Opinion: A Mark of respect

Thursday 18 April 2024 10:39

For some, Mark Robins will always be the man who kept Alex Ferguson in a job and, therefore, enabled Manchester United to enjoy the most glorious of periods under the Scot's tenure.

Whether that is true has always been open to debate and it's something former chairman Martin Edwards has vehemently denied, as he did again when we spoke to him a few years ago.

Yet there was more to Robins's United career than that in any case. It was not like he arrived on the scene, scored a famous goal and did nothing else.

The homegrown forward rose up through the ranks with a reputation as a prolific goalscorer and there was quite the buzz around him when he made his senior debut in October 1988.

Mark Robins's dead-eyed finish settles the 1990 FA Cup semi-final replay.

The striker's debut may have been in a 5-0 League Cup win over Rotherham United, with Brian McClair bagging a hat-trick, but this was not the swashbuckling sort of Ferguson side we would associate with his United reign.

In fact, it's fair to say the season was often pretty tough watching. A fourth outing for the diminutive forward came in a game that did offer the promise of better times to come, a superb 3-1 victory over Liverpool at Old Trafford that ushered in 1989 to raise spirits and show what could be achieved under the manager. Robins replaced the injured Gordon Strachan in the first half and, while much of the focus was on the willo-the-wisp skills of winger Russell Beardsmore, the fresh blood was having an impact, and biding Sir Alex more time.

'Fergie's Fledglings' captured the imagination, featuring the likes of Lee Sharpe, Deiniol Graham, Tony Gill and David Wilson, but Robins's appearances coincided with some shot-shy form. The day after the highs of that Liverpool win, we lost to Middlesbrough and Mark's next appearances yielded a run of five matches without a goal for anyone in a red shirt and six defeats in seven games.

It could have broken a youngster with weaker will but Robins was more prepared for the task when the following season came around - and 1989/90 would be when it all started to happen for him and Ferguson.

A first senior goal finally arrived at Wimbledon, during a 2-2 draw with the Crazy Gang, in his 15th appearance, although he had often been a substitute, and he grew in stature and confidence.

Handed an extremely tough task in the third round of the FA Cup, the last competition open to win for the Reds, it was Robins who came up trumps with that clever nod to Mark Hughes's gorgeous ball with the outside of his foot that accounted for Nottingham Forest, with Brian Clough's impressive side being one of the favourites to lift the trophy.

That was his second goal for the first team but it was never a flash in the pan. Indeed, he continued to become something of a talisman during the FA Cup run, also netting in a thrilling away win at Jim Smith's Newcastle United. Prolific form for the England Under-21s around this time underscored his potential and the goals kept coming.

Surely just as important as his Forest effort was the winner, expertly placed beyond Oldham Athletic keeper Jon Hallworth after a strong run by Mike Phelan, that settled an exhausting semi-final replay with six minutes to spare at Maine Road.

Robins had only come on for Lee Martin, later to emerge as the final replay hero, with 100 minutes on the clock and he was chaired off by jubilant fans at the end. A homegrown centre-forward had taken United back to Wembley.

Mark Robins tells MUTV's Mark Sullivan about his favourite game for United.

There is one game that really stands out for me as announcing that Robins had truly arrived as a Reds goalscorer of some repute. Two quite outstanding finishes in a 2-0 victory against an accomplished Aston Villa at Old Trafford made everybody sit up and take notice of his ability. A diving header and impudent outside-of-the-boot finish, perhaps Sparky's influence was rubbing off, displayed his predatory instincts.

It chalked up his sixth goal in six games and, despite unusually wearing number four against the Midlanders, there was so much promise in the 20-year-old. Yet he did not enjoy the Roy of the Rovers ending to the campaign. Although coming on in the 3-3 draw with Crystal Palace, he was left on the bench for the replay, much to my chagrin if I remember rightly, but his contribution to that trophy has rightly never been underappreciated.

A tally of 10 goals from 23 appearances, again not always as a starter, was a very healthy return for the 1989/90 season but changes were afoot as United looked to push on from this success, and managed to win the European Cup-Winners' Cup in the following season.

The winner at Luton Town and a brace in a 3-1 victory over Queens Park Rangers in the September suggested Robins would have a huge part to play but the goals dried up, even if he did find the net in the European win against Wrexham.

As time wore on, he would be used more sparingly and only made two Division One appearances in his final term at the club, in 1991/92. However, his contribution to another trophy was a worthy one, as he hit two in a win over Portsmouth, en route to United lifting the League Cup for the first time in our history. He also featured in the memorable semi-final triumph against Middlesbrough on a boggy pitch at Old Trafford.

Yet that proved to be his final outing under Ferguson. Injuries had played a part in his progress stalling but it was no real surprise when it was decided he should leave for regular football elsewhere at the end of the season as a new era of English football was about to begin.

Older fans will remember his instant impact at Norwich City, scoring twice on the opening day of the Premier League in a remarkable 4-2 triumph away to Arsenal at Highbury. So it was unsurprising that it initially felt like a mistake, allowing Robins to leave, particularly as the Canaries mounted a title challenge. He even scored in our 3-1 victory at Carrow Road, even if it was a consolation after a brilliant display by the Reds.

Robins also did well at Leicester City and enjoyed a good career at a variety of clubs, including a short stint at Manchester City. That should never be held against him. I for one, very much value and treasure his input, not only to the start of our success under Sir Alex, but also to the renewing of optimism around that time and bolstering the view that youth was the right path to go down.

The opinions in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Manchester United Football Club.


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