THIS is a complete chapter from Simon Hughes’ book Red Machine: Liverpool FC in the ’80s: The Players’ Stories on former striker Michael Robinson who turns 59 today — charting life under Joe Fagan and becoming a cult figure in Spain.
‘THATCHER BORE THE SAME CHARM AS THE BUBONIC PLAGUE,’ declares Michael Robinson, Liverpool striker turned Spanish television presenter. ‘Because of that woman,’ he pauses, pointing a Marlboro Red in my direction, leaning forward with a plume of smoke spiralling skyward, ‘we live in a society where you have to save up to get ill. That is not an absolute truth, of course. But it is a part of her legacy. I believe in a capitalism that I can embrace with a social conscience, remembering that there’s a great difference between having a shit and tearing your arse.’
Robinson, or Robín, as he is affectionately known in Spain, became the country’s most popular sporting pundit and arguably the most famous TV star by pioneering the Canal Plus magazine show El Día Después (The Day After). Even the old litmus test has him way out in front of other public ﬁgures – his rubber double fronts the Spanish equivalent of Spitting Image.
He is also your original version of a term that has now become a cliché, ‘the thinking man’s footballer’. Like Graeme Le Saux, he would read The Guardian or the Financial Times on buses or train rides while travelling to away matches. Unlike Le Saux, there is something incredibly endearing about him. Robinson is fabulously good company.
When I meet him in Madrid at his ofﬁce on Calle de Almagro, a street parallel to the regal Castellana and just a few blocks down from the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium, he has already booked a table at a restaurant. ‘We’ll do the interview over a long lunch and a few G&Ts,’ he informs me on arrival, rubbing his hands and grinning before carefully arranging a neat-looking briefcase. The ofﬁce is very Zen, with whitewashed walls only broken by a desk, a laptop and two quilted chairs. Robinson moved into this space in 2008 to deal with the extra business and entertainment opportunities that have been afforded to him since becoming Spain’s answer to Gary Lineker.
Wearing a grey suit and ﬁtted light-blue shirt minus the tie, Robinson adjusts a pair of thick-rimmed black glasses that have seemingly been modelled on Nana Mouskouri, before revealing a little bit about his life at the moment. It’s hectic. Only in the last fortnight he has played at a charity golf tournament in Augusta in honour of his old friend Seve Ballesteros, ﬂown back to Spain for a live interview with Morgan Freeman on his television show Informe Robinson (The Robinson Report), before enjoying lunch with the former vice president of Spain, Roberto Figaredo. They ate in the same restaurant we are dining at today. En route to La Parra (The Grill), on the fringes of Madrid’s prosperous Salamanca district, I am reminded why Robinson is the football equivalent of the Kings of Leon – underappreciated, if completely anonymous at home yet hugely popular in a foreign land. He enjoys cult status in Spain. ‘Robín,’ chortles one of a hat-trick of admirers on the street. ‘You’re a genius.’
‘Thank you,’ he responds, in a mix of smooth Spanish and nasally fading Lancastrian, stretching a toothy almost goofy smile, his broad shoulders bobbing up and down with contentment. Robinson is taller and heavier than one remembers. His physique reveals that he is a former centre-forward.
Underneath La Parra’s restaurant sign on a tree-lined street it reads ‘Londres, Paris, Madrid, Seville’. We are in Madrid’s equivalent of Mayfair. Inside there is a mosaic of green, yellow and brown Moorish tiles, a reminder of Spain’s Islamic past. There are leather seats, the ﬁnest linen tablecloths and a wine list the length of the nearby Manzanares River.
Robinson’s face beams underneath the lampshade that hangs above. A pianist sporting a tuxedo and a pencil-thin moustache tickles the ivories. The scene could be fresh out of a Poirot episode in some mysterious Arabic shisha den. I almost expect a shady character with an ominous silhouette to appear at our table, opening a copy of El País before commenting assertively that the eagle will ﬂy north from Moscow this autumn. And everybody knows Robinson. The hurried waiters can’t do enough for their esteemed guest.
Speaking to a number of ex-Reds who played with Robín during an 18-month spell at Anﬁeld between 1983 and 1984, they say that he was the most likely to carve an alternative career upon retirement. They also half-joke that he is probably a better TV presenter than he was a footballer.
‘I can’t disagree with that,’ he laughs, reﬂecting on the 13 goals he scored in 52 appearances in a Liverpool shirt. ‘One of my best moments came when I got three away at West Ham. After the game, all the lads signed the match ball. Kenny Dalglish left a message. It read, “I don’t believe it.”’
Robinson was a closet intellectual amongst his teammates at Melwood, reluctant to let it all come out. Not that he spoke in a voice somewhere between Quentin Crisp and the Duke of Edinburgh. He was just brighter than most and thought deeply about life, a side of his character that he later tells me affected his performances.
Here, almost 26 years after he left Anﬁeld, we enjoy an outstanding three-course meal washed down with an ’02 Rioja, four pints of cerveza each and a G&T like he promised. Considering there’s a saying in Spain, ‘We eat everything in the pig except the walk’, and that the night before I’d eaten sautéed pig’s ear in a tiny Galician tapas bar on a scruffy side street in the rundown immigrant barrio of Lavapiés, Robinson’s enriching choice for the two of us of asparagus and prawns followed by langoustine risotto is welcome. As the freshest seeded batch of restaurant-baked bread arrives on the table from the furnace in the busy kitchen behind, thoughts of Robinson’s upbringing in the South Shore area of Blackpool must seem very far away.
‘I was still an egg when my mum and dad decided to leave Leicester to run a boarding house in Blackpool,’ he explains.
‘They’d been publicans beforehand. For a shy boy like me, it was quite an experience growing up in what was really a small hotel. I became sociable.
‘I lived my childhood on the beach. For a kid, living in Blackpool was like being in a giant playground. It was fantastic: slot machines, roller coasters. It was nice to grow up in a place where everybody was reasonably happy because they were on their holidays. People of a working-class background went on an annual pilgrimage to the seaside: the Scots, Welsh, Brummies and Geordies were everywhere. I remember thinking I didn’t want to live anywhere else. The rest of the country seemed normal, whereas Blackpool was exciting for a young boy.’
Robinson’s parents were working class.
‘But they had aspirations to be middle,’ he interrupts. ‘I was ten when I went on my ﬁrst holiday – a cruise around the Iberian Peninsula. Cruising was a holiday that boarding-house owners in South Shore tended to do.
‘I was never really inﬂuenced by my parents in terms of ideologies, because they weren’t deep thinkers on such issues. Blackpool was a Conservative oasis or a dark corner depending where you come from politically. But I had more empathy with the left. My dad was a devout capitalist – a businessman with a 90 per cent mortgage. The family needed capitalism to survive. But it also needed the money from working-class people, many of whom came to Blackpool as socialists. There seemed to be a lot of geography teachers wearing brown corduroy trousers.’
