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Green Giants reign in Spain

A week after Michael Robinson's death, former opponent Kevin Moran looks back on the time they - and other Irish - spent playing in Spanish top flight

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FRIENDLY RIVALRY: Gary Lineker (Barcelona) with Kevin Moran (Sporting
Gijon) during their time in Spain

FRIENDLY RIVALRY: Gary Lineker (Barcelona) with Kevin Moran (Sporting Gijon) during their time in Spain

FRIENDLY RIVALRY: Gary Lineker (Barcelona) with Kevin Moran (Sporting Gijon) during their time in Spain

All was quiet on New Year's Day.

The game in Spain's top flight, on the first day of 1989, was a very Spanish affair, just two foreigners across the two starting elevens as Osasuna hosted Sporting Gijon.

Two Irishmen, as it happened, Michael Robinson up front for Osasuna and Kevin Moran in the Gijon defence, both claiming to be winners on the day in question as the teams played out a scoreless draw.

They were old pals who hadn't seen each other for a while, not since they played together for Ireland in Iceland back in 1986, yet here they were, earning a wage in the Spanish league, in that exciting time between the national team's successes in Euro '88 and Italia '90.

"In Spain at the time you'd sometimes come up against people you knew, like Gary Lineker when he was at Barcelona, and it was good to see Michael that day in '89," Moran recalled this week as he reflected on the passing, at the age of 61, of Robinson.

"To hear that he'd passed last week was shocking. To go at 61 is tragic, there is a lot of living to do after 61 and it's a terrible blow to his family to lose him at that age."

Lively

In the tributes to Robinson during the days since his death following a battle with cancer was announced, it was his lively personality and also his ability to move into a career in the Spanish-speaking media after injury ended his playing days which were most noted.

But one chapter of his life remained unwritten, the fact that a very good player, a European Cup winner, could do so well in a punishing league like Spain's top flight, but not well enough to get picked by Jack Charlton.

Good enough to score against Real Madrid and Barcelona, play in a side that finished above Barca in the league table, but not good enough to play for Ireland.

Robinson won his 24th and final cap against Czechoslovakia in a tournament played in Iceland in May 1986, the early days of the Charlton regime as the new manager put his own stamp on the squad.

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QUALITY: Michael Robinson scored against the likes of Barcelona and Real
Madrid in Spain

QUALITY: Michael Robinson scored against the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid in Spain

QUALITY: Michael Robinson scored against the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid in Spain

Midway through the 1986/'87 season, after a testing time for him at QPR, Robinson moved to Osasuna, with little homework done and no knowledge of what awaited him, even though his arrival was a very big deal in the Spanish media.

"I later found out that I was the only European Cup winner to be playing in Spain at the time, hence the attention I received," he said.

He tells the story of how he thought Osasuna was a city (it's the name of the club who play in Pamplona), similar to a Spanish player thinking he was going to live in a place called Everton.

Robinson was an instant hit. He suffered defeat on his debut in January 1987, against Atletico Madrid, where he was the only non-Spaniard on the field, but then went on a run of three goals in the next three games, one in a 2-1 loss at Real Madrid, and scored the only goal of the game on his home debut, against Espanyol.

In March '87, they travelled to play a Barcelona side managed by Terry Venables, which had Gary Lineker and Steve Archibald in the side, Robinson on the scoresheet at the Nou Camp but tasting defeat (2-4). A week later, in April '87, he played in a 2-0 win at home to a Racing Santander side which had Liam Buckley in the team.

He'd face Buckley twice more that season as the Spanish league broke off for a relegation play-off system. Robinson scored three times in nine games in that play-off as Osasuna stayed up.

He returned for the start of the 1987/'88 season with some welcome extra baggage, having recruited former Liverpool team-mate Sammy Lee for the club.

Spain's defenders made life hard for strikers and injury restricted Robinson to just 23 games in a 38-game season, Osasuna making the Cup semi-finals and finishing fifth in the league, ahead of that Barca side with Lineker, Bernd Schuster and Andoni Zubizarreta.

For the 1988/'89 season, Robinson had some company in Spain as Moran left Old Trafford for Sporting Gijon (Ashley Grimes arrived at Osasuna in August 1989).

Robinson and Moran both faced a brilliant Real Madrid side in the first two rounds of the season in 1988/'89, Robinson scoring, again, in a 2-2 draw at the Bernabeu on opening day, while a week later, Moran and Gijon also held Real to a 2-2 draw.

"That Real Madrid team were awesome, Hugo Sanchez up front and Manolo Sanchis at the back, ButragueƱo, Schuster, some team," Moran recalls.

Again and again, Robinson delivered in Spain: a 1-1 draw with a Barca side now managed by Johan Cruyff, scoring in a 1-0 win over Howard Kendall's Athletic Bilbao.

On New Year's Day in '89, Moran and Robinson had their first clash in Spain but not their first duel. "I'd played against him a few times, my second game for United was against Man City, marking Michael," he says.

"I didn't really meet up with Michael over there, we were both in the north of Spain but it was a four-hour drive so you wouldn't hop in the car to meet up."

Neither of them knew it but it was soon to be over for Robinson as he'd play just twice more. Half an hour into a game against Real Betis, on January 15, 1989, he suffered a knee injury and never played again. TV work began, commentating for Spanish TV at Italia '90 and Robinson became one of the best-loved personalities on the small screen there.

Robinson was loved at Osasuna and his record, 12 goals in 59 league games, over one full and two half-seasons, is a badge of pride.

But Ireland never called, Robinson ignored by Charlton despite scoring feats at the Nou Camp and Bernabeu as that cap in Iceland in '86 was his final outing in a green shirt, even though he clearly had more football in him at a very high level.

"Jack wasn't great for picking you if you were abroad, it was out of sight, out of mind with Jack," says Moran.

"He focused on the ones who were in England, apart from the ones he really knew a lot about and he didn't know a lot about Michael, even before he went to Spain."

Moran was in the Ireland side for Robinson's first cap (France in 1980) and last one (Czechoslovakia in 1986). Paris in 1980, in a World Cup qualifier, is still in Moran's head, for the wrong reasons, as it was another night of Irish woe with referees.

"I'd headed a ball down to Michael, he scored to make it 1-1 with about eight minutes to go in the Parc des Princes, it was a perfectly legitimate goal and the equaliser changed the complexion of the game, but the ref disallowed it for handball by me, and it was never a handball.

"He scored in the great 3-2 win over France in Dublin, one of the really great days with the Irish team."

Even with the striking options available to Charlton (John Aldridge was the top scorer in England's top flight with a league-winning Liverpool side in 1987/'88), it's still a glaring omission that Robinson could do so well in Spain and remain ignored.

He would have been just 31 in Italia '90 but that knee injury meant it was over. "It was sad for his career to end when it did but the way he picked up the language and made a career then in media was amazing," says Moran.

"I did learn the language, you had to. I was in Gijon, he was in Pamplona, no one spoke English. We had to learn Spanish. It was pushed on you so you could communicate in the dressing-room.

"Michael was the bustling type and the Spanish clubs would have liked that kind of powerful, direct player. He didn't really have tricks but he was a powerful figure going through.

"He loved playing for Ireland, he loved life in Spain. It's such a tragedy that he's gone at 61."