John Gidman: Rooming with Robbo
I have a message to all the parents out there who have hopes and ambitions for their kids.
When someone turns around to you and tells you your son or daughter is crap at this, that or the other, don’t listen to them.
There’s always somebody who wants to stamp you down in life. For me, it was Bill Shankly.
My father was a frustrated footballer and he basically wanted me to live his dreams. God bless him. If it was wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have gotten where I got. He loved his football, ate it, slept it and pushed his only son every day into the back yard, telling him how to do this, how to do that, even when it was freezing. Growing up in 1960s Liverpool in the days of the Beatles, everyone was on about Lennon and McCartney – who both only lived up the road from me – but when I’d ask for a guitar for Christmas, I’d get a pair of boots instead.
So as a kid, I played a lot of football, got scouted for Liverpool and joined them as a right winger. Even at 15, I knew my own mind and I wasn’t a yes man. That didn’t go down well with the youth team manager, who didn’t like me, didn’t like the way I played, didn’t see anything in me.
He obviously had a word with Shankly, who sent a letter to my parents, basically saying that he’d been informed their son wasn’t good enough to even embark on a career in football. He said I didn’t have the quality or the attitude. Everything you could think of was put in that letter. I’ve still got it in my safe at home, actually. Liverpool said they were going to rip my contract up and pay me for the remaining 14 months or so. I went home upset, told my dad, feared the worst and he was brilliant.
He paused for a second, turned around to me and said: “Son, you’re thick as pig s***, you’re not going to get a job, just go back and stick it out.” So I did. When I went back I got a bit of a cold reception because everyone had been told I’d been kicked out. I was put in the C team, literally playing on parks like I had done after school. The standard was abysmal. He was making me suffer. A couple of months after this, however, that coach left the club and was replaced by Ronnie Moran, who quickly moved me up to the B team, then the A team.
One day, Ronnie pulled me over before an A team game against Everton at Melwood.
“Giddy, I need a word. Don’t think I’m trying to make you look stupid, but I want you to play right-back. Do the same things you’ve been doing as a right winger. Try to defend, but do what you’re good at. You can run all day, you’re quick and you cross well. I want you to do that and see how you play.” I did that, and afterwards Ronnie said: “That’s your position.” And that was my position from then on. I was a right-back for the rest of my career.
I carried on progressing and moved up into the Reserves, and after a while Ronnie told me that he’d advised the club to offer me a pro contract because my current deal was expiring. Shankly had turned around and said that he couldn’t do it. Having sent that letter to my parents, he couldn’t go back on what he’d said because he’d look like an idiot.
So we parted company. I went on holiday for a week and got a phone call telling me to come back because Aston Villa wanted to give me a trial. I was a bit reluctant because I’d been hurt a bit, scarred a bit, by what had happened and I was quite disillusioned with football and what it was all about.
My dad convinced me to give it a go and once I got to Villa, everything I touched turned to gold. One door closed, another opened, I suppose. I got the call to go into the manager’s office on the last day of my trial and I thought: “Here we go again, I’ve been here before. You walk through the door, you’re told to sit down and you’re told you’re s***e. I was waiting for that, but instead they offered me a year’s pro contract and told me to use those 12 months to prove myself.
I never looked back.
I won the FA Youth Cup with Villa, played for England youth and won the mini World Cup in the Nou Camp under Gordon Milne, with Trevor Francis and Phil Thompson. I came back, got a two-year contract and then it was within three months I was a first team regular. Things turned around from being told I was rubbish at 15 to being a First Division regular at 18.
It was during my time in Villa’s Reserves when I came up against the man himself, George Best. I was coming back from a cartilage operation, he was coming back from something himself and I had to play against him at Old Trafford. There was something like 15,000 fans there and we couldn’t get over it in the Villa dressing room. I was used to big crowds by then, but there were young boys there totally blown away by having 15,000 fans and being up against George Best. I couldn’t believe I was playing against him.
Let me tell you, I don’t care that it was a Reserves game… he was the best player I ever played against. Later on I played against Cruyff and Neeskens at the Nou Camp, but nothing compares to George Best. He was just brilliant. I had no clue where he was going or what he was doing. That’s how good he was. A pure, natural genius. Me being me, after a while I resorted to just clattering him. I’ve got a picture in my house of what happened next. He got up, turned around and chinned me. The News of the World’s photographer got the exact moment of impact and it’s like a shot from a boxing ring, where the sweat comes flying off your face. He caught me square on the chin and sent me down.
A few weeks later, Sammy Morgan, who was playing for Northern Ireland, was back in the Villa squad and he said: “I believe you had a tussle with George.”
“Tussle? He’s a bloody magician.”
“Well, he said he rates you.” Funny enough, I met George again in Marbella that summer. I thought he was going to have a go at me but he bought me a drink. What a gentleman he was. He was laughing about what had happened. I was a first team footballer in the top flight but I was gobsmacked to even be in his company. That’s how awe-inspiring he was to everyone.
I loved my time at Villa and ended up spending nine years there. I never wanted to leave, if I’m honest, but things didn’t go well between myself and Ron Saunders, the manager. I ended up joining Everton but I wasn’t on the same wavelength as their players and I certainly wasn’t on the same wavelength as Howard Kendall when he came in as manager 18 months later. We’d had a bit of animosity during his playing days and he had no plans to use me. He made that clear in his first pre-season when he left me out of the playing squad but still kept me on the trip. On our way home we stopped for a week’s holiday in Los Angeles, I was in the hotel reception and suddenly I hear: “Is Mr Gidman here? Long distance phone call for you.”
It was Ron Atkinson. “Giddy, I’ve just got the Man United job. I want you to be my first signing.”
I was gobsmacked.
“Ok.” That’s all I said.