Robinson went to Palatine High School, an institution that in 2002 was targeted as a hotspot of teenage pregnancy by the local council. He says not much has changed since his time there.
‘Whereas kids from most secondary schools in the area would go on to further education or industry, the primary destination from my school was jail. It was an extremely violent place. We used to win the local schools football league every season for the main reason that three of the other schools wouldn’t turn up to play us. That was the Blackpool way. On the surface it was a cheery place, but beneath that there was an undercurrent of local thuggery. Most of it probably started at Palatine.’
The football bug caught Robinson earlier than an Ian Rush opening goal at Goodison Park.
‘It was in my blood. My dad [Arthur Robinson] had played professionally with Brighton, Aston Villa and Wrexham before the Second World War came along, where he fought in Holland. He spent most of his six years behind enemy lines and was later decorated by Queen Wilhelmina. My brother was a ﬁne player too.
‘Coming from the north-west meant there was always lots of teams to watch. Dad supported Villa, but they were too far away, so on a Friday night I’d go and watch Southport, who were in the Football League. Then Saturdays it’d be either Blackpool or Liverpool. I worked as a bagging boy at Blackpool train and bus stations to ﬁnance my trips to Bloomﬁeld Road. It meant wheeling a trolley halfway across town with holidaymakers’ luggage to B&Bs and hotels. I was like a poor taxi driver with no wheels. Because I was a lot cuter than my older brother, he pushed me forward: “Carry your bags, miss?” It worked.’
Robinson went to Anﬁeld for the ﬁrst time as a six year old.
‘It was 1963 and Liverpool played Burnley,’ he recalls instantly.
‘I remember a near-post header from St John, which ﬂew into the net. It sounds romantic, but my dad tells me that I’d fallen in love with football before the teams came out. We stood on the Kop and the crowd were singing, “We love you, yeah, yeah, yeah – with a team like that, you know you can’t be bad.” My dad says I was totally enveloped by the atmosphere and ten minutes before the kick-off I told him I wanted to be a footballer.’
The journey to Merseyside became a regular thing.
‘Every fortnight seemed like Christmas Eve. I always insisted to my dad or brother that we be there at least an hour and a half before the game so I could get my place on the Kop. Half of the time, I didn’t know what was going on. But the noise and the sound made my hairs stand on end. I’m not religious, but Anﬁeld was my cathedral. I was a devotee to something and that was the red shirt.
‘I used to show off my experiences when I went to school. All of my inspiration for games on the yard or the beach came from Anﬁeld. I was desperate to one day be one of those protagonists that walked out of the tunnel and received the adulation of the supporters who pledged their lives to the greatness of the club. Again, I know it sounds romantic, but when it later happened it was no less romantic than I ever envisaged it to be.’
Robinson started playing competitively when he was seven.
‘I was a striker but for some reason given the number 6 shirt and that disappointed me greatly. It wasn’t very glamorous. I wanted 9 or 8. But Dad said it was a number of responsibility. “Look at Bobby Moore,” he told me. It felt like some kind of consolation, because in the playground I was the kid that scored all the goals. Although any Liverpool fan reading this interview may struggle to believe it, I was by far the best player of my age in the junior leagues around Blackpool, so I became the number 6 that went everywhere and did everything. A lot of managers at every level now want to control everything a player does on the pitch. Luckily, I was blessed by not having a tactical schoolmaster like the guy from Kes. We were allowed to develop naturally and enjoy ourselves.’
At the age of 12, Robinson had a few clubs asking him to sign schoolboy forms. He went on trial to Chelsea.
‘I played in the same team as Ray Wilkins and Steve Wicks. I stayed in a really posh hotel on Gloucester Road in Kensington, and they really made an effort. But I missed home an awful lot and soon had a go with Man City and Coventry. But on both occasions I had problems with homesickness. I was a bit of a tart.’
Robinson has ‘romantic’ memories of the moment he agreed to sign for Preston.
‘Coronation Street was my barometer of time in the evening because I had to go to bed at eight o’clock. By 7.30 I had to have my pyjamas on. Corrie was in the advert break and the doorbell rings. I went to answer it and there was a small guy who introduced himself as Jimmy Scott. Then there was another guy who looked just like Bobby Charlton. “Are you Michael?” they asked.
‘“We’d like to speak to your dad.”
‘So I shut the door on them and told him that there was a guy who looks just like Bobby Charlton who was after him.
‘As it turned out, Jimmy Scott was the chief scout of Preston North End and the baldy guy was Bobby Charlton – the club’s player-manager. They immediately offered my dad a contract. I was sent upstairs and my dad, looking all embarrassed because Bobby Charlton was inside his house, followed me up to get a tie on. In all the commotion, I missed the end of Corrie and it was well past eight when I was called back down.
‘My dad said, “Mr Charlton thinks you might have a future in football and wants to know whether you’d like to become an apprentice professional with North End.” Being a diligent son, I said, “But, Dad, aren’t I going to St Anne’s College of Further Education?” He said, “You’re not listening to me, son. Bobby Charlton thinks you’ve got a future in the game,” then looking at Bobby, he added, “Sorry, Mr Charlton. My son can be a bit thick at times.”’
Robinson played under three different managers at Preston, then in the old Second Division.
‘Preston treated Mr Charlton rather shoddily. He took over in the Third Division and brought through great players like Mel Holden, Mike Elwiss, and Tony Morley before having the carpet swept from beneath him. Newcastle came in with a bid for our centre-half, John Byrne, and Mr Charlton said that if the club accepted the offer he would leave, because he was trying to build a team. Until then he had an immaculate if all-too-brief managerial career, and he had no option but to resign. He was a very human character.’
In Charlton’s place, Harry Catterick was appointed and soon gave Robinson his ﬁrst-team debut.
‘Catterick was a very dour, hard man and I didn’t get on with him at all,’ Robinson recalls. ‘I rubbed him up the wrong way and he did the same to me. It was a shock after Mr Charlton, because they were completely different people. Harry treated me badly and didn’t really know how to manage youngsters. He was a bit out of touch, and it was no wonder he gained a reputation as a completely miserable human being – even amongst the Evertonians that were supposed to revere him. Harry put me in the ﬁrst team but dropped me back down quickly, and it didn’t seem like I was going to get another chance because of the way he kept himself distant. I suppose that wasn’t just me, it was everybody. But as a young professional, it was hard to understand.’
Eventually, the lugubrious Catterick was sacked.
‘Nobby Stiles was the reserve-team manager and got a promotion. All I can say for Nobby was that he was a players’ manager and got the best out of me. He decided to throw me back up into the ﬁrst team. I repaid his faith by scoring a dozen or so goals, and at the end of that season Man City came in with a huge offer.’
Robinson’s ﬁrst contract at Preston was a modest one, but the move to Maine Road reportedly made him the game’s wealthiest teenager.
