Captain Marvel carries the scars of only two serious regrets from a heroic football life now enshrined in celluloid perpetuity by a quite brilliant movie.
One, Bryan Robson should have seized in a patriotic heartbeat his ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ opportunity to become England manager, in succession to Terry Venables.
Two, he fell just 10 short of his long-held ambition of 100 England caps through no fault of his own. Rather because of injuries, some of which he suspects were inflicted with either reckless or deliberate endangerment.
Bryan Robson has lifted the lid on his stellar Manchester United and England career
Robson fell just short of 100 England caps due to injury (left) and admits his greatest regret is not taking the chance to replace Terry Venables as manager of the national team
‘For whatever strange reason the FA decided to let go one of the game’s most brilliant coaches (Venables),’ says Robson. ‘That led to an approach to me.’
It came from Don Howe, the renowned Arsenal coach who joined Robson among the assistants to Venables at Euro 96.
‘When it became clear Terry was leaving the job, Don came quietly up to me,’ reveals Robson, now 64. ‘He said that if I answered “Yes” he would make it happen with the FA, who much admired him. I gave him an instant, gut reaction “No”. I said I didn’t feel I was ready for England and I’d be going back to managing Middlesbrough.
‘That was the biggest mistake of my life. I should have asked for the weekend to think it over. Had I done so I would have agreed. Too late. The offer would never come again. They went and gave the job to Glenn Hoddle, who had even less experience of management than I did.’
Robson’s take on the more thorny issue of whether any of his catalogue of injuries, which included three leg fractures at West Bromwich Albion, were a consequence of bad intentions will do nothing to cool Manchester United’s local rivalry with Manchester City.
‘The first break was an accident,’ he says. ‘The second was a result of me coming back too quickly. But the one which broke my ankle was a bad tackle by Dennis Tueart. He was supposed to be one of City’s nice guys but he skimmed his studs over the top of the ball into my legs. There was a lot of that in the 60s, 70s and 80s.’
The self-deprecating Robson only lists himself fourth in the greatest No 7s to play for United
Robson shares a drink with Sportsmail’s Jeff Powell at San Carlo restaurant in Manchester
Robson calls two of City’s most revered England internationals into question in that context.
‘This was a way of going into tackles which needed practice,’ continues Robson. ‘Dennis studied under good teachers like Franny Lee and Mike Summerbee. If nothing else it was a lesson I needed to learn.
‘I began to recognise when opponents shaped up to do this. To be ready. I knew who to watch out for. I always remembered Jimmy Case at Brighton, Southampton and Liverpool and Steve McMahon also at Liverpool.’
Robbo exonerates two recognised hard men of his generation — Peter Reid, another City stalwart, and Liverpool iron man Graeme Souness. He says: ‘Reidy was as honest as the day is long. Souey was tougher than anyone in the game but when you went in against him you knew he would go for the ball. That it would be a proper, serious challenge. Fifty-fifty and may the best man win.’
Robbo: The Bryan Robson Story would be incomplete without insights into his physical strength and stamina as well as his courage. Even though for the most part this documentary paints a picture of the complete midfield footballer. Of the defensive defiance, the creative intelligence, the engine which roared him on to considerable feats of goal-scoring.
Much of his tale, of course, is entwined with United, for whom he is now a global ambassador. That role takes him to some weird as well as wonderful places.
Robson is a legendary figure at Manchester United, having played for the club 461 times
He came to this conversation from Milan, explaining: ‘I was our representative at a celebrity cookery seminar. Some of the big names roasted the meat, tossed the pasta, boiled the vegetables. My job was to make the sauce. Lots of it in a huge bowl. It wasn’t too bad. At least nobody got food poisoning! But it wasn’t a patch on what we’re eating here.’
Or drinking for that matter. He adds: ‘It’s no secret I like a drink but it never affected my game. I didn’t touch a drop for 48 hours before a game. I was never hungover or tired going into a match.’
We are at something of a throwback to epic lunches past. At San Carlo, the bustling Italian restaurant which is the vibrant hub of much of today’s Manchester social life. Table reservation time is supposed to be limited to two hours maximum. Double that and add another hour. The staff have greeted Robbo with open arms. Several customers, with traditional northern courtesy, wait for a lull between courses before asking for selfies.
Questions about United’s current predicament are inevitable, given the 5-0 humiliation by Liverpool followed by last weekend’s passive damage-limitation defeat by City. Robson is as guarded with his choice of words as he was scrupulous in the tackle.
‘It hurts when United aren’t doing well,’ he says. ‘I want them to be on top, winning. My love for the club as well as my job with United are why I do little for television.
‘I listen to Roy Keane venting all his passion and drive, true to his intense nature. I see Graeme Souness biting his lip, measuring what he says. That’s one reason why he’s the best pundit of the lot. Keano doesn’t see the intensity which took our team up to second behind Manchester City in the Premier League last season and which lit up the start of this season. But then not everyone can be The Gaffer.’
A young Robson signs for Manchester United on the pitch at Old Trafford in October 1981
He has backed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (pictured) to turn around Manchester United’s fortunes
That is still how he addresses Sir Alex Ferguson, ‘the greatest man manager of all time and the only one to rebuild three great teams including the one I played in’.
