“It’s about being part of a bigger story than yourself,” says Jamie Robinson, describing how he connects his involvement in Carlisle United’s iconic team of 1994/5 to his current work in the Premier League with Nottingham Forest.

Robinson knew the rich value of togetherness at a member of Mick Wadsworth’s enduringly popular Carlisle squad. Now, as first-team coach under Steve Cooper, that unity resonates down the years.

“I’m not a Cumbrian, but I felt a great affinity with the warmth of the area, the people, and how we were all together,” says the former defender of those 1990s days. “It was epitomised when we got back together last year for the reunion.

“We’ve had all our trials and tribulations, but you could see the characteristics of the group straight away. I would describe that period as serious fun. We’ve talked about that here at Forest, especially when we’ve got so many new players. It’s up to us to make it a collective. You’re not just here as a one-man band – you’re part of a bigger, more connected story.”

Robinson exemplified the meaning of team spirit at United at the times in ‘94/5 when the Liverpudlian had to play a supporting role to the club’s front-line centre-backs of Dean Walling and Derek Mountfield.

While Robinson still contributed considerably to an era of exciting success, the experience helped to mould a mindset which he took into roles with the Football Association and Professional Footballers’ Association.

He is fascinating on these topics – and also compelling on the time of his life when he was challenged emotionally and physically by cancer. He underwent treatment from 2017 to 2019 and, happily on the other side of it now, reflects candidly on the experience.

“I had some pains in my back, and it was a blood-related cancer that manifests and shows itself in the bone,” he says. “I had a vertebra taken out and a metal plate placed in my back, and a range of different treatments.

“Eighteen months later, it was all sorted. I think it’s the best and worst thing anyone can go through. I certainly feel blessed to have gone through it. With my family and friends, wife and parents and kids…it brings you closer together and gives an understanding what life’s all about.”

News and Star: Jamie Robinson is third from right on the middle row in United's famous 1994/5 'deckchair army' squadJamie Robinson is third from right on the middle row in United's famous 1994/5 'deckchair army' squad (Image: Stuart Roy Clarke)

When Robinson was undergoing treatment, he spoke to the Carlisle manager Paul Simpson, someone he knew from FA work and through Simpson’s period of work in Robinson’s home town of Shrewsbury.

Simpson had also faced cancer, and I ask Robinson what I had asked Simpson last year: did the volatile pressures of football in some way equip him with a certain hardness for dealing with the illness?

“It’s a great question. I think football did help me more than anything," he says. "The ability to take one day at a time – even in training, you just have to run every day and just do your best. That’s all I would do when going through treatment.

“I certainly had some low moments. At one point if I wanted to go upstairs, I had to go and have a lie down on the bed after that. That’s pretty low, physically, to think that’s how tired you were and where your body was with what it was trying to fight.

“The emotional side too – as a footballer, when you lose, you feel pretty devastated. There was an emotional rollercoaster [with cancer] too. I cried every day for the last three weeks – but realised, ‘It’s ok, you’re gonna be ok, accept it’.”

Robinson, as Simpson did, politely rejects the idea that cancer has transformed his outlook on life. “I don’t think you’re fundamentally a different type of person,” he says. “Although I certainly think it helped me. Lots of sports people are pretty self-absorbed and obsessive, and that can be to the detriment of your family and people who matter most to you.

“When I had my job at the FA I’d be sat at home, on the couch, and my missus would say, ‘You’re here, but not really here, are you?’ I remember my kids asking me a question and going, ‘Dad, you’re not listening are you?’

“I think, [since cancer] I’ve definitely thought harder about being ‘in the room’ with the people who matter the most. Because who knows how long you’re going to be in the room for?”

Robinson’s connection to Carlisle began in March 1994. He had previously moved from Liverpool to Barnsley, where he worked under Wadsworth, going on to rejoin the Yorkshireman when he was director of coaching at Brunton Park in the surging early years of Michael Knighton’s ownership.

“I joined purely for Mick,” he says. “I liked the way he thought about coaching, trying to help us get better. We were coached in a thoughtful, progressive kind of way and that appealed to me. I didn’t play many games at Barnsley, and when Mick said, ‘Are you gonna come and play for us?’, I was, ‘Yeah – where do I sign?’”

