Seven reasons why Bryan Robson is a United icon
Certain names in Manchester United folklore are passed down through the generations, and few more regularly than Bryan Robson, who celebrates the 40th anniversary of his debut for the club this month.
A new exhibition at the Manchester United Museum will pay tribute to Robson’s career since October 1981, when he signed for the Reds from West Bromwich Albion for a British record transfer fee.
So too does a new film, the trailer of which has been released today for you to watch here.
Fans from the younger generations may have heard the occasional tale from a parent, grandparent, uncle, aunt, or older friend, but could be forgiven for wondering exactly why, for many, Robbo is viewed as the absolute embodiment of what it means to play for United.
So, in honour of one of our greatest no. 7s, here are seven reasons why Bryan Robson is iconic…
He signed on the pitch
Raphael Varane looked suave when he strode out of the Old Trafford tunnel in August, only moments after his transfer from Real Madrid had been confirmed. His unveiling was greeted by spine-tingling noise at the Theatre of Dreams, but he wasn’t the first United player to be revealed to fans at the stadium.
Two days after a deal had been agreed by United and West Brom, Robson was joined by manager Ron Atkinson, chairman Martin Edwards and club secretary Les Olive on the halfway line at Old Trafford to sign his contract in front of 47,000 fans.
It was an expensive deal, but worth every penny, as Atkinson had said at the time.
“I told Martin Edwards when he signed Bryan Robson,” Atkinson said. “‘It’s not even a risk. He’s solid gold.’”
He was proved right.
Captain Marvel throughout the ’80s
As Merseyside dominated the top-flight of English football in the 1980s – Liverpool and Everton sharing between them every title between 1982 and 1988 – United proved nearly men on more than one occasion. Robson was a key reason in dragging the team up to those heights.
The County Durham-born midfielder was named captain of the club within a year of his signing, taking the armband a couple of months after his good performances for England at the 1982 World Cup. It was there, in Spain, where he scored the fastest goal at the tournament, just 27 seconds into his first World Cup match.
As captain, Robson put in talismanic performances with incredible regularity. He was the complete midfielder who could pass, dictate the tempo of games, tackle well and hard, run for hours on end, press, defend and score goals. The timing of his late runs into the box was famously ruthless.
Fans and team-mates believed that if Robson was on the pitch, United couldn't lose. They were beaten sometimes, of course, but that was the faith people had in him.
Under Atkinson's management, United were good, but never quite good enough to win the league – injury to Robson often hampering the team's chances. Instead, it was the FA Cup where the club excelled.
Only United captain to win three FA Cups
Few players loved the cup as much as Robson. His display in the final against Brighton in 1983 was one of his best. After a thrilling 2-2 draw had forced a midweek replay, he scored two first-half goals at Wembley – one a thunderous outside of the box drive and the other a tap-in from a set piece. When United were awarded a penalty in the second half, Robson turned down the chance to go for a historic cup final hat-trick by telling Arnold Muhren to take it instead. United won 4-0, as the selfless Robson lifted the cup as United captain for the first of three times.
Perhaps even better than that was his showing against Liverpool two years later. Robson had put United in front in the 1985 semi-final, held at Goodison Park, only for last-minute goals from Liverpool in both normal time and extra-time forced a replay. A Paul McGrath own goal put United behind at Maine Road, but Robson inspired a second-half comeback with a surging run past Mark Lawrenson and a thunderous left-footed strike past Bruce Grobbelaar. Mark Hughes scored the winner. The Daily Express’s Steve Curry called the match “a raw embodiment of the best British football has to offer”. Robson was carried off the pitch by adoring fans.
In 1990, he’d win his third FA Cup as captain after scoring once more at Wembley, in a 3-3 draw with Crystal Palace that set up another replay triumph. He’s the only United captain to lift the trophy three times.
Performance vs Barca ’84
When Robson was chaired off the pitch at Maine Road in 1985, it wasn’t his first experience floating in the air above a football pitch. The most memorable and enduring of his displays in a United shirt came the previous year. In one of the finest individual performances of any United player in the esteemed history of the club, Robson scored twice against Diego Maradona’s Barcelona.
United had lost the first leg of their UEFA European Cup Winners’ Cup quarter-final against the Catalans by two goals. They needed to win 3-0 to go through. Robson took to that night with a steely determination, showing the utter hatred of defeat that Sir Bobby Moore would praise him for. He scored United’s first after 21 minutes, heading in at the far post after Graeme Hogg had flicked on Ray Wilkins’ corner. Only six minutes into the second half, he tapped home a rebound and two minutes later he played a part in Frank Stapleton’s winning goal. His display that night is the stuff of legend, but it’s not been hyperbolised. It really was that good. The whole team played well, but Robson stormed around the pitch with incessant energy, offering moments of quality wherever needed.
At full-time, the fans climbed over the advertising hoardings and onto the pitch where they embraced their hero, lifting him onto their shoulders and carrying him towards the tunnel.
Perhaps the best demonstration of Robson’s mentality came not in his performance but in his post-match interview. The first thing he pointed out was that United should have got a better result in the first leg!
Longest-serving United captain
Robson is the longest-serving captain in United history, wearing the armband from 1982 until 1994. He was a uniquely brilliant player who starred in a United team that often fell short of what Robson’s quality deserved. Often injured, a spell without Captain Marvel reduced United’s chances of success by half. Or more. And so, when Alex Ferguson finally guided the Reds to a top-flight title, it was just and fitting that Robson remained the skipper. With United finally champions, the team headed to Wimbledon for the final game of the 1992/93 season. Robson had got his hands on the trophy a few days before, but the hero of the last decade hadn’t quite had his magical moment yet. But it came, with a goal at Selhurst Park. A hero completing his life’s work. Like a film script.
That was one of many iconic goals from Robson. There were the two against Barcelona in 1984, a string of FA Cup final and semi-final strikes. This was a man who rose to the occasion. He scored 99 goals for the club, and when we asked him recently what scenario he’d choose if he could have scored a 100th, he said:
“I wish it had been against someone like Liverpool in a European Cup final, and that won us the game. It would have been nice to do something like that!”
He had his fair share of iconic goals, but that would have been good.
He's the idol of a generation
You can often tell the mark of a person from what their colleagues say about them. Current England manager Gareth Southgate called Bryan Robson his “sporting hero”. Gary Lineker views him in the same light: “Even when I played alongside him, I was in awe of Bryan Robson. An inspirational footballer.”
David Beckham said: “What Bobby Charlton was to my father, Bryan Robson was to me – and still is. But Bryan, as well as being great going forward, could tackle and he could defend. I could never do either of those things.”
Sir Alex Ferguson said: “An influential person in the dressing room, well-liked by the players, a great captain, and courage? Well, three broken legs, a broken collarbone, a hundred and one hamstring injuries, ankle injuries, and still played till 37 years of age! So that tells you something about the man. Oh, fantastic. He had good control, was a decisive tackler, passed the ball well and his combination of stamina and perceptive reading of movement enabled him to make sudden and deadly infiltrations from midfield into the opposition’s box.”
But maybe the best quote comes from Gary Neville, who said Robson “epitomised everything I thought a United player should be”.
“He flogged himself to the end of every game and gave blood, sweat and tears. He was a true leader. When he burst into the box, it was like his life depended on it. You could see it in his face and his running style. Everything was a fight and a battle.”
And that was it; Robson did what every United fan wished they could do on the pitch, if they only had the talent. And that even after he grew up as a Newcastle fan.