Remembering fans’ favourite Graham Robinson’s spell with Whitby Town
As a football fan, while you may not like it, you grow to love particular footballers.
It can be for any number of reasons. Longevity plays as big a part as any. Impressive records, in terms of goalscoring and goalkeeping, will always stand you in good stead.
Leading as a captain or a manager through the successes also win you places in the hearts of fans. Being a good character has you remembered fondly too.
The players who are usually afforded the most time, however, are the Whitby lads.
It’s suggested, sometimes jokingly and sometimes seriously, that in Whitby you would need to be living in the town for at least 25 years before you’re accepted by the locals. To achieve that in anything less would be an achievement.
In footballing terms, you can be accepted almost instantly at Whitby Town but you have to do things the right way. You have to work hard on the pitch, be polite and engage with fans off it.
f you score goals or keep clean sheets, it’s an added bonus. If you display the former two, you’ll do for the Blues’ fans, and they will back you with everything.
Local players are accepted, no questions asked. Who doesn’t want to see their town’s inhabitants turning out in the club’s colours after all? It’s about civic pride.
Generally, the bulk of Whitby’s squads are pulled together from the Teesside regions - more so since the Northern Premier League level has continued to develop in strength over the years, much like the Northern League below it too.
But, rolling back to the mid-90s Whitby was still producing players consistently to turn out for the club. Fishburn Park were particularly strong in the local leagues; the Sunday League was represented strongly in the town also. Players that had turned out for Whitby would often turn out on a Sunday too, the likes of Steve Harland. Local football was strong.
One player emerging on the local scene was Graham Robinson. A forward with the ability to operate in the wide areas, who had an impressive goalscoring record. His backstory, however, wasn’t your average “Whitby lad’s”. In fact, he wasn’t really a Whitby lad at all.
Robinson’s father Malcolm was born in Liverpool, before moving to Grosmont and then onto Robin Hood’s Bay as a child. While his mother stayed, Malcolm found his way to London, becoming a Police Officer. There, while patrolling Downing Street, he would meet Graham’s mother - a South African native - and marry. The honeymoon was in Johannesburg, and Malcolm loved the place so much, the newlyweds chose to set up home there.
Graham came along in 1973, growing up through the height of Apartheid in the country.
His formative years would come amid a backdrop of key events, most notably the Township uprisings around Johannesburg through the mid-to-late 80s.
However, despite how the country was then, Robinson’s parents would encourage him to play as part of multi-racial teams, and sent him to a multi-racial school.
At this point, there were still a number of white-only schools in the area in which Robinson grew up. A compassionate man in adulthood, the former Whitby striker described in a recent podcast with myself how hard it was growing up seeing white-only buses and the likes.
Robinson to this day credits his parents for an upbringing that allowed him to see a number of sides to South Africa in those formative years. His work visits to South Africa, with Sunderland and the Premier League have allowed him to see the Nelson Mandela Archives, including Mandela’s incarceration diaries, with his parents - an emotional trip for Robinson’s mother in particular as a South African native.
In terms of football, his matches as part of multi-racial teams would see him travel to the Townships outside Johannesburg - places that would be considered daunting for white people to go and play.
There were complications too in the fact that the teams often came up against players who didn’t have birth certificates, so people often couldn’t tell the age of the players they were coming up against. Because Robinson and his teammates came up against players who were often bigger, stronger and quicker, it made them grow up quickly at times.
In that respect, Robinson was fortunate. He was athletic, he could move around, and quickly, nicking the ball off defenders who often dallied on the ball.
Growing up he wouldn’t only play football. His school sport was mostly rugby, where he would play at fly-half; he played cricket too - a sport he admits he wasn’t quite as good at.
Originally his father wanted to mould Graham and his brother into goalkeepers - a position he played himself - though Graham soon realised that it’d be pointless to have two goalkeepers in the family, and settled as a forward instead, playing for his local team. Often, though, he would play as a left winger due to a shortage of left-footed players, even though he was right-footed himself.
As a young, aspiring footballer, Robinson played at the top levels of his age groups, representing the South African national team up to under-21 level - a generation that would help to form the bulk of the famous 1996 Bafana Bafana team who went on to win the African Cup of Nations - their first-ever appearance in the tournament after an exile of more than 20 years during the Apartheid time.
