Yesterday, we woke to the sad news of the death of Michael Robinson. A lovely man, he managed the unusual feat of being loved as a footballer and a pundit. There was nothing not to like about ‘Robin’, as he became known in Spain.
He began his career at Preston North End, moved to Brighton, then Liverpool and QPR before moving to Osasuna in Spain. After his playing days, he carved out a very successful career as a pundit.
They loved him in Spain. The English aren’t necessarily known for embracing a foreign culture as their own, but Robin broke the mould. He settled there, learned the language and effectively became Spanish, welcomed by the locals.
Born in Leicester on 12th July 1958, he moved with his parents to Blackpool when he was young. They ran a boarding house and the young lad lapped up all the town had to offer.
His dad (Arthur Robinson) was a footballer who played for Brighton, Aston Villa and Wrexham before the War.
Robinson was a Liverpool fan from a young age. He was six when he made his first visit to Anfield. His dad said his son fell in love with football before the teams came out. For so many Liverpool fans the whole atmosphere and colour of the place were what first drew us to the club. Robinson was no different.
He had trials for Chelsea, Man City and Coventry, but each time homesickness hampered his chances of a permanent move.
Eventually, Bobby Charlton, no less, saw the potential in him and signed him for Preston North End. Robinson played under three different managers at Deepdale, two of them World Cup winners. Charlton, Harry Catterick and Nobby Stiles.
His performances soon had him grabbing the attention of bigger clubs. One particular admirer was Malcolm Allison, the manager of Manchester City. It was the summer of ’79 and the transfer record was being pushed up and up. Allison seemed particularly keen to spend, spend, spend.
There is one story around Allison’s approach for the player which says much about the man and the circumstances around football in England at the time.
In 1977, Liverpool paid Celtic a record £440,000 for Kenny Dalglish. In January 1979, West Brom paid Middlesbrough £516,000 for David Mills. A month later Trevor Francis became the first million-pound footballer when Brian Clough bought him from Birmingham City to Nottingham Forest. The transfer market was booming.
Within this environment, Allison called Nobby Stiles to discuss his desire to sign Robinson. He was 19 and probably worth around £200,000.
The call went something like this;
Allison: “Hi Nobby, this young lad Robinson. I really like him and I’d like to buy him”
Stiles: “Yeah we really rate him, he’s a fantastic talent. Not sure we’re that keen to let him go”
Allison: “Well we really want him and we’re prepared to pay £400,000 for him”
Allison: “You still there, Nob?”
Stiles: “Yeah I am, Malc. £400,000? You can’t be serious. Is this some kind of joke?”
Allison: “No, no joke, Nob. We really like the boy. Think he could be a good player”
Stiles: “yeah but £400,000?”
Allison: “Ok Nob. £600,000”
Stiles starts laughing
Allison: “What you laughing for, Nob?”
Stiles: “Hahaha, oh Malc. That’s a good ‘un. They say you’re mad. £600,000? Dear oh dear”
Allison: “Blimey, you drive a hard bargain, Nob. Ok £750,000 and that’s my final offer”
And so Robinson became the most expensive teenager in British football. At Deepdale, he was on £30pw. City paid him £330pw.
“I was built up as a wonder boy”, he would later tell Simon Hughes for his excellent book “Red Machine: Liverpool FC in the ’80s”
“Maine Road was a nightmare. There was such a divide between the older and younger players, and there seemed to be a lot of jealousy from the older ones towards me because of the figures involved in my transfer”.
Struggling to handle the pressure which came with the price tag, he also didn’t get on with Allison. He couldn’t understand his methods. It led to Robinson moving on later that season to Brighton. Years later he admits to Allison being ahead of his time.
At Brighton, he found another character in Alan Mullery, but this time he felt more at home. Eight goals in 30 games at Maine Road just added to the pressure for Robinson. At Brighton, that pressure subsided.
At the Goldstone Ground, he became good friends with Mark Lawrenson. The two had known each other at Preston before Lawrenson moved to the South Coast.
During this period he also made his international debut for the Republic of Ireland in a World Cup qualifier. He was eligible through his grandparents and in October 1980 he lined up alongside Lawro in Paris against a French side including Platini, Tigana, Battiston and Rocheteau. A month later he scored his first of four goals in his international career when they thumped Cyprus 6-0 at Lansdowne Road.
His three years at Brighton culminated in their run in the FA Cup all the way to the final at Wembley in 1983. In the league, things weren’t going anywhere near as well. Mullery had left and the team were under the tutelage of former Liverpool player, Jimmy Melia. They drew the final with Manchester United, 2-2. They had a golden chance to win it, too, as Gordon Smith missed a great chance, set up by Robinson. Commentator John Motson delivering the infamous line;
“And Smith must score”. But he didn’t.
The replay was an anti-climax with United winning comfortably, 4-0.
Enjoying their cup run too much meant they didn’t concentrate on their league form and were relegated from the First Division. Being one of their prized assets it was inevitable clubs would become interested in him.
Meanwhile at Anfield, legendary manager Bob Paisley had stepped down. He was replaced by first-team coach, Joe Fagan. Liverpool had been following the fortunes of a very excited and highly-rated 19-year-old, Michael Laudrup. They had offered Brondby £1m and a three-year contract, but at the last moment, Laudrup decided not to sign and moved to Juventus instead.
Liverpool then turned their attention to Robinson. When he heard his favourite team had come in for him he couldn’t believe it, claiming he’d sign for nothing.
