As an icon of the game with 90 England caps to his name, many would expect Bryan Robson to be joining the clamour for football’s season to resume. This time he’s in no mood for games.
‘I can’t see how we can even consider re-starting sport when there are still more than 600 people dying a day in this country. It’s not right,’ insists Robson. ‘Those are people’s lives not just numbers on a board and we should be respectful of that.’
‘Sure I understand football and sport generally are crutches that people lean on or reach for but lives are much more important yet here we are talking about jeopardising more. We can’t contemplate bringing contact sport back until the NHS says it is on top of this virus.’
Bryan Robson has shared his thoughts on Bruno Fernandes’ arrival at Manchester United
With some clubs returning to restricted training this week and Premier League plans drafted for a June re-start, Robson remains unmoved.
‘It’s a nonsense. Whether it’s the re-opening of a factory, a shop or the next rugby or football fixture, it’s not right to put more pressure on the NHS. We can see what strain they are under already.’
The former England and Manchester United captain is talking from the heart.
He has been leading from the front once again in campaigns to get people talking while under lockdown. Telephoning the elderly to recall their football memories and talking to fellow ex-professionals who are struggling mentally after being left vulnerable in isolation. The conversations have been heart-warming, funny and emotional.
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Some of those former players have little else to cling to except football after losing loved ones in recent months.
‘I’m fortunate,’ says Robson. ‘In my career, I always had somewhere to go to and when I finished managing at Sheffield United, Sir Alex Ferguson and David Gill had seen what was going on at Bayern Munich, where they were integrating former players into the club set-up, so they got me on board at United in an ambassadorial role which gives me a freedom I enjoy.
‘A lot of players don’t have that once they finish though. If they don’t go into punditry they may struggle. Some live by themselves and now, without live football, there is a void that leaves them vulnerable mentally, just like anybody else.’
United icon Robson said the playmaker is the closest thing the club has had to Paul Scholes
It was Robson’s former United teammate Viv Anderson who reached out for help with his Playon Pro organisation which works with the NHS and was set up to support footballers in that transition from playing to retirement, retaining a sense of camaraderie that many feel lost without.
‘We talk about the game, memories, old teammates, life in general,’ says Robson. ‘The important thing is that they don’t feel as if they are on their own. Isolation at this time can be really tough but we are just on the end of the phone.’
Robson had been part of United’s initiative talking to the lonely and elderly prior to lockdown in February and continuing talks was a natural progression.
Robson (right) also opened up on his efforts to help the lonely and elderly at this time
Lockdown rules have meant that elderly people have become further isolated from society
‘It’s so important as some people barely talk to anyone,’ says Robson, now 63. ‘It’s been rewarding and lifted our own spirits. The wife has had me doing jobs round the house, gardening and painting the garage so I’ve been glad of speaking to some of the fans and the feedback has been great.’
Many have shared memories of Robson scoring twice to help beat Diego Maradona’s Barcelona in 1984 or when he was chaired off the pitch by fans after scoring in the FA Cup semi final defeat of Liverpool in 1985. Non-United fans prefer his fastest goal for England in the 1982 World Cup against France, some even recall his towering header for the second.
‘Maybe it says more about my age now that I was speaking to ones who were mainly over 70 but it’s good fun. Gary Pallister was talking to one lady who was struggling to strike up a conversation about the weather at first but couldn’t stop by the end of it. I was speaking to one who was 74 and they had great photographs from all United’s European finals. There was another who was 72 and still travelling to all United’s European games, telling me where she had been. It’s just a nice surprise for them, it perks people up, leaves them on a little high and the feedback has been really good.’
The former England star also praised his former club’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic
It is fair to say United have handled the corona crisis very well. While other clubs have faltered pr-wise and some have been struck financially, United have emerged with credit.
Along with neighbours Manchester City, they have donated £100,000 to local food banks, assured staff they will not be furloughed and agreed to continue paying casual matchday workers. Protective equipment has been given to the NHS, not to forget players’ individual donations.
‘The club have been making very good decisions,’ says Robson. ‘They are getting a lot of things right in what is a very bad time for the world and you sense this has brought the community closer.
‘Lots of the staff and players are getting involved whether it’s via social media, donating money to charities or simply talking to fans.’
Though Robson is resisting calls for football to press the reset button, he senses United will also be in a stronger position on the pitch than before the crisis hit.
‘The form before the lockdown was certainly encouraging,’ says Robson. ‘The indications were that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had got it right. Bruno Fernandes has proved a terrific signing.
‘He looks a United player. Great attitude, always on the half turn looking to go forward. He’s the closest we’ve had to Paul Scholes for years in terms of technique, how he finds pockets of space and his willingness to get a shot off. He gives the side greater balance and threat. When you combine that with Scott McTominay improving plus the prospect of Marcus Rashford returning to fitness. It looks good.
‘We’ve even forgotten about Paul Pogba but he may fancy being part of this squad again once fit. Add two or three signings and United will be in pretty good shape. There’s been plenty of talk about the likes of Jadon Sancho, Jack Grealish and James Maddison so we’re looking in the right direction.’