“When can you get back?”
“Soon as I can.”
That was that. He gave me a three-year contract, maybe four, and things started. What a new lease of life, playing with players who could play. The likes of Ray Wilkins, I’d played with for England, but he was very creative. Stevie Coppell, what a player to play with. He loved me overlapping past him because I was saving his legs. I knew that he could sit in the hole, which wasn’t happening at Everton. I knew I had the freedom to go forward and I knew, without worrying, there would be someone there because they’re on that level: if one goes, another will fill in. That wasn’t happening at Everton. Ron was bringing Frank Stapleton in, Remi Moses, Paul McGrath… Mark Hughes came through, so did the wonder boy Norman Whiteside.
And this fella called Bryan Robson joined not too long after me.
I’d played against Robbo at West Brom, so I knew his ability. The team Ron was putting together, you could see it was starting to blend. Robbo was a cornerstone of everything and I regard myself as very fortunate to count him as one of my closest friends at the time. He was England captain and I had the privilege of rooming with him. He was a gentleman off the pitch. He would do anything for charity, anything for the media on the phone in our hotel room – he’s always got time for people. He was a gentleman on the pitch as well, but he was also a hard f*****r as well as a worker.
When I think of Robbo as a player, I always remember the night of the 1985 FA Cup semi-final replay against Liverpool at Maine Road. Prior to that, on the Saturday we played them at Goodison. Robbo had controlled that game like only he could. He was a great communicator and leader. He was dictating the play, controlling how we used the ball when we had it and winning it back when we didn’t. I couldn’t give him enough praise as a player. Despite his brilliance, Liverpool equalised and it went to a replay.
The atmosphere that night at Maine Road was one of the best I’ve ever, ever been in. Both sides were so up for it and Liverpool went into half-time 1-0 ahead. During the break, Atko was different class. “I can’t fault any of you; all I want you to do is try to up it 15 percent.” The main man who did that was Robbo. He must have found another 50 percent from somewhere.
Just look at the goal he scored to equalise, and that tells you everything you need to know, answers every single question anybody could have about Bryan Robson. He picks the ball up and surges through the Liverpool defence. He’s not going through a bunch of amateurs on a snooker table, he’s going through mud and water against a great team, and then he cracks an unbelievable shot into the top corner. To have the strength to play like he played for 90 minutes on those surfaces was insane; if you didn’t play on those pitches then you won’t understand what they were like. Robbo could run on them all day long. He was just the embodiment of fitness.
Sparky got the winner and we went through to the final, but I always think back to Robbo’s goal that night. I was running alongside him on the right, watching him cut through the Liverpool team and smash in that goal, and I just thought to myself: My God. That’s the man.
We had some laughs off the pitch as well.
As captain, Robbo organised the parties more or less. He sorted one out where we were going to a comedy club in Oldham, then onto a party in Haydock. We all piled on to the club coach – a beautiful coach – there were beers had and we were soon all the worse for wear. There’s a bridge that you’ve got to go over to reach the club and Derek, the driver, says to Bryan: “I’m not going to get the coach over the bridge, Bryan. It won’t fit.”
Robbo asks Derek to check, so he gets out and goes to measure the bridge.
Robbo turns to me, smirks and says: “Go on, Giddy. Get the thing across.”
I’d never driven a coach in my life, but I didn’t need telling twice. Captain’s orders!
So I jumped in the driver’s seat, put it in first, closed the doors with the clutch… pssssh, you hear the doors close, and off I went.
All the boys are yelling: “Go on, Giddy!”
I got it f****** stuck, didn’t I.
Ohhh, there was murder from Derek.
“You t***, you’ve ruined me f****** coach.” We clambered out of the emergency exit, shouted: “Sorry Derek, you sort it. We’re off,” and we went into the club.
It was Robbo’s fault. He was the captain, he told me to do it because he knew I was the one who would do anything. He knew I was a bit of a nutter and he told me to have a go. What did he expect?
When we all woke up the next day I was waiting for the fine, but it never came. Someone at the training ground mentioned that the bus was a bit damaged on the front, but Atko didn’t say anything. He was at the party too! That was life at Man United. Really good craic. Robbo was the instigator of most things, especially good things, and he was always involved.
The story that still makes me laugh was on a trip to Arsenal. Again, we were on the coach – I wasn’t driving this time – and we were playing cards, having coffee, tea, chocolate and whatnot. We got to the hotel and went off with our room-mates to get ready for the team meal that night.
Me and Robbo are just in our room chatting and suddenly he turns to me and says: “What’s that?”
“Listen, there’s a fight going off.”
And you can hear this distant kerfuffle going on, this voice screaming. We’ve got this whole floor to ourselves, there are no other guys here… surely someone is having a go at one of the players.
Being a Scouser, I say: “Robbo, you’re the captain, you should go first.” I pushed him out the door. Go on wonder boy, do your captaincy stuff and find out what’s going on.
So we walk down the corridor and the voices are getting louder. We come to an open door, look inside, look at each other and just burst out laughing.
One of the lads had gone to fart on his room-mate while he was on the phone to his mother and… well, it had gone wrong. I’ll not name names and I’ll just leave it at that, but it’s safe to say that it was the funniest thing I’d ever seen. Still is. Both me and Robbo had to leave the room. We were literally crying.
There are so many memories of my time with United, on and off the field. They were just the best of times to be involved in such a great club. Everything is mega sized and you can’t really describe what it’s like to be a part of. I missed out on the 1983 FA Cup final through injury but I was in the team in 1985 when we beat Everton with 10 men. That was every kid’s fantasy coming true, and it was actually the final game of my contract. Atko offered me a new two-year deal on the pitch afterwards to make the day even better for me!
For a kid who had been told he was never going to amount to anything, it was just a dream.