Ultimate United Articles

Mark Robins Heroes, Villains & Legends

The latest instalment of this section looks at the man who, according to most, saved Alex Ferguson’s job; Mark Robins.

By Frank Mead, Editor

Mark Robins is a name that has gone down in Manchester United folklore, as the man whose goal against Nottingham Forest saved his manager from the axe. In January 1990, United’s league form was in the doldrums, and a run the F.A. Cup was their only hope of winning a trophy. It took a local lad to keep that dream a reality.

Early Beginnings

Born in 1969 in Oldham, Robins was the archetypal local-boy-made-good, joining Manchester United as a schoolboy, and working his way through to the first team. In October 1988, at the age of 18, he made his debut for the club, as a substitute in League Cup game against Rotherham United. His first start came three months later, in a competition in which his name became synonymous, the F.A. Cup. The game finished 0-0 and required two replays before the Red Devils finally made it through to the next round.

By the end of the 1988-89 season, Robins had made twelve goalless appearances in total, although ten of these had come from the bench. Along with Lee Martin and Russell Beardsmore, Robins was one of the original Fergie’s Fledglings. Although the young striker hadn’t made an immediate impact, it would not be much longer before he made his presence felt.

Saving Fergie’s Bacon

Manchester United had invested heavily in their team during the summer of 1989. Mike Phelan, Paul Ince, Neil Webb, Danny Wallace and Gary Pallister had been brought in at substantial cost. Of these new signings, only Wallace was an attacking player, with Alex Ferguson determined to rebuild the spine of his team. Mark Hughes and Brian McClair were the team’s first choice strikers, and with Robins still to score his first goal for the club, nobody knew if he would have any kind of future at Old Trafford.

Robins’ first strike for the club was actually Manchester United’s last goal of the 1980’s, and at one of the toughest places possible. Plough Lane was the home of Wimbledon, and their Crazy Gang, which saw a 2-2 draw played out on their typically muddy pitch. It didn’t take long for Robins to build on this momentum, as the game which defined his Old Trafford career was just over a week away.

United’s league form had been so bad that Alex Ferguson had dropped Mark Hughes for a home game with Crystal Palace, who won 2-1 at Old Trafford. The Red Devils were hovering dangerously above the relegation zone. When the F.A. Cup draw gave them a third round tie away at Nottingham Forest, it looked like being a fifth consecutive trophyless season. Forest were cup specialists, having won the League Cup the previous year, which they would successfully defend that season. They were also reigning holders of the Simod Cup at that point.

In the form United were in at that time, they couldn’t have asked for a much harder task. To make things worse injury had robbed them of Neil Webb, Bryan Robson and Paul Ince. Nobody gave the Red Devils much of a chance, and it seemed that Ferguson’s job was hanging by a thread. The media speculated that, should United lose this tie, they would also lose their manager.

Anyone who expected a cagey, defensive performance from United was soon made to think again. Ferguson’s side went for the throat, attacking at every opportunity. Robins forced Steve Sutton into an excellent first half save, when he turned and shot towards the top corner, with only the goalkeeper’s fingertips keeping it out. He got his reward in the second half, however, when Lee Martin kept the ball from going for a throw, and passed to Mark Hughes. The Welshman floated a cross into the box and Robins, under pressure from Stuart Pearce, nodded it past Sutton almost in slow motion.

United saw the game out to put themselves in the fourth round draw, and the press speculated that Ferguson had been given a stay of execution. Nobody will ever know if that was true, but if it is, then he owes Mark Robins a huge thank you.

The First Trophy

Manchester United’s route to the final threw up many potential “banana skin” fixtures. Many of them were actually against lower league sides, but none of them were at home, increasing the odds of a giant killing happening. After Clayton Blackmore scraped a 1-0 victory over Hereford United, the Red Devils were drawn away to Newcastle United. Robins scored United’s first goal in a 3-2 victory, to set up a tie at Bramall Lane against Sheffield United, with McClair scoring the only goal to send his side to the semi-final.

Robins found himself on the bench against his hometown club, Oldham Athletic, in the semi-final which finished in a 3-3 draw at Maine Road. This meant that a replay was required, and it was once again Robins who saved the day, on this occasion in extra time. The score was 1-1 after 90 minutes, and Robins had been introduced from the bench. With six minutes remaining in the tie, Mike Phelan slipped the ball through to the home grown striker, who calmly slotted it into the bottom corner. United had reached their first cup final in five years, and it looked like there was finally light at the end of the tunnel.

Despite his heroics in the earlier rounds, Mark Robins didn’t see much action in the 1990 F.A. Cup Final. He was brought on from the bench in extra time during the first game, which finished 3-3, but was an unused substitute in the replay. Although it was another of Fergie’s Fledglings, Lee Martin, whose goal won the trophy for Manchester United, nobody could underestimate the importance of the part Robins had played in getting United to Wembley.

After Wembley

Mark Robins had finished as Manchester United’s second top goalscorer, with ten goals from 23 games. It looked as though he was going to make a real push to become the regular strike partner for Mark Hughes, as McClair had only scored eight, despite playing more than double the amount of games that Robins had played in. Unfortunately for the young striker, it didn’t quite work out that way.

