Another £1M signing

Former Player Remembers: Mark Robins

In conversation with Club Historian John Hutchinson, striker Mark Robins remembered a career which included a £1M move to Leicester City, where he secured promotion to the Premier League and was a League Cup winner.
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Prior to moving to Filbert Street, former England Under-21s international Mark had graduated from the FA’s National School of Excellence, was an FA Cup winner with Manchester United and a member of the Norwich City side which famously defeated Bayern Munich in the UEFA Cup. He is currently manager at Coventry City, leading them to the 2019/20 Sky Bet League 1 title.

Thinking back to his earliest days in football, Mark, who was born in Ashton-under-Lyme, recalled: “When I was a schoolboy, I was invited to train at Manchester City and then I had a look at various clubs in Lancashire. One day, a Manchester United scout rang me and asked me to go there. I spent a week in the Halls of Residence in Salford. After three days they asked me to sign. It was the only place I wanted to go. I trained there twice a week as an associated schoolboy. I was also playing Sunday football, for a team called Boundary Park Juniors, a really good junior team in Oldham.

“In 1983, I was selected to go for trials for the first intake of the FA’s School of Excellence at Lilleshall. I was there from 1984 to 1986. I think I went for about five trials. I was lucky enough to be selected for the first intake. There were 25 of us in that first year because they needed two teams. After that, I think there were 16. The School of Excellence was Bobby Robson’s brainchild and it was the forerunner to the academy system we have today.

“It was a privilege to be at Lilleshall. I spent two years there. We went to the local comprehensive school, where I took my GCSEs. We trained and toured and played against teams in what is now the Premier League and the Football League. We also played in tournaments. One was in Monaco, where we played against West Germany and France. We also went to Bergen in Norway and played in a tournament there. We won both tournaments. We also played at Wembley against Yugoslavia as the curtain-raiser to the Charity Shield (now Community Shield). Lilleshall was really good and enjoyable. It was an apprenticeship before an apprenticeship. After my two years there, I went back and signed for United as an apprentice as a 16-year-old in what was then known as the YTS (Youth Training Scheme).

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Mark Robins
Mark Robins

Robins won the FA Cup, Charity Shield, European Cup Winners' Cup and Super Cup at Man Utd.

“I turned professional on my 17th birthday in the December 1986. That was the start of my career really and it took 18 months or so for me to make my first team debut. This was in a League Cup tie against Rotherham at Old Trafford (in October 1988). I think we won 5-0. That was my first sniff of first team football as I was playing in the ‘A’ team and the reserves in the Central League and the Lancashire League. I scored something like 55 goals in three seasons and then got into the first team squad.”

In 1990, by which time Mark had added six Under-21s caps to his England Youth collection, he famously scored the winning goal from a Mark Hughes cross in a third round FA Cup tie at Nottingham Forest. The media speculated that this goal saved Alex Ferguson, who was under pressure as Manchester United’s manager, from being fired. This was denied at the time and Mark certainly plays down the significance of the goal.

“Who knows?” he reflects. “It doesn’t make any difference really. I scored the goal and we won the game. What I would say is that we still had to get through to the final and there was a lot of football to be played. The next game was away at Hereford at Edgar Street. In fact, our whole FA Cup run to Wembley that year was away from Old Trafford. After Hereford, we went to Newcastle and won 3-2, and I scored in that one as well. We then beat Sheffield United 1-0 at Bramall Lane. This was followed by two epic semi-finals against Oldham Athletic. We drew the first one 3-3 and then I scored the winner in the replay at Maine Road, which took us to Wembley. That goal was more important than the Forest one for me, as it was the winning goal that took us to Wembley. I was a sub in the final against Crystal Palace. There were only two subs in those days. I got on in the first game but didn’t get on in the replay because we were 1-0 up from mid-game and we had to shore up and make sure that they didn’t score. So, we won the FA Cup! Those were good times. The year after that, we went on to win the European Cup Winners’ Cup. I was involved in some of the games in the run to the final and I was on the bench in the final against Barcelona in Rotterdam.”

In August 1992, after making over 70 appearances for Manchester United, Mark moved to Premier League Norwich City: “In 1992 things changed. United brought Dion Dublin in and I became surplus so they sold me to Norwich City for £800,000 in August 1992. By Christmas, Norwich were top. It was the first year of the Premier League. It was the first time there were names on shirts and that squad numbers were issued. Eventually, we finished third behind Manchester United, who won it and Aston Villa, who we did the double over. In fairness, United were due to win it because the year before they ran Leeds really close.”

By finishing third Norwich qualified for the UEFA Cup the following season and Mark was involved in their historic away win against Bayern Munich.

It was the first time that an English team had beaten Bayern Munich in the Olympic Stadium. It was a terrific result and put Norwich on the map. It was the greatest time in Norwich’s history.

Mark Robins

Mark remembers the game well: “I remember going for a header in the penalty area with Lothar Matthäus. He was playing sweeper. He headed it out and it dropped to Jerry Goss, who volleyed it in from 20 yards to score that great goal. I was injured just after that. I’d gone up for a header in the centre circle with Jan Wouters. He just bent over. I came down and landed with all my weight through my knee when it was bent. It was ligaments and cartilage. I was out for about six months. I was taken inside and I didn’t see the second half, other than glimpses of it, but I saw Mark Bowen’s goal. It was the first time that an English team had beaten Bayern Munich in the Olympic Stadium. It was a terrific result and put Norwich on the map. It was the greatest time in Norwich’s history. They were good times. Norwich had some good players and played good football. I enjoyed my two-and-a-half years there.”

