The Men Who Made Middlesbrough – John “Jack” Robson

42 men have taken charge of Middlesbrough Football Club’s first team in either a fulltime, interim or caretaker role since the club joined the Football League in 1899.

There’s been men like Thomas H. McIntosh who oversaw Boro’s best league finish when his side finished 3rd in the First Division in 1914, Steve McClaren who became the first and only Middlesbrough manager to bring major silverware back to Teesside and the legendary Jack Charlton and his Second Division flyers.

There have been stalwarts like Bob Dennison and Stan Anderson who led Middlesbrough for a combined 16 years and 713 games and those like Andy Walker, Gordon Strachan and Garry Monk that barely made an imprint on their office chairs before leaving.

There have been 8 Scots, one Welshman and Middlesbrough’s only foreign boss Aitor Karanka.

They’ve led the team to promotions, relegations, cup finals and Europe and in some way made a mark on the club that now finds itself under the leadership of Chris Wilder.

Every win, draw and defeat has helped to shape Middlesbrough Football Club as a professional outfit. The man that made those first impressions and paved the way for the more well known and more celebrated names that would follow was John Robson.

Robson, widely known and recorded in history as Jack, was born in Gainford on May 26th 1860. Little is known of Robson’s upbringing in Durham but he became involved in the behind-the-scenes running of Middlesbrough Football Club following his involvement in Middlesbrough Swifts – this was Middlesbrough’s reserve side where Robson played as a goalkeeper.

Having reverted to amateur status in 1892, after a brief period where the town had two professional clubs in Middlesbrough FC and Middlesbrough Ironopolis and a failed amalgamation between the two, the Boro were elected back into the Football League for the 1899-1900 season narrowly edging out Blackpool for a place in the Second Division.

This came after dominating the local and national amateur scene with the club winning the FA Amateur Cup in 1895 and 1898.

With the club now a professional outfit, Robson accepted a new role as secretary-manager of the football club, having held a number of roles in the day-to-day running of the club during the prior years at amateur level.

A notorious penny-pincher, Robson did not attend away games with the team as a way of saving money for the club and this may have led to Boro not recording an away win in their inaugural season in the Second Division.

John “Jack” Robson in all his finery

That first year in the Football League saw Robson’s side finish 14th out of 18 sides after gaining 24 points, which meant they finished above Burton Swifts, Barnsley, Luton Town and Loughborough. It took the Boro until their 5th game against Grimsby Town to get their first win, beating The Mariners 1-0, after losing three and drawing one of their opening four games.

Some of the standout results in that first season in the Second Division were an 8-1 victory over Burton Swifts, wins against Arsenal (1-0) and Manchester United (2-0) at home and beating New Brighton Tower 5-2. Outside left Charles Pugh finished the season as top scorer with 7 goals.

Robson’s men had to suffer their fair share of whippings as the new boys of the division as well, losing 5-1 to Small Heath, 7-1 to Chesterfield Town and 5-0 defeats in the space of a fortnight to Barnsley and Burton Swifts.

Willie Wardrope

As was the trend for English teams in the 1800s and early 1900s, Middlesbrough attracted reinforcements from Scotland for their second season in the Second Division. A new-look Boro led by Scots Willie Wardrope, Alexander “Sandy” Robertson, John Wilkie and Andrew McCowie helped Boro to a 6th placed finish.

Now more acclimatised to the demands of professional football and with the added firepower of their Scottish quartet, Robson’s Boro recorded their first away victory since their election into the Football League by beating Chesterfield Town 3-2 on 22nd September 1900.

Robertson (16) and Wardrope (14) scored 30 goals between them while Wilkie hit 5 of his 10 goals that season in a 9-2 win over Gainsborough Trinity.

Middlesbrough also enjoyed an important FA Cup result that year, beating local rivals Newcastle 3-1 in the First Round.

The 1901-02 season saw John Robson become the first manager in Middlesbrough’s history to achieve promotion, as his side finished 2nd behind West Brom to clinch a spot in the following year’s First Division, finishing 9 points ahead of 3rd placed Preston.