‘I was 19 when City offered £750,000. Trevor Francis, an experienced player and a great player, had moved shortly before from Birmingham to Forest for a world-record £1 million fee. I became the most expensive teenager. I’d started out at £6 a week with a pound a point bonus at Preston, then moved up to £8 when I reached the ﬁrst team. I ﬁnished there on £30 per week, but the City contract blew everything away. They gave me £330.
‘I was built up to be a wonder boy. The season opened with a game against Arsenal, and I was playing Alan Ball – a Blackpool legend. He was a World Cup winner and had moved for a fraction of what I’d gone for when he left Everton for Highbury. He was a great player and I was a nobody.’
Robinson had a rough time at Maine Road.
‘It was an absolute fucking nightmare,’ he reﬂects, chugging on the butt end of what is already his third cigarette. ‘There was such a divide between the older players and the 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. I was young and did not know how to deal with it.
‘I’ve always aligned myself with a certain cause. With the greatest respect to Manchester United, I grew up loathing their arrogance. The option of signing for City was an attractive one because it gave me the opportunity to beat United – I identiﬁed their downfall with a social vindication. I later enjoyed playing for Osasuna because it was pseudo-Basque and the supporters had a way about them that identiﬁed them as separate from others. I chose City after Preston even though half of the clubs in England wanted to sign me. But it was most unfortunate that I never got around this log rhythm that was playing football for Manchester City. Because that’s what it was – a bloody log rhythm, a fucking nightmare. I lived in Wilmslow in a house that was upside down. I spent my afternoons upstairs and slept downstairs because people would come looking through my window by day. I was frightened to go into supermarkets. I couldn’t handle the pressure. It sent me round the bend.’ Robinson didn’t get on with boss Malcolm Allison.
‘Big Mal was round the fucking bend too. I couldn’t understand him and neither could anybody else. Some of the tactics that he tried to apply were most certainly strange. He used to cut the pitch up into zones, bring in ballroom dancers to teach us about movement, use basketball coaches for jumping and even an East German swimming instructor for lessons on how to limber up our muscles. He brought a sweeper in from Serbia called Dragoslav Stepanovic from a strange German club called Wormatia Worms that nobody had heard of before. Malcolm wanted him to break forward from the back and play forward and wide in order to leave space for other players to move into. I couldn’t relate to him and my relationship with him was the worst I’ve shared with any manager.’
In 1985, Robinson made his peace with Allison at a PFA convention.
‘In my ﬁrst season at Brighton, we played Manchester City in the league and there was a war of words before the game. I scored, and maybe it’s not very bashful from me, but it was a wonderful goal. I ran towards the dugout and slid on my knees right in front of Malcolm. I was a young, stupid boy and it was very disrespectful, but it felt right because he did nothing to help me at City.
‘He was a sworn enemy, but I went up and shook his hand at the awards ceremony. I realised that a lot of the stuff he’d told me only slotted into place later in my career. Malcolm made the mistake of not realising that many of his footballers were really adolescents and incapable of grasping something new. When you’re judged by an immediate result, it is judged by black and white, wrong and right. Unfortunately, it didn’t work for him.
‘It was only years later that I realised some of the stuff he told us was quite correct. Some of his ideas were pooh-poohed by the players – including me – but I was a teenager who hadn’t accrued any information about football. The senior ones like Willie Donachie, Mick Channon, Paul Power and Joe Corrigan all hated him too. They all laughed at his methods. But bugger me, as the years have passed, I’ve realised he was ahead of his time and it was the senior players that were wrong. Only now I realise that in some ways Malcolm Allison was a visionary – it was us players that were the idiots.’
Having scored eight times in thirty league games in a season where City ﬁnished six points above the relegation zone, Robinson signed for Brighton in the summer of 1980. On the south coast, he found solace.
‘It was my rehabilitation,’ he says. ‘At City, I’d fallen out of love with football and seriously contemplated what I was going to do with my life.’ He met Alan Mullery. ‘Alan realised I was a bit of a softie at heart and knew how to manage me. Alan was a real gentleman and he saved my career. Brighton was the right place to go for me at the time, because I was fed up with the pressure. Brighton had and still has no real great football criteria. People used to go the Goldstone Ground and ﬁll it every week as if they were going to the cinema or the theatre. There was no long tradition down there and it just seemed to be happy people rolling up every Saturday afternoon to watch a dose of First Division football.’
Waiting for Robinson on the south coast was Mark Lawrenson.
‘I played with Mark for Preston North End, Brighton, Liverpool and Ireland. We grew up in the same area – in the same age group, roughly – but we never really became friends. We had nothing in common. I think he didn’t get me. Mark used to play Sunday-league football for Bispham Juniors when I played for their main rivals. He was a timid left-winger and nine times out of ten would be the sub. Mark was the sub that never got a game. Mark’s stepfather, Tom Gore, was a director at North End, and when I was an apprentice at the club he’d come down in the school holidays to get cones out, arrange bibs and set pitches out for ﬁve-a-side.
‘In the Central League, we opened one season with an away game at Villa. We stopped off at the Post House on the way there and ate egg on toast. Nobby Stiles was the player-manager of the reserves, but the food gave him the squits and he couldn’t play. There was only one sub and Mark was in the travelling party, sitting next to his stepdad on the bus. Because we had nobody else, Mark had to take his [Stiles’s] place on the bench.
‘Within minutes of the kick-off, one of our players got injured. Nobby encouraged him to carry on, but it was clear he had to come off. Remembering that Mark was a timid left-winger that couldn’t get a game for Bispham Juniors, Nobby brought Mark on and tried to hide him at left-back. Immediately, the Villa tried to get at him. But Mark was absolutely fucking superb.
‘The next week, there was a match against Bury. Again, superb. A couple of months went by and David Sadler had arthritis and couldn’t play for the ﬁrst team. Throughout the week, they tried different people at centre-half to play alongside John Byrne. But nobody convinced. By the Thursday, they tried Mark. He was told not to go back to school and, immediately, they gave him a professional contract at 17. That was unheard of. But to be fair, he was superb again.
‘Mark started the year as this willowy winger that couldn’t get a game for Bispham Juniors, who was only at Preston’s training ground because his director stepdad knew he was a football fan who wanted a kick-about in his school holidays. Nobody would have imagined he would become a top defender. At the end of the season, he went to Brighton for £100,000.’
For the ﬁrst time in his career, Robinson became part of a drinking culture at Brighton.
‘I was too young to really go out at Preston, although I could see the older fellas drank,’ he continues, gulping on a large glass of Estrella Damm. ‘Then at City, there was no team spirit, no dressing-room banter and no drinking culture because everybody was miserable. I had no friends there. At Brighton, there was a lot of fooling around with drink, and when I think back now I wonder how sometimes we ever got on the pitch. Because it wasn’t a town obsessed by football, we could go out a lot more and not get hassled.
