After a season for the ages, Robinson now seeking a winning environment
July 28, 2020
AS WITH EVERY YEAR, the 2019/20 European season was newsworthy for American players. Some players like Gio Reyna and Sergino Dest made massive breakthroughs and Christian Pulisic shined at Chelsea. But few, if any, players have been through what Antonee Robinson has gone through the past season, regardless of age.
It all began at the turn of the new year when Robinson was playing well for Wigan Athletic. Wigan was struggling and in another relegation battle in the Championship, but Robinson was playing so well that AC Milan was prepared to buy him for a reported eight-figure fee.
At that point, things took a down-turn. An ensuing medical exam in Italy revealed an irregular heartbeat but further tests could not be completed before the close of the international window. The transfer was off and Robinson returned to Wigan where he was unable to play while awaited the results of more tests. Eventually, Robinson announced he would have to undergo a procedure to correct the irregular beat.
“It was devastating for a good 24 hours,” Robinson told ASN. “I think it was just a like a sucker punch. If I had failed my medical and they found something wrong with my knee or my ankle, I'd just go and have surgery. But I've never had something wrong with my heart in my entire life. It was just the uncertainty. And that is what is so devastating. I remember coming home, seeing my girlfriend. I had a cry. After that, I just really wanted to see the lads. I went straight to the game the next day and watched them. They played great. I just kind of got over it then.”
For Robinson, 22, the story becomes even more complex from then. Like other leagues, the Championship was eventually shut down due to COVID-19. Robinson’s procedure was scheduled for the end of March but it kept getting pushed back due to the need for room in the hospitals to cover COVID patients. The wait made everything worse for Robinson.
During that time, Robinson was not allowed to train or interact with the team. Eventually, however, the procedure was rescheduled for the first week of June. Robinson went to the hospital and prepared for surgery. The initial part of the pre-operation was to insert wires into his veins and heart to detect the irregular rhythm.
It was there at the hospital in the final moments before the procedure that things once again took an unexpected turn.
“They couldn't spot the irregularity,” Robinson recalled. “They tried to inject me with adrenaline and things to provoke my heart and nothing showed. They then said they couldn't operate on me because it looked like my heart had corrected itself.”
Over the next several days, further tests could not detect anything wrong and eventually it was determined that Robinson’s heart corrected itself during the shutdown. With only a few days remaining before Wigan’s first game of the restart, he was cleared to play.
At the time, Wigan were still in a relegation battle but had begun to improve. Robinson walked back into the starting line-up in the first game after the shutdown and was part of three straight wins following the restart.
Wigan’s season was then thrown into jeopardy. That month, Wigan's owner, International Entertainment Corporation, sold the majority of its shares to Next Leader Fund of Hong Kong. On July 1, despite it being less than a month after changing owners, the club announced it was going into administration as Next Leader Fund refused to invest promised funds.
Staff at the club was laid off and players were not being paid full wages. Due to administration, the club was facing a 12-point penalty.
Following the announcement, Wigan lost its first game since the restart but then, it continued to rally yet again. They posted two wins and two draws after the loss and one of the wins was a now famous 8-0 drubbing of Hull City.
During this time, Robinson’s play earned rave reviews and reports of interest from West Ham to West Brom were stated. Robinson was named to the Championship team of the Month in June.
"I just kind of thrived on being thrown straight back in and having an opportunity I didn't think I was going to have,” Robinson said of his return. “I had about nine games and I just let loose."
It came down to the final game for Wigan with the club needing to win over fourth place Fulham to ensure safety despite a 12-point deduction. Wigan had a 1-0 lead at halftime but failed to hold on with a 1-1 draw. Barring an overturn via an appeal, Wigan was relegated.
Robinson knows that it was a brutal fate for a club that lost just one out of its last 15 games in the face of an ownership scandal. In the end, he wants to remember the fight that the team showed in the face of adversity.
