Bryan Robson playing for United.

Bryan Robson: The greatest Manchester United captain

Saturday 21 March 2020 07:00

Captain of Manchester United and captain of England: for a kid just discovering the wonders of football that was an irresistible combination. It captured my imagination and made Bryan Robson my childhood hero. Nobody came close.

I could tell you what you already know. That Robbo tackled like Nemanja Vidic; tore about the pitch with the intensity of Roy Keane (with slightly less snarling); timed runs into the box like Paul Scholes; and slung passes around the pitch like David Beckham. 
A search on YouTube will confirm all of that and more, but what it can only hint at is the essence of what made him the greatest midfielder of his generation and the finest captain this club has seen.
Liverpool had the best team in the Eighties but United had the best player. We were a better side whenever he played. His inclusion raised us from a six-out-of-ten team to an eight. Sometimes a nine. Occasionally, usually against our Merseyside rivals or in the biggest cup ties, he took us to 10.
The best of Bryan Robson Video

The best of Bryan Robson

It's 38 years since Captain Marvel joined United and began his journey to legendary status...

His most telling contributions are the stuff of legend. Bursting into the box to equalise in the ’83 cup semi-final against Arsenal, then following it up at Wembley with a brace in the final replay romp against Brighton. Few who saw it will ever forget his greatest game in red: the evening he scored twice in United’s 3-0 win against Diego Maradona’s Barcelona. Two-nil down; 3-2 aggregate winners.
Then there was my personal favourite, his stunning 30-yarder as Liverpool were beaten in a Maine Road replay to reach Wembley again. Robbo’s goal and celebration were immortalised in the opening credits of ITV’s Midweek Sports Special from the mid-to-late 1980s. Deserved star billing for English football’s star man and repeat watching for this fledgling Stretford Ender.
Numerous winning goals, countless man-of-the-match displays and the first captain to lift the FA Cup three times. And boy did we love the FA Cup back then; it was our most likely avenue to a trophy in a decade of league lows. And Robbo led the way, of course, always seeming to turn up when we needed him most. 
Stats can never tell the full story but five goals in eight semi-final matches, plus three goals in five Wembley finals (including two replays), went a long way to creating that ‘Captain Marvel’ moniker given him by the English press.
Robson fires home a spellbinding long-range equaliser against Liverpool in the 1985 FA Cup semi-final replay.
Who knows what could have been achieved had he not so selflessly put his body on the line for club and country. The straight-talking Brian Clough once said of him in a TV documentary on ‘soccer’s hardmen’: “When he sees a football, irrespective of where it is on a pitch, he goes for it. Afterwards he sometimes says, ‘I don’t really know why I went for that?’ And normally he’s asking that while lying in the treatment room. But that is Robson. He doesn’t know fear.”

Yep, it’s hard to ignore that he was injury prone. Even though that is exactly what I did as a kid. United lost and Robson wasn’t playing? Well, what do you expect… Robson wasn’t playing. His absence merely added to the myth. A one-man team? No, not entirely, but one hell of a man to have missing.

I’d religiously get in from school on a Friday afternoon and check the team news on Teletext ahead of the next day’s trip to Old Trafford. My expectation for the game would be defined by what I read. ‘Robson ruled out’ and I’d imagine of all manner of ways that Watford might beat us. ‘Fit to return’ and champions Liverpool didn’t stand a chance. ‘Robson doubtful?' Well, at least it’s wasn’t the first option.
Robbo left United in 1994 after two consecutive league titles, and is still the longest-serving captain in our history.
It was the combative way in which he played, how he led by example, the timely moments of magic he produced and the total pride with which he wore the United shirt and the captain’s armband that made him my idol. That’s why I wrote his name on my pencil case, refused to exchange my Robson Panini sticker ‘swaps’ and made my dad paint a number seven (and an armband) on one of my United Subbuteo players.
When United finally collected that elusive league title in 1993 it was him I was most delighted for. Not because of his supporting role in the achievement but for all he’d given in the barren years. He’d earned this medal in the decade before. It was his reward for the hard yards.
Back when I was growing up, mates of mine loved Norman Whiteside, the Shankill skinhead with an edge to his game. Others dreamed of being Mark Hughes with his gravity-defying, acrobatic volleys. One lad even swore Remi Moses was Pele with an afro. 
But, for me, there was and always will be ‘only one Bryan Robson’.

The opinions in this story are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Manchester United Football Club.

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