‘Alan Mullery liked the players to relax and trusted their ability in knowing when to draw the line. It changed slightly when he was replaced by Mike Bailey, who was a wonderful man but slightly more reserved. I wouldn’t say I was thrilled about his football ideals either, because I was a centre-forward and wanted to score goals. All he cared about was keeping a clean sheet. It showed, because in his season in charge we drew a lot of games 0–0 and it infuriated the crowd. The entertainment value that the Brighton crowd enjoyed seemed to disappear, while the novelty of being in the First Division also ran out. Fewer people went to watch the matches, whereas underneath Alan we played gung-ho and the supporters loved it.
‘Brighton were the only club where the players and management were on a crowd bonus. For every 1,000 people through the turnstiles, we’d get a few quid in our back pocket. We were on fortunes. It was wise in some ways, because it made everybody happy. We scored lots of goals, won games and we entertained the crowd, who were in it for the showbiz element of football, and the club and its staff made a lot of cash in the process. It was perfect. Then under Mike we became a proper team – more diligent – and we did what we had to in order to survive. Yet we became slightly boring and the crowds fell and the board worried themselves about how they’d pay the players. So they ﬁred him.’
Jimmy Melia, a former Liverpool midﬁelder under Bill Shankly, took over.
‘Jimmy was an avuncular character, a jovial man – good fun to be around, and a Scouser. The players loved him even though he was not so conventional. Things went reasonably well. It was true that we got to the FA Cup ﬁnal, but it’s also true that we got relegated. It was a dreamy period and it was very different. We played a relaxed style of football, and because of the way we were off the pitch you could say that we were the ﬁrst pub team to play a major ﬁnal at Wembley.
‘Because of our FA Cup run, we went losing silly games in the league, but nobody seemed to care. Everybody thought we had far too good a team to get relegated, and the FA Cup run vindicated that. We’d walk around the streets and fans would congratulate us on our performances in the Cup. In the meantime, we were spiralling towards relegation. They were romantic times set amidst not necessarily the most professional environment. We drew 2–2 with United in the ﬁnal and lost the replay 4–1. Gordon Smith should have won the game for us, but he missed a sitter after I set him up. He still blames me for it.
‘Jimmy rested me in two of the last four games of the season ahead of the ﬁnal, and it proved to be crucial. It was a bizarre decision to make. But I complied with it. Maybe I should have been more opinionated. We ﬁnished bottom of the league, but if it wasn’t for the cup ﬁnal I think we’d have stayed up.’
After relegation in 1983, Brighton couldn’t afford to keep their star players and big earners. Robinson was on a bumper contract at Brighton. Whoever wanted to sign him would have to pay handsomely.
‘It was £1,400 a week with an automatic 15 per cent a year inﬂation over ten years. Brighton was a very wealthy club. Bryan Robson had gone from West Brom to Manchester United and at the same time Peter Shilton had left Forest for Southampton. They were reportedly the biggest earners in English football, on £800 a week. But I knew at least four lads, including myself, already on more than £1,000 a week at Brighton: Peter Ward, Steve Foster and Mark Lawrenson were the others.
‘I had no previous notion that Liverpool were after me. I knew Seville in Spain had made enquiries, as well as Everton and Newcastle. I’d spoken to Howard Kendall over the phone and he was very endearing. But I never wanted to sign for them because I’d grown up as a Liverpool fan and Everton were the enemy – the monied elite. It’s funny now how they portray themselves as paupers, when back in the ’60s they were known as the Bank of England Club, with the lovely Harry Catterick throwing money at anything that moved.
‘Anyway, I went away on holiday and came back for pre-season at Brighton. I’d just bought a Golden Labrador called Paddy for my girlfriend, later to become wife, then a call came from Mike Bamber [the Brighton chairman]. I got round to his house and he said, “There has been an offer, we’ve accepted it, and you’ll never guess who it is …”’
Robinson’s new contract would break Liverpool’s wage structure. To avoid the press breaking the story and alerting other clubs, he met ofﬁcials at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport.
‘When Peter Robinson asked me how much I was on, he couldn’t believe it. He rang up the Brighton secretary to check I wasn’t pulling his leg. I told him that I’d sign for nothing. It seriously didn’t matter. “Pay me what the fuck you want – give me the pen,” I said to him.
‘In the end, John Smith, the chairman, insisted on giving me a rise and agreed with Peter that all the other senior players should get a rise as well. I remember saying to Peter that it was going to be an honour to play with such wonderful players. “We don’t sign players,” Peter told me. “We sign people that play good at football.”
‘Joe Fagan and Bob Paisley were there when I went to sign the contract and I asked them whether I could have a coffee or some ﬁzzy water. “Here’s a beer, lad,” Joe told me. “Get that down your neck.”
‘Later, Joe asked me whether I had any other questions. “How do you want me to play?” Bob and Joe looked at each other, smiled, then Joe took charge. “We rather hope that you know how to play, otherwise we’re going to lose a lot of money here.”
‘“According to the system, I meant.”
‘Joe put his hand around my shoulder, sat me down and said, “Listen, lad, we play 11 players here – just to make sure we aren’t disadvantaged. In midﬁeld, when we get the ball we try to kick it to somebody dressed the same colour as us. As a forward, Michael, kick it in the net, and if you can’t, kick it to somebody who can. Then at the back, we’re gonna break our balls to make sure the oppo don’t score.”
‘“There’s no more to it than that?” I asked.
‘“You’ll ﬁnd, Michael, that we leave players to ﬁgure it out for themselves. But we’ll help along the way. This isn’t a major science … you’ll work it out.”
‘It was the greatest example of man-management I’d ever come across.’
Robinson moved to Merseyside on a three-year deal but he failed to score in his ﬁrst nine games. In covering one early match, a former leading BBC Radio commentator described him on air as a ‘dyspeptic water buffalo grazing with a herd of gazelle – clumsy, awkward, a yard behind the play and a thousand yards from Dalglish’s analytical, surgical football’.
‘I had a terrible start,’ he says. ‘Christ, another fucking nightmare … seriously couldn’t hit a barn door, and I could tell the crowd and media hadn’t really taken to me. I remember waking up the morning before we played Odense in the ﬁrst round of the European Cup and the papers were saying I was going to be dropped. Craig Johnston was coming in and the goal seemed like the eye of a needle to me. But I wasn’t a pretty player and I knew it.
‘I used to be the ﬁrst person into training. Like everybody knows, we changed at Anﬁeld and got the bus up to Melwood. When I arrived, Ronnie Moran comes up and goes, “Boss wants to see you.” So I walked the longest walk down the corridor to his ofﬁce. I goes in and Joe asks Sheila [the former secretary to the manager] if she can get an ofﬁcial teamsheet.
‘He proceeds to tell me that that morning his wife Maisy had given him two sugars in his tea instead of three, without handing him a copy of the Racing Post. He could sense something was up. “Are you not going to play Michael?” she asks. “He has such a nice face … give him a break.”
