motivator. The Englishman had the attitude of a winner, a man determined to put his best foot forward on every possible occasion and one ready to take on any challenge. It’s what made him one of Manchester United’s finest and a true fan favourite – even for generations that never had the opportunity to watch him live.
West Bromwich Albion was the scene of Robson’s arrival on the big stage. Having started off as an apprentice in 1973, he would become a frequent member of the side within two years as the club gained promotion to Division One. After that, his consistency continued in the top-flight despite a constant chopping and changing of managers. It wasn’t until the arrival of Ron Atkinson that his place in the side was made permanent as West Brom challenged the upper echelons of the league, finishing third in the 1978/79 season.
A year later, he would earn his first full England cap, but was still omitted from the squad going to Italy for the European Championship. This was a setback but it didn’t demotivate Robson too much as his stellar performances caught the eye of the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United. Despite that, he decided to stay with the Baggies as they finished fourth in the league in the 1980/81 season, which would prove to be Atkinson’s last before a move to Old Trafford.
Once again serenaded by interest from around the country, England regular Robson had choices to make. On one hand, he had the route of sustained, almost-certain success by going to Merseyside and wearing the red of Liverpool; on the other, he had the opportunity of definite playing time and trust from his old manager by moving to Manchester to wear the red of United. He chose the latter and would commence a love affair that would define the 1980s for the club. The £1.5m transfer was a British record at the time.
He made his club debut about a week later in the League Cup against Tottenham and his first league appearance quickly followed against local rivals Manchester City at Maine Road. Despite United’s failure to win anything that season, his experience and quality earned him a place on the plane to Spain for the 1982 World Cup. There, he made history by scoring against France just 27 seconds after kick-off – the fastest goal in World Cup finals history at the time.
He did well when he played but was stopped in his tracks by an injury in the second round, which would be a precursor for all his World Cups. In his three selections for the finals – 1982, 1986 and 1990 – he would start off well but would miss the latter stages due to injury. It robbed the wider game of a truly brilliant star.
Back in Manchester, ahead of his second season, he was appointed as club captain. It is rare to see someone given the top honour so soon after joining United but Robson’s tenacity and leadership, combined with the esteemed trust placed in him by Atkinson, gave him the honour of leading his side. It was a surprising pick for many considering the likes Gary Bailey, Steve Coppell and Norman Whiteside were at the club.
The season proved to be more successful than his first and even included moments of personal glory for Robson. He would enjoy success in front of goal, scoring 15 times – the second most at the club that season behind Frank Stapleton – as well as a memorable effort against Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final, which helped them progress to Wembley.
In the final against, he was equally as crucial to the side. The first match finished 2-2, which led to a replay. He scored twice in the second tie – the first via a thumping left-footed drive from outside the box. The second came just before half-time and was the result of confusion created following a set-piece. Robson was left with a tap-in having won the initial header. In an act of team-spirit and direction, Robson, the first-choice penalty taker, would give his spot-kick – and the chance for a hat-trick – to Arnold Mühren later in the game as United ran out 4-0 winners.
The FA Cup success brought much-needed joy to the club. It was their first trophy since 1977 and added gloss on a season where they finished third in the league and lost the League Cup final to Liverpool, which Robson missed due to injury. It provided encouragement for United and the hope that they would progress under the tutelage of Atkinson and Robson. Indeed, their next aim was to provide a greater challenge for the league title, a trophy they hadn’t won since the Busby era.
The next campaign started off in the exact way the previous one ended. Robson bagged a brace against Liverpool at Wembley in the Charity Shield, though it that wasn’t the most memorable double he scored that season. In the Cup Winners’ Cup, United squared off against a Diego Maradona-led Barcelona in the quarter-final. They lost the first match 2-0, but the return leg at Old Trafford made Robson a United legend and created one of the most famous images in the club’s history.
Amidst a raucous atmosphere, with Robson claiming that “the pitch was shaking”, he opened the scoring with a header from point-blank range following a corner. He then equalised with another effort from close range after Javier Urruticoechea fumbled in the Barcelona net. He was followed by Frank Stapleton, who scored the winner just three minutes later as United came away with a renowned victory.
After the match, the Old Trafford faithful invaded the pitch and lifted Robson onto their shoulders and closer to the heavens, showing their admiration for their midfielder and coining the nickname “Captain Marvel” in the process.
It’s a shame he missed the semi-final as it ensured they wouldn’t progress any further, and a fourth-place finish in the league capped off an ultimately disappointing campaign. Robson was subject to transfer interest, this time from Juventus, but they were unwilling to meet the record £3m valuation set on him. He remained at United and eventually signed a long-term deal to commit himself to the club.
In the ensuing season, United were successful in the FA Cup again, singlehandedly taking out the two best clubs in England that season – Liverpool and Everton. At Wembley against the Toffees, United would win with yet another superb goal through Norman Whiteside, who curled the ball into the Everton net to complete an extra-time win.
It was a sweet ending to another average season in the league, where they finished fourth again. For Robson, however, the win added further amplification to his CV – in three seasons as captain, he had won the FA Cup twice and put on tremendous performances in both successes. For many, he was English football’s best midfielder.
But while the club was enjoying its frequent cup successes, Robson was fighting inner demons. The contrast between his heart, mind and body forced him into some difficult decisions, with injuries curtailing his ability to get around the pitch as often as he’d like. For Robson, covering every blade of grass twice was the bare minimum, and his had the fitness and talent to do it. Sadly, such an all-encompassing game would take its toll on his body.
The impact of these injuries came to the fore during the 1985/86 campaign. In a season that built up to the World Cup, and with United on the rise having proven they can overcome their main competitors, this was supposed to be the year where they finally ended their long title drought. After a good start, where they won their first 10 league games and sat pretty on top of the table, their form would dwindle by Christmas as they bowed out of the title race.
