Interview: Stephen Robinson on ‘meticulous’ Michael O’Neill

Stephen Robinson says Motherwell supporters deserve more than just seeing their team avoid relegation.
Stephen Robinson says Motherwell supporters deserve more than just seeing their team avoid relegation.
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Eric Morecambe would have seen the funny side. The game was about to kick off, the new signing was prancing on the spot and the manager couldn’t wait to see him sprint up the right wing. At the 
end of 90 minutes, though, Stephen Robinson hadn’t completed this fairly standard manoeuvre for a right winger – not even once.

When was the last time he’d got to the byline and crossed the ball into the box? The man who’s now in charge at Motherwell thought he’d better come clean. “Er, not since my Under-11s
days,” he said. And in the boardroom the ghost of Eric was probably waggling his spectacles and laughing because this happened at the late comedian’s beloved Luton Town.

I say that the mix-up sounds like one of Morecambe & Wise’s rubbish plays, the ones “what Ernie wrote”, where Eric’s short, fat, haired-legged friend would commandeer the part of the leading man next to the Shakespearian actress. Robinson laughs but says he hadn’t been suffering from delusions of grandeur, forcing himself into a role for which he was patently ill-equipped. “Joe Kinnear, who was Luton manager, hadn’t seen me play. It was his No 2,
Mike Newell, who brought me to the club. I was a central midfielder and told Joe this. He threw Mike a helluva look. Years later when Joe saw me in a restaurant he shouted: ‘Look out, here comes the winger!’”

Maybe that’s the sort of daftness which happened in England’s second and third tiers at that time. I tell Fir Park’s 42-year-old, fast-talking gaffer that deep research is required to throw up scant mention of his playing career; he says: “Yeah, even non-leaguers are on TV all the time now.” He smiles, though, when I read from an FA Cup match report how he mugged Liverpool’s Jamie Carragher for the ball and thumped home a 30-yarder. “I’m still dining out on that one,” he admits. After that, it was a swift return to the injury round-ups: “Robinson (ankle) … Robinson (heel) … Robinson (back).” Always the back.

He hurt it in a rugby game and while on schoolboy forms at Tottenham 
Hotspur was told by a doctor his career was probably over at 15. He had to sit his exams lying on his front and at 23 after his third operation was asked: “Have you got a good pension?” But, as “a rabbit of a player, always running”, he soldiered on until 33 – Luton, Bournemouth, Preston North End and just seven caps for Northern Ireland because regular epidurals and other treatment had to take priority.

But we know who he is now, don’t we? The man who’s making Motherwell well again. Who’s taken a wheezing club – the one with the big, scary anti-smoking warning painted on the roof – and whipped them into the most vibrant shape. Who’s booted Aberdeen out of the Betfred Cup. And who’s been bold enough to model a touchline combo of a Gianni 
Rivera haircut and one of Derek Adams’ old school jumpers.

Celtic were unnerved by the jumper when Adams brought it to a Hampden semi-final with Ross County. Next Sunday, Robinson’s team return to the national stadium after too long away to take on the other half of the Old Firm. Motherwell have a game before the Betfred semi-final; today’s Lanarkshire derby against Hamilton Accies. Football people don’t like to get ahead of themselves but in his tiny office, with the whiteboard a mass of zippy lines and two bottles of red perched on a filing cabinet, Robinson admits Rangers are looming large for club and fans.

“I’ve told the players that I don’t want them saving themselves for the semi. If they do they’ll be out of the team. But listen, I get the excitement. For too long this club have only had avoiding relegation on their minds. The supporters haven’t had much to cheer about.”

What a mad-crazy year this has been for the little man from Crumlin. It began with him walking away from Oldham Athletic and, he thought, frontline management. The job, his first in charge, had been a horror-show. Motherwell asked him to come and be their No 2 – he’d done this before under Ian Baraclough – and it was only because he rates them such a special club that he agreed.

