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Best of Luck to You Barry

Back in May of last year I questioned whether Barry Robson really could walk on water. As delightful as it would have been to find my doubts unfounded, the cynic in me couldn't get past the fact that a Euro-transplant somewhat north of 30 might have some trouble carrying the franchise on his back.

The pride of Inverurie: Barry Robson during his MLS stint with the Whitecaps
The pride of Inverurie: Barry Robson during his MLS stint with the Whitecaps
Victor Decolongon

Though the piece was tinged with a messianic theme, little did I know at the time that it wasn't the team that he'd soon be bearing, but the weight of several worlds, and a crucifix - one that he'd largely hewn himself.

Slow fade back to mid-February 2012, when the Vancouver Whitecaps announced the signing of Barry Robson as their third ever Designated Player, and the first such arrow to be loaded into the Caps' quiver by coach Martin Rennie. The then 33-year-old Scottish international midfielder had inked a three-year deal worth $600,000 per season.

His credentials were, and remain, impressive - certainly in a market that had gone a long time since seeing the home side field a veteran with such pedigree, including:

  • 115 Scottish Premier League matches (Dundee United, Celtic)
  • 87 English Championship matches (Middlesbrough)
  • 15 Scottish National Team appearances
  • Experience in UEFA Champions League, Europa League, World Cup and Euro qualifiers

Robson arrived in Vancouver in June 2012 after two and a half seasons with Middlesbrough, where he'd notched 19 goals and 21 assists in that time, and earning Player of the Year accolades from both club and supporters in his final year there.

Whitecaps assistant coach Paul Ritchie had been a teammate of Robson's for two years at Dundee United, so the "Ginger Whinger", as Robson had long been known in the UK, was certainly not an unknown commodity. This, and the fact that Robson, Ritchie, and Rennie all share a common heritage seemed to bode well.

The future looked bright indeed. And at the media conference introducing Robson, coach Martin Rennie had this to say:

"For us, he's a great addition to our team. The good thing for us is we've got a good team, we've got a lot of good players, and now Barry can come in and add to that. He doesn't have to come in and take over, and do things that are unreasonable to ask of any player. He can come in and be a part of a very strong team."

I'm not sure if Robbie Burns was an SPL fan, but when he penned "...the best laid schemes 'o mice 'an men...," it would seem to indicate that he understood all too well the intricacies of managing a football team.

Whether it was miscommunication, cross-cultural interference, bad timing, or just plain old miscalculation, taking over seemed to be precisely what Robson understood to be his mission. From the start, the fiery Scot was determined to assert his will, and put his leadership stamp on the team - despite the presence of quiet leader Y. P. Lee, and not-so-quiet anchor (and team captain) Jay DeMerit.

Whatever the intentions of the man, who admittedly wears his heart on his sleeve, Robson's attempts to inject a little Celtic fire to perhaps offset the cool, cerebral, sometimes detached demeanor of Martin Rennie backfired horribly. There was the much-discussed arm flailing and berating, the on-field tete-a-tete with DeMerit, the suspension for abuse of an official, and the apocalyptically poor showing versus Portland near the end of last season.

This was the just the part of the iceberg that we could see, but apparently, at least according to the Whitecaps, there were other factors at play - namely that the Robson family were unable to adjust to life in their new location.

One would have to think, however, that if the family was having troubles settling in Vancouver, the time to have declared as much would have come early in the off-season, not on the first day of training camp. In either case, it doesn't appear that the Robsons were all that determined to make a go of it - lasting all of just six months in Canada.

We'll never know with certainty if Robson's early departure was for reasons that were political or practical, or if his leaving was a matter of the heart or just stone cold business. And I doubt it's even useful to distill what happened on the pitch, and what may have transpired off it. As much as the man could, at times, fill me with waves of seething contempt, so too did he utterly amaze me with the thunder and conviction in the way he struck the ball.

Barry Robson was at times the most visible man on the field during his brief tenure with the Whitecaps, and yet also the one that many of us couldn't quite come to embrace, understand or appreciate. Though Robson's chapter in the volume that is the Whitecaps' history is condemned to be a short one, it's still a worthwhile read.