Interview: John Robertson on plotting the downfall of Craig Levein

John Robertson is hoping to get his hands on the Scottish Cup for real next month. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS
John Robertson is hoping to get his hands on the Scottish Cup for real next month. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS
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John Robertson, as some of us know, is the Hibernian legend who got away. If the all-star coulda-been-a-contender, coulda-been-a-Hibee fantasy XI comprising the prodigious talents who slipped through the Easter Road net had actually played together in the green and white, then a familiar routine would have been Gordon Strachan popping a crafty ball into the box, Willie Pettigrew having his snap volley blocked and Robbo – because it was never over until the fat striker scored – ramming home the injury-time winner.

Instead, as absolutely everyone knows, he became a Heart of Midlothian legend, not least for being the “Hammer of Hibs”, the little, round ghost on the shoulder of the last defender, taunting and terrorising until eventually the poor wretch would cry out: “Stop! We know you’re going to score. Just get on with it!” Twenty-seven goals, that was his Edinburgh derby haul. These days manager of Inverness Caley Thistle, we’re in his office where I spot a pair of boots which seem almost too small to belong to an adult but Robertson, 54, confirms they’re his. “Five-and-a-halfs,” he says, “which is my proper size, although I couldn’t find any in my day and had to wear sixes. So, aye, Hibs got off lightly with 27 … ”

Okay then Robbo, since we’re talking about the Scottish Cup, how did you feel in 2016 when David Gray rammed home the injury-time winner for the team from Leith’s first triumph in 114 long years? The smile on his face is quick to form and indisputably mischievous: “Hibs versus Rangers? I wanted both of them to lose. I mean, I don’t hate Hibs but because of my long association with Hearts I dislike them. Honestly, it’s nothing personal, simply football rivalry.”

Robbo’s dad John Sr, who died when he was 14, was a staunch Hearts man, and this loyalty was passed down to John’s big brother Chris who preceded him in the Tynecastle forward line. Two of Robbo’s sons support Hearts but the other one, Scott, who’s 25, follows Hibs, a black sheep like Robbo’s other brother George, 65, and both these renegades were at Hampden three years ago, dreaming the impossible dream.

“George does everything different. Dad was Hearts so he had to be Hibs. Dad was Labour so he had to be SNP. He could have been a player like us, maybe the best, and Dad used to tell him, ‘Don’t drink, don’t smoke and keep away from women’, but these were George’s vices. He’s the intellectual of the family, four times married and a poet. That’s George.

“Anyway on the day of that final I was in Dunfermline looking forward to a nice meal to celebrate the 50th birthday of a good pal of mine, Paul Whitecross, a top chef. The game wasn’t being shown on TV in the restaurant and sometimes we got updates from the waiters, but honestly I wasn’t bothered. At the end we asked the score. ‘Three-two.’ ‘Who for?’ ‘Dunno, but the telly keeps showing this baldy boy called Gray.’ I phoned Scott. He told me he was on the pitch. ‘You’d better hurry up and get off,’ I said. ‘Enjoy the rest of the day and stay safe. And if you see Uncle George give him a hug and a kiss from me.’

“The missus and I were booked into the Dakota [the South Queensferry hotel] and I knew nothing about the size of the invasion, the fighting with the Rangers fans and the damage done to Hampden until the next morning watching the highlights. I phoned Scott again. ‘I hope you didn’t get into trouble on the pitch, son.’ ‘No, Dad.’ Thirty seconds later he phoned me back: ‘Er, Dad, there’s one thing: I came home with a piece of the Hampden turf.’ ‘Right, well, Uncle George did the same down at Wembley [the 1977 England-Scotland match] so you’ve obviously got that gene, too. Anything else to tell me, son? I mean, if I’m going to open a paper tomorrow and see a photo of you in a pagger with your eyes blacked over, this might be the moment to tell me.’ ‘No, Dad.’

“Another 30 seconds and it was Scott again. I was absolutely dreading what it might be. ‘Hey, Dad,’ he said, ‘here’s a funny thing, a unique event: you know how you got a Scottish Cup winners’ medal for not playing and you know how Uncle Chris got one and he didn’t play in his final either? Well, I was out there on the pitch for longer than the pair of you!’”