‘Joe told me that he hadn’t said a word to his missus and hadn’t even considered dropping me. “I want to put the record straight, lad. Look at this teamsheet: you’re the ﬁrst one on the list.”
‘He explained that he thought I’d given Kenny a new lease of life and he was really pleased with me. “Bloody Maisy,” he ﬁnished. “Lovely woman, but she don’t know much about footy, does she, lad? Can I give her a call and tell her you’re all right?”
‘The whole story may have been a load of bollocks, but it made me feel the greatest man on earth. I scored two goals that night then went away to West Ham soon after and scored a hat-trick. It was genius from Joe.’
The gentle approach with Fagan was a departure from Paisley’s regime, where he preferred to distance himself. Robinson, clearly in his element telling this story, believes that directions from those in the dugout made everything seem easy for the players.
‘The attitude throughout the club was that if we didn’t do well, anybody could beat us. If we did do well, nobody could beat us. It was a humble attitude. I remember once before a game against Brentford in the League Cup, Graeme Souness had the dressing-room buzzing like we were playing against Manchester United. There was no complacency – ever.
‘I used to have this recurring nightmare of Ronnie Moran’s voice: “Give it, get it, go … give it, get it, go.” It was a drone. He was the mouthpiece for the coaching staff, the taskmaster. We’d played Tottenham one day, and on the way back Joe Fagan asked me to go and sit next to him on the bus. “Y’all right, Michael … happy? We’re delighted with you, lad … God bless ye.”
‘“Thank you, boss,” I replied.
‘“Got any questions … any goss?”
‘I immediately thought I was doing something wrong. I joked that some nights I went to bed hearing the words, “Give it, get it, go …”
‘“There’s always a reason behind things, Michael,” Joe responded. “Do you like shooting – shooting guns? Well, imagine we went shooting hare or rabbits – I bet you I’d kill it straight away if it was standing still. Do you reckon you could?”
‘“Well, if it starts to run about all over the place, nobody can kill it. The ball’s the fucking same. If it stays still in one fucking place for a short period of time, the other team will capture it and keep it. If the ball or the fucking hare starts moving quickly, the ball or the hare doesn’t get fucked, does it?”
‘Again, I thought this was genius.’
Robinson speaks almost lustfully about Graeme Souness.
‘He was my best mate – a wonderful man. Friendship apart, he was the greatest footballer I’ve ever played with. Graeme was also a misunderstood soul. There was a varnish around him – an aura. But once you chipped off that varnish, I found him a very personal, cuddly chap who was actually quite vulnerable about being a human being with emotions. To this day, he still tries very hard not to be this lovely cuddly person, when really he is.
‘We were bosom buddies. He saw me as a reasonably well- spoken kid, and I think that he viewed that as different and interesting, whereas I was completely in awe of him as a person and a footballer. We became extremely close friends, and he looked after me when the times were hard at Liverpool. I love Graeme dearly. He has to be the greatest leader I’ve ever come across in my life. When he left to go to Sampdoria, it was like losing ﬁve players all at once.
‘Graeme was fundamentally a slow footballer, like Kenneth [Dalglish]. But as Bob Paisley once coined the phrase, “They both played the ﬁrst ﬁve yards in their head.” Dalglish was already there before you’d started thinking about it, and Souness was the same. While also being an immaculate passer of the ball, he was a great tackler and tactically so astute. Souness was greater than Hansen, Kenneth, Ian Rush and Liam Brady.
‘Everybody knows that Graeme was rather partial to a glass of champagne, but he wasn’t a drinker. He was a dresser. I’d irritate him by calling him a posh Jock – but he liked my use of language. He also liked my thought process. In some ways, I think I entertained him.’
Not all the players related to Robinson like Souness, however.
‘A lot of stick came my way, but it was never vindictive. The only genuinely hurtful thing that somebody said to me was when Graeme left for Italy. Ronnie Whelan saunters up and goes, “Well, now your buddy’s gone … let’s see how you do.” That really hurt me. Although I get on with Ronnie and respect him – he’s a friend of mine now – what he said that day was nasty.
It may seem a bit pathetic in some ways. But it bothered me.
‘One of the things players thought strange about me was the fact that I bought newspapers – the broadsheets. They struggled to get me, and Graeme was probably the only one that truly understood what I was about. But on the whole, they were a very humble and non-pretentious group of lads. Nobody was too big to get ripped.
‘Joe Fagan and Ronnie [Moran] wouldn’t allow any dickheads in the squad. Whenever one of us was going away on international duty, we’d shout across to Ronnie, “Who are we playing in a fortnight when we get back?”
‘“Fortnight? Who gives a fuck? We might all be on the dole by then.”’
In the 1983–84 season, Ian Rush plundered 47 goals, his best tally in any campaign. Dalglish, meanwhile, scored 12 times – the lowest total in a season since joining Liverpool. Robinson, like Souness, also netted twelve – yet the forward was dropped from the squad for the ﬁnal ten league games and only appeared on the bench at the European Cup ﬁnal in Rome because ﬁve substitutes were permitted. Robinson admits that he struggled during 18 months at the club and never truly felt comfortable wearing a Liverpool shirt – despite being a supporter.
‘It felt like I always scored against Liverpool whoever I was playing for – City, Brighton, QPR. When I walked outside the left-hand dressing-room and down the stairs and past the imposing “This is Anﬁeld” sign before hearing “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, you’d wait for the Liverpool team to run out. They seemed like giants, and as opposition it felt like being a lamb led to the slaughter. That seemed to be the role of the opposition player.
‘When I had the experience of being in the right-hand dressing- room, it was very different. I remember looking at the red shirt, and the jersey weighed so heavy. I’d walk out and touch the sign, and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” was now for you. I remember in some games half-wishing that I was that lamb again being led to the slaughter, because there was no responsibility in that.
Instead, I had to be at the level of Liverpool Football Club. And I wasn’t too sure that I could be. Anﬁeld was far more imposing to me as a Liverpool player than as a visiting player. That played on my mind and I thought about it far too much.’
One player who didn’t think was Ian Rush.
‘On the pitch, Ian could smell fear in the opposition,’ Robinson says, dilating his nostrils. ‘He was a beast, an animal – purely instinctive. He may have had some problems with reading the text of certain newspapers. He wasn’t blessed with an intellect, yet he was a genius of football. Ian was somebody that made me look a great player in the air. Whenever Bruce knocked it long from a goal-kick, I’d look to lay it off, and Rushy would always be one step ahead by reading my corporeal language. He could taste football and was incredibly intelligent on the ﬁeld. He was unconscious and had no fear of failure – something that perhaps more intellectual folk suffer from. Ian was unaware but an unbelievable footballer and undoubtedly the most lethal striker that has ever played for Liverpool. I had little in common with him, but he was a kind soul.’
Kenny Dalglish, or ‘Kenneth’ as Robinson uniquely and regularly calls him, was somebody with whom he shared a rapport.
