How Michael Robinson went to Osasuna and became an icon on the pitch and in the studio

How Michael Robinson went to Osasuna and became an icon on the pitch and in the studio

It took a high degree of persuasion from his wife before Michael Robinson finally accepted that their new home wasn’t located in Osasuna. In a stereotypical story of a 1980s British-born footballer finding himself in foreign lands, Robinson hadn’t realised that while Osasuna was the name of his new football club, it wasn’t a name that was shared by the city he now resided in. Despite the early confusion and a stark debut defeat – 4-1 away to Athletic Club – Robinson took to Pamplona like a natural. 

Born in Leicester in July 1958, Robinson moved north with his parents at an early age, embracing a love of football and falling hook, line and sinker for Liverpool. It was, however, with Preston that he found his way into the professional game, playing a cameo role in their Third Division promotion campaign of 1977/78, before starring and scoring regularly in the Second Division the following season.

In the summer of 1979, Manchester City swooped for Robinson’s services, agreeing to a startlingly inflated fee of £750,000. For a player with no top-flight experience and only one season as a regular at Deepdale to his name, this was just two years on from Liverpool having signed Kenny Dalglish for a then British record transfer fee of £440,000. 

At Maine Road, in a season of struggle, Robinson managed an average of just under a goal every three games throughout 1979/80. A steady if unspectacular campaign, from the outside looking in, it was a surprise when he was moved on to Brighton at a financial loss just a year after his arrival. Behind the scenes, however, the volatility of Malcolm Allison’s dressing room had driven many of City’s players to glance towards the exit door, especially the younger members of the squad.  

During his three years at the Goldstone Ground, Robinson scored goals for fun and was part of the Brighton team that reached the 1983 FA Cup final. It was from Robinson’s pass that Gordon Smith famously spurned the opportunity to win the game against Manchester United, deep into extra time. 

Defeat in the replay, along with a desire to remain in the First Division in the wake of Brighton’s relegation, finally led Robinson to Anfield, where he won a treble of league title, European Cup and League Cup, brought to the club by Joe Fagan after failed attempts to sign Michael Laudrup and Charlie Nicholas. 

Primarily the back-up to Dalglish and Ian Rush, Robinson at times forced his way into the team at the expense of Craig Johnston, with Dalglish dropping into a deeper role. Yet, the signing of Paul Walsh from Luton pushed Robinson down the pecking order at Anfield at the beginning of the 1984/85 season. Despite Rush missing the start of the new campaign through injury, Robinson was largely a frustrated onlooker from the sidelines, as Liverpool stuttered through the gears. 

Aged 27 and reaching what should have been his peak years, as autumn began to turn to winter, Robinson reluctantly asked for a transfer. Ignoring the pleas of Fagan to stay, even being offered a new and improved contract, he accepted a move to Queens Park Rangers in his search for regular football. While Robinson had actively forced the transfer through, he was inconsolable as he was driven away from Anfield for the last time.

Robinson’s time at Loftus Road was a mixed one. No fan of the plastic pitch, he did reach Wembley once again as QPR made it to the 1986 League Cup final where, as favourites, they were dismantled by an inspired Oxford. It was a run in which Robinson scored an outrageous goal from the halfway line at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea in a quarter-final replay, forever earning himself cult status with QPR supporters. 

Original Series  |  Brits Abroad

Struggling for goals and fitness during the first half of the 1986/87 season, Robinson began casting around for a fresh challenge. Feeling that he could never replicate the highs of playing for Liverpool, he turned his attention away from English football and readily accepted an offer from Osasuna. 

There had been a vogue in LaLiga for British strikers during the mid-1980s that had seen Steve Archibald, Mark Hughes and Gary Lineker all find their way to the Camp Nou. When Robinson arrived in Pamplona, he became the owner of the strange honour of being LaLiga’s only European Cup-winning player. 

A striker that fitted the term ‘bustling’ perfectly, Robinson was a physical player without being a traditional target-man. Deceptively quick over the ground and in possession of a knack to be able to turn swiftly, leaving defenders unbalanced, at Anfield he had simply been unfortunate to be in competition for a place against Dalglish and Rush, while at QPR his increased thirst for success was ultimately unrealistic and unquenched.  