As Robertson admits, he’s a quiz question: one half of the two brothers who were unused substitutes in the showpiece, Chris in 1978 with Rangers and John in 1998. Who knows, he might soon become another: the only man, post-Second World War, to win the trophy as both a player and a manager who didn’t need at least one of these feats to be with the Old Firm.

First, though, his Inverness must overcome Hearts. Today’s semi-final pits him against Craig Levein, his friend and former team-mate. Robbo’s determined to beat him, even if that will expose Levein to more Gorgie grumbles. As he would say, that’s “simply football rivalry”.

We’ll come back to Levein but let’s reflect on the cup pedigree of John Grant Robertson, Hearts’ all-time record league goalscorer. As a manager he led the Jambos to the last-but-one stage and did this twice in his first spell at ICT. Though so much of his life is wrapped up in Hearts, though a Hearts shirt hangs off a corner flag in his office next to the tiny fridge, he’s proud of past achievements at Inverness and thrilled to be back in the Highlands. This is where he met Sally, his second wife, and where they’ve built a nice life for themselves with their four dogs. The spring sunshine is sparkling on the Moray Firth today and Robbo’s in full-on tourist officer mode, extolling the region’s beauty and also balminess, with Forres boasting palm trees. When the ‘Beast from the East’ paralysed Britain, dance academy boss Sally was in London and phoned her husband to report there were just eight people out and about in the normally-hotching Leicester Square. Robbo, meanwhile was enjoying another sunny day in Inversnecky.

As a player, all Robertson’s cup exploits were in maroon and while ’98 was a happy ending there was an awful lot of pain, bad luck and cock-up along the way. His cup story even had a shame-faced beginning, in a 1983 tie away to Queen of the South.

“I got myself sent off. Aged 18 and having just forced my way into the side, that was really embarrassing. Centre-halves in those days were allowed five chances to do you, usually with X-rated tackles, before the referee would take any action. That was the unwritten rule. Jim Wilkie – six-foot-three next to my five-foot-six – had been kicking lumps out of me all game and as I ran down the line he took me right out. The linesman, the macaroon-bar seller and the front two rows of the enclosure went with me. I got up and hit him back and off I went.

“I was dreading the manager’s reaction [Alex MacDonald] but he was sympathetic. He said I’d shown some balls not wanting to be messed about. I’ve got George to thank for that. Growing up in [Edinburgh’s] Maryfield we had the world’s biggest playground, the Queen’s Park, for 35-a-side games and he used to boot me around to toughen me up because it was obvious I was going to be quite stunted. But Alex that day said I needed to be cuter and actually blamed Jimmy Bone, who was kind of my guidance teacher, for not having instructed me how.”

Queens had also been the opposition when Robbo made his Hearts debut from the bench the previous season and this was the only occasion John and Chris appeared together in the first team. “Down the years folk have asked me when our dad would have been proudest. He’d have been chuffed to see Chris being part of a Treble-winning Rangers, chuffed to see me get that cup medal with Hearts and thrilled that I got to play for Scotland. But I reckon those 12 minutes when the pair of us were together on the park would have topped everything for him.”

What would he say to his father today if he had the chance? He smiles. “The rest of the family – George, Chris and my sisters – cocooned me when he died because of how close I was to him. He used to cycle to all my games, school and juvenile, but maybe what I’d ask him would concern some very shady business from when I was a wee tot. He was a breweryman and aged six to 12 months I was his mule for smuggling bottles of whisky out of [blenders] Mackinlay’s at the foot of Easter Road. He stuffed them under me while I was sound asleep in the basket on the front of his bike, so there you go: my deep, dark history in deepest, darkest Leith.”

ICT’s history only stretches back 25 years. Robbo can claim to have played in a cup-tie against the old Inverness Caledonian from the Highland League, this back in 1985, and I make the mistake of wondering if he remembers it. He’s not nicknamed Ceefax for nothing: “It was midweek at Tynie and they brought down a great support, filling the Gorgie Road End, but we won 6-0 thanks to The Gary Mackay Show. I got one goal and so did Roddy MacDonald but Gary, my mate from [famous Edinburgh breeding-ground] Salvesens, scored four. I hadn’t actually been sure how that one would go. The year before Caley beat us in a pre-season friendly at Telford Street. The score was only 2-0 but really they walloped us.”

