26 April ~ When the sad news emerged that Bryan Robson was suffering from throat cancer, the 24-hour news channels understandably headed to Old Trafford. Robson remains the longest-serving captain in Manchester United history. But before becoming United and England captain the midfielder had already spent more than six years cementing his status as a West Bromwich Albion hero. Robson is a genuine two-club legend. It's a phenomenon being jeopardised by the 21st century culture of "too much too soon".
Back in Robson's day, it was not especially unusual for England stars to remain with their first professional club for a considerable time. Fellow international John Barnes played nearly 300 games for Watford before his transfer to Liverpool – making the move three whole years after his wonder goal for England against Brazil in the Maracanã. The Man Utd back four that operated behind Robson when the club lifted its first League title in 26 years is another prime example. Indeed, Paul Parker, Denis Irwin, Gary Pallister and Steve Bruce were all recently named in the "greatest XI" of the clubs they left to join Man Utd. But these were experienced players who between them had made more than 1,000 League appearances before joining United.
Not so nowadays. Players are making that big move earlier and earlier. Of course, at whatever age, there's no guarantee it will work out. Chelsea have operated something of a revolving door policy for young English talent in recent years. The likes of Scott Parker, Steve Sidwell and Shaun Wright-Phillips all arrived at Stamford Bridge with impressive reputations earned at other clubs, only to struggle to make an impact. All three men were in their early 20s but spent what might have been their most fruitful years on the bench (although Scott Parker is coming strong again at the age of 30).
The cycle is in danger of repeating itself with the next generation of English talent. Ex-Fulham man Chris Smalling appears to be a highly capable young defender and he has already jumped the queue ahead of Jonny Evans and Wes Brown at Manchester United. Meanwhile, Chelsea's Daniel Sturridge – already having moved on from Manchester City – has become a firm favourite on loan at Bolton. And yet, Smalling stands little chance of establishing himself ahead of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. Likewise, it would be a brave coach who picked Sturridge ahead of Roman Abramovich's misfiring £50 million pet project, Fernando Torres. As a result, Smalling and Sturridge may be consigned to developing their game on the training ground rather than via regular competitive football.
It's not easy to calculate whether a player will be better off staying at a club where he can play or moving to one where he can learn. Southampton fans know better than most the frustration of the modern reality of losing players in their teens. Theo Walcott and Gareth Bale were both sold while still eligible for the youth team and their progress upon leaving was not immediately obvious. Walcott made 48 league starts in his first five seasons with Arsenal while Bale fared little better with 38 in three seasons. However, Walcott now boasts 16 England caps and Bale is the PFA Player of the Year. Whether they would have made quicker or better progress elsewhere we will never know. What we can say is that, unlike Bryan Robson and his ilk, they are very unlikely to ever be two-club legends. And that seems to me to be something of a shame. Adam Bate