‘Kenneth has a heart the size of a lion. He was the ﬁrst person when I arrived to invite me to his house. He was adorable. Of course, he was an absolute genius. King Kenny – I can’t argue with that. I found him a lovely man and he still is today. So many years later when I went to Liverpool to ﬁlm for Informe Robinson on a piece with Fernando Torres, I asked him to come along. He was due to go to Glasgow that same night, but he still insisted on having dinner with us before he left. He always has been generous with his time, and I love him to bits.’
Robinson also respected Alan Hansen.
‘As a footballer, there was no ﬁner defender of his time. When you talk about Franz Beckenbauer or Bobby Moore, Hansen was in that category. He read the game unbelievably and his distribution was superb. In the blood and thunder of English football, he was the progressive centre-back that was the next stage of Beckenbauer. People often ask me to compare Mark Lawrenson and Jocky. I always say the same. Mark used to ﬂy into slide tackles, everyone would applaud and he’d be a hero. But Hansen would have seen it long before. Lawrenson was never on his feet; Hansen never needed to be on his bum. Lawrenson was brilliant, but Hansen was a genius.’
Hansen was also the joker in the squad.
‘Sarcasm was Hansen. There was more of a clown element amongst the squad – a collective banter. Brucie was somebody we’d all make fun of, and he’d always take it wonderfully, along with Stevie Nic. There are some legendary tales about Steve – one where a couple of the lads asked him to check the boot of the car while they were driving through Scotland before driving off and leaving him in the snow. There was another I was told much later when he was made captain for a match at Old Trafford. He charged out the tunnel but all the lads waited. He’d made it to the halfway line by the time he realised he was on the pitch on his own surrounded by 40,000 Mancs.’
Nicol, like Robinson, was a staunch Labour voter. Although the players rarely discussed politics at a time when it seemed like Liverpool’s economy was being strangled, castrated and bathed in acid all at the same time by Thatcher, Robinson was aware of other players’ views on issues of governance.
‘Paul Jewell, who was trying to forge a place in the ﬁrst team, once said that he was the only Labour voter at Melwood. Well, I don’t think he ever asked anybody about what they believe in. But I can understand why he might have thought that. We were all very well-paid soccer players and he wasn’t. Sometimes you can add two and two and make seven. I respect Paul as a soccer manager and I read his comments, but I don’t think he should necessarily share those opinions without asking people. He certainly never spoke to me about my views.
‘I was a teenager when Edward Heath came to power, and I didn’t like him. The Liberal Party looked like a stab in the dark and nobody really knew what they stood for. When I think back, I was a great believer in the third way, something that didn’t really exist in our democracy. You had to be Conservative – the establishment – or Labour – the unions. There had to be space for something else.
‘I remember my dad asking me at a dinner party what I believed in. I explained that I believed in a socialist democracy – a society that embraced capitalism with a socialist awareness. Politics was very much at the forefront when I was young because of the problems in the United Kingdom. For a lad of 14 like me, it was difﬁcult because the government only tried to inspire insecurities amongst its people.
‘I’m Labour now, but even that is not a clear deﬁnition of my beliefs. Mr Blair was one of the people I most detested on planet Earth, for one simple reason: I couldn’t expect any more from Mr Bush, I couldn’t expect any more from Mr Aznar [the former Prime Minister of Spain], but Mr Blair deceived me. When you have a few pounds in your arse pocket, you think you don’t need anybody. A nation is only as strong as its weakest link, but Brits are too busy loving themselves. There was amnesia and Blair targeted that. I waited years for Blair to come and tell me, “Santa’s actually your dad.” I’ll never forgive the bastard. But I bet you Paul Jewell didn’t know I felt like that.’
In 1984, all Robinson cared about was getting into the Liverpool team on a regular basis. Despite featuring mainly as a substitute, his memories from the period are fond.
‘Being a part of it was just brilliant,’ he says. ‘When we got through the semi-ﬁnal, our options in the ﬁnal were either Dundee United or Roma. I asked Graeme who he wanted, thinking with the greatest respect to Dundee that we’d batter them. It was potentially, and as it turned out to be, my only European ﬁnal, so I hoped Dundee won. I wanted the easiest opposition. But Liverpool were in the business of collecting trophies, and Graeme had seen it all before. When I told Graeme about this, he looked at me like I’d just fallen out a fucking tree.
‘My nickname was Cat, because I always went in goal before training in the kickabout. “What are you going on about, Cat?” he replied, staring at me. “We’re the best team in the world. Nobody can fucking beat us; it’s impossible that we’ll go to Rome and get beaten.”’
In the meantime, Liverpool won the league, three points ahead of surprise runners-up Southampton. In between the ﬁnal game of the season, a 1–1 draw against Norwich at Anﬁeld, and the trip to Rome, the squad ﬂew to Israel.
‘We played a friendly against the Israeli national team by arrangement of the famous Jewish super-agent Pini Zahavi and it was sponsored by Budweiser. It was supposed to help us acclimatise to the more humid weather in Rome. Instead, the trip was in essence a major piss-up, and Joe gave Graeme a wad of money to take us all out to forget about the ﬁnal that was looming. By the time of the kick-off against the Israelis, everyone was steaming. I had a bottle of lager ten minutes before the start of the match – hair of the dog ’n all. [It worked, as Robinson scored the ﬁrst in a 4–1 victory.] La Stampa, the Italian tabloid newspaper, was outraged by the way we were acting and followed us everywhere, taking pictures of the lads getting pissed up. We were out every night, swimming in the sea after a few. It was great. They wrote a lot of stories about us and compared us to the Italians, who were stuck in the Dolomites contemplating the game and getting wound up. I don’t think the Israelis saw the funny side either, because we were meant to be the great professional Liverpool, but instead we were acting like a gang of British holidaymakers.’
When the team boarded the ﬂight to Rome, it was time to get back to work. For the fans, though, trouble was waiting on the streets of the Italian capital. Fewer than 15,000 Liverpudlians made the journey to Rome. In 1977, when Liverpool lifted their ﬁrst European Cup in the Eternal City, double the number had travelled. Given that the previous victory over Borussia Mönchengladbach is widely accepted as the greatest night in the club’s history – and a night played out against the backdrop of the most historic city in the world – the dwindling number of travellers reﬂects how Thatcher stripped income levels on Merseyside during the ’80s. Given what happened, though, perhaps it was a blessing there weren’t 30,000 Scousers there this time around.
Upon arrival at Termini, the main train station in central Rome, Liverpool supporters were greeted by riot police laden with machine guns and CS gas. Roma were champions of Italy and, having not won a European trophy before, were expecting to lift their ﬁrst on their own front lawn. Liverpool fans had questioned the logic of how necessary it was to hold a European Cup ﬁnal on the home ground of one of the ﬁnalists, but UEFA didn’t care. ‘The canapés were ordered, the Pinot Grigio was on ice, the ﬁve-star hotel suites had been assigned and the club-class suites booked,’ as Brian Reade, a respected columnist for the Daily Mirror, noted.
