Michael Robinson: The English Voice of Spanish Football

(The original version of this article appeared in Issue 17 of the Football Pink Magazine in August 2017.)

By Dan Parry

For the past 30 years, one of the most important voices in Spanish football has been the peculiar English accent of ex-Liverpool striker, Michael Robinson. After a successful playing career in England, Robinson moved to Spain in the late 80’s -and never left.
Since retiring as a player, he has had an extraordinary career as a commentator and respected journalist in his adopted country. Along the way he has revolutionised the way football is presented on Spanish television screens.

Born in Leicester, raised in Blackpool and a die-hard Liverpool fan, Robinson began his professional playing career in 1976 at his hometown’s local rivals, Second Division side Preston North End.

The young striker impressed so much during his time at PNE that in 1979 the then Manchester City manager Malcolm Allison spent £750,000 on Robinson, making him the most expensive teenage signing in British history at that point. At City, Robinson failed to deal with the expectations that came with the fee, scoring just 8 goals in his 30 appearances.

The next season, Robinson found himself sold to south-coast club Brighton and Hove Albion at a reduced price. Without the pressure and the price-tag that hung over him at City, he rebuilt his career. In a 3-year stint at Brighton, Robinson re-established his reputation as he scored 37 goals in 113 games.

It was also during this period that he made his debut as a Republic of Ireland international -the call up made possible thanks to an Irish grandmother. He accumulated a total of 24 caps and 6 goals for the Irish national team.

In his last season at Brighton he helped them reach the 1983 FA Cup final. He shone as Brighton held Manchester United 2-2, before being roundly defeated 4-0 in the replay. Although Brighton were relegated that season, Robinson’s performances earned him a move to his boyhood club, Liverpool FC.

His sole season at Liverpool was one of mixed fortunes. He won a league title and a European Cup winners medal, but was unable to impose himself and struggled with the superior competition for places.

The incredible form of Ian Rush and Kenny Dalglish meant that he was mostly limited to making appearances from the bench. After the signing of Paul Walsh in 1984, Robinson realised that his chances of pushing himself into the first-team equation would be even slimmer.

He went to manager Joe Fagan and asked to be transferred. He wanted to play regular football and did not want to end up resenting the club that he loved so dearly if he could not achieve it there.

Fagan, determined to keep a player of Robinson’s honest character around the club, originally resisted the request. Eventually he gave in and Robinson was granted a move to London when Liverpool accepted a bid from QPR.

He spent two seasons at QPR. They survived relegation in his first season, and in 1986 they reached the League Cup final where they were defeated 3-0 by Oxford United.
The moderate success aside, Robinson realised that he would not be able to keep himself content as a QPR player. He longed for the days of success he had at Liverpool but knew that his time at the top of the game was over.

Subsequently, he decided to send his career in a different direction altogether, and asked to be transferred to a foreign club. Having always considered himself to be something of an intellectual, he desired a move abroad so that he could learn a new language and experience a different culture.

Robinson played half an injury-dogged season before he was sold to CA Osasuna in January 1987. Osasuna are the premier club of Pamplona, a city in the North of Spain and capital of the province of Navarre.

The story goes that Robinson was at his favourite London bar when QPR manager Jim Smith rang him. Smith informed Robinson that a Spanish club called Osasuna wanted to sign him. Robinson returned home, took out a map of Spain and began searching for the city of Osasuna…

He couldn’t find it but signed for the club anyway and left the U.K on the next flight out. The story goes that on the following day, upon returning to the hotel after his first training session, he asked his wife what she thought of Osasuna as a city. She told him that city was called Pamplona, but the club was called Osasuna.

He enjoyed a fruitful period at the club, his physical style of play and aerial prowess made him a real asset in a league more accustomed to silky and technical players. He played three seasons at Osasuna scoring 12 goals in 59 games.

Unfortunately, his time in Pamplona was also plagued with injuries. He retired at just 31 years of age due to a problem that left him with a hinge in his knee.

A mark of the character and honesty that made him so popular, Robinson forfeited the pay for the final year of his contract. Knowing that he would be incapable of playing, he chose not to see out his contract stuck on a physio’s bench, and asked for no compensation. He thought it would lack dignity to allow the club to pay his wages if he could not play.

This is one of the many examples of generous and candid behaviour that have made Robinson such a favourite with Spanish fans, as both a player and a pundit. For example, he once spoke of an occasion when his coach at Osasuna asked him to dive during an upcoming match, the referee was known for giving soft penalties.

Robinson refused and told the manager that penalties are given for being fouled, not for just any kind of contact, and that any further demands of that sort would result in a transfer request, from both him and teammate, Sammy Lee.

Away from the pitch, Robinson immersed himself in Spanish culture. He often states how grateful he is that when he first arrived at Osasuna nobody could string together more than a few words in English, thus forcing him to become fluent in Castillian Spanish.

Robinson’s willingness to assimilate was greatly appreciated by the Spanish public and it has been a key part of his success as a commentator.

Robinson returned to the UK briefly after reitiring but found that he missed Spain more whilst he was in England than he had ever missed England whilst he had been in Spain. So, he returned to Spain and embarked upon his extraordinary career as a commentator and journalist.

