“If you asked me what constitutes a hero, when you’re younger it’s always that person that makes you want to follow in their footsteps; the person you want to be like,” says Gary Neville. For United’s future captain, there was only one contender. Only one Bryan Robson.
“When I was growing up, Bryan Robson was captain of England and Manchester United. He was the best player, and the most important player, in the country.
“Every single challenge he went in for was as if his life seemed to depend on it. He seemed as though he cared all the time, he was a huge driving force for his country and his club. That’s what I aspired to be as I got older, someone who was committed to the cause.”
“My favourite player and role model was Bryan Robson,” echoed Roy Keane.
“His tackling, goalscoring and box-to-box presence for United and England were proof that you could be a great player without doing tricks. Robson wasn’t brilliant, but he was awesome.”
A hero to heroes, Robbo set the benchmark for midfield brilliance at United. Succeeded by Paul Ince and latterly Keane in the Reds’ engine room, he was the first of three midfield greats to grace Old Trafford during a gilded era which would yield silverware galore.
Why we love Bryan RobsonVideo
Robson was in his eighth season with the Baggies, but it was under Atkinson’s management that he had taken centre stage. The 1978/79 season brought a regular starting berth in midfield, and Robson was central to a thrilling Baggies team which battled for top honours alongside the country’s leading clubs. Inevitably, those giants began to circle around Robson, with Liverpool particularly keen to take him to Anfield. When Atkinson moved to Old Trafford, however, a reunion was soon on the cards.
“As soon as I took the job, I wanted Robson,”said the former United manager.
“When I was at Albion he’d put in a transfer request, slipped a letter in my office when he’d come back from being away with England. So I called him in and he said: ‘United are after me.’ My reply to him was: ‘I’ll tell you now for nothing: the only way you’ll go to Man United is if I go there before you!’ The day I got the United job, Robbo was out in Switzerland with the England team, and he’s on the ‘phone: ‘Gaffer, remember what you said?’ He was tapping me up!”
“This was an opportunity any player would relish,”Robbo later reflected,
“huge club, huge stage, huge fan base, huge in every respect.”
With new management and players on board, it was time to restore an appropriate level of success at Old Trafford. Robson’s first full season ended with victory in the FA Cup final – the skipper scoring twice in a Wembley replay victory over Brighton – a runners-up medal in the League Cup and third spot in the First Division table.
The following term, 1983/84, came Robson’s standout performance as a United player. Having spurned a presentable chance in Camp Nou in the first leg of a European Cup Winners’ Cup quarter-final tie against Barcelona, the skipper made it his personal mission to overturn the Reds’ two-goal deficit – and even promised as much before the return match. On one of Old Trafford’s greatest nights, Robbo duly delivered the goods, netting twice as United’s 3-0 win secured famous progress.
“A lot of fans invaded the pitch and carried me off on their shoulders,”he later recalled.
“I remember I was a long way from the tunnel at the final whistle, so there was no chance to get inside before the crowd mobbed me. That night was the best atmosphere I experienced in my 13 years as a player here. You could feel the pitch shaking that night.”
For Alex Ferguson, coming in to find Robson at the heart of his new club was an enormous boon.
“An influential person in the dressing room, well-liked by the players, a great captain,”the Scot later reflected.
“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.”
Though untimely injuries punctuated Robson’s playing days at Old Trafford, he frequently played through the pain barrier to ensure that he dragged his side as far as he could.
Skippering United to the FA Cup once again in 1990, then the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1991, it was fitting that he finally got to lift the Premier League trophy – twice – before his stellar career came to a close.
A supremely gifted player, a force of nature and an outstanding leader of men, it’s little surprise that Bryan Robson remains one of the definitive Old Trafford heroes.
This feature originally appeared within Inside United magazine.