Robinson loved Fagan. Considered him a genius man manager. But the player started badly. No goals in nine games and the press began to question his place. In Hughes’ book, Robinson tells a wonderful story of how Fagan called him into his office. He gave him a story of how his wife, at breakfast, had wanted to know whether he was going to drop the player. Fagan then explained to the player how he was the first name on the teamsheet, how he thought he’d given Dalglish a new lease of life and that he was really pleased with him. He finished with;
“Can I call the wife and tell her you’re all right?”
Robinson was never sure whether the story was a load of nonsense or not, but he said it made him feel ten foot tall.
That night he scored twice against Odense in the European Cup, then at Brentford in the League Cup, before scoring a hat-trick in the league at West Ham. He scored nine goals in his next 12 appearances.
The second half of the season didn’t go quite as well, as he was often on the bench with Rush and Dalglish in great form.
Liverpool went on to retain their league title, their third in a row. They also retained the League Cup for the third time in a row. And in keeping with ‘threes’, they picked up their third trophy of the year by beating Roma in the European Cup final, in their own backyard.
Robinson didn’t play a part in any of the final 10 games of the season and was on the bench in Rome. But he was still very much part of the squad.
At the beginning of the following season, Liverpool strengthened their squad with the purchase of Paul Walsh from Luton. Robinson fell further down the pecking order. At the age of 27, he knew he was approaching his peak years and so reluctantly handed in a transfer.
A measure of how Fagan still held him in high regard was that he was offered an improved contract. But deep down Robinson knew he needed regular football and Fagan just couldn’t provide that.
Driving away from Anfield for the last time, Robinson was inconsolable.
He moved South again, to Queens Park Rangers. Ironically they’d been the opponents when he scored his last league goal for Liverpool.
In 1986, QPR reached the League Cup final, losing to Oxford United. Robinson endeared himself to the QPR supporters during their cup run with an outrageous goal from the halfway line at Stamford Bridge. Struggling for goals the following season, Robinson again knew it was time to move on.
Rather surprisingly, Robinson accepted a bid from a Spanish club he’d never heard of, Osasuna. They were second from bottom in the league and lost 1-4 to Athletic Bilbao on his debut.
But almost immediately things turned for him. His second match really was a baptism of fire as they travelled to the Santiago Bernabeu. He scored in the first minute. Unlucky to lose, he then scored the only goal in his home debut and then the match-winner against Real Valladolid in his next match.
It was a dream start and Robinson and his wife began to immerse themselves in the local culture and had no other choice but to learn the language to fit in.
He said he loved everything about Spain and the Spanish and realised he had loads in common with them. He had already decided to retire the season injury forced the decision on him.
In his final game, at the Bernabeu on the night Bernd Schuster made his debut for Real, he received a standing ovation when substituted late in the game. He walked off the pitch crying his eyes out.
Not really knowing what he was going to do with his life, as luck would have it he found himself involved in television. He commentated on the 1990 World Cup and afterwards was asked to present his own show.
He explained to Hughes;
“I felt like I was a kid in Toys R Us and everybody had gone out.”
He became one of the most respected football pundits in Spain. On 17th December 2018, whilst taking part in a radio programme, he revealed he had a malignant melanoma which had been found at an advanced stage. Doctors had told him there was no cure.
On 28th April 2020, Robinson died. He was aged 61.
For his book, Hughes interviewed ten former Liverpool players. Robinson was by far the most generous with his time. The most articulate in a variety of subjects from football through to politics and social issues.
As a Liverpool fan, he probably wanted to succeed a little too much. But he played out his dream in front of adoring fans. He was adored in Spain, well-respected amongst his peers. Many of us wish to be remembered fondly when we go. Robinson achieved that. The tributes bear this out. It’s almost irrelevant how his playing career went, as many were simply drawn to the man.
News of his death was announced via his twitter account;
“With tremendous sadness, we inform you of Michael’s death. It leaves us with a great emptiness, but also countless memories, full of the same love that you have shown him. We will be eternally grateful to you for making this man SO HAPPY, he never walked alone. Thank you”
Other tributes included;
“He was a big pal of mine. Lovely man, great company. I will really miss him. He phoned me once when he was out in Spain. He’d been out to lunch with a few people, including Seve Ballesteros. On the way back he was walking with Seve. Several people came up asking for autographs. Nearly all asked for his. Only one for Seve. He was really made up about it”
“The football family has lost a reference, the biggest smile, a leading member, a friend, a brother to many”
“We at FC Barcelona wish to express our deepest condolences for the passing of Michael Robinson, a person who loved football and who knew how to explain it with knowledge and ingenuity. He was the winner of the 2018 Vazquez Montalban International Journalism Award. Rest in peace
Lee Roden – European football reporter/producer, writer La Liga articles for talkSPORT. Prev LaLiga TV pitchside reporter/pundit
“Incredibly sad. Michael Robinson is probably my favourite co-commentator ever. The perfect combo of knowledge, knowing when to speak and when not, and unique delivery. Beyond that a wonderful ambassador for how to move abroad and integrate. Terrible news”
“Gutted to hear of the passing of Michael Robinson (AKA The Cat). We played cricket together in our teens. He followed me to PNE, then Brighton, Rep of Ire & finally Liverpool. He even bought my house off me in Hove. It’s a sad day in sad times”
“We’re deeply saddened by the passing of former player Michael Robinson, aged 61. The thoughts of everybody at Liverpool are with Michael’s family and friends at this sad time”
Preston, 48 appearances (15 goals)
Man City 30 appearance (8 goals)
Brighton 113 appearances (37 goals)
Liverpool 52 appearances (13 goals)
QPR 48 appearances (5 goals)
Osasuna 58 appearances (12)
Republic of Ireland 24 caps (4 goals)
League Championship 1983/84, League Cup 1983/84, European Cup 1983/84, all with Liverpool.