Reputation fails to save Robson
It was a deceptively good question. Have you, Bryan Robson was effectively asked, been this disliked before? The former England midfielder contented himself with the reply that a section of the West Brom support had wanted him sacked.
An alternative answer would have been that so, too, had fans of Middlesbrough and Bradford. And yet, had he replied in the negative, it would have indicated that, at Sheffield United, he had managed to arouse more opposition than at any of his previous clubs.
Now, inevitably, Robson has left Bramall Lane. In the process, he has at least shed one unwanted statistic: At each of his three previous clubs, he had been relegated. At Sheffield United, he did not complete the season which, given their precarious position, may be a blessing.
The reason, Robson said, was the supporters. But while South Yorkshire crowds can be both vitriolic and swift to judge, blaming fan power ignores the popular opinion of Robson as a manager; a lukewarm reception would not just be confined to Bramall Lane.
And now being Bryan Robson has started to become a drawback in his chosen field of employment. Yet it has, for much of his life, been his greatest advantage.
Players such as James Beattie and Gary Speed signed for him, though it is notable that both are old enough to remember the marauding midfielder in his prime, rather than the man with difficulties in the dugout that may spring to younger footballers' minds. Being Bryan Robson, too, establishes a hotline to Old Trafford and Phil Bardsley, during his loan spell, was one of the few to prosper in a season of underachievement.
Yet it has been harder to detect Robson as the inspirational figure he once was in recent actions. His final home game was a stalemate with Scunthorpe and he made an undignified exit, spirited out in Brian Kidd's wife's Beetle.
The instincts that served him so well in crowded midfields have prepared him less well for the world of management. When every comment attracts scrutiny, Robson's rhetoric has swung wildly between praise and condemnation. A loss at Bristol City prompted the suggestion his players weren't good enough, while the derby defeat to Sheffield Wednesday saw him claim he was wrong to offer a core of players new contracts.
Yet, following the draw with Watford, Robson informed a bemused audience that Sheffield United could go through the remainder of the season unbeaten (statistically, the ensuing draws with Colchester and Scunthorpe initially supported his case, though few interpreted them that way).
And talk of better football, a theme that became repetitive in his brief tenure, proved a smokescreen. It may have deceived newer listeners, but regular Blades watchers recognised a fallacy. Neil Warnock, maligned by inference, kept unusually quiet on the issue as long as Robson retained his job, but the final five years of his spell at Bramall Lane featured superior football, not least because United won more frequently.
The consequence was that a highly effective Championship side were transformed into a deeply ineffective one. Sheffield United accumulated 90 points two seasons ago. Robson, minus the sold Phil Jagielka but with the addition of a £4million striker in Beattie, left them a mere eight points off the foot of the table.
Yet, though his £2million forward Billy Sharp failed to score a Championship goal and suggested a wider inability to get the best from his players, it was both results and the manner of them that sealed Robson's demise. Warnock's triumphant homecoming with Crystal Palace and Wednesday's emphatic derby win were especially damaging.
The anger aroused took Robson by surprise. A lifetime of being Bryan Robson had not served as preparation. Players of his calibre are accustomed to adulation; even when booed in away games, the consolation is that it is evidence they are feared by opponents. Unpopularity serves as both an unpleasant and a novel experience.
But not, it would seem, a deterrent. Robson, with Steve McClaren-esque haste, declared his willingness to return to management, but while such predictions can be hazardous, it may be unlikely.
Because he conforms to a pattern. As a rule of thumb, it is safe to assume that the better a player's England career, the less chance they stand of succeeding in management. Jack Charlton, Sir Bobby Robson and Alf Ramsey are notable exceptions, but there are few others. And, in contrast to Germany, France, Holland and Italy, it remains true that none of the great England internationals has come close to achieving comparable success in management.
A willingness to assume that on-field leadership skills are qualification enough may be a cause; many, Robson included, have been pitched into enviable jobs without serving an apprenticeship elsewhere. That only seven current Premier League managers represented their country is an indication of the benefits for lesser playing talents being given time to formulate their thoughts on coaching in a variety of other jobs, before ascending to positions in the limelight.
But a historic weakness of English football has been to judge players on reputation and, once it is cemented, to assume that makes them infallible, as Michael Owen's recent advocates have. It ill-equips them for a life of constant assessment, where judgments will be made on each and every aspect of their regime. And it ignores the fact that the general public's perception can change. As a player, Bryan Robson's standing is beyond question. But as a manager, it may be tarnished beyond redemption.
Within football, the greatest advantage Robson possesses is his reputation. With supporters, it is now his greatest disadvantage.