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Player profiles:
Paul Robinson
Position: Left back
From: Youth team
Career stats: Soccerbase
He is: Formidable
Past profiles: January 2001, June 2000, October 1999


In Jane Parr's excellent "Stripped" exhibition (on display at Watford Museum until 1st March 2003), black and white photographs of the majority of the Watford squad reveal different sides to supposedly familiar faces. It's a fascinating insight, for these are people that we spend much of our lives following and watching...and yet most of us don't know them at all, beyond the standard clichéd, playing-it-safe mutterings in interviews.

It's still the briefest of glimpses, of course...yet that's perhaps its charm. The boyish portrait of Gifton Noel-Williams, for example, reminds us that he is still young, while you tend to think that Alec Chamberlain must have an ageing portrait of himself - or perhaps the craggy, weather-beaten Allan Nielsen - locked up in his attic.

But there's more than mere surface. Tommy Smith is caught in a moment of quiet contemplation, Richard Johnson's face is lit up with spontaneous laughter, Neil Cox looks like he's genuinely happy with being Neil Cox. Perhaps most intriguing of all is the image of Heidar Helguson, who appears slightly caught off guard...and, as with any portrait of worth, you start to wonder what he's thinking, how he's feeling, where he's looking....

Meanwhile, Paul Robinson clenches his fists in the traditional celebratory pose and shouts. Which made me wonder whether he has any other expressions, whether the wind changed at a vital moment and left him like that for all time. When the alarm clock goes off in the morning, does Robbo explode from underneath the duvet with veins bulging, face frowning intently and a great "COME ON!" roaring from his throat? Does he greet the arrival of toast at the breakfast table or post through the letterbox in similar fashion? Is this how he looks in the wedding photos?

Personally, I like to think so. It's a comforting thought, somehow.

All of this and more has made Paul Robinson something of a hero in the years since his fresh-faced, brutal-booted debut. Particularly since several of the club's most demonstrably committed servants were allowed to depart during the summer of 2001, he has come to embody the spirit of the team in supporters' eyes. No victory is complete without Robbo's lap of honour, which usually concludes long after the rest of the team has disappeared down the tunnel; no referee's notebook is complete without "Robinson, P. - two-footed tackle from behind", although it must be said that Jamie Hand has rather stolen his crown of late....

None of which suggested that Paul Robinson would benefit greatly from the arrival of Gianluca Vialli. Hard to believe that it would be a great meeting of footballing minds, really...and more than a few eyebrows were raised when it became clear that Robinson would be one of the survivors of the summer purges. Rather fewer were raised when he was sent off in the first game, at Maine Road.

And yet nobody profited more from the Italian's brief reign. Aware of the turmoil around him, Paul Robinson tried to hold onto his place with considerable tenacity and determination, as you'd expect. But he did much more than that. Suddenly, he fulfilled his promise. He almost eradicated the moments of extreme indiscipline; he became much more focused on the finer points of the game, positioning and marking and suchlike; he gained the confidence to come hurtling into the opposition half when the opportunity arose. Previously easy to love but often hard to admire, he turned himself into a quite formidable wing-back just when you'd begun to think it impossible.

Now, opponents departed bruised, beaten and defeated...but not on a stretcher, like Stewart Talbot. There were still errors, naturally - an absolute howler of an own goal at home to Stockport springs to mind - but they were balanced and ultimately exceeded by the immensely positive contributions of an increasingly vital player. For much of the season, Paul Robinson would've been the first name on the teamsheet.

And, as if to give this re-birth some tangible, measurable expression, he began to score goals. It started with the most perfectly Robbo-ish thing imaginable - against Wimbledon, he scored with a tackle, flying into a challenge on the edge of the opposition six yard box and celebrating with as much joy and surprise as everyone else when the ball ricocheted into the bottom corner. A fluke, of course...but it summed up the attitude perfectly.

There was better to come, though. Against Charlton in the Worthington Cup, Paul Robinson's extraordinary, heroic, crusading performance matched up to anything from Watford folklore. Truly unforgettable. He simply rampaged up and down the left flank all evening, destroying that side of the Charlton defence. On one such charge, he won a penalty. On another, he hit the post with a sizzling drive from the edge of the box. And, of course, he scored one of the most celebrated goals in recent years...I can still picture the yellow blur streaking across the area to receive a pass and dink the ball neatly over the keeper, I can still remember thinking that it was Tommy Smith....

And now? Well, he stands out less...but that's because the rest of the team has begun to match his appetite for competition, his fire and drive. Nevertheless, the improvement has been sustained - it's very hard to believe that such a valuable asset could've been viewed as something of a liability in the recent past.

The Vialli Year wasn't a total waste of time, then....

Ian Grant
Last updated: January 2003