Bryan Robson never let England down, not even when he got injured. Which happened now and again. And again.
Manchester United’s ‘Captain Marvel’ wasn’t even captain at the 1982 World Cup – his first and finest tournament for the Three Lions.
“The amazing thing about that goal is that it came from a move we had rehearsed on the training ground – but from the other side of the field,” said Mills.
“The way we planned it Kenny Sansom would fire in his famed long throw from the left, Terry Butcher would flick on and Robbo would steam in and shoot.
“But our first throw came on the other side. Steve Coppell played the Kenny Sansom role and his throw was played onto Robbo who shot home.”
Robson scored again in the second half, a sweetly timed header from a Trevor Francis cross to put England 2-1 up. They won 3-1 – against a team that would make it all the way to an epic semi-final with West Germany where they would lose…on penalties, of course.
Were England really that good? Yes and no.
They had a solidity about them, a well-matched set of good players who performed for their conservative manager, Ron Greenwood, without fear.
What they lacked was real guile and creativity, skills that would have been provided by Keegan and Trevor Brooking if they had been fit for more than cameo appearances in the final game, a drab 0-0 draw with Spain.
Instead, England went home undefeated in five games, having conceded just the one goal.
Despite the disappointment, England with a fully fit Robson in the team were clearly a force to be reckoned with.
And yet future England World Cup teams ended up being better off without him.
That’s not to say he was a malign or declining force. Even by Italia ’90, Robson was still a big player, picked on reputation, yes, but also managing to consistently live up to that reputation in the qualifiers.
But in both 1986 and 1990, injuries he picked up early in the tournament ended up helping England progress.
Why? In a funny sort of way, it was a compliment to his influence. He was clearly an inspirational figure in the squad; a scorer of goals, a leader of men. The team relied upon him. And when that crutch was taken away from them, other players were given a chance and they took it.
In Mexico ’86, Robson dislocated his shoulder and the side was re-jigged. Peter Beardsley came in and his partnership with Gary Lineker transformed the team, taking them all the way to an infamous quarter-final defeat to Argentina and helping the Leicester striker to the Golden Boot.
And in Italy, Robson made way for one David Platt, whose goals (especially the latest of late winners against Belgium) helped England to the semis and earned him a lucrative Serie A contract.
Perhaps the England players were in awe of Robson, or perhaps the system asked too much of him. Either way, England grew as a team when their most consistent performer was taken away from them.
At club level, things were much simpler.
Robson, like Steven Gerrard nearly two decades later, had to endure being the leading light in a club desperate to bring back the glory days of old but ill-equipped to do any such thing.
Unlike Gerrard, however, Robson stuck around long enough for everything to finally fall into place.
Under both Ron Atkinson and Sir Alex Ferguson, Robson truly lived up to the ‘Captain Marvel’ tag.
His greatest performance, by common consent, came in a 1984 Cup Winners’ Cup quarter-final against Barcelona.
Trailing 2-0 from the first leg, Robson scored twice at Old Trafford in a 3-0 blockbuster.
His ability to dominate games was his trademark, using an overpowering will to win, tough tackling, box-to-box dynamism and sweetly timed runs from deep to subdue, stifle and then destroy opponents.
His physical bravery was unquestionable, but so often spilled into a recklessness that was at the root of his many injuries.
Another reason often cited for that fragility was his leading part in 1980s football’s ‘drinking culture’ – a view dismissed by the man himself.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of all that, it seems pretty clear that a Robson born into today’s footballing world of sports science and dietary strictures would have spent less time on the treatment table.
Still, 90 caps for England and 461 United appearances wasn’t exactly a poor return. And he was still going strong(ish) when he helped deliver the Holy Grail of a League title back to Old Trafford in 1992/93 after a 26-year barren spell.
The scorer of the last goal that campaign? You already know the answer to that one.
We have a great selection of Bryan Robson memorabilia hand-signed by the man himself, part of an enormous football catalogue. And all UK orders come with FREE postage.