How former Wolves man Carl Robinson’s career is on the up Down Under

Carl Robinson enjoyed a successful career as a player, making almost 500 appearances across a decade-and-a-half and representing some big clubs with big expectations including Wolves, Portsmouth, Norwich and Sunderland.

Carl Robinson (Photo courtsey Newcastle Jets)
Carl Robinson (Photo courtsey Newcastle Jets)

Born in Llandrindod Wells, he was also extremely proud to chalk up 52 senior caps for Wales, leaving him just outside the top 30 of his country’s overall appearance makers, writes Paul Berry.

Having widened his horizons to finish his career as a player across the Pond in Major League Soccer, Robinson then graduated to coaching and managing, and has made an impressive start to life in the dugout with firstly Vancouver Whitecaps and then, Newcastle Jets in Australia.

So much so that after just eight months with the Jets, and a whirlwind 48 hours of talks, he was today unveiled as the new head coach of Western Sydney Wanderers.

Robinson’s career has already involved plenty of football, plenty of travelling, plenty of experience and, perhaps above all else, plenty of learning.

And yet the very first piece of learning, some tough love if you like, came right at the start of that impressive career.

At 16, Robinson was handed a full-time scholarship after having been training as a schoolboy with Wolves Academy.

Something to celebrate surely? Stepping onto the first rung on the footballing ladder at one of English football’s most historic clubs with serious aspirations of reaching the Premier League?

You would think so. And so did the young Robinson.

That was to ignore however the man management and motivational skills of the legendary Wolves chief scout Ron Jukes, the man who once famously uttered the immortal words, ‘Get young Bull here’, to Graham Turner.

As it transpires, Wolves record goalscorer isn’t the only one who has plenty to thank Jukes for.

“Wolves were the first stop for me as an apprentice and then a young pro, and I was never the best player coming through the system,” explains Robinson, whose senior league debut actually came during a loan spell with Shrewsbury which included playing in the Football League Trophy final at Wembley.

“But I feel I was probably the most determined and mentally strong, as I had to get past players who had more ability.

“Each year I stayed at Wolves coming through it was a bonus for me and I accepted it that way.

“I still remember being in a hotel and signing that apprenticeship at 16, and sitting down with Ron.

“He told me in no uncertain terms that if I didn’t grow, if I didn’t come out of my shell, if I didn’t get tougher, that I wouldn’t make it.

“And that was actually before I had even trained or played with Wolves!

“At the time I cried my eyes out, I won’t lie.

Carl Robinson (Photo courtsey Newcastle Jets)

”As a 16-year-old it wasn’t nice to hear.

“I thought I was following my dream of becoming a footballer and straightaway I was being told I wasn’t going to make it.

“It stuck with me throughout my journey and I used my determination to think, ‘do you know what? I will prove you wrong’.

“And when I did, I don’t think anyone was happier than Ron.

“He said it was a technique he used on quieter players.

“Everyone has their different characteristics especially at that age and I was quiet - I was quiet because I had come from Wales and was in an environment I wasn’t used to.

“He used that technique on me and it worked, because a year later I had signed my first professional contract, and I will be forever grateful to him for it.”

Jukes knew exactly what he was doing that day.

He knew that the young fresh-faced player sat before him whom he had first identified playing at a seven-a-side tournament in Anglesey had the talent and the determination to make it in the professional game.

He just needed a none-too-subtle nudge in the right direction.

That advice – which Robinson recalls as a very early turning point in his career - and the years at Molineux that followed, is why he will never ever forget his formative years and establishing himself as a senior player at Wolves.

“Amazing,” he recalls. “Special times.”

And as many will testify, those gold and black ties are never too far away, even long after departing the Golden Palace.

Robinson, who turned 44 this Tuesday just as speculation broke about the interest from Western Sydney, is now forging a reputation as one of the brightest young coaches in the game, and while he may be on the other side of the world in his role in the Hyundai A-League, the ex-Wolves influence is still strong.

His assistant at Jets – who is now accompanying him to the Wanderers - is former team-mate and Wolves striker Kenny Miller, while assistant coach Darren Bazeley who had worked with him through his first eight months in Newcastle had also just moved on for a role closer to home as New Zealand assistant coach, in part due to quarantine restrictions linked to the Covid pandemic.

And another former Wolves team-mate Steve Corica is manager of Sydney FC, who have just successfully defended the A-League Championship.

Robinson had also lined up alongside Bazeley and Corica during a loan spell across the Midlands with Walsall towards the end of the 2002/03 season.

Those playing memories are never too far away, and Robinson emerged at Molineux alongside other young talents of the time such as Lee Naylor, Joleon Lescott and Robbie Keane.