While the Roma Ultras waited inside the Stadio Olympico burning Union Jack ﬂags, Liverpool supporters were herded onto buses that headed straight to the stadium. Following on Vespas were hooligans with scarves across their faces, making slitting gestures across their throats. The entire city seethed with vitriol and hostility.
The players felt the wrath too.
‘The Italians tried to destroy our hotel from the ground,’ Robinson recalls. ‘On the morning of the game, there were bricks and glass all over the streets that had been thrown overnight, but we were well protected deep inside the complex in central Rome. It was like the Christians being fed to the lions. There were banners outside specially welcoming the English inﬁdels. But it never crossed my mind that we’d lose. And we weren’t frightened of playing in front of their own crowd. We were brainwashed into believing we’d win.’
And Liverpool did win – on penalties. Souness was magniﬁcent, and Robinson appeared as a substitute in extra time when a leg-weary Dalglish was taken off.
‘Graeme was a Trojan that night,’ Robinson remembers. ‘Every player on the pitch was in awe of him. He was brave and magniﬁcent, and led the team like a warrior. Roma had Falcao and Cerezo – two fantastic Brazilian players in midﬁeld. But I forgot they were playing, because of Graeme’s performance.’ While the Liverpool players celebrated inside and long into the night, Liverpool supporters struggled back towards the station for the long journey home. Again, they were greeted by hooligans outside the ground. On a Radio City press bus, one journalist helped a stabbed and bleeding supporter to a nearby hospital.
‘We had to wait for a few hours inside the dressing-rooms for the frenzy to die down,’ Robinson says. ‘It didn’t bother us because we’d just won the European Cup. But the Romans, it is fair to say, were not the most welcoming hosts.’
Winning the European Cup should have represented the zenith of Robinson’s Liverpool career. But there was a nagging doubt festering at the back of his mind.
‘I didn’t want to become cynical about the game or my passion for Liverpool. My dreams had come true when I signed for them, and I didn’t want it all to end. After winning in Rome, I sat with my wife next to Graeme and his missus, sipping champagne, thinking, “I’m ﬁnished.” I felt I’d lost something – even though we’d beaten Roma in their own back yard. It couldn’t get any better than this for me. In some ways it felt like the only way was down from here. I didn’t want to become an also-ran. I kept thinking that I needed to leave Liverpool before I became surplus to requirements. OK, we’d done the treble [the League Cup was collected in March over Everton, with Robinson looking on from the stands in a Maine Road replay] but, personally, I had an average season after a really dodgy start. I realised Liverpool never stood still and they were always considering how to improve. Maybe I’d be sacriﬁced.’
Six months later, after only another ten appearances, Robinson’s fears became a reality.
‘I had to live up to greatness, and I thought about that too much. I thought back about when I was a boy watching games from the Kop and idolising the players. Now, people were idolising the team I played for, and I struggled to deal with that. Was I worthy? It was impossible to strike a deal with Liverpool. Be there and be the best or go. The alternative was to rot in the reserves and pick up my money, but I’m not a businessman and football shouldn’t be a business.
‘Paul Walsh was coming in, and I ﬁgured that it was principally to replace me. Their criterion in signings was always spot-on. I thought I’d be condemned to be the reserve team. So I went and told Joe that I was uncertain of the future and he immediately offered me a two-year contract. I told Joe that it really wasn’t about that, and I spoke to him like he was my dad. He thanked me for being so honest but didn’t understand why I felt that way, although he respected it as well.’
Robinson received a call from his old boss, Alan Mullery – now at QPR.
‘The day before I went to speak to him, he got sacked, but I went down nonetheless and agreed the ﬁrst deal I’d ever done in my life because of the money. It was my biggest mistake. I was unfair to QPR because I compared everything unjustly to Liverpool, when really I should have gone abroad. Before everything was completed, I called Joe Fagan to tell him about my plans. I was due to sign for them on the 27th of December and Joe said, “Well, you’re in the ﬁrst-team squad on Boxing Day, and don’t forget I’ll give you another two years …”
‘So I went to Anﬁeld and picked my boots up in the Bootroom, because I wasn’t in the team. I walked away from the ground as all the fans were leaving, and I must have looked like a kid that had lost his ﬁrst dog. I wept like a baby. It was so fucking painful. But I knew if I’d stayed I’d have become cynical about the team I’d loved, and it would have ended up breaking my heart in a different way. I just knew that I was never a great enough footballer or supremely professional enough footballer to become a Liverpool regular.’
Robinson lived on a Hyde Park estate during his time at QPR. But the move did not work out, prompting his retirement from international football also. He’d made his debut for Ireland in
1980 at Brighton under Eoin Hand. But with Jack Charlton now in charge, he stopped enjoying it.
‘Jack Flinstone [referring to Charlton] came along and had wonderful success born out of a prehistoric anarchy,’ he says.
‘He gave joy to all sorts of people, but I fell out with him. Basically, I disagreed with everything he ever said. He was a tad rustic. When you compare him to Bobby Charlton, all I can say is that it seems strange that someone from the same family could be so different in their approach to football and humanism.’
Robinson needed a fresh start, so he accepted an offer from Osasuna – a club he knew nothing about.
‘I had a frivolous image of Spain that included summer holidays, costas, drinking lots of cheap alcohol and chasing girls. But I also knew they were passionate about their football and they had these great teams called Real Madrid and Barcelona. When I ﬁrst moved, it wasn’t a cultural choice. I only moved because I wanted to play football.’
Recalling the exact date he ﬁrst landed at Bilbao Airport, Robinson continues after ordering a steaming espresso coffee.
‘I came over on 7 January 1987. I didn’t know whether I was going to be here forever. What I did know was that I was going to receive an education – an education that I wanted. But something strange happened. I enjoyed more or less everything about Spain and the way the Spanish interpreted life. I ﬁnished up realising that I had loads in common with the Spaniards. We laughed about the same things, cried about the same things, so much so that when I was 36 or 37 I said to my mum, “About 36 years ago, you didn’t bump into a Spaniard, did you?” She slapped me for that.’
Osasuna were second from bottom in La Liga when he arrived, and they lost 4–1 at Athletic Bilbao on his debut.
‘We were so bad that I said to my dad that they shouldn’t be signing me, they should be signing David Copperﬁeld. What made it even stranger to me was that the club was run by Opus Dei, and when the bell rang before we went out to play everyone prayed to God. I didn’t realise this, and I said to my dad, “I tell you how bad we are – before we go out, we have to pray we don’t lose.” They still do that to this day. Pamplona is the most religious city in Spain.’
Despite initial fears, Osasuna managed to avoid relegation and ﬁnished respectably at the end of his ﬁrst season. That summer, the club’s president then asked Robinson to do a special deed by recommending an English player they should recruit. Robinson suggested Sammy Lee.
