Mark Robins scored one of the most famous goals in the history of Manchester United but is now in danger of becoming better known for something even more remarkable.
Robins — who scored for United at Nottingham Forest to help keep Sir Alex Ferguson in a job in 1990 — has been the manager of Coventry City for four and a half years.
During that time, the 51-year-old has taken them from the depths of League Two to third place in the Championship, a journey travelled against a background of financial difficulty that is remarkable even by the modern game’s standards.
Mark Robins (above) scored one of the most famous goals in the history of Manchester United but is now in danger of becoming better known for something even more remarkable
Robins’ first steps into management came with former side Rotherham United in 2007
When Robins’s team won promotion from League One two seasons ago, they were not even playing in their own stadium. They were tenants at St Andrew’s, Birmingham. They were still there last season, too.
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 have thrived back in familiar territory. Last time out they beat the much-fancied and considerably wealthier 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 spell,’ Robins told Sportsmail this week.
‘But I am old enough now that people have forgotten my playing career! And that’s fine.
The transition into management came after an impressive playing career – which saw him score over 100 goals in nearly 400 appearances in the Football League
‘It’s nice to remember (the goal) but it has gone. It’s important what you do next, not what you did before. I love this club. People want to talk to me about Coventry now and that’s great.’
To understand the scale of Robins’s achievement in the west Midlands, it’s necessary to understand the circumstances. The club’s decline since they were relegated from the top division after a 34-year residency in 2001 was such that they not only lost their stadium but also more than three-quarters of their paying fan base.
When they played at St Andrew’s for the first time, in League One in August 2019, just 6,500 turned up.
‘The biggest thing at that point was that the club was continuing to exist,’ he said. ‘You can always do something from that point. We actually had a really good record at Birmingham for two years.
‘But to come back to Coventry was paramount, as we feel now as though we can keep building it.’
Robins briefly managed Coventry in 2012-13 but left to join Huddersfield. When he returned four years later he could not prevent the club slipping into the bottom tier for the first time in their history. On the day they were relegated, supporters threw plastic pigs on to the field.
Robins briefly managed Coventry in 2012-13 but left to join Huddersfield (above)
However, less than a month earlier Coventry had been at Wembley to beat Oxford in the EFL Trophy final. It was then that Robins had a glimpse of what he may be able to achieve.
‘We had 45,000 fans there,’ he said. ‘It was incredible 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 brought Coventry back out of League Two the next year, it represented the club’s first top-six finish for 48 years. Another promotion came two years later.
It has all been achieved on meagre resources. Players have been routinely sold but a man tipped by Ferguson during his playing days to succeed as a manager has used the club’s academy and recruitment structures to constantly replenish. He also has plenty of experience of fighting fires to draw on.
During 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 in to administration. We left Millmoor and lost the training ground. I got us an area by Doncaster’s ground to train on and we played our games at Don Valley Stadium in Sheffield.
‘I did a podcast with Graham Taylor at the time and he said that job would stand me in good stead. He was right. The PFA came in one Friday and said the players would receive only 40 per cent pay. One player wouldn’t agree so was sold. We lost 5-1 at Morecambe the next day.
‘Those are the times when you wonder what you are doing in this business but then you remember it’s about more people than just you. There are people who have supported 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 so despite facing a background of financial difficulty
Robins is an understated and modest man. He credits much of Coventry’s progress to his coaches Adi Viveash and Dennis Lawrence. He knows what has been achieved and how far there still is to go.
Asked if he ever thought about walking away, he said: ‘It would be easy to do that. This club had a unique set of 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 the process of negativity and turn this huge juggernaut round.’
Robins is the second-longest serving manager in the second tier. On Saturday, Coventry are at Blackburn, managed by the man at the top of that list, Tony Mowbray. The Blackburn boss once managed at Coventry, too.
Coventry were declared as League One Champions after clubs have voted to end the season
‘He laid part of these foundations and is a great football man,’ said Robins.
Blackburn have suffered their own financial issues over the years, as have many clubs. But few have a back story like Coventry.
Robins’s outlook remains conservative but that does not mean he does not have dreams. One day, for example, he would like to hike the Camino de Santiago, a three-month trek across 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 take Coventry to the Premier League, build them a new training ground and see them play in a stadium they once again own.
That all feels some way off, too, but Robins said: ‘Who in life doesn’t day-dream? Someone asked me after a win whether the fans should get carried away.
‘I was like, “Yes, that’s why they support the club! Let them dream”. I have the job of being realistic. For us to be in the Championship is a feat in itself. We cannot compete financially.
‘We have to continue to establish ourselves as a Championship club because we have been out of it for such a long time. The time in between was spent fighting for survival. We all remember the pigs heads.
‘Making sure we have a strong club is so important but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a head full of stuff I’d like us to achieve. It has been a long journey and it’s not over.’