John Robertson yesterday returned to Inverness Caley Thistle and declared himself a better manager than the championship-winner who was lost to Hearts almost 13 years ago.
The boot was on the other foot as the Tynecastle goalscoring legend was head-hunted from his beloved boyhood club to spearhead the relegated Ladbrokes Premiership side’s Championship push.
The 52-year-old, who has signed a two-year deal, revealed he hadn’t applied for, or even considered applying for, the post made vacant by Richie Foran’s sacking. He had been happy working as Hearts’ under 17s coach while fulfilling an ambassadorial role within the Gorgie club. But describing himself as “Edinburgh by birth, Invernesian by choice” the long-time Highland capital resident found the lure of returning to the club and city overwhelming.
It is five years since “Robbo” last held a managerial role, at East Fife, in a line of work where a couple of years’ frontline absence can have individuals branded “yesterday’s man”. Far from being a football dinosaur, though – as some Caley Thistle supporters fear – Robertson delivered a persuasive list of credentials detailing where he has learned and progressed.
He insists he is a far more mature, calmer individual than the firebrand who made history by guiding the Highlanders into the top flight for the first time in 2004.
He said: “Every job is a challenge [and] comes with its own little intricacies and frustrations. It’s a huge challenge.
“It’s going to be formidable and interesting, but I’m ready for it. I’m passionate about it.
“This time last week it wasn’t even on the radar, but suddenly things changed very quickly.
“Once I got deeper into the negotiations, the old managerial juices came flowing back, along with the determination and resolve in myself to say ‘I can do this’.
“There will be people saying he’s not managed for a few years, but I’ve had several opportunities to manage that I’ve turned down.
“After East Fife I took a wee break from the game, which suited me, and got the wonderful opportunity to go back to Hearts, post-administration.
“The projects they wanted me to do were huge, both on and off the pitch. There were lots of things I learned off the pitch about the social media, and commercial aspects of it.
“I think that makes you a more rounded manager because you realise what happens in a football club.
“As a coach and a player you just turn up, train and go to games. You don’t understand the complexities and just how hard people work off the pitch running a club. There was always something, deep in the back of my mind, that there might be another opportunity to manage, but it had to be something that excited me.
“It had to be something special to drag me away from Hearts. This club is something special and this challenge is something special, and I’m really looking forward to it.”
Asked if he was now a better manager than 13 years ago, Robertson replied: “I think so, but, like anything else, that will come down to results.
“But, in terms of experience, since I’ve left Inverness, I’ve been to cup semi-finals with Hearts, coached in the Europa League group stages against Basel, Ferencvaros and Schalke. I’ve managed in the Champions League qualifying rounds and won a cup with Derry. I took East Fife to the quarter-finals of the League Cup for the first time in 75 years.
“These are all great football experiences, but I’ve also experienced life outwith football. I was business development manager with Orion Group for seven years in the oil and gas industry. Working at Hearts was really eye-opening, too, on the commercial side and on special projects. And I’ve kept in touch with cutting-edge coaching techniques within the SFA, continuing to work hard to improve.
“I have kept my Uefa Pro Licence up-to-date and I’ve been seen as a good enough coach to mentor C and B licences for the last eight to ten years, as well as being head of coach education at Hearts. All of this has been massive for my experience and my learning.
“What you see in front of you, from the manager that left here all these years ago, is a more experienced and rounded individual, and a more mature manager as well. I was a bit of a wild card in my earlier days. I’m certainly calmer now, but don’t perceive that calmness for a lack of passion. That’s still there, burning.”
Robertson has a big recruitment job to fulfil with barely half a squad of recognised first-team players left in situ at the Caledonian Stadium. But he was already hard at work, even before being granted permission to speak to Inverness.
Robertson said: “It’s been such a strange 72 hours because I started to think ‘if I’m honoured enough to get the job, what am I going to do?’
“You subtly start contacting agents, friends and contacts saying ‘there’s a few clubs in the Championship looking for players, who is available?’ and disguising everything.
“It’s not as if I’ve lost touch or been on a different planet. I’ve still been on the football planet and still wholly connected with football. Now I want to bring all that knowledge, expertise and connections to work here.”
Robertson will, initially at least, retain assistant manager Brian Rice and first-team coach Scott Kellacher, both of whom worked under John Hughes and then Richie Foran.