The Robinson Experiment

Carl Robinson

LOST BOYO IN USA/CANADA – Toronto FC 2007-2010, New York Red Bulls 2010-2011, Vancouver Whitecaps (as Assistant Manager) 2012-current

OTHER CLUBS – Wolves 1995-2002, Shrewsbury (on loan) 1996, Portsmouth 2002-2004, Sheffield Wednesday (on loan) 2003, Walsall (on loan) 2003, Rotherham (on loan) 2003, Sheffield United (on loan) 2004, Sunderland (on loan) 2004, Sunderland 2004-2006, Norwich City (on loan) 2005-2006, Norwich City 2006-2007

WALES CAREER – Wales u21: 6 caps, Wales B: 2 caps, Wales: 52 caps/1 goal

In mid-2007, one of football’s biggest experiments began –David Beckham moved to Los Angeles Galaxy on a pilgrimage to raise the profile of ‘soccer’’ in America, similar to way the great Pele moved to the New York Cosmos in the 1970s. Beckham’s transfer was described as ‘The Beckham Experiment’ and Beckham’s signing was supposed to change world football’s perception of Major League Soccer. It is hard to believe that David Beckham, multiple trophy winner at Manchester United and Real Madrid and just off the back of winning La Liga with Real, headed to the States purely for football reasons – I’m sure the glitz of LA was just as mouth-watering for the Beckhams. There had been very few British players that had played at a high level, before ‘Goldenballs’, that had gone on to ply their trade in the MLS, but there was one Welshman that had become a fan favourite at his MLS club over the 6 months prior to the MLS’ Beckham fever: Carl Robinson.

Carl Robinson in action for Wales against Holland’s Wesley Sneijder

I was too young to remember Wales’ qualifying campaign for the 1994 World Cup, a campaign in which Wales came one penalty kick away from qualifying for their first major tournament since 1958. My golden Welsh generation (the only real golden generation of my lifetime so far) came during the qualification campaign for Euro 2004, where once again Wales were just one final step away from qualifying for a major tournament only to be denied by an efficient Russian team in a play-off final. Speed, Bellamy, Hartson, Gabbidon, Savage, Giggs were just some of the star names on show for Wales that campaign, but they were supported by a large cast list of unsung heroes. I felt one of the most unsung heroes of this campaign was Carl Robinson. Robinson would feature heavily throughout the qualifying campaign for 2004, starting on the bench in Wales’ opening victory away to Finland and in Wales’ historic 2-1 win over Italy and making the starting XI for Wales’ game out in Baku against Azerbaijan. Despite only making sporadic international appearances, Robinson deputised well for the more experienced Pembridge and Savage and helped Wales earn a vital 2-0 out in Baku. Robinson was a regular off the bench throughout the qualifiers, acting as a calming influence, especially when Wales were leading games. A long way off being the most eye-catching of players, but I will always remember him for his efforts during that campaign.

I was there for Robinson’s final Wales game, a World Cup qualifier against Finland, and it was in typical Robinson-fashion – a 30 minute cameo at the end of the game, as he replaced Carl Fletcher, a player who shared the same name and a very similar playing style to Robinson. Wales would go on to lose that 2010 World Cup qualifier to a Jari Litmanen-inspired Finland (I still rate Litmanen’s performance that day in the Top 5 I’ve ever seen – just check the pass for the first goal) in a convincing 2-0 loss. Robinson would never wear the red of Wales again after 52 caps and 1 goal. Although he never adorned the Red Dragon again, he did go on to to become a firm favourite for another set of ‘Reds’ – Toronto FC.

When I mention the name Carl Robinson to some of my friends, they shrug they shoulders and give me a confused look – “Who?” Admittedly, many of these people have no care for Welsh football or perhaps anything below the elite of the Premier League, but over his 12 years playing in the English leagues, Robinson carved out a good career and reputation for himself. Robinson began his career at Wolves, but made his league debut on-loan at Shrewsbury Town. Whilst at Shrewsbury, Robinson even got to experience a cup final as he featured for the club in the Football League (then the Auto Windscreens) Trophy final against Rotherham, but unfortunately for the Welshman he would end up on the losing side. In 7 years at the club, Robinson would feature close to 200 times for Wolves before he was signed by Harry Redknapp for his resurgent Championship side, Portsmouth. 2002 would be a big year in the history of Portsmouth FC as Redknapp led the team to the Championship title and, more importantly, promotion to the Premier League; Robinson featured throughout their promotion campaign, but then Portsmouth’s years in the Premier League would trigger a long list of loan deals for Robinson. Robinson’s 2003 and 2004 would be spent on short loan deals at Sheffield Wednesday, Walsall, Rotherham, Sheffield United and finally at Sunderland where he impressed enough to earn himself a 3-year contract. Under the management of Mick McCarthy, Robinson added a second Championship winner’s medal to his collection in 2004/05, as McCarthy guided Sunderland to first place and back to the Premier League – Robinson was almost ever present for the Black Cats that season. Similar to his time at Portsmouth, Robinson was dropped to the bench for Sunderland’s Premier League campaign and once again a loan move ensued, this time to Norwich City; he eventually signed permanently for the club for the 2006/07 season – his last season in English football.