Less than two weeks later, though, he was a No 1 again, standing in for the sacked Mark McGhee. Right away he said he didn’t want to be the man who took the Steelmen down. “It could have happened,” he says now. “We were second-bottom having conceded 26 goals in the previous ten games.” But they survived, Robinson was confirmed in the post and now, having just signing a contract extension until 2020, he must concede: glamour games like next Sunday are a long, long way from death threats.

It was Boxing Day and Oldham had just lost, again, when the message popped up on Twitter: “#oafc tell Stephen Robinson I’m gunna murder his children.” His wife Tracey burst into tears and younger son Charlie was too scared to leave the house. “My older boy Harry seemed to be more interested in what kind of compensation might result!

“Listen, I can laugh about it now but I was born when the Troubles were ongoing so you tend to take these things seriously. It turned out, though, to be a lad doing something daft. With two boys of my own who make their share of mistakes I could picture one of them being stupid on social media. I think the lad’s mother was a policewoman and his dad a teacher so they were mortified.

“The club banned him and the police wanted to take it further. Restorative justice, they called it, and Tracey went and met him. She’s a much nicer, kinder, more forgiving person than me and sure he was very remorseful. I had enough hassle trying to win football matches but really Oldham was a horrendous time. I was sold an entirely different club. There were only three professional players when I got there. I wasn’t in charge of affairs, I wasn’t making the decisions, I wasn’t getting any support. The timeline was impossible, the job was impossible.”

But that’s enough about Oldham who, by the way, Robinson wishes well and that’s not just because Harry is trying to forge a career there. Let’s talk more about Motherwell where our man has Mike Newell’s son George playing for him (it’s a funny old game, right enough). One of the most intriguing aspects of their revival has been the Northern Ireland dimension, not least because the World Cup hopefuls’ manager Michael O’Neill is currently being touted for the Scotland job.

Robinson, who was O’Neill’s assistant during that great run to last year’s Euros, explains: “When I came back to Motherwell I was confident I could make them safe and that was because of my background with Northern Ireland. Michael and I didn’t have the best players in the world but maybe they could end up running faster than 
other guys. Maybe they could end up tackling harder. Maybe they could be better organised. These things don’t take talent.

“I thought at Motherwell there would be that spirit and desire and willingness to work. I knew it was everywhere off the pitch where so many good people do things which go unnoticed. I’m not saying the tail-end of last season was straightforward. The pressure was immense. Twenty-three people were going to lose their jobs if we’d gone down and the club would have lost a million pounds.”

As soon as Motherwell were secure, Robinson began the overhaul, at the very least to keep them out of any more trouble. At the very most the high-octane outfit he’s assembled could yet win the club their first trophy for 26 years.

Seventeen players went out, 17 came in. “I had to make a lot of changes, very, very difficult changes. There were guys who’d been absolutely superb for Motherwell that I had to let go. The likes of James McFadden and Stephen Pearson were top, top footballers here. But we’d become a club where players pitched up in the autumn of their careers. We needed pace, legs and energy.”

Robinson kept the club’s “personality” uppermost during his summer recruitment drive. “It’s close-knit here and everyone genuinely cares. What we’ve tried to do is put lads on the pitch with the same ethic as the people off it. People like the commercial department who work so hard, Karen the secretary, Elaine and the cleaners, the two Alans … I’ve missed some out and I’ll get in trouble for that but I mean everyone who has three, four, five jobs and by the way that is everyone. They’ll all run that extra mile for Motherwell.”

On the evidence thus far he’s made good choices. The first time your correspondent saw Robinson’s rampagers in the raw, in their fightback from two-nil down to gain a draw against Hibernian at Easter Road, I was calling for drug-testing for the whole team, plus subs. “We do run down the sides off teams, we do go over the top of teams,” he confirms. Many more saw them on TV, dumping the Dons out of the Betfred. Derek McInnes admitted afterwards Aberdeen had been bullied; Robinson took that as a compliment. “We’re a big, strong team and I’m not one of those managers who gets offended when his side are called physical. I love that. But we can play a bit as well, by the way.” And in Louis Moult they have a diamond striker.

