PHIL WITHALL on Mark Robins’ unforgettable Norwich debut, as the youngster silenced a shocked Highbury
A player’s first game for a new club is never an easy one. For the player there are the problems of a new city, a new manager, new teammates to meet and form a bond with, and pressure. For the supporters, the new signing brings the combination of hope and apprehension familiar to any new investor.
Mark Robins is often remembered as the man that scored the goal that ‘saved’ Alex Ferguson’s job at Man Utd. Reports in the lead up to an FA Cup match against Nottingham Forest in January 1990 had suggested United chairman Martin Edwards was ready to call time on the United manager’s tenure, a late winner from Robins kick-starting United’s period of dominance.
That season would be the high point of his time at Old Trafford, a strike force including Mark Hughes and Brian McClair proving too tough a barrier for him to break through. As starting opportunities faded he asked to be transfer-listed, a wish that Ferguson reluctantly agreed to with the player’s first team opportunities being so limited.
In early July 1992 United had agreed a £800,000 fee with Bundesliga side Dynamo Dresden. Robins went to Germany for a while, even playing a friendly before turning the side down. On the day before the new season Norwich City matched the fee and he was on his way to Norfolk.
It was quite a change. Norwich had managed to finish 18th in the First Division the previous season, and although they had reached the semi-final of the FA cup expectations were modest. Mike Walker, the former Colchester manager, had been promoted from youth coach to the top job. And to add a little more pressure to this mix club favourite Robert Fleck had walked out on the club in a successful attempt to force a move to Chelsea that generated a club record fee of over £2 million.
The first Premier League fixtures weren’t too kind to Norwich. Arsenal away followed by Chelsea and Everton at home were not an appetising prospect for a side that were 250-1 to win the league. Arsenal had already been made short odds favourites for the title and, as Robins looked on from the bench, the hosts set about underlining that fact. After 39 minutes they were 2-0 to the good, Steve Bould and Kevin Campbell taking advantage of some woeful defending to have the game pretty much sewn up before half-time.
Before the match Mike Walker had said, or claimed to have said, to Robins: “We’ll stick you on for 20 minutes, just knock a couple in.” Thirteen minutes into the second half, Robins was brought on to replace an ineffectual Chris Sutton. he had slightly more than the twenty minutes to do it, but two goals were the minimum his new side required. He had his first 11 minutes later. David Phillips sent a free kick into the area from the right and the diminutive Robins somehow managed to beat the tallest defence in the league and slot a header past David Seaman.
The next 13 minutes were pretty much a dream for the player and the supporters. Four minutes after Robins goal City were level, Jeremy Goss hitting a long cross-field ball for Phillips to volley past David Seaman in the Arsenal goal. Ruel Fox added a third, Seaman late to respond to his low drive as Arsenal seemed to wilt under the pressure of this unexpected challenge.
Robins wasn’t finished. With six minutes remaining he chased down a hopeful hoof upfield, the ball landing between Tony Adams and Steve Bould as the Arsenal defenders desperately backtracked. Adams slipped as he tried to control the ball. Robins checked himself, slowing from a full sprit and adjusting his body position before hitting a first-time volley over Seaman, who reacted with no more than a resigned wave as the ball found the net. The mural built to hide construction work on the North Bank stand had cost £150,000, a visual attempt to counteract the silence emanating from the demolished stand at that end of the ground. Mark Robins cost £800,000 and silenced the stadium.
As debuts go it wasn’t a bad one. Robins’ class was evident, his second goal especially. His introduction seemed to fire a young Norwich side with belief, providing a catalyst that would last the season and drive the club to their highest ever league position of third. A season that started with the fear of relegation hanging over the club ended with a place in the UEFA cup and meeting the likes of Bayern Munich and AC Milan. That sunny afternoon in North London marked the start of a brilliant season for Robins and for Norwich.