He made 189 appearances in total, chipping in with a very respectable 23 goals, and made his breakthrough into the senior Welsh set-up.

And yet, the 1990s and early 2000s was sometimes a frustrating time at Molineux, when several squads littered with talent and experience just couldn’t make it across the finishing line from Championship to Premier League.

Robinson, an unused substitute in both legs of one of the three play-off semi-final defeats, against Crystal Palace, acknowledges it’s a difficult question as to why Wolves never quite cracked it until that famous afternoon at the Millennium Stadium, a year after his departure.

On a personal note however, he certainly enjoyed his extensive stay in the Molineux engine room, where he was able to make a positive impact on the team’s performance.

“Whenever I stepped onto the field I tried to play with enjoyment and a smile,” he recalls.

“I tried to give as much as I could.

“I had to earn the right to go to Wolves and then I was told from day one that it probably wasn’t going to work out, I used that as a determination.

“When I got on the pitch with players like Bully, and Mutchy (Andy Mutch), and Don Goodman, and Ossie (Simon Osborn) and all these people, it was like ‘I am here and I deserve to be here’.

“One big thing that I think helped me was that I was never the most flashy player.

“But I was a very important player for the team, I was a connector, I would go about my work behind the scenes.

“I wouldn’t be Bully getting two or three goals, or Stevie Froggatt flying down the wing going past two or three players.

“I wouldn’t be John De Wolf with that big presence and the long hair and stature about him.

“I was little Robbo in midfield who would run around and connect, win tackles, pass it to players who could make a difference.

“I think that has stood me in good stead in coaching because I felt I was able to affect different parts of the team.

“Why did we never make it to the Premier League? The million dollar question.

“It’s incredible really because we tried it so many different ways.

“We tried it by investing with Sir Jack Hayward putting money in and getting players in like Steve Froggatt and Tony Daley.

“Then we tried it another way without maybe spending so much but still couldn’t get there.

“For whatever reason, it just didn’t quite happen during my time at the club.”

Robinson’s final Wolves appearance came midway through the 2001/02 season - yes that one - when despite at times keeping either Alex Rae or Colin Cameron out of the team, his search for an improved contract which still wouldn’t have moved him within touching distance of those two big money signings proved in vain.

There are no hard feelings - Robinson retains respect for every club and manager he has played for – and he has taken much from the two Grahams Turner and Taylor, Mark McGhee, Colin Lee and Dave Jones into his post-playing career.

There were of course, plenty of highlights.

A fantastic brace in a televised derby against Birmingham City – “I’m not sure I ever scored two better goals than that” – not to mention, as Wolves head to Leeds on Monday night, a superb assist for Don Goodman in the 1998 FA Cup quarter final win enroute to semi-final defeat against Arsenal.

“Moments like that and games like that are why you play the game,” says Robinson, who still has photographs of those ‘baggy Goodyear shirts’ adorning the wall of his home in Wales.

And what about the team spirit?

A certain former Wolves team-mate – o-k then Matt Murray – recalls with much glee watching good friends Robinson and Keane singing ‘Stevie Bull’s a Tatter’ to the club legend while playfully slapping him around the head.

And there was much merriment around Robinson’s love for his pet rabbit named ‘Fluff’ during his playing days.

“Matt and Robbie used to love that one, they used to call me Fluffhead because of it,” he recalls.

“I will always take away the friendships with my team-mates from those days.

Carl Robinson (Photo courtsey Newcastle Jets)

“Matt, Robbie, Joleon, Lee, George Ndah – the boys that I came through with – and then Simon Osborn, Neil Emblen, Darren Bazeley.

“Everyone has gone on a different journey since those days and different steps in their lives but the one thing we always do is keep in touch.

“I met some wonderful people, team-mates, and worked with some fantastic managers, and the one thing that remained throughout, even with missing out on promotion, was the team spirit.

“It was unbelievable at that time.

“Do you know why I think that was?

“Because as harsh as the Wolves fans could sometimes be, they are an unbelievable group of supporters who get right behind you.

“The Wolves fans would always let you know how they felt, but they really got behind you when you needed them.

“And that is why I think the players were so close together and the spirit was good, because of them.

“What you are seeing now is Wolves doing unbelievably well with new owners and a fantastic manager in Nuno.

“But the team spirit is just the same as what it was there back then.

“They have got better players now because they have more money and the spirit is great and everyone is loving it but Wolves have always had that type of feeling.

“The amazing fans they have now were just the same back in my time.

“There are a few more now and the generation when we played has got a bit older and I am sure their kids and grandkids have become Wolves fans like they do in the Black Country.

“That is why it Is really pleasing now for me to see them where they are.”

Robinson’s career in England actually finished with a game against Wolves, playing as a centre back for Norwich on the final day of the 2005/06 season, the day after which he went out to play under Mo Johnston for Toronto in the MLS.