Robinson joined an emerging side that was bound for the Division Three play-offs. Carlisle would lose to Wycombe Wanderers in those, but the following season dominated the fourth tier with a characterful side where young Cumbrians blended with canny, experienced customers and thrusting operators like David Reeves.

News and Star: Robinson, back left, with his United team-mates at last October's 1994/5 reunion at Harraby Catholic ClubRobinson, back left, with his United team-mates at last October's 1994/5 reunion at Harraby Catholic Club (Image: Barbara Abbott)

Robinson enjoyed the surroundings as well as the club. “Barnsley had been only 67 miles from my house [in Liverpool] but could have been on the other side of the world,” he says. “It was just after the miners’ strike, pits had closed and it was quite a depressed area economically, even socially in many regards. I’d grown up in Liverpool and my family were upbeat, positive, lively, humorous.

“It was still an experience I valued, but I felt more affinity with Cumbrians in terms of their outlook on life, that down-to-earthness. It’s not particularly Scouse, but it’s really northern. Positively upbeat.”

United’s signing of the illustrious Mountfield in the summer of 1994 meant Robinson had to be content with a position further to the fringe. He was a regular substitute and contributed in stages. “As Jeff Thorpe said at the reunion, we were a bit of the support act in many ways, but you just had to understand what your role was and how it was at the time.

“I enjoyed and was respectful about being a professional footballer. You made it as hard as you could for the staff to leave you out, and if they wanted to play Dean and Derek, I had to go, ‘Ok, I’m employed by the club to do a job for you and I’ll do that to the best of my ability’. I think me and Jeff did that really well in that season.”

Both men came off the bench in a stunning early-season comeback win at Scunthorpe which will forever be remembered for Thorpe’s late goals. Other involvements included a headed Robinson goal in a top-of-the-table clash with Chesterfield, and Carlisle swept to the title.

“The abiding memory would be the way the season came together,” he says. “It was really rewarding, knowing you’d contributed to a really brilliant team and squad effort, and you’d been judged the best team in the league. You couldn’t take that away from us.”

News and Star: Paul Tait celebrates Birmingham's winner against Carlisle in the 1995 Auto-Windscreens Shield finalPaul Tait celebrates Birmingham's winner against Carlisle in the 1995 Auto-Windscreens Shield final (Image: PA)

United also, historically, reached Wembley for the first time in the Auto-Windscreens Shield, the ‘deckchair army’ marching on Wembley against Birmingham City. “There were more people there than for the Liverpool-Bolton game in the League Cup final,” Robinson says. “It was just a fantastic day that pulled everyone together. I don’t think any of us will ever forget it. Just a shame we were on the wrong side of the result…”

Robinson replaced Mountfield ten minutes into extra-time, yet three minutes later Birmingham’s Paul Tait headed the ‘golden goal winner’.

“I really enjoyed being a footballer, and I hope that always comes across, but there’s always that thought, ‘Could I have marked Paul Tait a bit better, seen his run?’” he says. “The professional sportsman in you wants to have done better.

“But to play under the old Twin Towers…it’s something I can tell my kids, and maybe their grandkids…that their old grandad managed to play at Wembley.”

United capped 1994/5 with the championship, crowning Wadsworth as one of the club’s most memorable managers, the team’s colourful nature in contrast with his sometimes dour image. “His personality came alive on the training pitch,” Robinson says. “Clearly he had some Mick Wadsworth-esque moments where the world would be a miserable place, and we were like, ‘Come on, we’re gonna be ok!’ But I think he put us together in a way where we had a range of personalities that were pretty positive and upbeat.

“Like any head coach or manager, you should be judged by the quality of people who work with you. He was pretty down with us at times but we were upbeat, reflecting his darker, gloomier moments.”

Robinson also recalls Wadsworth’s assistant and eventual successor Mervyn Day as “one of the most thinking and forward-thinking people I’ve met in football to date.

“I’m not gonna be too scathing about the characters at Liverpool and Barnsley…but there was a lot of swearing. Mervyn was articulate, bright, thoughtful,” he says. “If he’s like that as a coach, I remember thinking, I can be a coach. I’m into this.”