‘He came on 13 July – the day before the end of the Fiesta de San Fermin, also known as the running of the bulls. The festival runs for around ten days, and most of the residents in Pamplona don’t go to sleep during that time. You get architects, lawyers and doctors – the pillars of society and mainly upright people – day in day out getting paralytic on booze. There are ﬁreworks every day, and I remember as I drove Sammy into the city off the motorway we could see rockets exploding. Sammy couldn’t believe it. His ﬁrst experience of Pamplona was 1.2 million people going bonkers. In fairness, it wasn’t a true representation of what Pamplona was really like. Sammy must have thought it was a really crazy place.’
The way Robinson talks about Pamplona, you would think he was an agent of the city’s tourist board.
‘Pamplona is a great city when you don’t know what is going on. I am very grateful to it because it was my port of entrance to Spain. It’s a difﬁcult place because half of them feel Basque and the other half certainly don’t feel Basque, so you can’t speak about politics at all. That means you can’t really talk about football as well, because Real Madrid are the most popular team in Spain and are considered nationalist. It’s beautifully complex, because when you don’t understand what’s going on you don’t realise its quirky ways. But when you know what it’s about it becomes prohibitive. Then it becomes less of an easy place to live.’
Settled, Robinson began to genuinely enjoy his football for the ﬁrst time in his career.
‘The autumn of my career all of a sudden became spring,’ he says. ‘It made me realise how unlucky I was as a footballer in England. All of a sudden, someone would have a shot and it would ricochet off my head and go in the top corner. This was strange for me. In my whole career, I was never under delusions of grandeur. When I was at Liverpool and I went in that dressing- room, I didn’t know whether to treat them as teammates or ask them for autographs. I don’t have any videos of me playing football because I didn’t like the way I played. I would never have paid to watch me play. Then, all of a sudden, I was a star.’ By the end of the summer of 1988, Robinson decided to play one ﬁnal season before retiring. On a Good Friday ﬁxture against Las Palmas, he scored both goals in a 2–0 win.
‘After the game, I walked out of the dressing-rooms and people were laying down palms for me to walk on. I couldn’t believe it.’ Better was to follow. Osasuna travelled to the Bernabéu to play Real Madrid on Bernd Schuster’s debut. Robín, as he had been christened by his teammates by now, was asked to room with a teenager who was due to make his debut. ‘The manager just wanted me to tuck him in and make sure he didn’t get panicked.’ During the night, the youngster suggested that Robinson should perform a special celebration, as it was likely to be his last game at the Bernabéu.
‘Whenever we were in the showers after training, I always used to pretend to be a bullﬁghter and use my towel as a prop. The whole squad used to shout “Olé, olé” when I moved from side to side. It was a bit homoerotic.’
After ten minutes, Robinson volleyed his side into an unexpected lead. Recreating the celebration in full view of a now half-empty restaurant, he performs the groove.
By the end of the game, the visitors had settled for a draw and with time to waste time the Osasuna manager, Pedro Mari Zabalza, decided to substitute the furthest player away from the dugout. It happened to be Robinson.
‘My number came up, number 9. Everyone was telling me to walk slowly, so I did, with my head down because my knee was hurting. All of a sudden, the whole of the Bernabéu started to clap. I felt embarrassed and started to trot. I reached the centre circle and the referee went, “Michael … saludo.” Then I realised they were applauding me. It was a standing ovation and I walked off the pitch crying my eyes out. They did it because of the celebration. The Spanish media couldn’t get their head around the fact that an Englishman had come and played for an unfashionable team, then scored a goal and in the centre of the Bernabéu done this celebration of a traditional bullﬁghter.’
Robinson never considered management, although he was approached in the mid ’90s by Atletico Madrid’s rabble-rousing former president Jesús Gil y Gil. After Robinson rejected his offer to be Radomir Antic’s assistant, Gil concluded the conversation by calling him a ‘fucking tart’. Instead, important breaks followed after his retirement: Robinson commentated on the 1990 World Cup in Italy.
‘For the ﬁrst time I saw football and it had nowt to do with the pitch,’ he says. ‘It was about people arriving in Italy from all over the world with painted faces, sleeping on pavements, jumping in fountains. I’d never really seen fans – as a footballer you are isolated – and it was like opening Pandora’s box. But there weren’t snakes and reptiles in there; it was beautiful. If I had been aware when I played of what football meant to people, I wouldn’t have been able to tie my fucking boots up because of the responsibility.’
It was an education that underpinned the show Robinson was asked to present on Spanish television, El Día Después.
‘I couldn’t believe it when they asked me,’ he says. ‘I only had 100 words in Spanish and most were expletives. They told me that was the least of their worries.’
El Día Después was written, directed and presented by Robinson. ‘It was as if I had been given a blank canvas to play with all the paints and all the brushes that I wanted and create something completely out of my own imagination. I felt like I was a kid and been locked in Toys R Us and everybody had gone out.’
The show was a universe away from the way football is covered in Britain. Despite being a former player, Robinson had told me in the past that he considers himself to be a journalist who wants to ‘invade living rooms’. He resents the way sports broadcasting, and that of football in particular, has been ‘hijacked by ex-pros’ in other countries, mainly England.
‘There is a screaming necessity for journalists to challenge the ex-footballers. They chat with a certain vernacular, whereby they all relax: Lineker, Hansen, Lawro and the rest. Alan thinks every goal is a defensive error because you can stop a tape anywhere and ﬁnd a mistake. Then Lineker and Lawrenson just agree. It’s all happy families. Alan and Lawro know I think that because I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. It’s nothing personal, but it’s quite sad that they’re not challenged.’
Robinson, who has been the player most generous with his time in the production of this book, could genuinely talk all day and all night about football, politics and social issues. By now, the pianist is looking at us as the only people left in the restaurant while playing a tune that sounds like music to the closing credits of Custer’s Last Stand.
While I am due at the Calderón for Atletico Madrid v Osasuna later this evening, where I will still be suitably oiled following this predominantly liquid-based lunch, Robinson heads back to his villa just outside Madrid on a road that leads to the distant northern barrack town of Burgos. I’ve been there before on a past press trip and it’s an elegant piece of land, resting on the edge of an exclusive golﬁng resort.
‘Destiny brought me to Spain,’ he concludes, shaking my hand as we stand outside in the early-evening shade. ‘Destiny has been kind to me. I’ve never had a real plan. I remember when I signed for Liverpool I thought that was my life – going back home, the north-west. Circumstances changed. I went to London; out to Spain. Every time I made plans, everything changed. Twenty- three years later, I sit here thinking I might be out of work tomorrow.
‘I try hard, but I’m also fortunate.’
© Simon Hughes 2017. Extracted from Red Machine: Liverpool FC in the ’80s: The Players’ Stories by Simon Hughes, published by Mainstream Publishing.
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