From there he would gain more experience with New York Red Bulls, where at one point he was lining up alongside Thierry Henry, who after the death of Robinson’s father – which affected him greatly – raised the corner flag to the sky in his memory as part of his goal celebration.

By this stage Robinson was already a player coach, and even in making that first flight across to Canada three years earlier, he was already planning a post-playing future in coaching and management.

Thanks in no small part to Harry Redknapp!

“The point where I first thought I might want to become a manager was when I left Wolves and went to play for Portsmouth,” Robinson recalls.

“I was working under Harry Redknapp, a fantastic man manager and a great person, and I had started the first 13 or 14 games of the season and we were flying at the top of the table.

“Then they went out and signed Tim Sherwood, a tremendous player, but in my position, and he went into the team straightaway.

“Me being me I just got my head down and got on with it, but it got to three or four games on and I was a sub not getting on the pitch and getting more and more frustrated.

“I went to my agent and asked him what to do and he said, ‘just go and see Harry, go and see ‘H’, he’ll be great with you’.

“So I did!

“And that meeting with Harry Redknapp was the first moment when I knew that I wanted to be a manager.

“I had planned what I wanted to say, I had been told what to say and I was ready.

“I was going to say I had done really well for him and ask why I wasn’t playing, what I needed to do to get back in the team, and whether, if I was no longer in his plans, I needed to move on even so soon into my Portsmouth career.

“Straightaway Harry said to me: ‘The coaches love you, the players love you, everyone around the place loves you, you are a great professional and a top player and conduct yourself perfectly’.

“He wasn’t sat across a table from me, he was there next to me with his arm around me, telling me all this.

“What I went in for with Harry was to get some answers – what I came out with was absolutely no answers, but feeling like a million dollars.

“That was his management style, and it just made me think that even if my style was going to be different, I really wanted to work with players in that way and try and have a positive impact on them.”

Robinson’s preparation for coaching and management was not only via completing his qualifications and learning from Redknapp and others he had worked with including those Wolves managers and the likes of Mick McCarthy - when at Sunderland - and John Toshack with Wales.

It was also via copious note-taking, even from being a young player at Wolves when he would listen to other players – including Steve Bull – to discover more about the way positions other than his own worked on the pitch.

Having started out as a coach at Vancouver Whitecaps, he was offered the main job after the departure of Martin Rennie, and the chance to follow in the footsteps of other former Wolves players Les Wilson and Alan Hinton.

But, as he acknowledges, he wasn’t quite sure at first.

“I retired from playing at 34 by which time I had completed my badges and was then an assistant for two years before being offered the job at Vancouver in 2014,” Robinson explains.

“To be honest though, I didn’t want the job because my plan had been to spend around seven years as an assistant.

“But then football can kick you in the teeth sometimes and provide opportunities at others.

“I spoke to a lot of people I had worked for, Hans Backe from New York Red Bulls, Mick McCarthy, John Toshack, and they all said exactly the same thing: ‘You’re ready.’

“Based on that, I took the job, and six years later I will say that they were right!”

Robinson’s four-and-a-half years at Whitecaps were a success, batting above their average when it came to going up against - and living with – high-profile MLS rivals with star names and far bigger budgets.

He departed for internal reasons which, out of respect for Whitecaps, he has declined to reveal, then taking a year away from the game to spend time with wife Laura and football-mad children Lowri Isabella, 18, and Milo Carter, 12 - as well as pursuing even more footballing research - before the Jets came calling.

Robinson took the helm in February, just before the global pandemic took hold, and the results were impressive.

Carl Robinson

Only one defeat in 11, climbing to 8th in the final table, and boasting the best record of the entire A-League since returning after lockdown.

Speaking just days before making the switch from Newcastle to Sydney, Robinson admitted that his first eight months Down Under had gone ‘really well’, perhaps also justifying the decision to take that break to refresh and reboot.

“I had really enjoyed it in Canada with the Whitecaps, but decided to take a break afterwards,” he said.

“I remember as a player I could never understand why managers said they needed a break after a long time in work, but having done the job, I can now see why.

“After four-and-a-half years of constant 7am to 7pm, not just picking the team and coaching the players but also dealing with agents, transfers, salary caps, I think it was time to get to know my family again!

“In the first four months I had three job offers, which I politely declined, but I remember saying to Laura that I wasn’t sure if I was doing the right thing?

“She told me to stick to what I had said and go with the break, and that was right, because I was able to spend some time with my kids, but also keep watching football, and learning.

“Coming towards last October and November time, I made my agent aware that I was keen to start looking again, and two or three different things popped up.

“I really considered the Morocco national team, where former Welsh technical director Osian Roberts is working, and then out of the blue this opportunity at Newcastle Jets came along.