Not being able to speak Spanish upon his arrival at Osasuna, Robinson was confronted with an environment where he wasn’t pandered to by translators or locals. Both he and his wife had no option but to immerse themselves in the language and culture that surrounded them. Rather than see this as an insurmountable barrier, the Robinsons took to the challenge effortlessly and assimilated to the Spanish way of life very quickly.

Thrown in at the deep end, Robinson’s second game in an Osasuna shirt was at the Santiago Bernabéu, where he scored in the first minute to stun the Real Madrid of Emilio Butragueño, Míchel and Hugo Sánchez. A spirited performance, Osasuna were unfortunate to lose the game to a late Sánchez penalty. His debut had come in that game away to Athletic, where he found himself fending off the attentions of the Butcher of Bilbao, Andoni Goikoetxea. 

Robinson followed this up by scoring the only goal in his home debut against Espanyol, then being the match-winner again in the very next game against Valladolid. It was a dream start and it can only have endeared his new home to him even more. 

Despite his personal successes, collectively Osasuna struggled during the final months of the 1986/87 season, drifting into the relegation playoffs. It wasn’t all negatives, however, and Robinson continued to find the net, inclusive of scoring at the Camp Nou during a 4-2 loss to Barcelona, on a day when Lineker and Archibald were also amongst the scorers. 

A 2-0 victory over Racing saved Osasuna from relegation and so impressed by the service Robinson had given the club since his arrival, the president approached him to ask if he could suggest any other British player that might be willing to join him in Pamplona. For the 1987/88 season, Robinson was joined by his former Liverpool teammate, Sammy Lee, who he had also shared half a season with at Loftus Road, before departing QPR for Osasuna. 

Injured at the start of the campaign, by the time Robinson returned he did so as a support-striker, rather than as the focal point. Linking up impressively with Lee and providing a fluid movement of the ball from midfield to attack, Osasuna benefitted massively, and it was thanks to some wonderful consistency during the second half of the season that they ended it in fifth position, their highest league placing up until that point. 

Unwittingly, both Robinson and Lee’s time at Osasuna had peaked. Injuries increased in number and the two of them played fewer than 20 combined games in the 1988/89 season. For Robinson, a recurring knee problem was escalating and, despite his best efforts to return to fitness and eventual offers from him to play for free, as a thanks for paying him while out injured, he succumbed to early retirement at the age of 31. 

Robinson’s final game was against Betis at El Sadar, leaving the field after half an hour of a 3-1 victory, in January 1989; his last goal being the decisive one in a 1-0 win over Málaga, two months earlier. Injuries aside, Robinson was in a rich vein of form in the early exchanges of season. 

Rather than struggle with life after football, Robinson stumbled into a new and entirely unexpected career in television. He had arrived in Spain less than three years earlier, neither speaking the language or even knowing where he was; he had seen his playing career ended prematurely by injury, yet, as a testament to how he had taken to his surroundings and how his new surroundings had taken to him, Robinson was invited by the national broadcaster, TVE, to commentate on English First Division games, as part of its Saturday afternoon sports compendium, Estadio 2. 

This turn of events occurred in late-1989. Suitably impressed with the performances of Robinson, it wasn’t long before TVE added him to their team for the 1990 World Cup. There was no looking back from here. Added to his commitments with TVE, Robinson also picked up work with Screensport.

Soon, Robinson was picked up by the new kid on the broadcasting block, Canal+, going on to become a phenomenon on the award-winning show El día Después, where he was allowed the freedom to embrace not only what happened on the pitch, but everything that surrounded the game. It became essential viewing and Robinson’s star soared to levels that would have been unimaginable when he arrived in Pamplona in January 1987. 

After his 14-year stretch on El día después ended, Robinson continued in his role as a co-commentator and football analyst for live games, before fronting yet another award-winning programme, Informe Robinson, a monthly magazine that questioned the political aspects of football and sport in general, a project that was embraced by his own keen sense of socialism. 

Branching into other sports presentation, Robinson became the face of rugby union coverage and, with growing notoriety, was even given the gig of voicing the ugly sister in the Spanish language version of Shrek. 

Rarely far from a spotlight he never courted, Robinson was back in the news last December when it was announced he had been diagnosed with skin cancer. Facing it with a typically optimistic response, it is impossible to imagine he will do anything other than give his condition as intelligent a run for its money as possible. 

Robinson’s influence in Spain has reached way beyond its original remit and there are very few other Brits to have ventured abroad who have embraced not just football but life in another country so enthusiastically.

By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74

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