Ex-Leeds United assistant on saying no to Whites, dressing room anger and Rodrigo injury revelation

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Karl Robinson’s time at Leeds United was only ever going to be a four-game stint but it still held drama befitting the club’s storied history and heartbreak that fans know too well. He spoke exclusively to the YEP about the Big Sam era.

Karl Robinson had just teed off a round of golf when the name Sam Allardyce flashed up on his phone.

A call from Big Sam is no cause for surprise for Robinson, who worked with Allardyce at Blackburn Rovers early on in his coaching career and considers the ex-England boss somewhat of a footballing father figure. But this phone call was one for the books.

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"I was playing golf, literally on the first hole and it was Sam,” begins Robinson.

"He went: "Do you want to go to Leeds?" I went: "What?" He said: "Get in the car, I'll meet you in Leeds tonight." I went: "What do you mean?" and he replied: "I'm going in, it's getting announced tomorrow."

"I made a few phone calls to a few people, we didn't even talk money, I just said don't worry I'll be there later on tonight. That's as detailed as the conversation went. I met [Sam] about 10 o'clock that night in a hotel, we went through the team, looked at the squad, looked at a few things. He told me Keano [Robbie Keane] was coming in tomorrow and asked me what I thought. I felt it was a great idea because of the affinity Robbie has with the fans, his history with Leeds and the Premier League."

That was Tuesday May 2. On Wednesday, Robinson was taking training alongside Allardyce and Keane at Leeds' Thorp Arch training ground in preparation for a game against Manchester City.

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The trio were parachuted into a forest fire of a season with four games left to save the club's Premier League status. There was no director of football - Victor Orta did not agree with the board's decision to sack Javi Gracia and replace him with Allardyce, so he had to leave. There was nothing between the Whites and the drop zone, bar goal difference. And as Robinson himself knew from analysing Leeds' Elland Road draw with Leicester City, there was a likely confidence issue.

RESCUE BID - Karl Robinson and Robbie Keane arrived at Leeds United with Sam Allardyce as part of a four-game rescue bid to try and save the club's Premier League status. The trio were 'devastated' when relegation was confirmed, says Robinson. Pic: GettyRESCUE BID - Karl Robinson and Robbie Keane arrived at Leeds United with Sam Allardyce as part of a four-game rescue bid to try and save the club's Premier League status. The trio were 'devastated' when relegation was confirmed, says Robinson. Pic: Getty
RESCUE BID - Karl Robinson and Robbie Keane arrived at Leeds United with Sam Allardyce as part of a four-game rescue bid to try and save the club's Premier League status. The trio were 'devastated' when relegation was confirmed, says Robinson. Pic: Getty

But there was no thought of turning the opportunity down and though when he arrived Robinson says he found yet more reason for concern, he also met people willing to fight for the cause.

"I did the Leeds game against Leicester for Sky - Leeds were winning 1-0 and got hit late on, Vardy scored to make it 1-1," he told the YEP.

"I said to the gaffer 'last few games have been difficult for them, confidence might be low'. But there was no resistance from me, once he made the phone call. I don't think anyone gets those phone calls with four games to go. You know you're up against it from the moment you walk through any door, particularly to take on a challenge like we did. When we arrived I found that Leeds United have got unbelievable staff, incredible staff, some really good people and people who have been there for many, many years, physios and sports scientists. They were looking for something that I knew Sam would give them. I've worked with the gaffer before.

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"What really worried me after the first day was sitting down and seeing that the skip, [Liam] Cooper, wasn't available. Stuart Dallas you knew he was out for a long time, Tyler Adams walking around with a hamstring injury, Sinisterra out as well. These are big players. A lot of players were carrying little things and put the club before themselves. But there were some real strong characters wanting to work hard and they were fighting for the club and for each other."

In truth Leeds United were a mess. A horrible mess. The season began with Jesse Marsch in charge of a new-look team and wins over Chelsea and Wolves that reintroduced optimism to Elland Road. By the World Cup break Marsch had come under serious pressure thanks to an eight-game winless streak, before victories over Liverpool and Bournemouth gave him what only really amounted to a stay of execution.

For the second season in succession majority owner Andrea Radrizzani waited until February to make a change and after a period of chasing unobtainable managerial targets while 21s boss Michael Skubala took caretaker charge, Gracia was appointed. Once again optimism gave way to despair and damaging defeats. Gracia subsequently gave way to Allardyce.

Where do you even begin, with just four games left and a misshapen, out-of-form squad who are finding it difficult to score goals and finding many, varied ways of conceding them?