This version of Robson’s side was Boro’s first great team in the Football League era. They scored 90 goals and only conceded 24 goals which is a club record that still stands today.

Spearheaded by the lethal combination of John Brearley, Joseph Cassidy and the returning Wardrope, Boro scored 5 or more goals in 8 games during the league season which included a 5-0 win over Manchester United.

The team also opened 1902 by scoring 16 goals without reply in 18 days across games against Burton United (5-0), Stockport County (6-0) and Glossop North End (5-0).

Brearley in his Spurs days

Brearley, a utility man who could play in any of the forward positions, finished as top scorer with 22 goals. Brearley would go on to play for Everton, Tottenham and Crystal Palace before coaching in Germany at Viktoria 89 Berlin during the outbreak of WW1. This led Brearley to be interned at Ruhleben, a civilian detention centre in Berlin.

Under Robson’s guidance, Middlesbrough looked to have made the transition to First Division football with relative ease at the start of the 1902/03 season with back-to-back 1-0 wins against the well-established Blackburn Rovers and Everton.

However, reality set in over the course of the season with a run of 8 games without a win over the winter period dragging the Boro into a relegation battle with Grimsby Town, Bolton and Notts County.

Robson’s side did manage to avoid the drop due to critical victories in April 1903 over Blackburn (4-0) and Derby (3-1), while doing the double over rivals Newcastle meant Middlesbrough finished ahead of their neighbours in 13th on 32 points.

Postcard from Boro’s first league game at Ayresome Park

John Robson’s duty as secretary-manager also meant that he helped to oversee the club’s move from Linthorpe Road to the plush new Ayresome Park stadium, with the first games being played at the ground Boro would call home for the next 92 years in the 1903/04 season.

The move to the new ground, which coincided with legendary goalkeeper Tim Williamson making his breakthrough into the team, helped to establish the Boro as a genuine professional outfit with an increased capacity and modern (at the time!) architecture.

Boro finished 10th during their first season at Ayresome Park, with notable wins against Liverpool and Everton, as centre forward Sandy Brown led the team with 17 goals. Despite the improvement in league position, the season was one of missed opportunity.

Having beaten Manchester City 6-0 earlier in the league season, Boro faced them at home in front of a record-breaking estimated gate of 33,000 fans in a quarter-final replay in the FA Cup. With the original tie ending 0-0 Man City, somewhat surprisingly, won the replay 3-1 and would go onto win the trophy.

Robson’s final season in charge on Teesside will forever be linked to the decision to sign Alf Common for £1000 from Sunderland. With Middlesbrough facing a gigantic task to avoid relegation, the club sitting 17th in the 18 team First Division in February 1905, Robson and the board decided to move for Common.

The £1000 man

Having previously attempted to sign the inside forward when he was at Sheffield United two years before, Boro stumped up a new world record fee of £1000 which sent shockwaves around the footballing world. The deal was even discussed in Parliament and we’ll be taking a deep dive on Common very soon.

While the transfer caused outrage across the league, Common’s four goals in 10 games helped his new team to snatch survival from the jaws of relegation, with Boro narrowly avoiding the drop by 2 points. Not that it would have mattered in the end though as both divisions were restructured in the summer to feature 20 teams so nobody was relegated from the First Division!

In May 1905, John “Jack” Robson ended his longstanding relationship with Middlesbrough F.C. and he would be replaced by Sunderland’s infamous player-manager Alex Mackie. Mackie’s involvement in the footballing payments scandal saw him voluntarily quit less than 12 months later.

Robson went on to be the secretary-manager at Crystal Palace and Brighton, enjoying particular success at the Seagulls by winning 5 trophies in 6 years, before being headhunted for the top job at Manchester United.

At United, Robson would revolutionise football management as he started the concept of solely being a manager and dispensing with secretary responsibilities.

While secretary-manager of Middlesbrough, “Jack” oversaw 215 games of which the club won 82, drew 47 and lost 86. More than that, Robson helped establish the club as a real professional outfit, helped oversee the move to Ayresome Park and crafted the first great Middlesbrough F.C. side in the 1901/02 season. Middlesbrough remained a First Division side until 1924.

Thank you Mr Robson.

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