News and Star: Robinson says former Carlisle coach and manager Mervyn Day was one of the most forward-thinking men he played underRobinson says former Carlisle coach and manager Mervyn Day was one of the most forward-thinking men he played under (Image: News & Star)

Robinson was not the archetypal 1990s footballer, in that he was an avid reader and Radio 4 listener, and as such at the mercy of old-school ribbing. But he says this was never hostile at United.

“At Carlisle, I was made to feel that in any situation you can be authentic – you don’t have to hide your true self from anyone.

“Yeah, I got a bit of stick for reading books when at home with Edmo [Darren Edmondson] and his mates. ‘You read The Guardian? What are you doing?! Get a grip of yourself!’ I know there’s a thin line between banter and things that become more bullying, but this was good humoured, well intended, and there was never any malice in the conversation. When we needed each other we were always there.”

Robinson also learned from Joe Joyce, Peter Hampton and David Wilkes, and the way the coaches ran a “talent factory” of young Cumbrian players such as Paul Murray, Matt Jansen, Lee Peacock, Tony Hopper, Will Varty, Tony Caig and Rory Delap. This helped nurture Robinson’s thoughts towards the other side of the line when his career eventually ended.

This happened after spells with Torquay United, Exeter City and Chester City, a stage when Robinson’s thoughts were broadening about how he might help others in the game. “I definitely felt a wider responsibility for my performance in recognition of how the team needs to do. I wasn’t a very selfish player. If I look back, did I do what was right for Jamie Robinson over what Mick and Mervyn felt was right?

“I started a distance learning degree when I was at Carlisle. At Torquay, at 27, I did a sports science degree. I really enjoyed getting into coaching philosophy, sociology of sport, a bit of psychology. The next five years then was thinking about coaching, teaching, developing, empowering players. Thinking about all that had started for me at Carlisle.”

Robinson was a course mate of Paul Simpson on the sports science degree, and encountered Steve Cooper when they were coaching Shrewsbury and Wrexham’s under-16s respectively. It was some years before they would come together again, since Robinson duly went into a regional coaching position with the PFA and a job as head of professional game coach development with the FA.

“There were good people at the FA, people like Dan Ashworth and Justin Price,” he says, “and we established a unique kind of coach development group that were embedded in professional football culture – invited and respected to go into clubs and help coaches with their work on the ground, in their context.

News and Star: After leaving Carlisle in 1997, Robinson played for Torquay (pictured), Exeter and Chester before moving into coaching, leading to roles with the PFA and FAAfter leaving Carlisle in 1997, Robinson played for Torquay (pictured), Exeter and Chester before moving into coaching, leading to roles with the PFA and FA (Image: PA)

“It wasn’t just a case of going in with an FA folder, putting it on someone’s desk and saying, ‘the answers are in here’. The answers are usually with the person on the other side of the desk from you. It was an empowering ethos, the one I’m most proud of. That was my philosophy and upbringing in football and life.”

Robinson latterly spent time inside Nottingham Forest – and, in the summer, was invited to leave the FA and join the club permanently as they climbed back to the Premier League under the inspired management of Cooper.

“The itch for me came when I went into the club and felt I wanted to go back in the next day to see what the lads made of what we were doing. And the opportunity to work in the Premier League, in a modern, progressive set-up…it was a case of, ‘Yeah, I’m in’.”

Robinson says his job involves transferring the ‘big-picture’ coaching visions he is used to forming at the FA into the fine detail of day-to-day playing demands. Has he found any surprises back in the club environment?

“Good question. I think, from my playing days, PFA work, and FA work, you realise the players are essentially really good people. When you see these lads day in, day out, they are genuinely hard-working, humble and want to get better.

“That’s maybe not being a surprise but a further endorsement. It gives you great empathy with them. Your hard work is on behalf of their determination to be footballers. They’ve only got a small period, and I remember how short the career is.”

Robinson marvels at the levels of Premier League players. “The physical capabilities of some of these lads is just outrageous. They’re not normal in that sense. The demands the game places on them at top level…these are extraordinary athletes.

