BY STE McGOVERN
At the end of the 1993 season, Bryan Robson reached the pinnacle, experiencing the greatest moment of his already glittering career. As ‘Captain Marvel’ of Manchester United (and formerly of England), he lifted the inaugural Premier League trophy, returning the club back to the top of the game for the first time in over two decades. After eleven years at the club, his career peaked with that achievement.
Around the same time, Gary Robson was experiencing a career low. In his final year at West Bromwich Albion, the team had the reached the Division Two play-off final. He was recovering from a broken arm, but the FA had cleared him to play with a light cast on. But the midfielder remained on the bench for the entirety of the game, despite the fact they were winning 3-0 against Port Vale. While Robson later said he bears “no ill will” towards manager Ossie Ardiles, it was a bitterly disappointing end to his time at the club. And it encapsulates the divergence in the brothers’ football careers.
Gary Robson was a physical midfielder who loved to put himself about, as they say. The younger of the Robson brothers signed for West Brom in 1982 as a seventeen-year-old, but just a few weeks later manager Ron Atkinson left for Manchester United. A few months after that his elder brother Bryan followed. Suddenly, he was like an infant who had just been dropped off for their first day at school, separated from his parents and siblings for the very first time.
The stinger for him was that he could have easily signed for Sunderland or Newcastle United – both close to his childhood home of Chester-Le-Street in County Durham. But instead of making his own path, he decided to follow in his brother’s, and that decision has likely been laced with regret ever since. It’s hard enough replacing a club hero, let alone that player being your own brother. Bryan was able to take over from Johnny Giles, but replacing Bryan was too much of an ask for Gary.
To be fair to Robson Jr. though, one can make the argument that he is a victim of circumstance. The team he joined was on the slide, and the difference in talent levels in the respective squads is stark at times. That’s not to say that Gary could have been just as good as Bryan had they swapped their colleagues around, but the Baggies most certainly had some of their most notable players on board in the mid to late seventies: John Osbourne, Willie Johnston, John Wile and Laurie Cunningham, to name a few. Cyrille Regis was still there, but was gone by 1984. The talent drain inevitably lead to their drifting down the divisions.
Despite that, Gary’s time with the Baggies was still pretty good, if not spectacular. He made 213 appearances, scoring 47 goals along the way. How many players get to have that kind of longevity in one place? He was a loyal servant to a club and fan base that would still think of him fondly, even if he was part of a team that was relegated twice, to the Second Division in 1986 and the third tier in 1991.
Robson’s Albion career should have been shorter, but circumstance would make a victim out of Gary at the worst time possible. In 1990 he was on top form and the club were in talks with Derby County about a move. It would be one last shot at the top flight for the Durham native. An FA Cup fifth round tie with Aston Villa put paid to those notions as he suffered a broken leg during the 2-0 loss. He later said: “it felt like the end of the world.”
Between the leg break and missing the play-off final, it was a tragic end to a career that deserved so much better. It’s compounded by the fact that, like so many others of his generation, Gary came along at the wrong time and missed out on the riches of the Premier League, unlike his brother who at least got a decent taste of it. Football did not set him up for life.
Nowadays though, Gary is a successful businessman. He started his own chauffeur fleet in the North East and has had clients such as Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Branson, as well as some Newcastle and Sunderland players, naturally. It might not be the same as playing under the floodlights, but at least he’s walking his own path now.