“I had never been to Australia before, so I said that I would come over and pay for my own flight, and if I took the job the club would pay for it, and if I didn’t, then I would!

“I came over and just thought this was different and a good challenge, and I was delighted to take it on.

“The boys were bottom, and people have asked me what we did to improve things and I’d certainly say that I’m not a magician.

“All I did was to quickly get to know the lads both as players and as people, to find out what made them tick based on what I knew they would like and what they could and couldn’t do.

“Every player in the world is always in a different situation regarding their own circumstances, maybe their family or their upbringing, and as well as the tactical knowledge they just want a bit of warmth from their coach and manager.

“They all bought into what we were trying to do, and while sometimes we got it wrong, the majority of time we got it right.

“We ended up winning games, dominating the ball and possession, and being hard to play against, and it worked really well.”

Robinson’s attention to detail and focus on man management and team spirit is clearly a huge strength, whilst building up his CV in different leagues and different continents is also a major plus.

Ask him what a Carl Robinson team looks like, and there isn’t a definitive answer, due to having already had to be flexible and adapt his tactics based on the players at his disposal, the vagaries of each league, and quality of opponents.

So far he has already utilised 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 and 3-4-3 formations at different times, and is not averse to others.

Carl Robinson

Above all else though, he wants his teams to enjoy a dominance of possession, and yet while delighted to hear Fox Sports pundit Mark Bosnich describe the Jets this season as playing ‘total football’, he also has plenty of respect for managers such as Sean Dyche and Roy Hodgson who have worked wonders with different approaches in the Premier League.

Ah, the Premier League! It’s worth mentioning, because Robinson has made no secret of his desire to one day try his luck in one of England’s top divisions, as well as having eyes on applying for the Wales managerial position at some point in the future.

That is for the long term. Although he has switched sides relatively quickly Down Under he said on being unveiled at his new ‘Wanderers’ that it was an opportunity too good to turn down, and he remains firmly focused on achieving success in Australia whilst also being keen to manage in Japan or Korea if the opportunity arises.

It’s a different approach to many young coaches, but demonstrates a creative and exhaustive attitude towards learning his craft which means, should he achieve that ambition of returning home to manage on British soil, he will already have hundreds of games tucked away in the locker.

“British football seems to go through trends with managers in terms of where they come from, and there are some fantastic managers who have gone in to the Premier League and Championship from overseas,” he explains.

“In my mind, I want to manage in the Premier League one day in the future, and I am clear with that.

“Will I get there? I don’t know. Do I want to get there? Yes I do.

“What I do know is that with the fantastic experiences and challenges I have already enjoyed, if an opportunity does come up in the future I will already have had 250 to 300 games as a manager under my belt.

“So there can be no doubts that I will have had the experience, but I understand the question will be whether I have had success?

“I know I was successful in the MLS, and now I am aiming to be successful in Australia, and maybe again in Japan, and by that stage hopefully I will have proved myself in three different countries and two different continents.

“My journey so far has been different to that of many other British coaches, and tactically I think I have learned more about the game from very different viewpoints.

“If that chance does eventually come along, then I know that I will be mentally prepared and I will be physically prepared, and I will be ready.

“And you have to be ready, because at the end of the day there is no guarantee of getting that chance, so if it does come along you have to hit the ground running and make the most of it.”

As mentioned earlier, that Wolves influence is never too far away, with that continuing link-up with the ‘very smart and astute’ Miller.

The two were team-mates for a short time at Molineux, linked up again at Vancouver where Miller notched a brace during Robinson’s first game at the helm, and are now back working together in Australia.

And then there is Corica, celebrating a deserved second successive title with Sydney, albeit with his team having been beaten by Robinson’s Jets back in July.

“I was trying to wind ‘Bimby’ up on the sidelines because I can get quite loud and he has always been fairly measured, right from when he was a player, a very clever footballer,” says Robinson.

“So I start asking him why he was doing this and that and straightaway he just cut me down and told me he wasn’t going to let me get into his head!

“It was just a sign of that locker room spirit we had at Wolves 20 odd years ago – when you walked in there you had to grow up pretty quickly or get left behind.”

And that is exactly what Robinson himself had to do after that early rebuke from Jukes, as a wide-eyed teenager being offered a stark reminder that there was a very long way to go to achieve his dreams.

Sadly Jukes, a Midlands footballing guru responsible for setting so many young players off on the route to a successful career, is no longer with us having passed away at the age of 79 back in 2008.

Those words of wisdom however have endured, and no doubt Jukes would be proud of how one of his young protegees has progressed – ‘young Robbo’ has certainly done alright hasn’t he?

And he still has many more ambitions to pursue…

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