The summer of 2008, it’s fair to say, was a funny old time in the life of Manchester City, beginning as it did with an 8-1 trouncing at the hands of an Afonso Alves-inspired Middlesbrough and finishing with the £32m acquisition of a bona-fide Brazilian megastar.
The club has undergone a full-scale transformation in the decade since, although few would place Robinho – a forward whose total tally of goals for the club is matched by the number Sergio Aguero has notched against Newcastle alone – near the top of the list of people who got them to where they are today. But perhaps it’s time to revise the popular opinion of the Brazilian as an unmitigated flop.
Before that, though, it’s worth taking a minute to recount the story of Robinho’s unveiling, which occurred after he was swiped from the hands of Chelsea – whose website’s home page was already adorned with a picture of him wearing the club’s shirt – in the dictionary definition of a deadline-day swoop mere hours after the club’s takeover had been signed off. A couple of days later, back home with the Brazil squad, Robinho was asked about the transfer.
“On the last day, Chelsea made a great proposal and I accepted,” he explained. To this a reporter replied: “You mean Manchester, right?”. “Yeah, Manchester… sorry!” fumbled a sheepish Robinho.
It was an exchange that hardly helped to dispel the idea of Robinho as a bloodless mercenary, nor the image of City as a club where low standards collided with high farce. What did put both of those ideas on the back-burner, though, was Robinho’s debut the following weekend – against Chelsea, as script would have it – in which he converted a free-kick after approximate 720 seconds and generally looked like the sort of player around whom a revolution could be built.
“It was a debut that demonstrates this is a genuine superstar,” wrote the Guardian’s Daniel Taylor that day. The following week, after Robinho had starred in a 6-0 rout over Portsmouth in which Stephen Ireland and Shaun Wright-Phillips also ran riot, the impression was of an attacker who led from the front and elevated those around him. A hat-trick against Stoke a month later took his tally at a newly upbeat City of Manchester Stadium, as it still was then, to five in four.
Robinho’s flashy football was no flash in the pan. After 11 league games he’d scored a handy eight goals, the pick of which was an impudent chip against Arsenal. That game, in which the previous season’s title challengers were dispatched 3-0 with a performance equal parts exuberance and grit, sounded the starting gun for the club’s new era and had the Guardian reporting breathlessly of “a player who deserves every superlative in the football glossary”.
When the business end of the season loomed into view, Robinho netted in three successive games – one while donning the armband – to ensure that he finished his inaugural campaign at City as the Premier League’s fourth top scorer, despite playing for its 10th best side. Not too shabby at all.
Of course, Robinho was hardly an unmitigated triumph. The fact that the supporters’ Player of the Season roster was manned by Stephen Ireland, Vincent Kompany and Pablo Zabaleta is evidence that his brilliance was always underscored by a maddening inconsistency, the fans never truly convinced. There was plenty of commitment to the cause – the problem was that too often, that cause was taking ill-timed beach breaks on the Copacabana.
The first sign of trouble came as winter closed in: Robinho saw in the new year with a 17-game goalless streak, prefaced by an unsanctioned trip home for his birthday after a mid-season holiday request was turned down by Mark Hughes. If Robinho was a runaway success then it was only in the most literal sense, and such antics did little to banish the hoary old notions about South Americans, bad weather and the irresistible allure of nightclubs – although he has since spoken effusively about the nightlife in the Deansgate Locks area of the city.
The toys were eventually gathered back into the pram in time for the season’s climax, and Robinho rediscovered his form accordingly. But things went further south the following year: with the disciplinarian Roberto Mancini now ruling the roost, a fallout between the two was written in the stars. Robinho’s form fell off a cliff, his languid demeanour hardly aiding his case, and once his manager had subjected him to the footballer’s ultimate indignity – the substitute’s substitution – any hope of a happy ending was extinguished. A loan move to Santos was hastily arranged, and the glowering winger never set foot in Manchester again.
But the misery of a bad ending doesn’t erase what came before, which was just about equally weighted between the resplendently good and the deeply terrible. And besides, what Robinho did on the pitch was to a large extent incidental. The truer impact of his signing – and the one that had been top of the agenda all along – was both much less obvious and far more pronounced: it was the first step in boosting the club’s profile and reshaping its image.
In that regard, it’s hard to have too many arguments. If Robinho himself never quite became the inspiration City had hoped, he certainly flung the doors open for others to follow. When he arrived at the club, Robinho counted Benjani Mwaruwari and Michael Ball among his team-mates. By the time he left, those names included Carlos Tevez, Yaya Toure and Patrick Vieira.
Robinho immediately raised the standard of those around him, even if he didn’t always meet those standards himself. As Kompany recalled recently: “As soon as he’s there, you’re looking at him and thinking: ‘OK, he’s extra-terrestrial.’ He would make us look silly doing keepie-ups with rolled-up socks. But then you start measuring yourself up against one of the best players in the world and you think: ‘You know what, I can do it.’ It was important to have a player like this within our team and it raised the profile of the club.”
While his output was unreliable, his impact was undeniable. More than anything, Robinho was a statement signing – the statement being: “Sit up and take note. We’re big-time now.” In that sense, the acquisition of a mercurial, unsettled and sensationally stroppy Brazilian attacker was pretty much perfect. Such players don’t rock up just anywhere. And let’s face it, there was an indisputable glamour in the way he lived up to every last facet of the stereotype.
There’s unlikely to be a great rush to revise judgements on a player whose cosseted strops engendered precisely zero sympathy from a watching public – nor indeed a man who was sentenced to nine years in jail for rape in November last year.
Which is understandable enough. But with the benefit of hindsight, as the current incarnation of the City juggernaut thunders merrily along the road to world domination, it’s hard not to conclude that as far as their inaugural mega-signing was concerned, they got their money’s worth in the end. If Robinho was only occasionally a match-winner, he was most certainly a game-changer.