But not even the most agitated fans can get him to disrespect Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, least of all when there are cries for his head. He says: ‘Ole has to get us back to where he was with the team before this slump.
‘It will take hard work but that’s what managers are paid the big money for. With the players he’s got, United are best-equipped to be a team who defend deep and counter-attack at pace. As they did in taking Spurs apart the other day — but that was at the Tottenham Stadium. This is OK playing away but it’s not enough at home.
‘United need to be on the front foot at Old Trafford. Ole found the balance between good defence and the kind of football which pacifies our fans. He did it before. It’s up to him to do it again.’
There is one element of the criticism at which Robson bridles. He says: ‘It beggars belief that people are blaming Cristiano Ronaldo. Heresy. Where would we be now without his genius? Without his goals, including the best three of the season so far? We’d be out of the Champions League and in the bottom half of the Premier League. This is what he was bought for and why he’s a fantastic signing, regardless of age.’
Robson watches Manchester United in the stands alongside legendary boss Sir Alex Ferguson
The club legend can’t understand criticism of Cristiano Ronaldo, who returned this summer
So great that he bestows upon Ronaldo one of Old Trafford’s ultimate accolades. There is a powerful tradition in the No 7 shirt at United, which Robson wore himself. He scans the cast and lists those players in descending order, without hesitation or false modesty: 1) Ronaldo. ‘No question.’
2) Eric Cantona. ‘For the huge dramatic impact he brought to the club at a vital moment.’
3) George Best. ‘The magician who sometimes wore 7 instead of 11.’
4) Robson. ‘If I may.’
5) Steve Coppell. ‘A fabulous player before his bad injury.’
6) David Beckham. ‘For his impact on the Manchester, English and global football public.’
On the subject of Ronaldo, Robson continues to wax eloquent: ‘I don’t recall any commentators knocking Jimmy Greaves for goal-hanging. Scoring goals is the most difficult aspect of football.
‘I always believed when I was a manager that if you had a player who could guarantee goals — let alone one as special as Cristiano — you could afford to have that one luxury in your team.
‘Let the rest get on with helping each other and supplying him with the ball to work his magic in making and taking goals. That’s the job for the genius. At Euro 96, England’s players were all happy to do that for Paul Gascoigne. One thing I told Gazza was to calm down, forget about defending. Leave that to others. Focus on winning the matches.’
Robson while playing for Manchester United, in a game against QPR back in October 1985
Robson admits his ‘love for United’ is what stops him appearing much as a television pundit
Robbo goes so far as to liken Ronaldo to one of the supreme footballers in the annals of the game.
He says: ‘One of the proudest moments of my life came when my Manchester United team beat a fabulous Barcelona team 3-0 in the Cup Winners’ Cup (in 1984).
‘Especially so because Diego Maradona is the greatest I ever played against. Absolutely incredible. I was thrilled I played a part in keeping him at bay. So important is that memory to me I’ve come to believe that had I been fit to play against Argentina at Mexico ’86 he would not have scored the greatest goal in World Cup history.’
Robson means the one in which Maradona weaved through most of the England team to score, not the ‘Hand of God’ controversy.
Peter Reid took his place in that midfield after he had succumbed to the recurrence of a persistent shoulder in England’s second group game. Reid also shouldered much of the blame.
Robson says: ‘Amazing as Maradona was, I would never have let him cut through our midfield. I like to think I would have tackled him. At the very least I would have blocked his run. Not with any risk of damaging him. Just brought him down.’
History might have been changed. England might have gone on to win that tournament instead of Argentina. But injury plagued Robson. He recalls: ‘One FA official who kept the records told me that I was never dropped by any England manager when I was fit.
He says Solskjaer previously found the balance between good defence and attacking football
‘He calculated that I missed 36 England matches because of injury. I would have sailed past a hundred caps. But sometimes I was my own worst enemy.
‘One game at Coventry I went for a cross to the far post and stretched so far I crashed into the advertising boards behind the goal. That was the start with the shoulder.
‘When I watched the replay I thought, why the hell did I risk my England career instead of using my intelligence to realise there was no chance of heading that ball back across the box?’
He applied that brilliant mind to overcoming an initial reluctance to engage in the making of his film. He says: ‘My dad was a truck driver. My mam worked hard. I decided I owed it to my roots to show working-class kids how much you can achieve if you really try.
‘I also remembered how I persuaded my wife, Denise, that we shouldn’t let our kids know I was diagnosed with cancer when I was managing in Thailand.
‘Then how great they were when the news looked like leaking so we told them.
‘My message to them was the one I want to send to cancer sufferers everywhere now: believe the doctors when they say you have a good chance of beating this thing, so stay positive.’
Job done. So we summon the maitre d’ to crack open another crisp bottle of Italy’s finest and raise glasses to the movie about one of football’s greatest.
Robbo: The Bryan Robson Story will premiere on November 25 at Manchester’s Home Cinema, where it will go on public release the next day, immediately followed on Netflix, Amazon, YouTube, DVD and Blu-ray.