Michael Robinson had a big heart and loved telling stories. He told stories on the telly, he told stories on the radio and he told stories every time you were with him. Warm, funny, human stories. Endlessly. He could talk and talk, though he listened too. You couldn’t meet him for lunch and get back before dinner. He loved football but above all he loved people, good people. The game, which he understood and communicated better than anyone – an explanation of on-field “reference points” lingers in the mind, a moment’s revelation – was the excuse for everything else, he said.
The problem with that is it suggested he wasn’t good at the game, which is what he tended to suggest too. Ian Rush was a genius who made him look good, he would say: all he had to do was nod the ball on, any old place, and it would magically become the perfect assist. As if that was easy. Not just anyone joins Liverpool, where he would play in goal in training – Cat, they called him – and stand outside the toilet reading the programme to Kenny Dalglish on match days. Where he managed to go to West Ham and score a hat-trick and get sent off in the same game in the pouring rain.
One day early on when things weren’t going well and when Robinson doubted himself, convinced he would be dropped and probably for ever, Joe Fagan called him to the boot room. Fagan told him “my wife likes you” and said he would start the following Saturday. He scored and by the end of the 1983-84 season had a league and League Cup medal. In the European Cup final in Rome, he replaced Dalglish. He was proud of that: Liverpool were the team he supported as a boy in Blackpool, where his parents ran a guest house, and the club he felt as his.
Yet the days he remembered most fondly came in 1983 when Brighton, “a bunch of mates”, went to Wembley for the FA Cup final. Along with Graeme Souness, Steve Foster was his closest friend, a “beautiful man” in Michael’s words. Even Smith-must-score not scoring that day against Manchester United didn’t ruin it for them. A replay was a good thing: the way Michael saw it, they never, ever thought they would go to Wembley; now they were going twice. Despite losing the second game, he never felt like he had lost. And he never, ever projected himself as a winner. Instead there was a kind of incredulous gratitude at having been allowed to live it at all.
And, oh, Michael lived. He played for Preston, Manchester City, Brighton, Liverpool, QPR and Republic of Ireland. And then Osasuna, which is where it all began: that other life. Where he found himself, even if he couldn’t find Osasuna. The night he signed, he sat in a hotel at Heathrow and looked for it on a map, unaware that wasn’t the name of the town. When he went to his first training session, taken there by teammate Iñaki Ibáñez, he couldn’t understand what the hotel manager was doing on the pitch with them. It turned out, the man he had met the night before was the team manager.
Michael had not understood that. He didn’t understand much at first, and yet with time he understood everything. Teammates would send him to the bar to order six hijos de puta. He was their “toy”, he said, fondly. He played some games, scored some goals and was a different type of footballer. When he got injured he said it was wrong to be paid when he was not playing. In 1989 he retired, only 31 years old. Which is when, far from ending, it began.
Spain had become home, his place. It would do even more: it is hard, genuinely, to express to people in England and Ireland just how significant he is here, how popular, how loved, how much a part of the fabric of the society he embraced. One way might be to use the old measure of fame: you know you’ve made it if you’re on Spitting Image. Well, Michael’s puppet presented the Spanish version of the show. He was the face of PC Manager and the voice of the Ugly Sister in Shrek.
It wasn’t deliberate but it meant something that he referred to Spain as “we” when the World Cup came round and no one told the story of 2010 like he did in his documentary on it. He has died at 61, and it is here that his life reached every home and touched everyone.
Michael had this theory, which he expressed only half-seriously, that he was Spanish really. He had traced his roots to County Cork in 1732. There, almost everyone is fair, with freckles and ginger hair. Only 2% of the population are dark like me, he said. That 2% are descendants of the Armada washed up on the way home after defeat, sailors from Galicia or Cádiz. “I reckon I must actually be from Cádiz,” he concluded. Well of course: a city full of life and laughs that he loved; one he described as spontaneous, open, humble.
The first time Robinson was asked to commentate, he said it wasn’t a great idea: he had 100 words in Spanish and 90 were swearwords. But that was part of the charm. When, later, his Spanish got too good – and for all the quirks, it was good – his bosses would suggest he go away and lose it for a bit.
It all started at the 1990 World Cup. Being there, he saw what he never saw as a player, holed up in a hotel – and, he said, he was glad he hadn’t, because the pressure would have been too great knowing all those people depended on him putting the ball in the net. He saw thousands and thousands of people from all over the world, every country, every creed, every age. He saw painted faces, the party, communities, what it all meant. He thought to himself: “That should be on the telly too.” So, he put it there.
Every Monday night for 15 years, Spain joined him. El Día Después, missed like he will be, was an institution that changed the face of broadcasting for ever and it was his: he did not just present it, he produced it and wrote it with a team he put together. Monday production meetings at their Tres Cantos offices were alive with stories and excitement. He told everyone, endlessly, that they were being allowed into living rooms and they should never forget that: it was an honour to be treated with reverence. He chose that team carefully and cared for them deeply.
He described the show as “an X-ray of society; it’s about a communal feeling, a football programme that’s offside-free. El Día Después is for everybody: 30 million Spaniards, not the five people who think they own the game.” He couldn’t be bothered with tiresome refereeing debates; he liked the game too much and the good that goes with it. “Refereeing errors are the wrinkles on Paul Newman’s face, tiny imperfections: they don’t change the beauty,” he said.
His show was fun and it was about the fans as well as the footballers. More so. And it was huge. Michael was especially fond of a video of a small boy going to his first game, aged four or five. His cameras caught the boy at the Bernabéu, wide-eyed, overwhelmed, smiling: “One little boy showing what football is about.
El Día Después was not just a programme, it was almost a concept, a philosophy on life and football. It wasn’t always easy to explain what exactly it was trying to do but in a way it was also very simple: it was about enjoyment. It was upbeat, positive, fun, lacking cynicism and refusing to sneer. It meant something. He described that vision and those who shared it as Díadespuesista (DiaDespues-ist) and he wasn’t exclusivist about it: he embraced and championed those who had similar views and ways of covering and experiencing football. He never forgave the executives who brought the programme to an end. Still less for replacing it with a successor that was pulled within weeks.
He watched, listened and read endlessly and would respond when he was touched by the stories others told. It was invariably the pieces about beauty, feeling or emotion that moved him to pick up the phone or to share them with others – the pieces about people, portraits that went beyond play. He was a mentor without ever meaning to be, still less presuming to hold such a post.
Not that he stopped storytelling himself, far from it. How could he? Instead, he consciously kicked back against the direction the football media were going in, trying to drag it away from the vacuous debates, the empty noise. Liking good people meant disliking bad ones, and he felt that too. There was a huge amount of talent and there was also integrity; he wouldn’t allow himself to be dragged into something in which he didn’t believe, nor allow his team to be left behind. He went his own way, taking them with him. His work was more serious now, but driven by the same fundamental focus: humanity.
Informe Robinson – he didn’t much like the name – told sports stories but most of all it told stories. A deep, beautifully shot, movingly told documentary series full of admiration for athletes big and small. So good that far from closing the doors, footballers called and begged to be on. Maybe his team will tell his story too one day and do it his way, but where to find a narrator like the man who lived it?
Michael’s radio show on Cadena Ser, launched more recently, plotted a similar course to his TV work: tales of courage and overcoming, small vignettes with symbolism and meaning. He kept working on that, on Informe Robinson and on Sunday night football matches after he was diagnosed with cancer, that huge heart never skipping a beat, the enjoyment and enthusiasm that characterised him still there. His radio show was called Robinson’s Accent, which said it all: there was no voice quite like his, one Spain listened to and made its own for many years but not enough.