Massachussetts-based Charlton fan DOUG CHAPMAN caught up with one of The Valley's modern heroes in Florida, for VOTV141.
“All-in!” That simple description may be the best way to describe Charlton Athletic legend John Robinson. Whether it is family, football or business, the former wide man is always “all-in”.
“I take whatever I am doing very seriously, and I am going to give everything that I have into it,” said Robinson, 46, tanned and fit enough to still run the wing at The Valley. “If it becomes work, then it is time to move on and do something else.”
Charlton fans would be hard-pressed to name a player that worked any harder than Robinson, whose playing career included two promotions to the Premier League during his 11 seasons in SE7. He was always very popular with supporters, who appreciated his 100 per cent efforts, win, lose or draw.
“I’m 100 per cent in, or nothing,” said Robinson, who was elected to the Charlton hall of fame in 2017, along with Eddie Firmani and Charlie Vaughan.
Robinson’s current attention is focused on the Elite Soccer Academy SWFL, his own academy, located in Fort Myers, Florida. After helping set up three other clubs and see them grow to more than 40 teams, he decided it was time to do it for himself. And unsurprisingly, his academy is doing very well on Florida’s Gulf Coast.
“In 2009 I moved my family to America as I wanted a change of lifestyle for them and the opportunity to experience living somewhere else in the world,” he said. “I always knew that youth soccer was very popular in America. I had my own camps in England for 10 years and I wanted to start them over here, to bring my experiences and see if I could help improve the game wherever I ended up.”
Before getting into where Robinson is, it is important to revisit where he came from.
He was born in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. His father’s job in the services moved the family to Durban, South Africa, where his talent first began to emerge.
Just like he moved his family to America to give his children a new experience, Robinson’s family relocated to Sussex with the hope of giving his interest in football a better chance to flourish. He was the first player from the Bobby Charlton Soccer School to become a successful professional. But the road was not always smooth. The young star was released by Portsmouth and Reading.
“They said I wasn’t good enough, but effectively they were telling me that I was too small,” recalled Robinson. “It is traumatic to be told that you aren’t wanted, to be cut loose as a youth player with nowhere to go, and no one to help you.”
The “all-in” Robinson was not about to give in, or give up. Fortunately, he got a break that he would make the most of. Brighton & Hove Albion youth coach Ted Streeter saw him play for about 15 minutes against his team for Portsmouth. He talked Seagulls manager Barry Lloyd into signing Robinson, sight unseen.
“Barry Lloyd said to me ‘this may be the only piece of luck that you may get in life. Take it with two hands or you will regret it for the rest of your life’,” said Robinson. “I grabbed it. In order to sign me they had to release another youth player who had been with them for a few years. What they did, to give me an opportunity, was not easy.”
Robinson came up through the ranks at Brighton. The youth team’s duties included working as “boot boys” for the older players. Young Robinson began what would be a long and fruitful association with his senior professional – Alan Curbishley.
“We had to clean boots, pick up jockstraps, clean up after the senior players,” he said. “I cleaned Curbs’ boots at the age of 16. We did it for £32 per week. But I got to play with Curbs. Then he went to Charlton, and the rest is history.”
Robinson’s five greatest thrills during his Charlton career:
“I was driving when I received the phone call informing me that I had been selected for the Charlton hall of fame,” he said. “I pulled off to the side of the road. At first, I thought one of my old teammates was playing a joke on me. Then I got a text with a notice. I cried. It meant that much to me.”
Many Addicks will be surprised that Robinson’s late, equalising goal in a 3-3 “win” over Manchester United at a raucous Valley in December 2000 was not among his five greatest Charlton memories.
“No, not at all. Curbs had dropped me, and I wasn’t too happy about it at the time. I came on as a sub and scored. Supporters may remember that I went behind the net and made that run after scoring,” he said, laughing at the memory. “That was for Curbs, who knew me to a tee. He knew the reaction that I would have. I was telling him, ‘see that… and you dropped me’. I should have been on from the start.”
Robinson was signed from Brighton for £75,000, as a replacement for Robert Lee, who had gone to Newcastle United for a then club-record £700,000 fee. He felt no added pressure replacing the former Valley turnstile operator and best player.
“Robert Lee was sold to help to get the club back to The Valley,” he said. “Everyone was aware of that. Charlton were desperate for the money.”
Robinson was also desperate for a chance to play for Curbs. And, like Barry Lloyd had once told him, he was prepared to grab it with both hands.
“When we were at Brighton, Curbs saw me train, saw my work habits and knew what my character was,” said Robinson. “It was a great honour to be his signing, because he knew me so well. He and the directors had a vision of what they wanted the club to be. The Valley was the vision. That was made very clear to me. It was up to the players to bring enough success to get us back. The directors had that vision. The supporters all had that vision. Everyone dug down deep, and was often willing to do more with less, to make that vision a reality.”
Even though Charlton were still nomads when Robinson came on board, he looks back on it as being a great time to be an Addick. Not the Portakabins at The Valley. But the spirit, togetherness towards a common goal.
“Curbs and the directors built the club,” Robinson said. “Everyone was answerable to their own areas, stayed in their own channels. That is how it should be. Curbs looked at the character of the players, not just their abilities, exactly as Alex Ferguson did at Man United. Curbs investigated players’ backgrounds, their character, their habits before they became Charlton players.”
