Ex-Portsmouth and Millwall man Paul Robinson: 'Ruthless Paul Cook made me captain and convinced me I was wanted - then I was gone. It was gutting'
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The former Millwall man represented the highest profile casualty of new manager Paul Cook’s essential squad clear-out – and certainly the most surprising.
An impressive maiden Fratton Park campaign in 2014-15 saw the dominant central defender recognised with the Players’ Player Of The Year award, while also finishing runner-up to Jed Wallace in The News/Sports Mail’s Player of the Season.
Indeed, following his May 2015 appointment, Cook announced Robinson would remain as the Blues’ club captain, keen to utilise his natural leadership skills and respect among his peers.
The 33-year-old was even reassured by the new boss that he possessed a Fratton future under a fresh regime focused on finally hauling Pompey out of League Two.
Yet Robinson was gone before pre-season had even concluded.
‘It was a shock and, in all honesty, I was gutted to leave,’ Robinson told The News.
‘For people on the outside, it probably appeared to be a sudden development, yet from where I was, I felt it rumbling away for about six weeks.
‘Day-to-day you pick up on it, you spot certain things in training, I kind of got a feeling – and I’m quite perceptive on things like that. I could see the way that other players were being moved out. Then Matt Clarke came in, Christian Burgess had already arrived.
‘I had already been in contact with AFC Wimbledon and spoken with Cookie about my future, he reassured me, he’d told me “We want you here”. But I still sensed something.
‘He also appointed me club captain, although I was well aware that club captains don’t necessarily always play. Look at West Ham when Mark Noble was club captain, but Declan Rice was actually captain on the pitch.
‘Then Cookie pulled me just before a friendly at Woking: “I just need to let you know you’re not going to start the season”. I was an unused substitute that night in a 2-0 win.
‘It was basically implied that, if I wanted to move on, he wouldn’t stand in my way. So that was that for me at Pompey. I joined Wimbledon within a week.
‘In all honesty, he hadn’t seen the best of me that pre-season, I normally take a little while to get going, I have to hold my hands up to that. I could also have stayed and hung around, this wasn’t a case of being forced out.
‘But moving to Wimbledon was the right decision. I later saw the way he treated Matt Tubbs and Danny Hollands, there was always that rumbling he didn't really want us there.
‘Things were starting to slowly take shape at Pompey, that’s football, you have to move on and move on quickly. Looking back, it worked out the best for everyone.’
Robinson would later return to Fratton Park as coach under Kenny Jackett for that infamous 2018-19 League One campaign.
Still, his Pompey affiliation began in August 2014 after deciding to end 14 years with Millwall following 361 games and 23 goals, putting him seventh on the Lions’ all-time appearance list.
The desire to relocate to Petersfield to live closer to family ensured Fratton Park was the ideal move, with Andy Awford initially recruiting the 32-year-old on loan, handing him the captaincy.
That evolved into a permanent deal in January 2015, with Robinson signing an 18-month deal after impressing as an automatic first-team choice.
He added: ‘I was at Millwall in the Championship and Ian Holloway decided he wanted to go in a different direction.
‘The previous season, I appeared as a 34th-minute substitute as we won 1-0 on the final day against Bournemouth to stay up. The fans afterwards invaded the pitch and it felt this was the way to end it. This was my time.
‘There was a bit of interest and I didn’t necessarily want to drop into League Two, but I’d got to the point in my football career and family life where I thought location was just as important as the club.
‘Pompey worked on both fronts, my wife could be closer to her family and it allowed me to play for such a good club. The opportunity to win promotion was also a big attraction.
‘Under Andy Awford, Pompey had finished the previous season really well after battling against relegation. If you could help get the club going again, it could be unbelievable.
‘We definitely underachieved that season. We had a good blend of experience and youth, there was a good squad assembled, and it was a shame we couldn’t translate that into a successful team.
‘Me and Andy Barcham were later promoted from League Two with AFC Wimbledon, Ricky Holmes later did it with Northampton, Ryan Taylor later went up with Oxford United. Adam Webster was there, Danny Hollands, Jed Wallace, Jack Whatmough, Dan Butler.
‘When you actually look at the names of those there at the time, no doubt about it, we underachieved.
‘I got on well with Andy Awford and was grateful to be given the opportunity to play for Pompey, but he’ll probably look back with regret that we didn’t get promoted.’
During his maiden campaign, Robinson sustained a fractured cheekbone against Luton in March 2014, subsequently missing the final 10 matches as the Blues finished in 16th, the lowest placing in their Football League history.
Awford had departed three weeks before the season’s end, with Gary Waddock taking caretaker control until a new manager was appointed ahead of 2015-16 – Cook.
