marking Robins scored one of the most famous goals in Manchester United history, but now threatens to be more famous for something even more remarkable.
Robins – who scored for United at Nottingham Forest in 1990 to help keep Sir Alex Ferguson at work – has been Coventry City’s manager for four and a half years.
During that time, the 51-year-old has taken them from the depths of League Two to third in the Championship, a journey taken against a backdrop of financial difficulties that is remarkable even by the standards of the modern game.
Mark Robins (above) scored one of the most famous goals in Manchester United history, but now threatens to become better known for something even more remarkable
Robins’ first steps into management came with former team Rotherham United in 2007
When Robins’ team won promotion from League One two seasons ago, they didn’t even play in their own stadium. They were tenants of St Andrew’s, Birmingham. They were there last season.
Now they are back home. The Coventry Building Society Arena (formerly the Ricoh Arena) is now owned by Wasps RFC, but Robins and his team are once again thriving in familiar territory. Last time, they beat the acclaimed and significantly richer Fulham 4-1 in front of 18,000 supporters.
“I enjoyed playing football and I was good enough to play for United for a short period,” Robins told Sportsmail this week.
“But I’m old enough now that people have forgotten about my playing career! And that’s fine.
The move into management came after an impressive playing career – scoring over 100 goals in nearly 400 appearances in the Football League
“It’s nice to remember (the goal), but it’s gone. It’s important what you do next, not what you did before. I like this club. People now want to talk to me about Coventry and that’s great.’
To understand the magnitude of Robins’ achievement in the Western Midlands, it is necessary to understand the circumstances. The club’s decline since being relegated from the top division after spending 34 years in 2001 has been such that they have lost not only their stadium but more than three quarters of their paying fan base.
When they first played at St Andrew’s, in League One, in August 2019, only 6,500 showed up.
“The most important thing at that time was that the club continued to exist,” he said. “From that point on, you can always do something. We actually had a really good track record in Birmingham for two years.
“But getting back to Coventry was paramount because now we feel we can keep building it.”
Robins was manager of Coventry for a short time in 2012-13, but left to join Huddersfield. When he returned four years later, he couldn’t stop the club from sliding to the bottom lane for the first time in their history. On the day they were relegated, supporters threw plastic pigs onto the field.
Robins briefly led Coventry in 2012-13, but left to join Huddersfield (above)
Less than a month earlier, however, Coventry had been to Wembley to beat Oxford in the EFL Trophy final. It was then that Robins got a glimpse of what he could achieve.
“We had 45,000 fans there,” he said. “It was unbelievable and made me emotional. It showed me how hungry they still were. We were about to be relegated, but that day felt like a turning point.’
When Robins pulled Coventry back from League Two the following year, it represented first place in the club’s top six in 48 years. Two years later, another promotion came.
It has all been achieved with meager means. Players were regularly sold, but a man tipped by Ferguson during his playing days to succeed as a manager has used the club’s academy and recruiting structures to replenish constantly. He also has a lot of experience in putting out fires.
In that time he has taken them from League Two to third place in the Championship
‘My first management job was at Rotherham,’ he said. “We had a 17 point deduction from going into administration. We left Millmoor and lost the training ground. I was given an area at Doncaster’s ground to train on and we played our games at Don Valley Stadium in Sheffield.
“I was doing a podcast with Graham Taylor at the time and he said that job would serve me well. He was right. The PFA came in on a Friday and said the players would only get 40 percent pay. One player disagreed and was sold. We lost 5-1 at Morecambe the next day.
“Those are the times when you wonder what you’re doing in this business, but then you realize it’s about more people than just you. There are people who have been supporting the club for a long time and you have a responsibility to them. It’s the same here.’
The Coventry boss even managed to do this despite a background of financial difficulties
Robins is a modest and modest man. He attributes much of Coventry’s progress to his coaches Adi Viveash and Dennis Lawrence. He knows what has been achieved and how far there is still to go.
When asked if he ever thought of running away, he replied, “That would be easy. This club had unique circumstances, but I just wanted to do it.
“I didn’t understand it the first time, but I did when I came back. I wanted to slow down the process of negativity and turn this huge juggernaut around.”
Robins is the second longest serving manager in the second tier. On Saturday, Coventry is in Blackburn, led by the man at the top of that list, Tony Mowbray. The Blackburn boss also once worked in Coventry.
Coventry were named League One Champions after clubs voted to end the season
“He has laid part of this foundation and is a great football man,” said Robins.
Blackburn have had their own financial problems over the years, as have many clubs. But few have a backstory like Coventry.
Robins’ view remains conservative, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have dreams. For example, one day he would like to hike the Camino de Santiago, a three-month trek through the top of Spain. “It would depend on my knees holding up, but it’s on my bucket list,” he smiled.
He would also like to bring Coventry to the Premier League, build them a new training ground and watch them play in a stadium they own again.
That also feels a bit distant, but Robins said, ‘Who doesn’t daydream in life? Someone asked me after a win if the fans should get carried away.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s why they support the club! Let them dream”. My job is to be realistic. For us it is an achievement in itself to be in the championship. We cannot compete financially.
“We have to continue to establish ourselves as a Championship club because we’ve been out for so long. The time in between was spent fighting for survival. We all remember the pig heads.
“Making sure we have a strong club is so important, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a head full of things I’d like us to achieve. It’s been a long journey and it’s not over yet.’