Robinson also appreciated the club’s all-for-one – and one-for-all – spirit, singling out Curbishley and former chief executive Peter Varney, who arrived in 1997, for setting the tempo.
“There were so many quality people at Charlton, from the directors to the players and the staff. People genuinely cared for each other beyond the football. If you were buying a house for the first time, getting married, having your first child, everyone seemed to care and those who could would help. We were all in it together, and the supporters were right there with us.”
Robinson won Charlton’s player of the year award in 1996. He earned 30 caps for Wales and was the 2000 Wales footballer of the year, succeeding such stars as Ryan Giggs and Mark Hughes.
When Curbishley told him his first-team place was under threat after 332 league appearances and 35 league goals in the summer of 2003, Robinson sought a new challenge and linked up with former Charlton manager Lennie Lawrence at Cardiff City.
“I was very fortunate because Lennie, just like Curbs, was always honest with you,” he said. “It seemed the right move at the time.”
But commuting, and being away from his family, were more of a strain on him than the football. John Robinson was no longer “all-in”, and he knew what he had to do. He asked for his release.
“I went to (Cardiff owner) Sam Hamman, and asked to have my contract cancelled, and to be released,” said Robinson. “I was on good money. Very good money. Better money than I had ever got at Charlton. But it had become a job. I was away from my family too much.
“Sam couldn’t believe it. Players often ask for transfers, but he said I was the first to ask that my contract be cancelled.
“I could have gone through the motions, sat on the bench and collected my wages. But that isn’t me. It’s not what I am about.”
Robinson did a deal with Andy Hessenthaler’s Gillingham, in order to be closer to his family. But after four appearances in 2004, he again asked for his release.
“I was probably shielded from the real world at Charlton. There you were given the chance to be the best footballer possible and not worry about anything else. When I came out of that special environment I found a different reality, where some players might not get picked because it could trigger a bonus clause in a contract or transfer fee, and managers feared for their jobs.
“I could have played on, but I couldn’t do that without being 100 per cent committed and deprive someone else, who would be wholehearted and ambitious, of the chance. I didn’t fall out of love with playing football, but with the politics of football and becoming a commodity.”
Robinson briefly played non-league football for Crawley Town and Lewes in 2005. He also turned down a chance to play for the New York/New Jersey MetroStars in the fledgling Major League Soccer in America, wary of its coast-to-coast travel and what that would mean to his family.
With his playing days behind him, he went into the property business with former Cardiff teammate Martyn Margetson and also got involved running football camps and academies.
When Robinson moved his family to America, he had a plan but no specifics. He used his expertise to help others set up successful soccer academies before he decided to take the plunge and bet on himself. And as much by chance as anything else, he ended up in Southwest Florida: “It is a really cool place to live,” he said. “The weather is great, there is so much to do and downtown Fort Myers has experienced a renaissance.”
The Boston Red Sox spring training baseball complex and JetBlue Park is located only a couple of miles away from the Sherman Soccer Complex, home of Robinson’s Elite Soccer Academy SWFL.
Robinson is “all-in” at his academy, which he wants to be as affordable as possible, instead of just a “cash cow”, which is the unfortunate reality of the industry in America.
“I believe in being completely up-front and honest with the parents about what it takes for their kids to reach their goals,” he says. “I want us to be honest and transparent. I want it to be a great experience.”
Elite Soccer Academy’s philosophy is to focus mainly on tournament play, as well as competing in the US Club State Cup. The approach allows for a greater focus on training between tournaments, providing families with more palatable scheduling.
Robinson has also had success placing his players in college programmes, partnering with Sports Recruiting USA (SRUSA), the world’s largest college recruitment agency. In a relatively short amount of time, his graduates have earned $1.5 million in college scholarships.
Robinson says he would like to get English clubs involved with SRUSA, so youth players that do not make the grade have some guidance and direction on where they could play next.
In a couple of respects, Robinson is swimming against the soccer tide in America. It is not holding him back.
Licences are required by the United States Soccer Federation to coach at different levels.
“Imagine saying to David Beckham that he could not coach in a youth tournament because he does not have a licence,” said Robinson. “But someone who paid a fee, took a few classes and passed a test could coach in that tournament?
“I am not against coaching licences per se, because for some they can be of value. But so can playing for the biggest clubs, and the best managers in the world.”
With the United States failing to qualify for Russia 2018, America’s youth soccer system is undergoing a great deal of scrutiny. Robinson has a lot to say on the subject, and he is hopeful significant change will be coming.
“America produces great athletes, but not great soccer players. Why is that? Why does each of the states play by different sets of rules on how their tournaments operate. Their leagues are like (England’s) Sunday leagues, but are not run as well. There is too much emphasis on games, and not enough on training, consistent training schedules and improving. High school and college soccer are not organised to produce great players. Things need to change here.”
Robinson’s academy already offers a number of the changes that he advocates so that his players can reach their potential.
And if they are looking for a role model of an honest player who always gave his best, Charlton supporters could tell them they need look no further than John Robinson, who remains “all-in”, all these years later.
This is the main part of a feature interview with John Robinson that appeared in VOTV141 (February 2018). That 30th anniverary issue can still be ordered via the back issues page. To order the new issue, VOTV142, published on March 17th, 2018, please see below.