Premier League Career: Wimbledon (1992-2000)
Robbie Earle spent his entire playing career with just two clubs. He played professionally for 18 years until a nasty injury forced him to quit the game he loved in November 2000. In that time, he became a cult hero at Port Vale and was a major part of the ‘The Crazy Gang’ squad at Wimbledon that often was able to defy the odds against relegation.
Earle’s youth career started at Stoke City but a broken leg put paid to any hopes of a professional deal with the Potteries. Stoke’s local rivals Port Vale took a chance on Earle and he signed a pro contract with them in 1982. He spent nine years with Vale, helping them during that time from the Fourth Division to the Second Division in 1989.
An attacking midfielder who loved to score goals, Earle was well-known for late runs into the penalty area and was a formidable competitor in heading challenges. He won a regular place in the Port Vale team for the start of the 1984-1985 campaign. He showed his durability by making 142 consecutive appearances for Vale between September 1984 and January 1987. That run ended with a groin strain that required a hernia operation and forced him to miss most of the early part of the 1987-1988 campaign. Considered one of the best midfielders to play for the club, Earle would feature 357 times and score 90 goals. He was sold to Wimbledon for a fee of £775,000 in July 1991.
His first year in south London was his best in terms of goalscoring return, scoring 14 times despite Wimbledon having three managers during the course of the season. His strikes kept them in the top-flight which became the Premier League in 1992. He scored seven times in the inaugural season of the new top division in English football and another nine goals in 1993-1994 when Wimbledon finished above several elite clubs including Liverpool FC, Aston Villa and Chelsea to finish sixth in the table.
Injury restricted Earle to just nine appearances in 1994-1995 but he regained fitness for the following season and was appointed club captain ahead of the 1995-1996 term by manager Joe Kinnear. This was Earle’s best top-flight campaign. He scored 11 goals including strikes in victories over Chelsea, Arsenal and Bolton Wanderers. Another strong aspect of Robbie’s game was his ability to link-up with the other Wimbledon attack-minded players, including Mick Harford, Efan Ekoku and Dean Holdsworth.
Under his captaincy in 1996-1997, Wimbledon enjoyed a brilliant season, going on a lengthy unbeaten run in the Premier League between early September and late December. They also made the semi-finals of both domestic cup competitions before losing to eventual winners, Leicester City and Chelsea respectively. Robbie’s consistency earned him the Premier League Player of the Month award in February 1997.
Although he harboured ambitions of playing international football for England, Earle was eligible to play for Jamaica as both of his parents were Jamaican. He accepted the offer to play at international level for the Jamaicans and would play at their only major international tournament so far – the 1998 World Cup finals in France. He scored their first-ever goal in the competition against Croatia in Lens and played all three of their group stage matches. His services to football saw him earn an MBE in 1999.
Earle was part of the Wimbledon squad that waved goodbye to Premier League football in 2000, relegated on the final day at The Dell by Southampton. Later that year, during a reserve team game, he sustained a heavy blow to the stomach that ruptured his pancreas. He admitted years later: “One afternoon in hospital, I was told that I had picked up an infection again. By this time I had lost four stone. My breathing was irregular, I was in agony. If somebody had told me that death was the best choice, I’d have accepted it – anything to take away the pain.”
At the age of 35, he was forced to retire from playing. He moved into the world of football journalism and has worked for the likes of Capital Radio, ESPN, BBC Radio 5 Live and ITV. A familiar face with ITV, he was sacked by them days into the 2010 World Cup for giving away tickets for a group stage match between Netherlands and Denmark which were sold to a brewery company. He admitted to his “naivety” after this error of judgement. Earle is now a commentator for the Premier League on NBC and has also done some analytical work on the MLS.