DON’T KNOCK BRITISH BOSSES – WE’RE TOPS
YOU might think it unreasonable of Karl Robinson’s wife to kick up a fuss about her husband watching too much football. Until, that is, you hear his typical postmatch itinerary. “On the Saturday night, I drive down to London and hop on the Eurostar,” says the MK Dons boss, who was this week named League One manager of the month. “Then I’ll drive across northern France and stay in a hotel. On the Sunday morning I shoot across to Holland. It’s brilliant – there’s an 11.30 game, a 2.30 game and a 6.30 game so I can watch three matches in one afternoon. “I stay Sunday night, go to a club visit on Monday, maybe somewhere like Ajax de jong or PSV de jong. They play on Monday evening, so I watch that and then go home Tuesday morning.”
No wonder Mrs Robinson is narked. Yet if you were under the impression Robinson’s continental adventures constitute a belief in the superiority of European football, think again. The 34-year-old may love Dutch football. He certainly wants to work there some day. But he is also sick to the back teeth of reading that British players and British coaches are stuck in the stone age. “I hate that,” he almost snarls. “I absolutely hate it. Because I look around and I see talented coaches everywhere. “Take me out of this. Forget me. Look at Eddie Howe. What he did when Bournemouth were in League Two was nothing short of a miracle, arguably the greatest managerial achievement of the century. Better than anything in the top flight. “Look at Keith Hill. His Rochdale side is as good as it gets. As a developer of young talent, he is as good as it gets. Mark Cooper at Swindon has got them playing good, expansive football. Phil Parkinson – look at what he’s done for Bradford. Incredible. Look at what Justin Edinburgh has done for Newport.
“But people see you in League One and turn their nose up.You get pigeonholed as a ‘lower league manager’. But just because they cut their teeth lower down doesn’t mean they won’t cut it at the top.
“It’s the same with British players. If somebody had scored the goals Charlie Austin scored in the Spanish Segunda (second tier), he’d have been bought by a top-five club in La Liga.
“If he then went up and scored goals like he has for QPR this season, he’d be going to a big, big, club. But because he’s British and he’s come through the lower leagues, he doesn’t get the respect he deserves. It’s hugely frustrating.
“For me, the media have a lot to answer for. They don’t want to market British talent. They prefer to jump all over fancy exotic names.
“And what makes it all the more infuriating is that when you give British managers a chance, I think they stand up to be counted. I really do.
“Garry Monk has done a brilliant job at Swansea. Brendan Rodgers almost won the League at Liverpool. And Sam Allardyce. Come on – are you really going to stand there and tell me he’s a bad manager after all he’s achieved? I worked for him for seven months and the man’s a genius. A brilliant tactician. A good man. Yet he gets cast aside and branded a long-ball merchant.What nonsense.”
As Robinson speaks, he is relaxing in the hotel adjoining stadium:mk, his side preparing for yesterday’s top of the table clash with Bristol City. After two years in the relative doldrums, the Dons are back in the play-off places and fighting for a place in the top two.
Dele Alli, the club’s latest protege and now back on loan after joining Spurs for £5m on deadline day, lounges nearby.
Developing players like Alli is more than a business model to Robinson, whose own fledgling career crashed to earth thanks to a back injury at the age of 18.
A youth coach at Liverpool from the age of 20, he now lives his dream vicariously through the lives of the youngsters, openly admitting that the success of Alli and, before him, Sam Baldock, brings more satisfaction than any promotion or title ever could. “Is that weird?” he asks with a laugh. “I can’t help it. I just want them to succeed so much. I know what it’s like to lose the game. I know what it’s like to not kick a ball for 14 months and then be told you’ll never kick one again.
I remem- ber the devastation. And I never want these kids to experience that under me.”
Robinson’s ethos comes partly from within and partly from Steve Heighway, the legendary Anfield youth coach responsible for Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen, Robbie Fowler and Jamie Carragher.
“Steve was an amazing person who loved football and never wanted any credit for what he did,” recalls Robinson.
“I’ll always remember him telling me I had two jobs as a youth coach. He said, ‘Your first job is to fill their toolbox with everything they need to do the job, then let them pick the right one.Your second job is to build a stage, write a script and then let them perform it. Don’t control them. Don’t cage them. Let them be who they need to be’.
“His last bit of advice was to show them that you really care. I’ve kept to those principles my whole career. In fact, my wife will tell you I care more about my players than I do about her!
“But it’s worth it when these kids remember. Patrick Bamford (who scored 21 goals in 40 games on loan from Chelsea) still texts me for advice. So does Benik Afobe.
“I went to see Dele play for England last year and I heard someone shouting my name. This lad came and gave me a hug and it was Ryan Kent – I hadn’t seen him since I signed him for Liverpool at eight years old. He was with his parents and they thanked me for everything I’d done. That’s like winning the game for me. Nothing tops it.”
Though 34, Robinson is now the third-longest serving manager in England after Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger and Exeter’s Paul Tisdale. He is also vastly experienced, with spells as assistant to Paul Ince and Sam Allardyce in the Premier League.
“It’s funny,” he says. “I heard the QPR co-owner Amit Bhatia was talking about the new manager, saying they wanted to go ‘young and fresh’. Then they started talking about Tim Sherwood and Paul Clement who are 43 and 44.
“I thought to myself ‘My God, I’ve done 260 games and I’m 34’. I hadn’t really grasped that until then. But I’ve been coaching for 14 years now.”
But after five years at the helm, there is no wanderlust. Even if a big club did recognise one of the country’s finest coaching talents, Robinson would think twice.
“I’m not going to be here forever,” he admits. “But there have been times when I could have walked away. Yet I’ve never looked back at any of those moments and wished I’d made a different decision.
“I think that tells you how much I love my job here. I want to see it through.”
MIRACLE WORKER: Eddie Howe at Bournemouth STAR MEN: Dele Alli and manager Karl Robinson with their player and manager of the month awards. Right: Patrick Bamford