Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland Under-21 boss Robinson backs kids to have bright future

By Steven Beacom

When he was 15-years-old Stephen Robinson was told by medical experts in London's Harley Street that he would never play football again.

It was a devastating blow to the teenager who by his own admission was obsessed with the game.

The youngster from Crumlin, who attended school at Friends in Lisburn, was not about to give up on his dream.

Just signed by the then Tottenham manager Terry Venables, Robinson decided that he could overcome a severe disc problem in his back and forge a career in the sport he loved.

Over the next 20 years he would have three back operations, but he believes the pain was worth it to have an international career that spanned a decade and to play almost 500 club games all over England, becoming a cult hero at Bournemouth and Luton Town in the process.

Robinson now 37 was recently named the new Northern Ireland under-21 coach.

Brimming with enthusiasm for the role, Robbo, as he's known throughout football, will be a fine example to the gifted kids from here facing pitfalls in the often harsh and ruthless world of professional football of how to turn adversity into triumph.

“It is a fantastic opportunity and a privilege to be given the chance to work as the Northern Ireland under-21 manager. It's a fresh start for Northern Ireland under the new senior manager Michael O'Neill and I'm delighted to be part of that,” said Robinson.

“Michael is a very, very good manager. He is very intelligent and driven and did exceptionally well as boss of Shamrock Rovers. I know that he will do an excellent job as manager of Northern Ireland.

“My remit is to develop players for the first team and play the same brand of football as the senior side so when they make the step up it is a comfortable transition.

“I'm excited by the challenge. We have a lot of good young players and many of them are playing first team football across the water. I truly believe the future for Northern Ireland can be bright.”

One blot on that optimistic landscape relates to an increasing number of players from Northern Ireland opting to declare for the Republic of Ireland with Sunderland’s impressive Londonderry-born winger James McClean the latest high profile case.

“I believe the Fifa ruling is very unfair and while we can't force young lads to play for us, you will see us do everything possible to try and persuade players their futures lie with us,” says Robinson.

“What we must do is talk to them and show them that by playing for Northern Ireland they will have more opportunity to win caps than with the Republic and that in turn could help their club careers.

“We want to have as wide a player base as possible and will leave no stone unturned to achieve that.”

To that end Robinson appointed ex-Celtic and Aston Villa ace Tommy Johnson and former Luton team-mate Marlon Beresford as his under-21 coaches.

Some eyebrows were raised when the assistants weren’t locally based, but Robinson says there is a valid reason for that.

“The reason I didn't choose coaches from here, and there are some good ones, is that I'm based in Northern Ireland and can cover players who play in the Irish League or Airtricity League,” he states.

“Tommy and Marlon were top players and are fine coaches. They’ll see our boys across the water and when we all get together for matches our youngsters will learn a lot from them.”

Robinson should have taken charge of the under-21 team already, but his opening match in Macedonia, scheduled for last month, was postponed. It will now take place on May 15.

Stephen, an Aston Villa fan as a kid, like many other future Northern Ireland internationals, started out at Lisburn Youth, playing up front.

“That’s where I played for Spurs. I signed a six year deal with them at 14,” he added. “I was with the first team from I was 16 and made my debut under Ossie Ardlies despite being told previously by medical experts that I wouldn’t play again due to injury.

“I was determined not to give up on my dream and thankfully the hard work paid off. I played a couple of times for Spurs, which was great but then I tore my hamstring off the bone which was a major blow. It turned out to be a sciatic nerve which was causing me problems and that led to the back operations. I was only a young boy but had to deal with it. I got myself fit and joined Bournemouth, where I played in midfield, scored lots of goals and did really well.

“Fulham came in to sign me for £750,000. Kevin Keegan was the boss there at the time but then he got the England post a few days later and the move never happened. So, I went to Preston, then Bristol City and Luton, where again I achieved success and captained the team.”