Robinson would never hit that height with his nation - by that time he was turning out for Harry Dunn’s Whitby Town - but many of the players he appeared alongside growing up - the likes of Lucas Radebe, Mark Fish and Philemon Masinga who would go on to carve their own paths in English football - would.
Radebe would captain Leeds United on their European adventures around the Millenium, while Masinga would make history, becoming the first black South African footballer to play in the Premier League. Such was the talent of Robinson, he was up there with the players who went on to be legends in his homeland.
As with any young person, however, Robinson had ambitions to travel and see the world. After doing his national service, he would go on to do so.
While his father Malcolm had moved to Johannesburg back in the late 60s, his grandmother had remained in Robin Hood’s Bay. That would be his first port of call in 1994, a place he’d visited for Christmases and holidays since he was a child, and somewhere that he loved.
He was told he’d never stick it out in the UK with the cold weather and that he loved the hot weather too much - it’s amazing how wrong people can be.
At this point, Robinson was still harbouring ambitions of making it in the professional game. He was writing to clubs, looking for trials - some coming to fruition. Leeds United, Scarborough and Preston North End among others had a look at him, though nothing ultimately came of those brief spells.
While he was looking for trials, Robinson kept himself busy. He was playing football on Sundays for Fylingdales FC, and doing bar work in Robin Hood’s Bay. Saturdays were soon added to the playing agenda too, as he joined Fishburn Park, then managed by Phil Burton.
‘Robbo’ had gone from rock-hard pitches in Johannesburg to the winter pitches of the Teesside League, soft, bobbly and left a lot to be desired - but it’s an experience he loved, and still considers himself grateful for today. Experiences and opportunities made him the man he is today.
Park were strong at the time and picking up trophies. Such was their strength, Whitby Town were watching and it wasn’t long before Bobby Scaife came knocking for Robinson, in 1995, a move for which Burton gave his full blessing.
He made his Seasiders debut against West Auckland Town, though was only at the club for a relatively short time before heading for a couple of spells playing in Sweden.
He would return to the club, however, and earn his own place in the hearts of Whitby Town supporters.
His tireless performances running the channels alongside Paul Pitman in the club’s epic 1996/97 campaign earned him the adulation of the supporters.
As the season went on, he and a select group of teammates kept developing goal celebrations, including their fishing celebration to commemorate the town’s heritage, which involved three or four players reeling the goalscorer in.
That season, one of Robinson’s twenty strikes would come in the FA Cup replay epic with Hull City - a game which the Seasiders would lose 8-4 inevitably. He would also feature up front alongside Pitman at Wembley in the number nine shirt.
He’d have his hands on the FA Vase trophy by the end of that day, and be doing interviews in front of the Endeavour Replica the next. Mike Hall and Steve Harland were the out-and-out Whitby lads in the Whitby party that day, but Robbo was the next best thing.
He would have a season with Gateshead, testing himself at Conference level, before returning to Whitby in 1998. From there, he helped the club establish themselves in the Northern Premier League Premier Division, becoming a regular fixture on the team sheet for the most part.
He would play his part tormenting defenders when the Seasiders got to the FA Cup first round again in 2001, again scoring in the replay at Home Park when the Seasiders took on Paul Sturrock’s Plymouth Argyle.
But Robbo wasn’t just a Whitby Town player. He was a Whitby Town clubman. When a blunder staffing a Blues supporters’ 40th birthday party in the Turnbull Ground clubhouse came to a head, Robinson stepped in to man the bar - a mark of the man that he is. Always willing to lend a hand, no matter the situation.
That being said, there were dark times too at the Turnbull Ground for the South African.
In 2005, Robinson was ruled out for a long spell following a health scare, thanks to a blood clot from a knee injury that travelled to his heart, causing a blockage.
The forward was told by doctors to quit the game, though ultimately managed to find his way back to fitness - making a “conscious decision” that if he was going to go, he was “going to go doing what he enjoyed”.
Ultimately his time with the club would come to an end in 2010, when Harry Dunn brought him back to help out in his second spell at the club.
That season, 2009/10, would be limited to just six appearances, taking Robinson up to an overall 409 appearances for the Seasiders, scoring 103 goals. However, it’s not the numbers that are all that important.
When you mention Graham Robinson to anyone even remotely connected to Whitby Town of a time, faces light up. It’s a name that’s remembered fondly. Fondly for the good times. Fondly for the effort. Fondly for the goals. Fondly for the kindness of the man.
So here’s to you Graham Robinson, the Turnbull loves you more than you can know.