Canadian club Toronto FC came to be the 14th franchise expansion in the MLS in 2007 and they have become one of the great success stories of North American football. Toronto FC’s on field performances over the past 5 years have been slightly disappointing, as the club have repeatedly missed out on the end of season MLS playoffs, despite coming agonisingly close on several occasions. However, Toronto have made a big name for themselves off the field with a highly passionate and unprecedented support for an MLS franchise. Many have claimed that Toronto fans are perhaps the most akin to the passion of support shown in this country. Amazingly for an MLS franchise, in their first season Toronto sold 14,000 season tickets and 16,000 for the seasons following. Toronto’s ‘British-esque’ fanbase was also reflected on the pitch with a series of players with experience in British leagues joining the club: the Canadian Jim Brennan who played for Huddersfield, Norwich and Southampton amongst others; Collin Samuel, who had been fairly successful in the Scottish leagues; the once promising Rohan Ricketts, formerly of Spurs and Laurent Robert, the enigmatic Frenchman who was either brilliant or woeful for Newcastle. My personal favourite of the imports to Toronto was the signing of iconic striker Danny Dichio, who would go on to score the first goal in Toronto’s history and become a huge fan favourite at the club. Along with Brennan, Dichio is still at the club as part of the backroom staff and fans sing in his honour in the 24th minute of every game to represent the club’s inaugural goal. Robinson’s move to Toronto coincided with the arrival of many of the players just listed and also with the management regime of former Celtic and Rangers player, Mo Johnston.

Toronto captain Carl Robinson and Canadian footballer Jim Brennan, formerly of Bristol City, Nott’m Forest, Huddersfield, Norwich and Southampton.

Robinson had three years left on his contract at Norwich City, but he decided he wanted a new footballing adventure. When Toronto came in for him, he was immediately excited and despite the move requiring a large cut in wages, Robinson pushed for the move over the pond to go ahead:

“I remember flying out to meet the manager of Toronto and I just fancied something different. I had three years left on my deal at Norwich but I spoke to the manager and we came to an agreement where I could cancel my contract. Financially, I was worse off going to Canada but I wasn’t doing it for that. I wanted to give my two children a better life.”

Robinson was an immediate success at Toronto and he adapted to the MLS seamlessly. Robinson became the main hub of the team, combatting opposition players in the centre of the park and dictating play. On Robinson’s official website, Robbo33, which was up and running during his time at Toronto he was described in the following way:

“Carl Robinson knows the game. He runs the show for his team – tackling hard at the back, breaking opposition moves in the centre and creating goals on the attack.”

Robinson celebrating a goal for Toronto FC.

Toronto finished their first MLS season bottom of the Eastern Conference, but for Carl Robinson personally, it was a fantastic first year – Robinson was awarded the club’s MVP award. Robinson featured 26 times throughout his debut season and bagged himself 2 goals – his second highest scoring season behind the 4 goals he scored for Sunderland in their promotion winning season of 2004/05. Robinson was adored by the Reds fans, a fanbase that had amazingly sold out the club’s home ground BMO Field for every MLS game with the club having the third highest average attendance in the league behind league giants LA Galaxy and DC United. As well as performing excellently on the pitch, Robinson was cited by many to be a massive influence on the very talented youngster, Maurice Edu. Edu finished the MLS season as the league’s Rookie of the Year and many claimed that the mentor-like role Robinson had with him really helped bring him on. The following year, Edu was snapped up by Glasgow Rangers for £2.6m, but he has recently joined Premier League Stoke City following Rangers’ financial meltdown and subsequent relegation to the Scottish Third Division. Former Canadian defender Jason de Vos, who played for Wigan, Ipswich and Darlington but now covers the MLS as a scout and a pundit, described Robinson as:

“He is, quite simply, a leader. He is knowledgeable and thoughtful about the game, and he is always willing to pass on that knowledge to his younger teammates. He is a sounding board for those youngsters who are trying to find their way in the game – a valuable resource for any aspiring professional. He is the type of respected senior professional that every coach needs in numbers. Someone who can drive home the tactical understanding and discipline that is required to be a successful team.”

Robinson’s second season at the Canadian club would follow a similar pattern to the first season. Whilst playing under the stewardship of Sir Bobby Robson’s former assistant John Carver, Robinson was made the club’s MVP once again despite the club having another mediocre season finishing 12th in the league. Speaking of personal accolades, whilst playing for Toronto, Robinson even won his hometown, Llandrinod Wells, prestigious 2009 ‘Citizen of the Year’ award.

