Former Sunderland star Carl Robinson on life in the MLS and following in Mick McCarthy’s footsteps

Vancouver Whitecaps' head coach Carl Robinson.
Vancouver Whitecaps' head coach Carl Robinson.

Three are just three Europeans occupying the dug-out among the 20 managers in charge of MLS clubs.

One is ex-Bolton boss Owen Coyle. The other two spent successful periods of their careers at the Stadium of Light.

I took that opportunity, put my heart into it and I’m still going strong 18 months down the line.

Adrian Heath, who worked alongside Peter Reid at Sunderland, Leeds and Coventry, is at the helm of Orlando City, where he can call upon the services of Brazilian great Kaka.

The other is Carl Robinson, the ex-Sunderland midfielder who helped the Black Cats to the Championship title back in 2004-05, and is just 18 months into his managerial career with Vancouver Whitecaps.

At 38 – just three years older than current Sunderland defender Wes Brown – Robinson is still a baby in terms of management; benefiting from circumstances when the position became available at Vancouver and he was promoted from the coaching staff.

But this is a path Robinson was contemplating even during his days as the holding player in Mick McCarthy’s workmanlike team which won promotion to the Premier League at the second time of asking.

Robinson had set off down the path of coaching badges before he had even turned 30.

That foresight may prove the making of the ex-Welsh international.

So too might be the move to begin his managerial career on the other side of the Atlantic, rather than in League One or Two where 18 months is now considered a lengthy tenure.

While Robinson wants to return to English football to manage eventually, he knows that he needs to be better prepared for the tactical, technical and psychological challenges which accompany the do-or-die existence of taking charge in the Football League.

“It’s a great place to start my coaching career and it’s something I always wanted to get into,” said Robinson.

“When I came over in 2007, I had just completed my A Licence and I continued to fly back to complete my qualifications.

“Did the management side come a bit early? Yes, but sometimes you get a chance.

“Having spoke with a couple of my ex-managers, including Mick McCarthy, their feedback was that you will never know when you are ready.

“I took that opportunity, put my heart into it and I’m still going strong 18 months down the line.

“A couple of my best friends in football, Kit Symons (Fulham) and Robert Page (Port Vale) took up positions last year, but you are living on a knife edge there.

“If you are going to do that, you need to be experienced and be ready for it, because it is cut-throat.

“Will I come back to England to manage one day? Yes, 100 per cent, but you have to be ready.”

While speaking to Robinson, to coincide with Sunderland’s pre-season tour of North America over the next fortnight, the influence of McCarthy on his first foray into management becomes immediately obvious.

Robinson typified the kind of player McCarthy recruited for the Championship promotion challenge – hungry, workmanlike, yet not necessarily fashionable.

And even though Robinson was sold to Norwich after Sunderland’s promotion in 2005, it was a decision which the midfielder accepted.

He said: “Man management is one of the most important things, and Mick McCarthy was the best I have worked under for that.

“Losing in the play-offs to Crystal Palace was tough to take, but there’s not many teams who come back the next season even stronger and that is a credit to Mick and what he did with the club.

“At the end of it, Mick was honest enough to admit that I wouldn’t have as many opportunities as in the Championship and I accepted that.

“I respected him for being honest and I just wanted to play games, so I went to Norwich.

“It’s a pity that he couldn’t have stayed at Sunderland any longer. But he’s gone to Wolves and now Ipswich and done a very similar job.

“He still speaks very highly of Sunderland to this day.”

Like McCarthy, Robinson is operating on a limited budget at Vancouver, who can only look on enviously as their MLS rivals snare the likes of Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo.

“The likes of Beckham, Keane, Pirlo, Gerrard and Lampard are earning a fortune over here, but we can’t compete with that and I know that,” he says.

Vancouver may not be one of the more glamorous MLS franchises, but they are playing their part in a competition which is growing in credibility.

Robinson joined Toronto – who Sunderland face in their final North American pre-season friendly next week – back in 2007 when the injection of finance into the MLS was just beginning.

During the intervening period, he has seen a notable rise in standards which he believes will provide Sunderland with a beneficial experience.

“In 2007 when I first came over, there was a lot of unanswered questions and no-one knew what the standard was really like, myself included after leaving Norwich in the Championship,” he added.

“Every year, it has grown and grown and with it has come a better standard of player.

“I would say the standard has increased 30 per cent.

“It does not compete with the Premier League, but in another five years, it will be closer.”