This weekends visit of West Bromwich Albion to Old Trafford rekindles memories of the best transfer deal Manchester United ever made between the two clubs. Ron Atkinson had just taken over from Dave Sexton in 1981 when he went back to The Hawthorns to grab the signature of Bryan Robson for a British record transfer fee of £1.5m. It was the best signing Atkinson ever made as Robson became known as Captain Marvel and went on to play for his country 90 times, making him the sixth most capped England player of all time – and it all started at West Bromwich Albion.
Robson began his career at West Brom in 1972, accepting an offer of a two year apprenticeship. His weekly wage was just £5 per week in the first year and £8 for the second. As Robson turned 17 he was starting to make a name for himself in the reserve team and was subsequently offered his first professional contract in 1974. The contract on offer included a significant pay rise to £28 per week and a £250 signing on fee.
In the 1974-75 season Robson was playing every week in the reserves but for some reason manager Don Howe would not give him his chance to play in the first team. When Howe departed the managers position however, Robson was called up to the first team squad by caretaker manager Brian Whitehouse. He made is debut with only 3 games remaining of the season and he impressed enough on his first games to play in all three and scoring twice.
During the 1975-76 season Robson struggled to get into the team and was forced to play out of position at left back or centre back due to competition for places in the middle of the park. His main challenger for the place in the central midfield spot was none other than player manager and former Manchester United player Johnny Giles, Robson played 16 games during the season and West Brom gained promotion back to the First Division.
1976-77 proved to be an absolute nightmare for Robson although he was playing in the first team more frequently but still out of position at left back. It was while playing in that position that his nightmare began when he broke his left leg which kept him out of the side for the best part of two months. Worse was to come, in his comeback game Robson fractured his leg in the same place he broke two months earlier. Robson again made a comeback and after a good run in the side he scored his first professional hat trick but the joy was short lived as the injury troubles struck again when he broke his ankle, effectively ending his season.
During the 1977-78 season Robson became a key member of the side under new manager Ron Atkinson, helping his team qualify for the UEFA Cup. He was playing at a higher level compared to some of his team mates and in the next season helped West Brom reach the quarter finals of the UEFA Cup and third place in the league, the Baggies highest position since the heady days of winning the title in 1919-20 and finishing runners up in 1924-1925 and again in 1953-1954.
The 1979-80 season was not so good for West Brom but now Robson had established himself as a household name in the team. He was starting to get the recognition for his displays and gained his first of many England caps in February 1980.
Robson played 40 games and scored 10 goals in the following season as West Brom achieved fourth place in the league but in June 1981 Atkinson left the club after being offered the chance to manage Manchester United. West Brom knew that Robson had a great relationship with the manager and faced a struggle to hold on to him. Albion offered Robson a new contract on £1000 per week which was a significant pay rise but Robson turned it down and put in a transfer request.
On October 1, 1981, Robson followed Atkinson to Old Trafford by signing for Manchester United for a then British record transfer fee of £1.5m. At the time of his signing Atkinson said “It may seem like a lot of money but it’s not a gamble, you’re not gambling with someone like him. This fella is solid gold.
Atkinson asked legendary manager Bill Shankly how much he should bid for Robson and Shankly’s reply was “Every penny that it takes Ron, every penny. He signed his contract in front of the Old Trafford faithful in the middle of the pitch then made his debut in front of 47,000 people just 4 days later against Tottenham Hotspur. Robson had scored 40 times in 198 appearances during his near decade at West Brom.
As unlikely as it may sound, the big question this weekend will therefore be whether there could be anyone in the famous blue and white stripes who will one day follow Bryan Robson’s steps for both Manchester United and England?
Could there be another Bryan Robson ready to be discovered?