Bryan Robson, or Captain Marvel for many, is one of the legends of Manchester United and English football. Having played over 450 games for the Red Devils, he went on to become the longest serving captain in the club’s history.
With United going through turbulent times, the 59-year-old Robson spoke to HT about, among other things, manager Louis van Gaal’s time at the club, Ryan Giggs’s chances of succeeding him, Wayne Rooney’s form and more. Excerpts:
United legend Paul Scholes has been openly critical of Louis van Gaal’s style of play. What are your views?
If you look at the overall job that Louis van Gaal has done since he arrived, I think he wanted to steady the team because we didn’t get into the Champions League the year before he came in. So, I think he wanted to have a real solid foundation. He went on to improve the defence and we are (now) difficult team to beat... Now we need to improve on scoring more goals and be more entertaining.
Why is it that United have looked so boring? It seems like an anti-thesis of the legacy Sir Alex Ferguson left behind.
You know, it was going to be difficult for anybody who was going to follow Sir Alex Ferguson and there is no danger in saying that he is probably the best club manager that has ever been. It was difficult for Louis van Gaal to take over. Van Gaal has coached top clubs throughout the world and I think he was getting that structure in place and now he will go for the flair and try and entertain the fans more. But you also have to remember that Ferguson won his first trophy after four years. So, the fans have to be patient with van Gaal.
What if van Gaal gets sacked? Who do you think will replace him?
I don’t think the club will sack Louis van Gaal. The club wanted him to be manager for three years and van Gaal himself wanted to be United’s manager for three years. Since they put Ryan Giggs as assistant-manager, everyone seems to understand that Ryan would get a chance once Louis leaves. People say that Ryan doesn’t have the experience but Pep Guardiola, when he was at Barcelona, also didn’t have any experience. (Under Guardiola, though, the Barcelona B team earned promotion in 2007-08). For me, Ryan would be the logical step for Manchester United to use next.
What would have happened if hypothetically David de Gea was sold to Real Madrid?
Everyone at United was delighted that David signed a new four-year contract. I think he can see that we are improving as a team but we have more steps to take. Sometimes as a player it can unsettle you if there is a lot of talk in the transfer market, but it didn’t happen to David and to be fair to him he has been very professional about it and hasn’t let it affect his game.
Do you see Cristiano Ronaldo returning to United despite everything he has said about wanting to retire at Real?
Only Ronaldo can answer that question. Whether he retires at United or Madrid in his last season, everyone will say that he was a world-class player and did a great job for United. He loves playing football and is a fitness fanatic. He looks after himself really well as a professional sportsman. He can go on for a few more years.
Wayne Rooney is in good form now but what plagued him all this while? Is he still United’s No 1 forward as of now?
Yes, he is United’s No 1 forward for me. Being an ex-footballer myself, I know players can’t play well all the time. Wayne is a top player and has set standards for himself. You know he is a class player and when he was going through a rough patch this season, everyone was picking on him because they are not used to see him playing in such a way. Six games ago he seemed to find his form and is back in the groove.
Van Gaal said after beating Liverpool on Sunday that they can win the title. What do you think?
I still think Manchester City and Arsenal have a slightly stronger squad than United. But I think if they can stay away from injuries and since we are not in the Champions League, I think United can make a good run (for the EPL title). We need to win at home and if we achieve that then we can realistically go on to win the title.
Will being out of Champions League this early work in United’s favour?
Europa League is a tough competition and we will play games on a Thursday and then play league games over the weekend. It is always difficult for a team to play in Europe and then come back and play a league game.
Have injuries hurt United this season?
Definitely. As far as Luke Shaw goes, he was probably our best player till he got injured. Antonio Valencia is a big miss. But over the Christmas period, we dropped points against teams that just got promoted, which was bad. But look at the team we had, we had around 11 injuries. But it is not a coincidence that once we got the lads back, we started winning games.
Your views on Leicester City?
