MK Dons boss wise beyond his years
MK Dons boss Karl Robinson celebrated his 30th birthday on Monday by selecting his team for Wednesday's match against Southampton and enjoying what he dryly described as "a romantic evening meal" with assistant manager John Gorman.
It might not be everybody's perfect way of waving farewell to their twenties (I spent my 30th in Amsterdam with my girlfriend and 12 mates watching Rafael van der Vaart score a hat-trick), but it is difficult to argue with the end result.
Robinson's team won their third straight home game in League One on a wet Wednesday evening at stadium:mk to ruin Nigel Adkins' debut as Saints manager and move up to third in the table.
Angelo Balanta, who had been dropped to the bench, and Peter Leven struck in the second half for a 2-0 win, Robinson celebrating both goals with a double fist pump in the direction of the home fans. Afterwards, Robinson quipped that his players were giving him so many selection headaches that he was running out of paracetamol.
But there is clearly more to Robinson than his sharp scouse wit, like a burning desire to preside over a successful period at the helm of MK Dons.
"I love this club, it is very similar to me, young and still learning," said Robinson. "Chairman Pete Winkelman appointed me and he will look stupid if it doesn't work out. I just hope that I never let him down."
Winkelman gave Robinson the job on a permanent basis in May after the former assistant to Paul Ince impressed the chairman with a top-to-bottom presentation detailing his vision for the club. Robinson outlined his plans for his backroom staff, player recruitment policy and the high-tempo, attractive style he wanted his side to adopt.
He had effectively been in charge of the team for the last four games of last season after Ince announced his intention to step down. The club drew one and lost three of those four fixtures but Robinson's attempt to introduce a less direct and physical style of play was appreciated by a large section of supporters.
Even so, it was a bold appointment by Winkelman and marked something of a change of strategy. Predecessors Ince, appointed twice by Winkelman, and Roberto Di Matteo were both men who had enjoyed glittering playing careers.
On the other hand, Robinson's playing career was spent at non-league clubs like St Helens Town, Rhyl, Bamber Bridge and Kidsgrove Athletic. A serious injury in his late teens had ended his chances of turning professional and the striker eventually retired from playing in his mid-twenties. But in stark contrast to the mediocrity of his playing days is the trajectory of his coaching career. Robinson was a full-time member of the coaching staff at Liverpool by the age of 20 and spent seven years working for their Academy.
"It was a brilliant grounding," added Robinson. "I ran a few things abroad with the Liverpool legends, spread the word all over the world on various coaching seminars and worked with the elite Academy players, such as Jay Spearing and Jack Robinson. It was so diverse and there were so many different elements to it."
Robinson left to become assistant to Ince during his first spell at MK Dons, eventually following him to Blackburn. When Ince was sacked by Rovers in December 2008 after less than six months in charge, Robinson was kept on by new boss Sam Allardyce before rejoining Ince for his second spell in Milton Keynes.
"Sam Allardyce is an absolute genius," said Robinson. "He is fantastic at what he does. He gets the best staff around him and makes them believe they can move mountains - that impacts on the players."
Robinson has surrounded himself with experience at MK Dons, with Gorman and Alex Rae on his coaching staff and Dietmar Hamann taking control from the centre of midfield. The four men normally convene for a brief discussion before Robinson addresses the squad at half-time and they often go out for dinner together. Robinson is quick to acknowledge that they provide what he lacks - the background of playing the professional game at a high level - but he bristles if you suggest he lacks the necessary coaching experience.
"What is experience? People only gain experience when they are given the opportunity," Robinson said. "I might not have much managerial experience but I probably have more experience than a lot of people as far as coaching and looking after individuals goes.
"Sir Alex Ferguson was young when he stopped playing. Then there are the likes of Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger, Gerard Houllier, Rafael Benitez and Roy Hodgson - they have all been students of the game from an early age."
I spoke to Robinson for 40 minutes on Tuesday and his desire to learn and improve came across strongly during our conversation. He explained how he once heard Wenger tell Ince as they chatted after a cup tie that he felt it was important to know a little bit about everything at the club so that he could then make sure he employed the right staff. It is a skill that Robinson is keen to acquire.
Robinson's family remain in Liverpool and so the manager spends long hours in his office during the week watching games or speaking to players and managers as he attempts to broaden his knowledge. Not long before I spoke to him, Robinson had been on the phone to a Premier League player for half an hour exchanging stories.
"The more friends you make in the game the longer you stay in it and the more opportunities you will be given," he told me.
Robinson acquired his Uefa Pro Licence in the summer and has been told that he is the youngest in Europe to have gained the qualification. His opposite number on Wednesday, new Saints boss Adkins, also has Europe's top coaching qualification, as well as various diplomas in business, finance and sports psychology and a degree in physiotherapy. Adkins will probably need all of his available skills as he attempts to turn the under-performing team he has inherited into promotion contenders.
The former Scunthorpe boss said he was going to watch the DVD and reflect privately on what had happened during his first game in charge. He talked with genuine enthusiasm about his new role and spoke a lot of common sense when discussing the need to rebuild confidence after a run of four defeats without managing to register a goal. He was also realistic enough to acknowledge that he must start winning games quickly if Saints are to fulfill his aim of winning promotion this season.
Robinson suggested afterwards that Adkins had not been able to change the tide of the match once MK Dons had scored because he had not worked with his new team long enough to develop a Plan B. The MK Dons boss also explained in some detail how his team had defended slightly higher up the pitch after the break in order to starve the service to Saints forward Rickie Lambert. He sounded like a man in control.
There are some people who will never acknowledge the existence of MK Dons, arguably with good reason, but in many ways I think it would be great if Robinson could emulate the success of Bournemouth's Eddie Howe (at 32, now the second youngest manager in the Football League) in winning promotion.
And now that Robinson has turned 30, he believes that people might start focusing a little more on his credentials and a little less on his age.
"At one point after I got the job, I was starting to think that my full name was '29-year-old Karl Robinson'," said the MK Dons boss.