Then came ’86 and Robbo’s first Scottish Cup semi-final, followed by his first final. In between Hearts lost the league in the last seven minutes of a crazy game at Dens Park. That was devastating and it might be assumed the team staggered zombie-like into the Hampden showdown with Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen, but our man says not.

“Dens was a big blow, we’d gone 27 league games unbeaten, and we felt it Saturday night, Sunday and part of Monday but after that first training session back we were fine: ‘It’s the cup final, we can beat Aberdeen, no problem.’ But they turned us over. They were the better team.”

The vital statistics of Robertson’s Tynecastle career, which won’t be beaten now, are 719 appearances, 310 goals. How many more red cards were there? “Well, I could be hot-headed. I got sent off at Dundee United for fighting with Richard Gough and another time Albert Kidd got me into trouble, although to this day I don’t know how.”

Kidd, the Nemesis of Dens, was a Falkirk Bairn the following season and as he lay flat out on the Brockville turf the culprit surely could have been anyone in maroon, terraces included. “I thought Wayne Foster had hit him. It certainly wasn’t me but I got done for it. Even a policeman said to me afterwards I was innocent. But that red card meant I was banned for our cup semi against St Mirren which we lost.”

Robbo’s Hearts would come up short in four more semis and the ’96 final when they were thrashed by Rangers before ultimate glory. “Dens, despite what happened that day, convinced us we could win something. The Graeme Souness revolution happened the following season and even though we would came close in the league again later, it was obvious our best chance would be the cup. That’s the situation for all clubs outwith the Old Firm now. To win the league everyone else needs reconstruction.

“The semi which was the most frustrating was Celtic [’88] because we were leading until near the end when [goalkeeper] Henry Smith dropped the ball and then he was fouled for their winner.” Robbo’s last-four woe included two defeats by Airdrie – “In the ’92 game I hit the bar in extra-time and did my hernia, so I missed the Euros with Scotland” – because new Diamonds manager Alex MacDonald seemed to know just a bit too much about his former charges and how to ambush them.

As a boss himself Robbo went from Caley Thistle to Hearts but “too soon” and was “too het up”, becoming snagged in the early-stages madness of the Vladimir Romanov reign. He bumped along after that, then ducked out of management, returning to Tynecastle in behind-the-scenes roles before ICT came calling again. He seems happy and settled here, not least because Sally suffers from ME and their life in Cawdor with fields out the back helps them cope with her condition. He describes her as his “backstop”, although I’m sure he’s said more romantic things. What, though, of ambition – would he like another crack at the top league?

“I’d love to get there with Inverness,” he adds, with the Championship side currently sitting in a play-off place. “Promotion is more important. It’s been hand-to-mouth for us here because we’ve lost 30,000 away fans since relegation which amounts to £600,000. We’re trying our damnedest to get back up but there are probably some fans who think we already should be. Who’d be a boss? Five wins and you’re manager of the month. Five defeats and you’re out on your arse.”

Which brings us back to Craig Levein, currently displeasing a section of the Hearts support for whom nothing less than a convincing victory this lunchtime will suffice. Airdrie, a second-tier side when they vanquished the Jambos in ’92 and ’95, gives ICT hope. Robertson disputes, though, that this game is a “free hit” for his men and bristles at the idea his Hearts affiliations will somehow dilute his desire. He wants to win this one but it will be far from easy.

His old mate, he says, will have been “crushed” by last week’s capital derby defeat but will be over it by now. He remembers Levein the footballer – “Without a shadow of a doubt the best central defender of his generation”. If Levein had played in the Hibs backline, Robbo reckons his record derby plunder would have been half what it was. Hearts back then were “a great mixture of silk and steel” and Levein was the embodiment of that.

Ah, but what about the occasion when he demonstrated rather too much steel with a punch which broke team-mate Graeme Hogg’s nose? “Craig was dreadfully embarrassed about that,” says Robbo of the flare-up during a 1995 pre-season friendly at Raith Rovers. Hogg didn’t show for the following day’s team photocall and Levein had to endure the wind-ups of John Colquhoun who quipped that boxing supremo Don King had been on the phone for him and asked the assembled photographers: “Which of you guys is from Ring magazine?”

Robbo chuckles at the memory of the incident. “I missed the game because I was having my wisdom teeth out and woke up in hospital to several messages from Mo Johnston telling me what had happened. I was still groggy – just like Hoggy, no doubt!”