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"I think the big thing was we showed them respect, something we wanted obviously to be reciprocated as well," said Robinson.

"When we respect each other. I think naturally a work ethic comes along with that. I think fundamentally if you're happy within your workplace there is a higher level of performance and a higher output. Tactically we tried to reduce the goals we were conceding, tried to find an identity the players were actually suited for, tried to limit the mistakes we made and tried to simplify in all areas of the pitch. If you spoke to most of the players and anyone would say if the gaffer was there for a little bit longer we certainly would have won more games. It was just so late in the day, it was almost impossible to do anything other than take the pressure off the players and the gaffer did that unbelievably well."

Allardyce had barely had time to find his office at Thorp Arch before he sat in front of the media, taking the spotlight and scrutiny away from the players in a way that was destined to grab headlines. You'll remember the quote, but it's worth reliving.

"I might be 68 and look old, but there's nobody ahead of me in football terms - not Pep [Guardiola], not [Jurgen] Klopp, not [Mikel] Arteta," said Allardyce.

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"I'm not saying I'm better, but I'm certainly as good as they are."

Much to Allardyce's delight, there were some who actually engaged in debate over his utterance, which was pure mind games with the media. Robinson admires him for doing it.

"We bought into the football club as best we could to give Leeds United the best opportunity," he told the YEP.

"Sam did that in an unbelievable way, none more so than when he said what he did about Pep Guardiola. How many managers would have said something like that to take the pressure off the players and put it all on himself? He believed there was a bigger end game."

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That first game against Manchester City did not go as many expected. Yes, Guardiola's men carried on their merry way towards a treble with victory but with just a 2-1 lead they were nervy in the final stages. Leeds did not embarrass themselves, as they had done in previous weeks.

At the Etihad, both before and after the game, Robinson rounded up the players for moments of mutual appreciation with supporters who a few days earlier had delivered a deservedly damning response. It was obvious that getting the fans back onside was one of the new management team's aims.

"This is a real football club," explained Robinson.

"I made a big mistake saying no to it a long time ago and Sam always had a go at me for turning it down. I had my own reasons. I remember saying to the players this is as real a football club as you're going to get, we're only ever passing through the fans' club. They're with it from the day they're born until the day they pass, it's part of their life and we have a responsibility to let them know we care. The players do care, they really do. It's important to show that connection with the fans.

"The modern day Premier League is so disconnected from what you'd class as the yesteryear fans who bought season tickets, went to the pub before the game, supported the team and went home. It's changed now, it's become a global enterprise but Leeds United is still in touch with its core beliefs on the most important things and that's the fanbase. The players really wanted to show that, it wasn't me, it was the players."

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With the connection restored, a raucous Elland Road welcomed Newcastle United a week later for a 2-2 draw that could and should have been a vital victory. A missed penalty when 1-0 up proved a sliding doors moment. On to London and West Ham United and another 1-0 lead that wasn't built upon, leading to a 3-1 defeat.

"You look actually at the Newcastle game in its entirety, we were dominant in most aspects," said Robinson.

"The pace and power they possess in the final third is incredibly difficult to deal with but for large parts we dominated. I thought the first half at West Ham was very good. There were little moments where you just felt if we could sustain our level, our concentration, discipline, keep getting the basics right for longer periods then we would have had a chance. Unfortunately that comes from repeating things over and over again. That takes time. I don't think we had enough time to make what we did stick for longer periods. It's not the manager's fault, not the players' fault, it's just the circumstance of having four games to go."

Without a win in three, Leeds found themselves needing to beat Tottenham Hotspur, with snookers. Results elsewhere had to go their way. Within 120 seconds of the start, Spurs were ahead through Harry Kane and relegation was dawning on Elland Road.

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"They've got two of the best strikers in world football, on their day," said Robinson.

"When you possess that kind of quality, if they get it right on the day they will affect the game. We knew that was going to be a problem. No one said this internally but the West Ham game was the biggest sickener, after going a goal up. We never got that second goal to give ourselves a little bit of breathing space in any of the games. Newcastle at home, West Ham away, those moments when we could have gone 2-0. If we had, things might have been a bit different on the final day. We can all speak in hindsight but the facts are we never went 2-0 ahead and that's why we found ourselves on the last day needing a miracle to stay up. When they scored so early on, it was a sickening blow."

Sickening is the word Robinson uses to describe the feeling after a lap of the pitch that saw some players applauded and others booed.

Leeds United were beaten and fractured. There was despair in the dressing room and anger.

