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May 31, 2006

What might have been

If the football fates had mapped out a different path for Bryan Robson, he could have been succeeding Sven Goran Eriksson as England boss this summer.

Throughout his glorious playing career, the former Manchester United and England captain was viewed as the national team manager in waiting, with his driving ambition and leadership qualities apparently perfectly suited to a successful career in the football afterlife known as coaching.

For a time, those prophecies looked destined to become reality with his career as Middlesbrough manager getting off to a decent start, while his role as assistant to England boss, Terry Venables, in the mid-1990s left him in pole position to succeed the experienced coach when he left the post after Euro '96.

Indeed, Robson got even closer to the top job than many had previously realised as in an exclusive Soccernet interview, the West Bromwich Albion boss reveals he turned down the prized post precisely a decade ago.

'I was offered the England job after Euro '96,' confirms the hero who played 90 times for his country.

'The FA's headhunter, Jimmy Armfield, asked if I would be interested in taking it on when Terry stepped down and after giving it some thought, I had to say no. When you look back at that decision now, it's easy to say I made the biggest mistake of my career, but I have no regrets and still feel I did the right thing.

'Of course, it's the job any Englishman would want, but at the time, I didn't feel I had the experience to do it justice as I had only been in coaching for a couple of years. Sure, I had worked alongside Terry and knew all there was to know about the England set-up, but if you get that position, you don't want to be let down by a lack of knowledge at the highest level.

'Whether the job ever comes my way again remains to be seen, but I feel I'm better prepared for it now. I'm more experienced and would look at the opportunity with an open mind.'

A decade on, Robson's stock as a manager has been tarnished by a series of indifferent seasons with Middlesbrough, Bradford and West Brom, with his relegation from the Premiership with the later in the season just gone one of many low points in his coaching career.

His supporters will offer a justifiable defence for a record that could have looked so different had his Boro side held on to win the League Cup at Wembley back in 1997, while lack of finances clearly restricted his progress at Albion this term.

And then there is the thorny issue of the aforementioned Mr Venables. While many managers would have battled on against the odds when surgery was clearly needed to revive a Middlesbrough team struggling to avoid relegation in the 2000/01 campaign, Robbo took a brave move by adding Venables to his coaching staff, sacrificing his own reputation for the sake of the club.

I've never been the type to wonder what might have been if I had done things differently in the past.
Bryan Robson

Robson's decision was justified as Boro avoided the drop, yet Venables was hailed as the hero, with the manager viewed as a lame duck leader who had shifted his responsibility and he was duly replaced by Steve McClaren at the end of the campaign.

As McClaren prepares to take over as England boss in July, Robson doubtless sees the irony in the news that he is set to appoint Venables as one of his advisers, but the 49-year-old prefers to defend what he sees as a decent managerial record of his own.

'I'm delighted to see Steve McClaren doing so well and I've never been the type to wonder what might have been if I had done things differently in the past,' states Robson.

'Steve took Middlesbrough on from the good base I left him with and now he has got the top job, so good luck to him.

'When I look back at my managerial career, I feel I've done as well as I could have done considering all the facts surrounding the jobs I've been in. So when the press suggest I have been a failure as a manager, I don't think they are looking at all the facts.

'At Middlesbrough, it was all about building a club with chairman Steve Gibson's fantastic backing and if Emile Heskey hadn't score an equaliser for Leicester two minutes from the end of the League Cup Final, I'd have won the club their first major trophy. That would have given my time there a very different perspective.

'Bradford was very much a battle against the odds financially and West Brom has been a great experience on the whole. Avoiding relegation last season was a fantastic achievement, amazing really, but it hasn't been as good this time and now we have to regroup and go again.

'We let ourselves down in a few crucial areas at West Brom this season. If we had put away the chances we created, we'd be looking at another season in the Premiership and the refereeing decisions that went against us were terrible at times. We played some fantastic football, but you need more than that.

'Still, I'm determined to put it right and the chairman is happy for me to stay at the club to do carry on with the job. The media have suggested I've had a few problems with my chairman, but we have a good relationship and both want what is best for West Brom. I don't have to sell my best players this summer and I'm confident we will do well in the Championship next season.'

By the time McClaren takes charge of England for the first time in August, the man who would have been king is likely to be squaring up to the likes of Southend and Colchester in the Championship and you can't help feel the game 'Robbo' once dominated is moving on without him.

While that reality would be enough to make those of lesser self belief weep, the one time 'Captain Marvel' only needs to reflect on the frustration he felt during his time out of the game to relight his inner fire. 'After I left Middlesbrough, it was tough getting back into the game and that time out was difficult,' he adds.

'The first 12 months were fine because I had been involved in football for such a long time without a break. It was nice to spend some time with the family and on the golf course, but as it went on, the boredom began to set in and I missed everything about the game.

'I came close to getting the Republic of Ireland job and that would have been a fantastic challenge, but West Brom was the one the appealed to me more than any other and I'm determined to make the most of the opportunity I have been given by the club.

'Management is a tough, but the rewards can be fantastic. Also, you miss the banter in a dressing room and on the training ground when you are not involved in the game. I wouldn't swap it for any other job.'

Bryan Robson could be looking after star-studded a dressing room featuring Wayne Rooney, Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard and David Beckham by now, yet he is being forced to prove himself all over again instead.

True to form, this talismanic figure is not ready to give up on this management lark any time soon.

• Robbo - My Autobiography is available in all good book shops.

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