UPON being appointed as City's first team manager Neil Adams announced that club coaches Mark Robson and Paul Nevin would be joining him as assistants for the remainder of the 2013-14 Premier League season.
Robson, a former professional footballer himself with over 240 appearances to his name, boasts a fine footballing CV. The London native enjoyed a first-team management experience at Barnet before joining the FA as part of England's youth development staff.
Mark Robson credits a famous name from Norwich City’s past with setting him on the road that led to his recent appointment as the man tasked with moulding the next generation of Canaries.
Robson has a key role within the club’s ambitious academy as the new development chief responsible for bridging that chasm from talented teen to first team player. The 44-year-old has vast coaching experience to draw on in the Football League and with the FA in his quest to smooth the transition of players like Josh and Jacob Murphy, but Norwich’s League Cup winning manager Ken Brown was also a formative influence in fuelling his passion for teaching.
“I’ve been very fortunate to work with some great managers and coaches,” says the likeable Robson. “I was at Tottenham with Terry Venables and he is obviously re-known throughout the world and he was also a very good man-manager, but I will never forget the time I spent with Ken Brown. I went to Plymouth on loan as a teenager and Ken was the manager and he was fantastic. He just let you go and play as a young player. I was only there a couple of months but I loved it and I know what Ken means to this club and the people here and I know his son very well, I played with Kenny. Just recently I worked with Darren Ferguson as well (at Peterborough) and I was very impressed with him in the two years I had. He is a top coach and I am very confident he will be a top manager. It didn’t quite work at Preston but they had a lot of managers in a short space of time during that period so it was probably the wrong time, but his coaching is first class.”
Robson revealed he turned down offers to cut his growing ties with the FA before being enticed back into a club environment with the Canaries.
“Yes, I was working at the FA and I just felt I needed that bit more hands on role in terms of coaching,” he says. “I’d had a couple of opportunities to go to other clubs but I sort of refused and then I had a call from Ricky (Martin) for this one and I just had a real feel for it. I sat down and had a chat with him and I could see it was a great club, a friendly club and with some very exciting players who had won the FA Youth Cup last season.
“I’ve only been here a short period but first impressions are very good. I have looked at not just the development group but below that and there is real talent. It was a no brainer for me. It is an exciting time to be involved. First and foremost I will look after the Under-21s, but it is a good opportunity to see what is happening at the younger age groups. I feel it is good to familiarise yourself with those in the system lower down because that will make life much easier in the future.”
Robson knows the pitfalls faced by young men under his tutelage better than anyone after a playing career that spanned clubs such as Tottenham, West Ham and Charlton was cut short by injury.
“I knew when I finished I wanted to go in this direction and I had to finish early through a bad knee injury at 29. I had to call it a day so I slipped into it because I got an opportunity to work at Charlton,” he said. “I had always wanted to be on the coaching side. I was probably about 18, had just started at Tottenham, and I had a younger brother who was around about nine and I was asked if I would go along and help out with his team. I wasn’t sure but I said I would go for a week or two and I loved it. I really enjoyed it. It went from a couple of weeks to being involved all the time and then right through my career I was always working away on that side. I took my brother’s team and a local non league’s under-18 side at Aveley while I was still playing at Charlton. Every club I was at I always did some work at their school of excellence.”
Robson’s development role with Norwich is a recognition of his impressive coaching work at youth and professional level which culminated in a recent stint at the FA after leaving a first team coaching post at Barnet.
“I left Barnet around Christmas time and I got asked to work with the England under-17s for a tournament for ten days. I really enjoyed it and it brought back a lot of those memories of working with younger age groups,” he says. “That was one of the reasons I took a job with the FA in a tutoring role to mentor fellow coaches to try and produce better coaches. That really appealed to me in terms of giving something back but as I said before I wasn’t hands on enough. That is what I am used to and the opportunity to work with the under-21s means I will focus on that group in between. They come out of the youth team and they are trying to push on for the seniors and in the past it has been a bit of a no-man’s land. Now with the development structure in place the path is better; I think that is key because there has always been a gap because coming out of the youth team and then becoming a professional where they never got that development they needed.”
Robson talks with an authority and an enthusiasm that must only inspire and empowerment is one of his core beliefs.
“I think you can improve any player with coaching but the really talented players of course you have to treat them perhaps in a different way,” he says. “What is good for one might not be the case for another. You have to find the right things that pull their strings, to make them ask questions. I want their thoughts and I want to get them to give me the answers, rather than me feeding them. That way they learn quicker. There is always something in their game that a good coach can identify and bring out and it might be that one thing makes them click.
“We have some fantastic coaches and players in this country from all age groups and I do believe it is only going to get better. A lot of the FA coaching modules now people are raving about them and we will reap the benefits of that down the line because they will produce coaches who are more creative and capable of making their own decisions instead of us telling them what to do all the time.”
The Londoner is perhaps also uniquely placed to offer an insight into the debate over the direction of the game in this country and the perceived tensions in the relationship between the FA and the top clubs.
“Working with the FA for a short period of time I can see things are changing,” he says. “They are being driven by Dan Ashworth and Trevor Brooking and the particular group I was involved with had some very talented people who I know are going to help the young players of the future. I’m really confident that we will start to see the fruits of that in a few years time. There has always seemed to be a bit of suspicion in the past from clubs to any intervention from the FA. I’m very open to the FA and I feel clubs are starting to change their view. They definitely need to work together because both the FA and the clubs want to produce their own players so that our country becomes a nation we are proud of and not disappointed at every tournament. I have seen the changes starting to take place and you only have to look at other nations who have tried this and the benefits they are reaping now.”
City’s new development coach knows whatever his methods, success will be easy to gauge.
“Trying to produce players for the first team; that is the target. I want to be able to go to the manager and say, ‘Here is one, I think he is ready’,” says Robson. “It is tough to produce players to operate in the Premier League. You see the two Murphy twins, they are getting their opportunities, one played in the Premier League at Manchester City and scored a great goal earlier this season in the Capital One Cup. The opportunities are there at this club if they are good enough. It is hard, but that is the game. You have to be the best and you have to work hard to get there and that is something I will be preaching to the players.
“Of course you want to do well in games. I am a winner, I don’t like losing but the focus is on producing players and if you win games then that is an indication things are going right, but the main thing is to try and produce players for the first team. They don’t always make your first team, but if they are not quite good enough for the Premier League you want them to go off and play in the leagues lower down and have good careers.”