Robinson would have one more season at Toronto FC before the club incredibly decided to release him, much to the shock of the fans and Robinson himself. The decision to release Robinson was unveiled by the club to be a  financial necessity, as they looked to decrease their wage bill. Also, Toronto felt they had someone that could already replace Robinson in the form of Julian de Guzman, the brother of Swansea City’s Jonathan de Guzman. Robinson was devastated by the ties severed with Toronto and the fans even reacted angrily to losing such a fan favourite. Many fans and the parts of media criticised the lack of class the club showed towards such a loyal servant, not even releasing a worthy statement to commend his service and wish him well with his future. Robinson declared shortly after leaving:

“I loved my time in Toronto, my family loved it, and I developed a wonderful rapport with the fans. In fact, I had my heart set on ending my career in Toronto. Unfortunately in football, things don’t always work out the way you plan.”

And after 84 appearances, the 4th highest appearances by any player in the club’s history, Robinson was gone. New York Red Bulls would snap up Robinson as a fourth round pick in 2011 MLS Superdraft.

Robinson’s move to New York would coincide with the dawn of a new era at New York Red Bulls as they installed a new coach in Hans Backe and the club was preparing to move into their new home, the Red Bull Arena. New York Red Bulls first game at their newly built Red Bull Arena would also be Robinson’s first game for the club, in a celebratory friendly against Brazilian side Santos.

Carl Robinson in action for the New York Red Bulls

By July, Robinson was joined at the club by two legends of the game; fresh off winning a historic treble with Barcelona the Mexican Rafael Marquez joined NY Red Bulls, as well as one of his Barca team mates and one of the all-time greats of the modern game, Thierry Henry. In the 2010 MLS season, with a fine squad now surrounding Robinson including Henry, Marquez, former Villa striker Juan Pablo Angel, Tim Ream and the Estonian midfielder Joel Lindpere, the Red Bulls finished top of the Eastern Conference; however, the club would fall at the playoff stage of the MLS Cup. Robinson would play 10 times throughout the regular season and score three times; in the typical way that football sets these things up, Robinson’s first goal for the club would come against former club Toronto at their BMO Field ground and Robinson, showing respect to his former employers and the fans that adored him, refused to celebrate the goal.
Robinson’s second season at NY Red Bulls would be his last one, although he did make his first strides into coaching as he adopted a player/coach role at the club. Robinson declared in interview with the Hereford Times (Hereford had been his UK homebase for several years) that he had ambitions to become a manager:

“I want to play football for as long as I can but I want to start my coaching career. I have had help from the Welsh FA and I’ve been put through my Uefa A Licence. I have completed my B Licence so I am putting things in place while I am still playing the game. I keep an eye on the system over here and read the newspapers. My aim is to be a manager in the UK and I can’t be in the wilderness if a chance to coach or manage comes along.”

In January 2012, Robinson’s coaching career stepped up to the next level as he retired from playing and took on a full-time role as Assistant Manager at the newly-formed Vancouver Whitecaps. Once again, Robinson’s excellent ability to mentor young players was cited by the NY Red Bulls backroom on his departure and this skill was celebrated as he was welcomed into Vancouver’s backroom by Scottish manager Martin Rennie. Rennie in his unveiling of Robinson as his Assistant Manager explained that he had regularly called Robinson on several occasions in the past to get his views on certain teams and players and that he respected Robinson’s opinion more than most, stating Robinson knew the MLS ‘inside out’. If things had worked out differently, Vancouver could have had another Lost Boyo at the club as the Whitecaps went in pursuit of Robbie Savage following his release from Derby; Savage spurned the chance and opted to follow his burgeoning media career with the BBC instead.

Vancouver’s assistant managers, Carl Robinson and Paul Ritchie, take charge at a reserve team game.

Vancouver Whitecaps are one of the newest MLS franchises, after the Vancouver Whitecaps name was unveiled as the latest name for the 17th MLS franchise in June 2010. The club is the third version of the Vancouver Whitecaps; the original club played in the infamous NASL throughout the 70s and early 80s, before the league went bust and the club folded. The second time the Whitecaps moniker would come into use would be 1993-2010 as the club played in the USL, before the MLS franchise was formed.

The Whitecaps had had one season in the MLS before Robinson joined, a season in which they finished bottom of the overall MLS standings. Under Rennie’s management team, now consisting of Robinson, the Whitecaps once again finished bottom of the overall MLS standings in their second season.

Carl Robinson’s coaching career is still in its nascent stages, but already he has established himself as a respected voice in MLS football. With so many links between British coaches and managers plying their trade in the US, it would not be surprising if Robinson is eventually recommended to a club on these shores and then who knows, the Lost Boyo may finally return home.

You can follow Carl Robinson on Twitter at @CarlRobinson33

Most of the images used are from Robinson’s official site robbo33.com

One thought on “The Robinson Experiment

  1. Pingback: September Lost Boyo Round-up « Lost Boyos

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