Robinson’s initial forays into the commentating world came in the 1989/90 season when he called English First Division matches for Eurosport. His big break, however, came during the 1990 World Cup in Italy when Robinson was employed by the Spanish state broadcasting corporation RTVE (Radio Television Española) to commentate over all the games from England’s group.

This period was fundamental in his development as a commentator and journalist. His interactions with the fans at the tournament drove his desire, as a reporter, to portray what occurs away from the pitch and in the stands. He proved to be a huge hit with the audiences. His British wit and comical accent made him instantly recognisable and extremely popular.

Robinson’s accent and personality also lent itself well to the radio where he helped kickstart a late-night sports show called ‘El Larguero’ (The Crossbar) in 1989. In the season after the World Cup, he moved to the newly-formed TV station Canal Plus where he became a regular co-commentator for all their live football broadcasts.

In addition to this, Robinson took on on duties as co-host of the Monday night highlights show El Dia Después (The Day After) after regular tactical analyst Jorge Valdano left the show to become the manager of CD Tenerife. It became one of the most beloved shows on TV and helped cement Robinson’s place as Spain’s favourite foreigner.

The show aired on a Monday night from 8pm to 9:30pm. Initially, Robinson feared that the show would flop due to its awkward time slot, the late Sunday night kick-offs of La Liga rendered a Sunday show impossible to produce. He thought that after the weekend was over nobody would want to watch a football highlights show if everybody already knew the results.

Nevertheless, Robinson and his team were given a substantial amount of creative freedom and manufactured a show that highlighted more than just the football that had been played. The programme also concentrated on the bizarre and humorous events that had unfolded over the weekend.

Usually, these moments were shown on one of the programme’s most popular segments, Lo Que el Ojo No Ve (What the Eye Doesn’t See).

In this section, Michael and his co-hosts narrated funny interactions between players, curious behaviour demonstrated by fans and heart-warming moments such as a player giving his coat to a mascot in the rain.

Although the show went through many changes in personnel, Robinson was a mainstay and directed it for 15 years until it was cancelled in 2005 -it made a Robinson-less comeback in 2009.

After the demise of EDD, Robinson spent two years doing basic punditry work on TV and radio before returning with a new show in 2007 named Informe Robinson (Robinson Report).

It is a monthly documentary-style show which contains many similarities in format to EDD, but instead of concentrating on recent football matches it investigates interesting stories from the sport world. He directs and presents the show which is now in its eleventh season.

Robinson also returned to the world of radio presenting a show called Acento Robinson which, in a similar vein to Informe, looks at encouraging stories from within sports, the show’s tag-line is ‘the human side of sport’.

Over the years, Robinson has managed to transition from commentator/presenter to journalist. In fact, it could be said that his style, in essence, is based around the idea that a commentator/presenter can be an inquisitive journalist at the same time.

He has been fairly scathing in his criticism of the British television due to its failure to amalgamate these two sides of the football broadcasting industry. In the past, he has criticised Match of the Day in particular, for the way it treats its ex-professional ‘football experts’ like unquestionable deities.

He even questioned Gary Lineker’s role stating that he should be replaced by a journalist who wouldn’t be afraid to challenge the ‘three dodgy verbs’ used by Alan Hanson or Mark Lawrenson.

Robinson claims that these types of shows have become too deferential to ex-players, overly-complicated and too serious. In his opinion, the only British football show that came closest to capturing the heart of football and what it means for a fan was the Baddiel and Skinner show from the late 90’s.

Without a doubt, Robinson’s approach to his own shows has been heavily influenced by his own personal politics. He is an open labour supporter whose views were shaped by his northern upbringing and his experiences living through Thatcher’s governments in the 70’s and 80’s.

In an article published by Publico, he stated that football has been ‘kidnapped by rampant capitalism’. His shows contain a contrarian streak and Robinson relishes going against what he perceives as the establishment or the accepted way of doing something. He often says that the goal of his programmes is to return football back to the fans and give it its soul back.

Throughout the entirety of his career as a both a pundit and a footballer, Robinson has always shown a willingness to stand up for what he believes is right, even if it lands him in hot water.

On many occasions Robinson has been both lauded and vilified for his polarising comments. For instance, during Euro 2012, Robinson drew the ire of many Irishmen when he claimed that Ireland had no chance of defeating Spain, likening the tie to Muhammed Ali fighting a dwarf.

This was typical Robinson: controversial, slightly cruel but brutally honest. Moreover, when asked who he would be supporting at the tournament he admitted to hoping that Spain would win. He justified this by saying that, for the sake of football, kids had to watch a team that played with the ball at their feet win a major tournament.

Robinson’s impact is abundantly evident in the Spanish football TV industry. Football panel shows are regular, they are normally hosted by a journalist, and contain a wide variety of guests. It is not uncommon to find fans, referees and even comedians given a platform alongside ex-players and coaches.

Robinson has been in Spain for 30 years now. His signature accent remains unchanged -the conspiracy is that he is sent back to England every year so he doesn’t lose it- and his love and passion for the game remain undiminished.

As a reporter/presenter, he still contains an extraordinary ability entertain his audiences with his sharp wit, and as a journalist he continues to churn out fascinating topical programmes.

Robinson has spoken of feeling ‘as though he was born to communicate’. For the past 30 years he has communicated to Spanish football fans, and through his work he has made fans an important character in an industry that, at times, openly avoids them.