Karl Robinson is not always easy to love; he’s an ebullient character who loves to talk. Like the bloke in the pub who is really fun to be around at first, but then tries to instigate games of strip Monopoly at 4 in the morning when you’re trying to get to sleep on the sofa.
A typical Liverpudlian, he wears his heart on his sleeve and wants people to know how much he cares. I don’t have the same aversion to Liverpool that other Oxford United fans have and their the faux outrage of missing out on a UEFA Cup campaign in 1986. But, I can see how the scouse character grates with some Oxford fans, looking back we’ve always preferred the more considered, cerebral managers like Maurice Evans or Michael Appleton.
But, incompetent he is not; put aside the toxicity of the MK Dons brand and you see a lot of success – promotion to the Championship and a League Cup win over Manchester United – then at Charlton in a difficult environment, he steered them to the edge of the play-offs. In that sense, he’s not dissimilar to Michael Appleton; cutting his teeth on difficult jobs before arriving here.
Appleton fell on his feet at Oxford; he was given time, money and support to turn the club around. Robinson has not had the same stable platform to work from, but assuming we do secure a mid-table finish; he’s still delivered a reasonable result despite, not because of the environment he’s in.
I think there is another layer to Robinson that peeks out from time to time and which is a rare quality in a football person. There are many football autobiographies which reveal how being in the game destroys any love for it. Politics, rivalry and jealousy overwhelms people, extinguishes the joy of the game. It turns people into mercenaries. Robinson, despite the batterings he’s received from the game, not only does he recognises that as unpleasant as it is inside football, for fans on the outside it, the appeal remains.
Robinson has been at pains to impress his responsibility in managing the club. He’s under no illusions about how long he might stay, or that he’ll ultimately be another grain of sand in the beach of Oxford’s history. But while he is in position, he has a responsibility to protect the history of the club and, hopefully, improve it in preparation for the next incumbent.
I’ve not heard a manager talk like that before. Typically, managers want to be recognised for what they achieve, respected for the work they do, they need their own brand to be enhanced. It makes them less interested in their host club. Robinson recognises a responsibility to something bigger than him that will last much longer. I said back during the celebrations for the 125th anniversary, the maintenance of the club’s spirit is crucial. If you let it die, you’ll never get it back. Robinson seems to understand that.
Furthermore, he’s keen to see that philosophy promoted to the players in his charge. The idea to invite James Constable and Joey Beauchamp to train with the first team was a masterstroke. It can be more than a flaccid PR stunt, it promotes the idea that if you work hard and play well for the club, then not only can you progress into higher leagues, you can leave a legacy in the way Beauchamp and Constable have. That might not be important when you’re virile and in your early 20s, but there will be a time when you’re not; leaving your mark when you can gains value when your body won’t deliver any more and ambition is replaced by realism.
Robinson isn’t as refined as Michael Appleton; if we lose a game, he’s prone to reflecting on what went wrong – which is perceived as laying blame. Appleton, looked at what went wrong and projected them forward as things to improve on. Robinson might say ‘We weren’t ruthless enough’ where Appleton would say ‘We need to be more ruthless’. The switch to from past tense to future tense, changes everything.
But Robinson is too quick, words tumble from his mouth. He’s at pains to support the club he’s at, to protect not only its reputation, but the people in it. He’s been protective of the owners and Niall McWilliams when he’d have every right to not be. He seems very conscious of the impact that the non-payment of salaries had on the staff at the club. In short, I think he genuinely cares for the club and people in it. And that’s all you can ask for.
As infuriating as he can be, underneath is a capable and compassionate man. It’s still questionable as to whether the club will find the stability it needs, and it’s possible that Robinson will not survive as it does, but I genuinely hope that isn’t the case. I appreciate his philosophy and work he puts in, accept he has flaws as we all do, but ultimately I hope he succeeds for himself as well as for us.