Bryan Robson: I always knew Zico would be a success with Thailand

Gary Koh sits down with Manchester United and England legend Bryan Robson, as he talks about the Red Devils this season, Di Maria's chances of joining the ranks of legends who have donned the No. 7 shirt and Thailand's latest golden generation...

"Most of my furniture back home comes from Courts," Bryan Robson beams at FFT. "Remember to write that down."

'Captain Marvel' is in good spirits despite having touched down in sunny Singapore earlier on Friday morning, and his wit certainly hasn't been diminished by the long flight over.

Capped 90 times by England, Robson also captained his country 65 times – a figure only beaten by the legendary pair of Bobby Moore and Billy Wright. But he is most known for his time at Manchester United, whom he moved to for a then-transfer record fee of £1.5 million. It was money very well spent, as the all-action midfielder won over the Red Devils support in his 13-year stay at Old Trafford.

No wonder then, that he was voted their greatest ever player in a poll of ex-Manchester United players in 1999.

His playing career was followed by various stints in management, notable among them his seven-year term at Middlesbrough (who he guided to two Premier League promotions), keeping West Bromwich Albion in the Premier League after being bottom at Christmas, and two years in charge of Southeast Asian heavyweights Thailand.

But the United legend is in town on the weekend as one of many football icons invited by Courts to help celebrate Singapore's 50th birthday in the coming months. The face is still instantly recognisable, as is the ready smile. Now an ambassador with the club he's come to be associated with, Robson shared his views on United under Louis van Gaal, West Bromwich Albion's managerial revolving door and the return of New Balance...

From a nationally-known club in the United Kingdom to an international global brand, how much have Manchester United evolved off the pitch and what is the main challenge in keeping them as the most recognisable football brand in the world?

Manchester United are an unbelievable commercially-run club, better than any other club in the world. But more than that, to ensure we don’t drop (off the radar), what we need to go along with is results.

The pressure is always on when you are at Manchester United. After Sir Alex Ferguson, people are used to winning things at the club. We need to keep up the success, otherwise people will come in from behind to overtake and compete.

That is why it is so important for the club to need to finish among the Champions Leagues positions this season and compete for the Premiership the next. Otherwise, we lose some of the commercial value and some fans next.

Manchester United are a club renowned for attacking flair, but this season has seen a shift in their approach towards matches. How do you see that change affect their outlook towards matches?

When you look at Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Angel Di Maria, Falcao and Juan Mata, they all can score, create goals and are attack-minded. When Louis van Gaal plays three at the back, the full-backs are always in very advanced positions.

Thus you cannot say they are not attack-minded when you have wingers Ashley Young and Antonio Valencia playing at wing-back.

Furthermore, United for whatever reasons have had unbelievable circumstances with the injuries they had in the first part of the season. Now we have a fully fit squad, so we are going to find out what formation and players Louis prefers and doesn’t like.

The 7 shirt is a sacred number which only a select group of Manchester United players in George Best, yourself, Eric Cantona, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo have donned with such distinction. Will the present wearer, Angel Di Maria, be able to live up to high expectations associated with the number?

I have seen him play with Real Madrid and when he first came to United where he had an outstanding six, seven games before he was injured. Since coming back, he has not been right at the top of his form, but he has shown enough in his first few games that he is going to be an outstanding player for United.

How much time do you believe Louis van Gaal need to turn things around at Manchester United and restore the club to their former glory days?

He has done outstandingly well with Ajax Amsterdam, Bayern Munich and FC Barcelona. He needs time to turn like Sir Alex had when he first came. He can get very close to getting the success Sir Alex has.

What the coach actually does in the background, if the club sees there’s improvement, then there’s patience. The club can see what he is trying to do around the place and turn things around the way he wants it to be. I am impressed with that. If they are impressed, they will have patience with him and give him the time he needs to get things right.

He’s already given the kids a chance like Paddy McNair, Tyler Blackett and James Wilson. He’s not afraid to throw young players in at the deep end and those players have done well so far.

