England have announced that former players such as Peter Beardsley and Alan Shearer will be fast-tracked into the national team coaching set-up. Harry Pearson assesses Bryan Robson's reign at Middlesbrough
A friend of mine sits in the North Stand at the Riverside Stadium next to a man whose already dark mood has been exacerbated in recent years by the ban on smoking in the stands. Natural pessimism coupled with nicotine deprivation has turned him into a nervous wreck. During one home match he expressed so many doubts and fears about the team’s prospects that a bloke sitting a few rows in front turned round. “Ow, mate,” he bellowed, “will you shut your face, you sound like the fucking Grim Reaper.”
That was two seasons ago. These days, assuming the stewards have confiscated his scythe at the gate, the Grim Reaper would be hard to spot among the gloomy hordes in the North Stand. The home defeat against Leicester in November meant Boro had lost seven matches in a row and while that sequence was ended by the 2-2 draw against Bradford, at the time of writing they still have not won at home since March.
Admittedly, under Bryan Robson this is not such a novelty. During the 1995-96 season, for example, Middlesbrough put together a sequence of 13 matches without a win that carried them from Boxing Day to Easter. The following season between September 15 and Christmas Day they picked up just four points. Seven nil-pointers on the trot does not even equal the former England captain’s personal best, a staggering straight eight first achieved during 1995-96 and equalled again last season. Indeed, the Boro manager has become so closely associated with bad runs it’s a wonder Captain Marvel hasn’t become the standard Teesside euphemism for diarrhoea.
This time around, though, some things are different. There have been no foreign stars running off home and refusing to come back, no FA deducting three points and no Cup runs to distract attention away from Robson’s inadequacies, particularly when it comes to coaching and strategy, an area in which he displays all the flexibility of Joseph Stalin. During the defeat by Newcastle a bloke rose to his feet in the North Stand and announced sarcastically, “I’m off for a slash. If he makes any tactical changes write them down for us, will you?”
Robson’s self-justification has started to run thin too. Middlesbrough’s constant injury problems might elicit some sympathy were it not for the fact that over the past few seasons the manager has packed the team with over-thirties (there are 12 in the present first team squad) and the likes of Keith O’Neill, a man so injury prone he makes Paul Gascoigne look like the Iron Giant. Adding the notoriously frail Alen Boksic and Paul Okon to this already fragile squad over the summer and then complaining about fitness problems looks at best like naivety and at worse like you’ve been lining up an alibi in advance.
Robson’s few remaining defenders among the supporters (an Evening Gazette poll carried out after the Leicester defeat showed 89 per cent thought he should quit) point to the fact that the ex-Manchester United man’s reputation has attracted big name players to the club. This is true enough. Sadly, though, the relationship rarely develops beyond that initial period of starry-eyed excitement. Nick Barmby, Fabrizio Ravanelli, Emerson, Paul Merson and Christian Ziege have all failed to build anything lasting with Robbo, and Karembeu and Boksic already look disenchanted.
Young local players, on the other hand, rarely seem to catch Robson’s eye. Forward Andy Campbell, who did well for the England Under-21s and performed impressively when given the chance last season, is now lucky to get a place on the bench. Defenders Robbie Stockdale and Steve Baker have been sent out on loan, Craig Harrison sold and midfielder Mark Summerbell relegated to the reserves. The Argentinian wonderboy Carlos Marinelli tends to come on as sub with 20 minutes left and the team hopelessly adrift. Which is one way of keeping the pressure off him, I suppose.
Whenever he comes in for criticism from the crowd, Robson’s feisty response is: “The fans should remember where this club was when I arrived”. The answer is that we were ninth in the First Division. Currently we are third from bottom of the Premiership. In half-a-dozen years Robson has raised us 12 places at a cost, in terms of his transfer deficit, in the region of £33 million. Hardly value for money when set beside what has been achieved for considerably less at Leicester, Sunderland and, prior to the signing of Rio Ferdinand, Leeds United.
All of which may explain why average attendances at the Riverside this season have dropped by close to 4,000 and for the first time since the club moved to the new stadium it is possible to buy a ticket on match day. There is a feeling of listlessness among the crowd, a sense that all the fresh impetus created by the switch from Ayresome Park is being dissipated.
Middlesbrough chairman Steve Gibson’s rapid ascent from postal worker to multi-millionaire suggests that he is a man with a sense of urgency. When it comes to Bryan Robson, however, Gibson is so patient he makes Job look like Ken Bates. Most Boro fans regard Gibson as the best thing that has ever happened to the club. His continuing support for the manager explains why protests against Robson at the Riverside have remained muted. When they come they tend to be indirect, a standing ovation for the transfer-listed Gianluca Festa, or plaintive chanting for the departed Juninho. (While his loan spell at the club last season was not entirely successful, it has not escaped attention on Teesside that since moving to Vasco da Gama the little one has reclaimed the Brazilian No 10 jersey and reignited the career of Romário.)
Gibson’s indulgence towards Robson is an enigma to many. And not just on Teesside. A couple of weeks ago I spoke on the telephone to an Israeli journalist about the situation at the Riverside. “Why don’t they sack Robson?” he enquired not unreasonably. “The chairman loves him,” I replied, “He says, ‘He’s the diamond in the crown’.”
There was a momentary silence at the other end of the line, then the Israeli said, “Sorry, what is the meaning of diamond in English?”
“Well, it’s a precious stone, a jewel.”
“Yes,” he said, “I thought it was, but for a moment there I wondered if maybe I got it wrong and it actually meant ‘shit’.”
In football these days it is common for pundits to hold up the example of Martin Edwards and Alex Ferguson as an example of what can be achieved when a chairman bravely sticks by his manager in the face of pressure from the fans.
But Robson has already had six years and, despite the promotions and the cup finals, he seems no nearer to establishing the club as Premiership regulars. There is a fine line between stability and stagnation and all the evidence suggests that Middlesbrough crossed it months ago.
From WSC 167 January 2001. What was happening this month