"It's one I'll never forget,” Robinson said of the story. “The atmosphere at the club changed. But the attitude among the players stayed the same. We all care about each other. No one had a selfish attitude of 'I'm not going to play and risk injury because we're probably going to go down and next year I want to leave' Everyone was on the same page. We knew how good we were. We want to keep playing. We took it to the very last day, but it wasn't enough - unfortunately.”
“Physically and emotionally it’s tough, to be honest with you,” Robinson said. “It's been really tough, especially to go down because of reasons out of our control. It is devastating after finishing comfortably midtable… For me, I missed football. I didn’t even think I could get injured or I could miss next year. I just wanted to play. I love the team I am playing for and I love the lads I am playing with. It didn’t even occur to me that I shouldn’t play or train.”
The next steps are unclear for Robinson. He loves Wigan but doesn’t want to play in the third tier League One. AC Milan continued to stay in touch with him following the diagnosis and Robinson believes that the club paid for some of his follow-up medical tests.
At this point, however, Robinson wants to go some place where he will start.
“Now that the season is done, I feel like I’ve done well enough where League One is below my levels,” Robinson said. “I am hoping to get a move but I am leaving that to my agents. I can’t help that. I just hope my performances have been enough and someone can give Wigan the money they need….I feel like I’ve done well enough where now, wherever I go next year, I want to start. In January the idea of going to Milan, it probably didn’t even come to my head that I probably would have been on the bench… now I am more prioritizing a team where I am going to start than a team, just because they’re a big name.”
Robinson’s journey in 2020 has also drawn him attention back in the United States and his progress this season has only made a return to the U.S. national team setup more likely. Despite being born in England, Robinson holds American citizenship through his father who was also born in England but who became a naturalized U.S citizen. Robinson earned his first national team cap in 2018 under interim manager Dave Sarachan but has played just once under Gregg Berhalter. His most recent U.S. appearance was with the U.S. U-23 team last November in a 1-0 loss to Brazil.
But Robinson is coming off perhaps his best season as a professional and Gregg Berhalter has taken notice as he singled out Robinson’s performances last week in a question about left backs in the player pool.
“We've been watching him every week,” Berhalter said. “His team has lost [once] since they've been back - dealing with adversity. Two games ago, they're winning 7-0 at halftime. Can you imagine that? He's been doing a great job also… He's playing every week. He's got a great physical profile. He fits the profile of a guy who can overlap if you're tucking your winger in. There are a lot of good things to his game. He's going to continue to develop and we're watching him closely and we've been in contact.”
Throughout the ordeal with his heart, Robinson was in close contact with U.S. Soccer and he looks forward to returning into the fold with the United States. But his one hope in his return is that he says he is “desperate to win something” after three straight relegation battles at the club level and having played in no major youth tournaments.
“The whole time I was going through it, the medical team at US Soccer was keeping in touch and making sure everything was okay,” Robinson said. “They were offering second and third opinions or any other help I needed. When it turned out I didn't need the operation, they were in touch with Wigan to make sure everyone was on the same page and knew what was going on. I spoke with Brian McBride as well and he was making sure I was okay. He was saying that they still very much see me as a U.S. player and they were excited to see me coming back.”
“Whatever team I end up playing for, I am privileged to play for the US on the international stage with my teammates and to represent our country,” he added. “Whether it be the Olympics, which I was absolutely looking forward to so much to play in or in World Cup qualifying, I just want to win whatever I am playing next.”
No matter what, Robinson has grown and matured a great deal over 2020. He also recalls how he recovered from a tough and uncertain microfracture surgery at age 18 to start his career. Combined with his ordeal this season along with over 8100 career minutes in the Championship fighting relegation, Robinson has nearly a career’s worth of experiences prior to his 23rd birthday. All that, he believes, has only made him better.
“Not knowing if the procedure on my heart was even going to work, thinking I might not even be able to play football again, to the coronavirius stopping the league, then relegation that was out of our control…I have had so much uncertainty and disappointments in my life that I always look back on them and think how well I am doing now,” Robinson said reflectively. “I’ve come back from that and it shows you that you can come back from anything if you have the right mentality.”