The 1990-91 season will always be remembered for the Cup Winners’ Cup Final victory over Barcelona in Rotterdam, and rightfully so. What also happened is that Mark Hughes was consistent all season, and McClair rediscovered his scoring touch. Both strikers netted 21 goals in all competitions that campaign. By contrast, Robins started four games less than he had the previous season, scoring five times in total. He was an unused substitute in Rotterdam, and didn’t even make the bench for United’s defeat to Sheffield Wednesday in the 1991 League Cup Final. It is worth noting, however, that only two substitutes were allowed for the latter.

In 1991-92, it looked as though Manchester United were finally going to end 25 years without the league title. They stormed out of the traps, scoring goals for fun, and led the table for most of the season. Ryan Giggs and Andrei Kanchelskis had been introduced to the team, McClair and Hughes were still scoring regularly and there were plenty of goals coming from Robson, Webb and Ince in midfield.

Mark Robins was seemingly becoming the forgotten man at Old Trafford. He made just two league appearances all season and eight in total, with his only two goals coming in the League Cup. When United’s goals dried up towards the end of the campaign, one of the reasons that Ferguson considered bringing in Mick Harford was that Robins was injured, and unavailable for selection.

Robins knew that the writing was on the wall for him by this point. Despite UEFA restrictions on foreign players, he had once again been an unused substitute when United won the Super Cup against European champions Red Star Belgrade. At the end of the 1991-92 season, Robins asked to be placed on the transfer list. He left Old Trafford after scoring 17 goals from 70 appearances, 43 of which were as a substitute.

After United

In the summer of 1992, Mark Robins joined Norwich City for a fee of £800,000, replacing the Chelsea-bound Robert Fleck. The move was initially a success, and despite having been pre-season favourites for relegation, Norwich topped the Premier League at Christmas. This was thanks in no small part to the hot form Robins was in. The Canaries had made clear their intentions on the opening weekend of the season, coming from two down at Highbury to beat Arsenal 4-2, with Robins netting the winner. This was the first of sixteen goals Robins scored for his new club that season.

It was only during the last two months of the campaign that their surprise title challenge petered out, with United’s 3-1 win at Carrow Road being one of the deciding factors. Norwich still finished the season in third place, their highest ever league placing, and would compete in Europe for the first time in their history. They did England proud in the 1993-94 UEFA Cup, becoming the only English side ever to win at Bayern Munich’s Olympiastadion. It was during that tie that Robins suffered a knee injury that would plague his later career.

By the middle of his second season, it was Chris Sutton who was making the headlines for Norwich. Initially a centre-back, he had been moved up front during an injury crisis, and scored so many goals that he had stayed there. By the summer of 1994, it was Sutton who had the pick of Premier League clubs, eventually choosing Blackburn Rovers. By this time Mike Walker, who had engineered all of Norwich’s success, had gone to Everton. At the start of the 1994-95 season, Robins fell out with Walker’s replacement John Deehan, and was on the move again.

Later Career

Robins joined Premier League newcomers Leicester City, but was unable to prevent them from relegation back to Division One. He stayed with them and helped them win promotion at the first attempt under Martin O’Neill. He also won the 1997 League Cup, coming on as a substitute against Middlesbrough, managed at that time by his old United team mate Bryan Robson.

During his time at Leicester Robins was loaned out to F.C Copenhagen, and became a cult hero in Denmark, scoring four times in just six appearances. Following this he became a bit of a journeyman, as he later played in Spain’s Segunda Division with Ourense, and Greek outfit Panionios. It was during his time with the latter that Robins spent a brief loan spell at Manchester City, making two goalless appearances. When Manchester United won the Treble in 1999, Robins found himself without a club, having been released by the Greek side.

After a season at Walsall, Robins took in the most productive spell of his later career, with Rotherham United. He scored 44 goals in 107 games for the club. He later played for Bristol City (on loan) and Sheffield Wednesday, before retiring in 2005 after a season with Burton Albion. The knee injury he sustained against Bayern Munich, which had troubled him for years, had finally caught up with him.

Robins is currently in his second spell as manager of Coventry City. He joined them in March this year, following the sacking of Russell Slade, but was unable to prevent their relegation to League Two. His previous managerial stints include spells at Rotherham, Barnsley, Huddersfield Town and Scunthorpe United.

Final Thought

Mark Robins will always be remembered fondly by the Stretford End faithful. Whether or not Ferguson would have been sacked had United not won the F.A. Cup in 1990 is open to debate. The official line from the club was that, because they knew he was rebuilding the club from the ground up, his job security was never in question. Of course, given the success that United had after that season, it would be foolish of them to say anything else.

Robins’ career statistics show 106 goals from 375 league games, an average of just better than a goal every four games. He was a striker that certainly had the knack of being on the right place at the right time, but perhaps just not often enough. This is probably why Ferguson, although appreciating his contribution, never saw him as a guaranteed starter. In his autobiography, he stated that he expected Robins to miss that chance in the F.A. Cup against Forest.

Despite the fact that he didn’t set the world alight in his career, he scored some vital goals and went on to lift several trophies. Add this to the fact that no United fan who knows their history, or was around during the early 1990’s, will ever forget his name and he can’t have too many complaints.


Whatever the club say about Alex Ferguson not being under pressure in 1990, many fans believe that if it hadn’t been for Mark Robins, he may not have been around to oversee the success that followed. 

Added by Philip Meese on 15/06/2017 16:50:26
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