“Then there are the psychological demands. The Premier League is a world stage. When you lose 6-0 to Man City, it’s front page news in Nottingham, and it goes further than that. I see this pressure more being in the club, rather than watching it ringside.”

Forest, earlier this season, resisted the temptation to sack Cooper amid a troubled run of results, instead backing him with a new contract, since when the team have grown. That team includes the Cumbrian goalkeeper Dean Henderson, who is on loan from Manchester United.

News and Star: Jamie Robinson says Dean Henderson, left, is a top performer, while says Forest coaches speak highly of Fin Back, rightJamie Robinson says Dean Henderson, left, is a top performer, while says Forest coaches speak highly of Fin Back, right (Image: PA, Barbara Abbott)

Robinson speaks highly of the 25-year-old. “He’s a great lad with got loads of potential. He’s obviously a top performer currently. But you get the sense he’s got loads more development in him, which is exciting.”

Henderson’s confidence has always been right at the surface, but Robinson says: “It’s still respectful. I don’t think it’s overly egotistical. You want that confidence to be backed up in his performance, in the way his persona is with the players. It’s ‘Schmeichel-esque’, in many ways. Alisson at Liverpool, Ederson – they’re super-confident without screaming and shouting about it.”

Carlisle and Forest are also familiar through the Blues’ loaning of the impressive Fin Back this season. Robinson is yet to coach Back but says: “Guys I work with, like Andy Reid who took the under-21s, speak highly of him.

“You just want him to grasp it, enjoy playing for a good manager and good club, at a good standard.”

Robinson also speaks glowingly of Cooper. “I think his coaching skills are second to none. When he’s on the field and with the players, and in the meeting room, he’s brilliant, in terms of being inspirational, informative, knowledgeable, empathetic with their perspective.

News and Star: Robinson joined Steve Cooper's Nottingham Forest coaching team in the summerRobinson joined Steve Cooper's Nottingham Forest coaching team in the summer (Image: PA)

“The way he thinks about tactics is really clever and progressive. We’ve got the biggest test of that now, operating in the world’s best league, and he’s humble enough to recognise what a challenge we’ve got in front of us.”

Robinson says he has never coveted a management job, preferring a supportive role where his development and empathetic instincts can have the greatest effect. He also says that, wherever his coaching road leads, he will also forever be shaped by his time at Liverpool, whether from the coaching of Kenny Dalglish, Ronnie Moran and Roy Evans, or the despicable injustices of the Hillsborough disaster, which happened when Robinson was a 17-year-old player with the club.

“That affected me,” he says. “What happened being so ridiculously, inaccurately and illegally documented made me angry for many years.

“I had friends behind the goal who fortunately survived, and there were a few lads I knew through others who died. It’s a difficult thing to deal with when you’re 17 – thinking that people went to a football match, and nearly a hundred didn’t come back.

“Liverpool fans being told they were the culprits…that went to the core of my values and beliefs, in terms of thinking about fairness, and the cornerstones of what I felt about life and treating people.”

It is no wonder, I remark, that Liverpool carries strong anti-establishment ethics. The former Conservative chancellor Geoffrey Howe’s urging of Margaret Thatcher to pursue a policy of “managed decline” in the city in the 1980s embedded fundamental views.

“If you’re from that part of the world, you feel...not left on your own, maybe, but quite…provincial?” Robinson says.

“I felt Cumbrians had the same pride at being from Cumbria, and Carlisle, as people from Liverpool felt about Liverpool. If I’m on holiday and hear a Cumbrian accent, I’ll go over and have a chat. I’m always proud to say I had a few years up there. I feel I’ve got an affinity with people like that.”

The affinity with those people with whom he shared a dressing room in the 1990s is also powerful. Robinson, at last October’s reunion, spoke poignantly about the late Tony Hopper, and mentioned his own health ordeal as he stressed the need to make the most of life. There was great emotion and warmth in the room.

Robinson stays in touch with people like Murray, Walling, Edmondson, Thorpe and his close pal Reeves. “We’re like a band of brothers, really,” he says. “When you look across the room, you know you had shared experiences you can never replicate.

“It’s what creates these lifelong bonds. I feel quite privileged, really.”