In actual fact, he almost didn’t make it onto the pitch at all after Alex MacDonald, so wrapped up in his side’s performance, lost track of the score. The player-manager tantalised the 17-year-old Robertson with the promise he would get on if Hearts managed to build a three-goal lead against Queen of the South.
After being knocked out of the Scottish Cup at home to Forfar Athletic in the previous match, following which journalist John Fairgrieve suggested turning Tynecastle into a car park, the newly-appointed MacDonald was taking no chances. It’s fair to say they were crying out for a hero down Gorgie way.
All Robertson wanted to do was play up front with his big brother Chris, who was the better-known Robertson at the time. He had become an ever more significant person in John’s life following the death of their Hearts-supporting father, John Snr, three years earlier.
“Chris and I played the last 12 minutes together,” recalls Robertson now. “My dad died when I was 14. He saw Chris play for Scotland schoolboys and play for Rangers, but he never saw me play. People ask: ‘what would have been his proudest moment?’ Would it have been winning the Scottish Cup, breaking the club record league goals? I think those 12 minutes would have been his proudest moment. To see not just one of his sons play for Hearts, but two of them….”
It’s hard to believe now, but just 2,397 assembled for the midweek clash on 17 February, 1982. As now, Hearts were in the second tier – then known as the First Division. The Dumfries club are writ large in the Robertson story, since he was also sent off for the first time against them in a Scottish Cup tie the following season.
And what do you know? On the anniversary of his debut, who is it Inverness Caledonian Thistle, the team Robertson now manages, find themselves facing as they belatedly host their first game of the year? That’s right, Queen of the South.
When The Scotsman caught up with Robertson yesterday, he was in what's recently become his customary position – sitting at a table signing piles of tickets and thank you letters.
After two spells as a player, a stint as manager and also a period as club ambassador, his ties with the Tynecastle club remain strong. This is one of the reasons for the phenomenal uptake of the recent virtual ticket initiative launched by the Highlands club to raise funds. “Six and-a-half thousand letters, 7,300 tickets,” Robertson says with prides as he issues an update. These are only those he’s signed so far – the actual ticket sales ahead of the clash with Hearts next Friday night is approaching 9,500.
Via a video call, Robertson recalls in typically informative detail the night he started to make the name he continues to scrawl across bits of paper scattered in front of him as we speak.
“I had played the night before for Hearts reserves and played really well,” he says. “The young lads were told we had to be at the ground early the next day to get everything set up for the first-team game. I remember the next morning the phone ringing and ringing. I could not be bothered answering it because obviously I played the night before. Eventually I got up and answered. It was Chris.
“‘Why did you not answer the phone?’ he asked. I told him I had played the night before and he said: ‘well, you must have played well, I have just had a phone call from the manager to say you are in the squad tonight and you need to report to the ground at 6.30pm’. I got there and I was on the bench.
“Chris had already scored when Alex MacDonald turned to me and said: ‘if we go three ahead you are going on to make your debut’. Then we went 2-0 up and Queen of the South pulled one back. I think we scored bang on half-time to make it 3-1.
“Obviously, I was thinking to myself, ‘there’s a wee chance here’. Then we went 4-1 up about half-way through the second half. I am giving the manager sideways glances thinking, ‘I have a chance of getting on here, that’s us three goals ahead’. Then Chris had a really good chance and missed it and Doddie (MacDonald) turned round and said, ‘if your brother had scored that you would have been on, that would have been us three goals ahead’.
“It was (coach) Walter Borthwick who turned round and said: ‘what are you talking about, gaffer?’ He replied: ‘well we are winning 3-1’. Walter said: ‘No, it is 4-1!’ Doddie looked at me and said: ‘you can either go on for your brother or I can take Gerry McCoy off and you can get to play up front with Chris’. I said: ‘take Gerry McCoy off’.”
In a reversal of how it would normally be expected to work, MacDonald did as the teenager instructed: he hooked McCoy. “I had a couple of wee one-twos with Chris, a shot, one saved, one I hit just over the bar…half chances,” recalls Robertson.
He didn’t feature again until October the following season, Chris, meanwhile, was released that summer. But for those dozen precious minutes they were a pair of brothers back playing in a garden together, Hearts against the world.