‘I had finally got to the point of living near work – and all of a sudden I’m back on the road again,’ added Robinson, who totalled 38 Pompey appearances, scoring twice.
‘During the first month of pre-season, you could tell Cookie was keen to get rid of everyone associated with the previous year. He wanted to change the mentality of the club and felt the way to do that was to bring in a fresh set of players.
‘Although we had some very good players there, we were a bit tarnished from his point of view. He was looking for opportunities to move us on – and probably a fair few did need to go that summer as well.
‘He came in with a clean brush and his recruitment was good, he brought in some very good players and clearly knew what he was doing.
‘And if they weren’t doing it, he’d then look to move them on as quickly as possible. He was ruthless in his decisions, which you have to be as a manager.
‘Even though I was gutted to leave at the time, they had Matt Clarke, Christian Burgess, Adam Webster and Jack Whatmough, all very good centre-halves, you can’t deny that.
‘Meanwhile, in my first campaign at Wimbledon we won promotion to League One and I was named Player of the Year, so it worked out as a fairy-tale season for me.
‘Their manager, Neal Ardley, was slightly different in his approach and got the best out of me. More than anything, you talk about the size of the club and the costs of the squad, but the team spirit was a different class.
‘There was a bit of a point to prove to Pompey, but also to myself. You probably get to that stage in your career when you think, am I finished? I didn’t want it to peter out, I wanted to carry on – and I went on to have three successful seasons at Wimbledon.
‘I think I could have played in Paul Cook’s team. It’s box four, with two centre-halves and two central midfielders, but maybe physically I would’ve had to use all of my experience positionally at times.
‘It’s a system which requires dynamic centre-halves happy to defend in wide areas at times, dragging you out of position, which, at that stage of my career, wasn’t necessarily one of my main attributes.
‘It was a bit of an awkward ending at Pompey, but never really an argument, and no hard feelings, particularly from my point of view, despite being gutted to leave.
‘After winning the play-off final against Plymouth, I got a load of text messages and the first one sent through was from Paul Cook, congratulating us on what we achieved. Fair play to him.
‘We’ve since seen each other many times and it’s fine, there’s no hard feelings. It's football.’
Following 118 appearances and seven goals for AFC Wimbledon, Robinson returned to Pompey in June 2018 under his former Millwall boss Jackett, this time as a coach.
Aged 36, he combined playing duties with the Hawks, following their promotion to the National League under Lee Bradbury.
Yet his day job was at Fratton Park, working as a defensive coach in a set-up which also included Jackett, assistant manager Joe Gallen and first-team coach Jake Wigley.
There would be silverware in the form of the Checkatrade Trophy at Wembley against Sunderland in March 2019.
However, Pompey’s capitulation in the League One promotion race that term, having topped the table for three-and-a-half months and once led by six points, remains painful for all concerned.
He said: ‘That was really disappointing. We led the way, which showed the potential of the squad, but eventually ran out of steam, while some of the players who arrived in the second part of the season to get us over the line and give that bit of energy didn’t quite work out.
‘It was Ronan Curtis’ first season and he did brilliantly after coming straight from Ireland, but went off the boil in the end, as did Jamal Lowe, while Oli Hawkins played really well in the first half of the season, then lost a bit of rhythm.
‘Whatmough had built up a really good centre-half partnership with Clarke, then got injured, which destabilised things defensively a little.
‘We played 62 matches that season and maybe that amount of games and the intensity Kenny demands caught up. He wants endeavour and energy, it wasn’t a style where we controlled possession and played with a slow tempo.
‘It was a high-tempo, high-energy team – and unfortunately, they ran out of steam.
‘Did they underachieve? It’s a tough one. Yes and no. They did incredibly well and I still don’t see it as an unsuccessful season. Obviously the ultimate aim is promotion, but I’m not sure we could have got too much more out of them.’
Like his Pompey playing career, Robinson’s time coaching at Fratton Park would also span a single season, leaving in July 2019 to join Millwall’s Academy.
A problem with his left knee had effectively ended his playing days five months earlier, enabling him to focus solely on working as assistant manager with the Lions’ under-21s.
Today he works alongside Kevin Nugent, with the pair guiding their youngsters to the Professional Development League National Final title in May, after beating Sheffield United 2-1 in extra-time.
Robinson, who still lives in Petersfield, added: ‘Pompey wanted me to stay, but it felt right going back to Millwall to progress my coaching career. I’m now a more well-rounded coach.
‘There were four coaches at Pompey, so I wasn’t necessarily doing loads of hands-on coaching at times, but Millwall have helped me get out in the thick of it and really coach.
‘The next natural step in my career will be moving back to a first-team role again and managing my own team.
‘I’ll just keep looking to improve and see whatever opportunities come along. Perhaps I may be back at Pompey for a third time in the future. Who knows?’