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"We were only ever going to be there for four weeks, but for three people who had only been in for three and a half weeks, it really hurt us," said Robinson. "It really did."

"I'll never reveal what players say in dressing rooms, I think it's a sacred place, but certain people at that club said things that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, about the forthcoming season.

"There are some real strong characters in there who believe in Leeds United. After the disappointment of last season, some of the things said about moving forward were true, honest and on-point. It told everyone to make sure that next season is a season to remember and one that ends with Leeds in the Premier League."

As for the management team, Robinson says they were 'devastated' and 'numb' and did not want to hang around or wallow.

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Their remit was four games and though Allardyce held ultimately fruitless talks with Angus Kinnear over a possible extension of the relationship and then proposed a Robinson-Keane management duo that the Whites did not explore, Robinson insists in his mind it was always just a short-term thing.

"We knew we were never gonna be in there next year," he said.

"So we started helping planning pre-season, planning for the next stage of the club's journey to make sure it was as easy as possible for the next manager to come in. It was a situation where we knew we were never going to stay anyway, that was the gaffer's stance on it. So it wasn't a case of where do we go with the club, it's making sure we did everything we could possibly do so it's in the best possible state to support the next manager."

Robinson was one of 13 assistant managers or first team coaches at Leeds last season. Ask them all why it ended in relegation and you might get several different theories, at least.

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"Certain aspects of recruitment maybe - I have my own theory on that, I could be incredibly critical but it would be unfair on things that had gone on before we went in," said Robinson.

"I think injuries at key stages were important as well. Losing Stuart Dallas is a big loss for Leeds United, not just his talent but his personality. Liam Cooper was out for key periods, losing Tyler Adams was a big loss. Seeing the pain Rodrigo played in, that man has gone up in my estimation so much. He was incredible. From what I was hearing there was a flippancy to defending at certain stages of the season maybe. Me just surmising from afar, injuries to key players had a big, big impact.

"When you get relegated, I've been there as a manager myself. Even in games you play well, you miss a penalty or a chance and the xG for the opposition is 0.2 and that ends up being a goal. You might have an xG of 3.2, so on the data there's no real possibility you've lost the game of football but when you're down there things just seem to happen. Look at the Newcastle game, Junior might have got away with the handball but he didn't. Look at West Ham, they had Bowen onside by centimetres. All of these key moments, even in the time we were there, didn't drop. And that becomes the theme of the season."

Since the season ended Robinson has been 'moseying' around Spain and France. We talk during a five-hour drive. Thinking time is plentiful, he has talked extensively with Keane about the Irishman's new job at Maccabi Tel Aviv and though the phone has buzzed with potential opportunities, he says he can appreciate time that is not filled with work.

"Football is a very strange world," he said.

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"You can be on the golf course one day and coaching on a training pitch at a Premier League club the next day. It's not something I get carried away with, I'm still only 42 years of age. I've done near 700 games but have a lot more learning to do to get to where I want to get to. I've got to keep my feet on the ground.

"I've turned down three opportunities. Weirdly the one I might have wanted didn't want me. Sometimes you don't want to take jobs because you don't think it's right for you at that particular time but then one might come up and yet you're not at the top of their list. I'll watch, I'll learn, go watch more games, get a better understanding of how to do things, look at different sports. I did something with the Navy about three months ago, before I went into Leeds, seeing how they think and act. This is an opportunity for me to learn and be better for the next job that comes along."

Though it did not end the way he wanted, Robinson is adamant that he doesn't regret saying yes to Allardyce and Leeds, not least because it finally gave him the inside Elland Road experience he once turned down.

"I don't regret taking the phone call from Sam and if I had that chance again I'd do exactly the same thing," he said.

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"There are very few people I would have done that for. Sam has been like a father figure to me in the industry, I've spoken to my parents about how good he's been for me in my career. I think he has belief in me as a coach and a manager. I've had some difficult times, some private things in the past six months that have impacted my stability as a manager. I needed that break away from football but the time I spent at Leeds has really fuelled my fire to get back into it. The fact that someone like Sam sees that in me makes me incredibly proud.

"Having been offered the job such a long time ago, it was nice to see the power of that club in its entirety. It's so big. So much bigger than what I first thought. The fanbase, the support mechanism.

"I loved the stories of Bielsa. Listening to the people there, the impact he had on them and maybe how far away the club went since then. He was really good. The discipline he had, the connection with the fans that made them that 12th man. Even through the time of Covid-19 you could still feel the intensity of the fans at Leeds United.

"Whoever goes in next will be so proud to manage Leeds United."