In March 1986, Robson suffered a serious shoulder injury, which required an operation and put his participation at the World Cup in Mexico in doubt. The price of Robson’s injuries were paid for by the club as they missed the talent and leadership of a player largely irreplaceable. Indeed, despite missing much of the season, he still scored seven goals in 21 games from midfield.
At the World Cup, Robson was able to shrug of his injuries and participate for England. Perhaps the return was too rushed, as Robson returned home with yet more shoulder problems after just the second game. From a personal perspective it was a devastating blow to a proud Englishman; for the Three Lions, it left what ifs galore after their quarter-final loss to Argentina.
Ahead of the new season, Ron Atkinson was a man under pressure. With no league title, despite encouraging results in Europe and in the domestic cups, he was under scrutiny. United lingered around the relegation zone that season, despite having the majority of their stars – including Robson – playing frequently.
With league form inconsistent and a shock League Cup exit after a 4-1 defeat at the hands of Southampton, Atkinson was given the sack and was replaced by the highly touted Alex Ferguson in November 1986 as United looked to get out and away from their surprising slump in form. Robson remained as captain under the Scot, with Ferguson seeing him as the key cog in his rebuilding job. United were in a mess and if there was one man to bring them back, it was their captain, who had been a source of motivation and drive throughout the decade thus far.
The managerial change brought about a marked improvement. United moved away from the troubles of the relegation zone and closer to mid-table after notable victories against arch-rivals Liverpool and Manchester City, as well as Arsenal. Had it not been for the poor start, it is certain that United would’ve finished higher than 11th in the league, but the promise of Ferguson was reaping short-term dividends.
In Ferguson’s first full season – 1987/88 – United finished second to once again bring hope back to the club’s faithful. It could be said that their slow start and frequent failure to convert draws into wins just before the Christmas period cost them the title in what was a still a solid domestic campaign. Despite finishing nine points behind Liverpool, they recruited two players in Steve Bruce and Mark Hughes who would have a profound impact during their rise under Ferguson.
That was still some way down the line in 1989, though, with United’s transfer spend not reflected in the results as they dropped back to 11th. There was still faith in the manager, but the new season was arguably the last chance saloon. Ahead of the 1989/90 season, Gary Pallister, Paul Ince and Mike Phelan were brought to the club and the money invested now required results – it was Fergie’s make or break campaign.
Though their league form was inconsistent again, faith was restored after a memorable FA Cup run. United were drawn away from home in every round before the semi-finals, with Nottingham Forest, Hereford, Newcastle and Sheffield United all dispatched. In the semi-finals and final, they required replays to overcome Oldham and Crystal Palace, with Robson scoring in the first game both times. In the end, it took a Lee Martin goal to help Robson became the club’s most successful FA Cup captain, lifting the trophy for the third time in his career.
Italia 90 came around with injuries disrupting Robson’s time on the peninsula as England reached the semi-finals. Approaching his twilight years, he was sidelined for a much longer spell as United progressed in the Cup Winners’ Cup on English football’s return to the European game after their post-Heysel ban.
United beat Hungary’s Pécsi and Wrexham prior to Robson’s return from injury, with their skipper helping them dispatch Montpellier and Legia Warsaw when back as they made the final against Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona. Hughes scored twice to give United the win despite a late fightback from Barcelona, given hope thanks to Ronald Koeman’s goal. It was the first European honour for Robson in his career and the first for the club since the European Cup of 1968.
With Ferguson now established at United following cup successes, many thought the 1991/92 campaign would see that elusive league title head to Old Trafford. Despite a genuine tilt at the title, Howard Wilkinson’s Leeds would ultimately pip Ferguson’s men by four points, with a certain Eric Cantona impressing along the way.
The next year, as Division One became the Premier League, the additions of the aforementioned Frenchman and a few academy stars saw United finally reach the summit of the English game again. Robson was as a squad player as injuries curtailed his effectiveness in a midfield that was dominated by Paul Ince, but a winners medal was nothing less than his 12 years at Old Trafford warranted.
The arrival of Roy Keane during the following campaign gave Ferguson a worthy replacement in the long-term and numbered Robson’s days at the top, who had officially lost the captaincy to Steve Bruce. They would win the league for a second successive season, with Captain Marvel now less marvel but no less captain, at least in his influence on the training ground and off the pitch.
Robson and Bruce lifted the title together on a day that saw the former score his 99th and final goal for Manchester United. Most impressively, he received an ovation from the fans that few in Red Devils history have or will ever match.
Robson would join Middlesbrough for a short stint but his time on the pitch was all but over. A relatively underwhelming 15 years as a manager would follow, which, for a new generation of fans, perhaps tarnished the brilliance of Robson. It shouldn’t. He remains one of the finest English midfielders of all-time.
At United, there has long been a debate as to whether he is the club’s greatest-ever midfielder, but to most, there seems to be no doubt that he is their greatest captain. He was the bridge between the Atkinson and Ferguson eras, pushing the club to success in both, and a celebrated figure who led from the front without hesitation.
A perpetual champion, enriching leader and undoubted talent, it is no surprise to see him held in such high regard. Robson defined an era for the club and would’ve won more had it not been for the dominance of Liverpool at the time. Indeed, the 1986 and 1990 World Cups also offer the tantalising thought that may even England could’ve gone further had Robson not succumbed to injuries.
Either way, beyond those physical issues, the drinking culture at Manchester United in the 1980s, two league titles in which he had minimal impact on the pitch, and poor managerial career, Bryan Robson remains one of English football’s leading midfield lights, a player who deserves to be celebrated at Manchester United and beyond.
By Karan Tejwani @karan_tejwani26