“Listen, we haven’t been able to buy the best players and we’re not paying them the best money. Some of the younger ones are only earning just over the minimum wage, to be honest. But, as with Northern Ireland, we’re trying to make them faster than anyone else, stronger than anyone else and better organised. All that is free. I say to them: ‘Do that stuff well and you’ll get your chance to move on from here.’”

Regarding Michael O’Neill, what’s his secret? “He’s had praise and deservedly so but I still don’t think it’s fully appreciated what Michael’s done with Northern Ireland, the extent and the scope of his work – it’s been a complete revolution. When I played we were run like a country who were never going to qualify for anything. He changed absolutely everything, top to bottom, and now it’s chartered flights, good hotels and good food, players who want to be there.

“He didn’t get a win in his first ten games and credit to the Irish FA, they didn’t panic. They could see what he was trying to do. He was revamping the whole set-up, all the age categories. The IFA stuck with him and that’s been proved so, so right.

“I was looking after Ireland’s Under-12s and Under-16s when he started and to be honest I’d had enough – but he talked me into staying and offered me the Under-21s as my first experience of working with senior players and I’ll always be grateful to him for that. I got to see him close up when I moved to the big team where there are only 35 players available and only three from [England’s] Premier League. But I’m not taking any credit for what that side achieved in getting to the Euros; it was down to Michael.

“He’s the most meticulous man you’ll ever meet, his preparation is second-to-none and his man-management is fantastic. He knows every Under-16 player and a lot who’re younger. Northern Ireland have a terrific set-up now and he’s the man who put it in place. I was amazed that no club has tried to tempt him away after the Euros because I think he could do a good job anywhere. He’s proved that was 
no fluke by a tremendous effort in World Cup qualification and I think just about any country would take him. He’d be a success wherever he went and right now it’s his choice what he does.”

Growing up, Robinson was always going to choose football. On his tough estate under the flightpath of Belfast International Airport he was well protected from the Troubles by his father Winston, a printer who later ran pubs, and mother Muriel, a nurse. “We weren’t rich but Mum and Dad worked really hard and made sure me and my big sister Michelle were happy and safe. I maybe missed the worst of the Troubles and football took me away from Ireland when I was 15. When I went back to coach I couldn’t believe the transformation: Belfast was a whole different place. And the people took to me because I had no baggage. The family’s still there, including Tracey and Charlie right now, and I’ve got to thank my wife for being such a wonderful mother to our boys while I’ve been away trying to make a career for myself.”

At 16, which club was Robinson going to choose? Alex Ferguson wanted him for Manchester United, Graeme Souness for Rangers. “Fergie tried to sweet-talk Dad and my Rangers-daft brother-in-law promised Graeme he’d get me to Ibrox. I got given tours, this wee boy from Crumlin who lived in a field wandering round magnificent stadiums.” But in the end he stayed loyal to Spurs and they handed him his debut at 16 when he was booted ceaselessly by Colin Hendry of title-chasing Blackburn Rovers.

Robinson has always had to battle. No silver spoon as a kid or the equivalent for the young footballer of now – “200 games in the Premier League making you a millionaire by the time you’re 20”. During his injury woes he was warned about arthritis and not being able to pick up his kids. But all of that, he feels, has been the making of him. “You recognise the value of hard work. You don’t get complacent. And if good times come along you appreciate them.”

Motherwell fans hope they’re coming next Sunday with Robinson confident that whatever else happens, his team won’t freeze. The clan are flying across from Belfast for the semi-final with the exception, he laughs, of his father. “Dad has only ever given me one piece of advice: ‘Don’t trust anybody.’ The other day, though, he told me he liked my chief scout, Martin Foyle – a first in football for me which confirms to me I’m at the right club. But he won’t be coming to the game – nothing can ever get in the way of his ‘caravan week’!”