His signings just before the season started have helped improve the team and United have the money to spend further. I will be disappointed if we don’t make good signings in the summer to challenge Manchester City and Chelsea, be a lot closer and give them a good fight for the league title.

Why have West Bromwich Albion chosen to appoint Tony Pulis who has a proven track record in the top flight only now after enduring a couple of managerial flops?

Tony Pulis’ record is very good for teams like West Brom where he keeps them in the division (as he has previously done with Stoke City and Crystal Palace). That’s what the chairman (Jeremy Peace) is looking at. It doesn’t surprise me that West Brom have had a lot of managers over the years because I know the chairman.

As soon as the team is struggling the slightest bit, it’s his style to move the incumbent on and appoint another to take his place.

(Recounting how he steered the club where he started out as a player to top-flight safety having endured bottom at the mid-point of the 2004-5 season) Everybody at West Brom still calls it the Great Escape. It was a fantastic day for me when we beat Portsmouth. Hopefully Tony Pulis can do that this season where he keeps the club in the Premiership. They are a good club with great followers who deserve to be in the league.

Will you say the West Brom chairman’s insistence on having the continental system of a technical or football director above the manager affected the last few managers at the club?

A lot of English coaches don’t like that system. They are used to selecting, selling and buying their own players, and will be judged on results. The continental coaches aren’t used to it. When you have a football director who is buying and selling with the chairman, it’s not something many managers want to take on. You want to be judged by your decision-making with the players you have chosen.

Many recently retired footballers have had the best of worlds these days once they hang up their boots, like taking up media punditry work and endorsing commercial brands. It is a far cry from your generation and earlier ones where many ended up going into coaching or management once they were done with their active careers. Are you envious of the plentiful opportunities provided for them?

It is down to different individuals. Some ex-players really like the media side, like the TV work. Others like to coach, so they do the coaching badges. Because of the media and how it is worldwide now, there are a lot of opportunities for former players to go into the TV side and there isn’t the stress of management. When players are looking now when they finish their careers, there are so many options available.

You look at the media now, which is different from what I had after I just finished playing for Manchester United in 1994 where there were only a couple of channels I could work for. Now there are so many dedicated football channels, the opportunities are massive, but for me then, it was a stage where I was not ready to give up football or football management. Thus I went to Middlesborough and after 12 years as manager, I thought it would be timely for me to do ambassadorial work for United.

You were once the head coach of Thailand, so do you still follow the War Elephants’ fortunes, particularly in last month’s triumphant Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup?

I still follow them. I have said to a few people that I like Zico (Kiatisuk Senamuang), who is the present coach. I brought him into the set-up, and would have liked him to be with us all the time as the first-team coach. I liked the way he trained players and he spoke perfect English, which was very helpful for me. But he wanted to enhance his coaching abilities by going overseas, so unfortunately he left [after a while].

I always said to (Football Association of Thailand president and FIFA Executive Committee member) Worawi Makudi that Zico should be the head coach after I leave Thailand. This is how much I respect him. He’s done a great job by bringing through so many young players into the national team. He is obviously very disciplined but he knows what he is doing on the training pitch. That’s why Thailand have been so successful in the AFF Suzuki Cup.

Thailand succeeded without the services of top striker Teerasil Dangda, a player whom you once coached in the national team and is now playing in Europe with Spanish side Almeria. What do you make of his breakthrough into one of the toughest top-flights in the world?

He is a very skilful and good player and I always felt he could go on and do well in the European league. I haven’t really followed him on how well he is doing in Spain. But what he is doing has enhanced Thai players to be able to go abroad if he does well there.

You were once an endorser of New Balance football boots during your playing days. With the likes of Nike, Adidas and Puma dominating the football gear market, do you foresee New Balance being able to make a triumphant return to football next year?

New Balance can challenge anybody. With basketball shoes and running shoes, they are always among the best throughout the world. The owner of the brand (present Liverpool FC owner J. W. Henry) is very wealthy and his brand can compete with the giants. It’s just actually getting back into the football market and getting a stamp of authority. They can do really well.