In January 1995, Leicester City’s new manager, Mark McGhee, who had replaced the recently departed Brian Little, signed Mark from Norwich City for £1M.

The Foxes, in their first Premier League season, were struggling near the foot of the table: “At the time I had been in and out of the team at Norwich. Their chairman, Robert Chase, was selling players. Ruel Fox went before me. Efan Ekoku had gone the week before. Then they sold me and then Chris Sutton left. The team was being dismantled and ripped apart. At the end of the season, they went down with Leicester. When I left there, I was top goalscorer. I had only got four goals. The last game I played, we were sixth. When I left, we were ninth. To be relegated from that position was a disaster, really, but not really a surprise considering the upheaval off the field.”

Mark made his Leicester debut in a Premier League night fixture at Maine Road against Manchester City. The weather conditions were appalling. The rain was so incessant that some Foxes supporters were unable to get to the match. Mark scored the only goal of the game, securing City’s only away win that season: “I should have scored two. I had gone around the goalkeeper and I slid it past him. There were puddles on the line which stopped the ball and it was just cleared away. That game today would have been abandoned. There’s no two ways about it. They wouldn’t have let us play, but thankfully we did and we got three points. And I had scored my first goal for the Club. That’s always important to get up and running. Then I scored in the next match, which was my home debut against West Ham. We went 1-0 up and lost 2-1 though.”

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Leicester City win promotion in 1996
Leicester City win promotion in 1996

Celebrating promotion back to the Premier League in 1996.

Leicester were relegated at the end of the season. Playing for a new club in a relegation battle isn’t easy: “Relegation was something that I’d never experienced before. I’d always played in the Premier League up to that point. We started the 1995/96 season well. We had recruited some decent players. Pontus Kåmark came in, but was quickly injured. We were playing some decent stuff. We weren’t a bad team and were in the top two or three leading up to Christmas. Then (in December) McGhee left and Martin O’Neill came in.”

Despite a bad run when O’Neill first arrived, which saw the team slip to ninth at the beginning of April, a place in the play-offs was secured in the last game of the season at Watford.

This was their fourth successive win, enabling the team to scrape into the play-offs with a then-record low tally of 71 points.

Mark recalled: “When Muzzy [Izzet] scored to win that game at Watford, we went into the play-offs with a bit of momentum. We drew 0-0 with Stoke in the first leg of the semi-final at Filbert Street. In the second game, Garry [Parker] scored the penalty and we went through to the final at Wembley against Crystal Palace. The final itself was an unbelievable game. It was 1-1 at full-time. It looked as though it would go to penalties as extra-time drew to a close, and then Martin, anticipating penalties, made the goalkeeper change with Zeljko Kalac coming on for Kevin Poole. Then [Steve] Claridge scored four seconds from the end with one off his shin! That goal made the Club a lot of money. It finished up a good season. O’Neill had come in and hadn’t won any games to start with and there had been a bit of unrest. But he turned things round and was outstanding.”

We ended up winning the cup with Stevie Claridge scoring a really good goal. Winning the cup was a fantastic achievement.

Mark Robins

The following season, Leicester won the League Cup, drawing 1-1 with Middlesbrough at Wembley and then winning the replay at Hillsborough. Mark had a hand in Emile Heskey’s late equaliser at Wembley: “I had come on as a sub. My ball in went onto Steve Walsh’s head and Emile scored. The night of the replay at Hillsborough was incredible. Looking back, the 1-1 draw at Wembley was a non-event and a bit of an anti-climax. But then we went again, going up to Hillsborough, which is a big old stadium. With the players they had at their disposal, like Fabrizio Ravanelli, Emerson and Juninho, Middlesbrough were expected to win and we were underdogs. We ended up winning the cup with Stevie Claridge scoring a really good goal. Winning the cup was a fantastic achievement.”

Earlier that season, in October, Mark went out on loan to FC Copenhagen: “I wasn’t in the Leicester side at that time and there was interest from Copenhagen. I needed to play some football and get my sharpness, so I decided to go over there. It was only for a month. I knew a little bit about the club. It’s a big club. They played their home games at Parken, which is the national stadium. It was a big old stadium. We would get crowds of 20,000 but it looked empty. My first game was at Parken against Brøndby, who were the top team then. I scored a goal, but we lost 2-1. I hit the post at the end to try to get us back into it. I scored five goals in my eight games there or something like that.

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Mark Robins
Mark Robins

Mark guided Coventry back to the Championship by winning League 1 last term.

“It was a really good experience. They had some good players there. I played with Bjarne Goldbæk, who went on to play for Chelsea and Fulham. The goalkeeper was Antti Niemi, who later played for Rangers and Southampton. There were some really talented players there. There were also the twins Michael and Martin Johansen. Michael later played for Bolton Wanderers. I enjoyed it there.”

Mark’s appearance at Hillsborough was his final game for Leicester City. He subsequently had brief spells at Reading, Ourense, Panionios and at Manchester City. He also played for Walsall and Rotherham United, and had further loan spells at Bristol City and Sheffield Wednesday before finishing his playing career at Burton Albion. Retiring as a player in 2004, Mark has since managed Rotherham United, Barnsley, Coventry City, Huddersfield Town and Scunthorpe United. He is currently in his second spell as manager of Coventry and, having won the 2020 League 1 title, will lead them in the Championship next season.

Leicester City Crest

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