I think Leicester City deserve to be where they are. With the likes of (Riyad) Mahrez and (Jamie) Vardy, they have come from nowhere. They play with a lot of pace and work very hard for each other. I think it is realistic for them to get a place in the Champions League this year. I still think they will fall short of the title. I think Arsenal or City will bag the title and they are my personal favourites. City has a good squad in place and with the signing of (Petr) Cech, Arsenal are a lot stronger this season.
What happened with Jose Mourinho?
Mourinho is a great manger and he has proved that. It is still a big shock in England to win the title like Chelsea did last season and then this season drop out of the title race early on. It is amazing what confidence does to footballers.
Thailand were ranked 122 when you left them and there was a sudden fall and hit 146 in 2013. Now they are ranked 121 in the world. How do you explain this rise?
They had a great coach when I was there (laughing). No, I had a good response from players and when I left, they brought in Winfried Schäfer and he made a lot of changes and tried different things. But now, the lad who is in charge of Thailand, Kiatisuk Senamuang, whose nickname is Zico, is doing a brilliant job. He was in my staff at that time and I was hoping he would be the one to go on and be Thailand’s coach. He was a brilliant player and it isn’t surprising to see Thailand’s surge.
Your views on Indian football? Do you think they can follow Thailand?
It takes years of development. Your lifestyle and what you eat plays a role. You need to develop weight programmes, which are important for footballers. All you have to do is look at South Korea and Japan. They did that years ago and sent their people out to learn and then they came back and educated the players. Now they can compete with the best teams in the world. That is what South-east Asia and this part of the region needs to do. They have to educate the players and understand the game better.
Do you think ISL is helping the cause?
A: I think it gives football great publicity throughout the world. It encourages people to come to India to play. It also gives great exposure for children to see this game on TV and encourages them to play the game.
You were approached for the ISL. Could you tell us what happened?
For the last two years, I was approached by agents to coach an ISL team. But I said no because it clashes with my role at Manchester United.
But in the future can we see you coach an ISL team?
I would never say no to coaching because I love it. I loved my role in Thailand. If it wasn’t for my ill-health, I would have still been in Thailand.
What is Manchester United’s tie-up with Apollo? Can you talk to us about the ‘Go the distance’ pitch initiative?
Well it was really nice of Apollo to invite me and Manchester United to come over for the launch of the new Astro-pitch, which is great for Indian children. They are great conditions to actually train on and be fit and healthy. It is a great initiative especially when recycled tyres are part of the pitch.
Fifa doesn’t favour the usage of Astro turfs, nor do many footballers. Your views?
Lot of big clubs and international teams do not like to play on Astro-turfs. But I think synthetic pitches are great for training. When you have severe weather conditions such as torrential rain and very hot summers, you can use the pitch because it is not really affected by the weather.
Being a cancer survivor yourself, can you please say some encouraging words for Johan Cruyff?
The only advice you can give to a person fighting cancer is to listen to the doctors and be positive in your mind. You have to show fighting spirit and if you do that then you have a great chance of recovering.
After you managed Middlesbrough, a man assaulted your daughter Claire Robson for the way the club had performed under your leadership. Did it make you think of quitting the game altogether?
I didn’t because (if I did) hooligans would win. The lad who head-butted my daughter was a thug. He supported an opposition team and that is why he did it. I wouldn’t walk away from the game and my daughter wouldn’t want me to.
Could you talk to us about the pressures of managing a club in today’s time?
I think the pressure has increased slightly in the past 20 years. But there is always pressure when you are manager. In today’s game, the pressure is more because of the financial rewards and TV money.
Do you think injuries robbed you from achieving your potential?
No, injuries didn’t rob me of what I did in my career. But they did hinder me in two World Cups — I dislocated my shoulder during the World Cup in Mexico and then in 1990 in Italy, I tore my Achilles tendon which put me out again.
So much is said about the drinking culture in English football in the 80s and 90s. As someone who played at that time what is your take on it?
I think the media at all time wanted to try and cause controversy. Yes, we used to have a drink in the 70s, 80s. But it is not like players used to drink daily. It was a once-in-a-month sort of thing when players would go out together and bond and have a few pints together. It didn’t affect your fitness or career. Since the 90s, it has become a lot stricter and it is not often you see players have a drink now. Players want to be dedicated and give everything to the game.