All the while Robinson was being called into international squads but rarely played. It is remarkable to think that his first Northern Ireland appearance came in Thailand in 1997 and his last in Spain ten years later, yet he only won SEVEN caps.

Up until Aaron Hughes played under Michael O’Neill in the 3-0 defeat at home to Norway in February, Robinson was the only Northern Ireland player to have turned out for FIVE managers — Bryan Hamilton, Lawrie McMenemy, Sammy McIlroy, Lawrie Sanchez and Nigel Worthington.

Robinson says: “If I have one regret in football it is that I didn't play more than seven internationals. I guess I was always behind good players like Jim Magilton, Steve Lomas, Neil Lennon, Michael Hughes and then Steve Davis and Sammy Clingan. If there were other reasons I wasn’t told them by the managers.”

Having returned home a few years ago with wife Tracey, who he met in London and who now works as Sales and Marketing manager at the Dunadry Hotel, Stephen is a settled man and a doting father to sons Harry (11) and Charlie (7).

The proud dad says: “They both enjoy football. Harry plays for Linfield. He is an Arsenal fan while Charlie’s favourite team is Liverpool. He loves Steven Gerrard.”

Sadly Stephen’s father-in-law David O’Mahoney passed away earlier this week.

“David was a great man and a great support to me as a footballer. Like my own dad he followed me all over to watch me play. He loved his football and was a huge Manchester United fan,” he says, with emotion in his voice.

Robinson, who in his role as the IFA’s County Derry Excellence coach has done some superb work alongside Brian Donaghy and Pat McFadden, missed out on management jobs at Irish League clubs Ballymena United and Glenavon this season, but he’s too busy to feel disappointed.

He says: “Not getting the Glenavon or Ballymena United jobs turned out to be a blessing in disguise because now as under-21 boss I'm going to get to work with the best young players in the country. It's the next most important job you can have here after the senior Northern Ireland job.”

Stephen’s verdict on his bosses

Terry Venables

It was Terry who signed me for Tottenham. He was a master tactician whose ideas were ahead of his time. He really was a fantastic coach to listen to. What he said was simple but brilliant.

Ossie Ardiles

Ossie gave me my debut for Spurs. It was total football under him. There wasn't a lot of defending. I know he took some stick for tactics, but as an attacking player it was a joy to play for him.

Mel Machin

Mel was a top bloke to work with. He actually moved me into midfield which proved to be a shrewd decision and I scored something like 69 goals from there in my time at Bournemouth.

David Moyes

David paid £375,000 going up to half a million for me to go to Preston. He was very intense and did all the coaching. I would have to say he was the best coach I have worked with.

Danny Wilson

It didn't work out as I'd hoped at Preston so I moved on loan to Bristol City under Danny Wilson. He truly was a brilliant man manager who made you feel like the best player in the world.

Joe Kinnear

When I moved to Luton, Joe was in charge. It was a mad time playing under him but he got results and that's the most important thing. You were always on your toes with Joe.

Mike Newell

Mike came in at Luton and worked wonders for the club. We won two league titles in a row and he must have brought in something like £15m to Luton in transfer fees. He was a top manager and I'll always regard Mike as a close friend.

Robinson on...

Best player played with: I'd like to name a few — at club level it would be Teddy Sheringham (pictured) and Nicky Barmby and at international level I'd go for David Healy, Steve Davis and Aaron Hughes.

Best player played against: Steven Gerrard at club level and Xavi and Iniesta at international. Three outstanding midfielders.

Most memorable club game: People might think it was for Luton in that 5-3 televised FA Cup defeat to Liverpool when Xabi Alonso scored from his own half, but for Luton it was when we won the league on the last day of the season and for Bournemouth it was when we stayed up in League One in the final game and I scored twice.

Most memorable international: I have two — the first is the 1-0 win over England when David Healy (pictured) scored even though I didn't get off the bench and the other is my last international in Spain when I played against the team that went on to win Euro 2008 and the World Cup. It was amazing to be on the same pitch as those players, who were unbelievable.

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