The Motherwell manager is favourite with the bookmakers to succeed Craig Levein at Tynecastle. Craig Fowler looks at his career in management so far and what kind of head coach Hearts would be getting
“You’d go to Millwall away and the whole environment was horrible. Their fans made it a tough afternoon and the players replicated that attitude. That’s what we’ve tried to recreate here."
Stephen Robinson, speaking in April 2018, gave a quote which perfectly summed up the first 22 months of his Fir Park tenure.
The Steelmen played in a manner which reflected their moniker. They played a brand of football which straddled the line between toughness and brutality, the most famous example of which occurred in the 2017 Betfred Cup semi-final against Rangers where Fabio Cardoso's nose was flattened across his face by an elbow from Ryan Bowman.
The high-profile nature of the game and opponent showcased their burgeoning identity on a national stage. They weren't ashamed of the reputation. After twice going dangerously close to relegation they were winning football matches and reaching cup finals. Who cared if it was achieved with direct, rough play from back to front?
"We’ve created a reputation for ourselves," Robinson continued. "We’re physical and we play with a high tempo and lots of energy but we do it well within the rules.
“However, if people are thinking that way about us then they’re not overly comfortable coming up against us, which means once we’ve won that battle we can concentrate on playing football. We’ve done that on many occasions but I’m not the type of manager who’s going to bleat about how we want to be recognised for our ability – we’ve created an identity for ourselves."
Getting the Motherwell gig represented Robinson's second job in management and came during his second spell at Fir Park. The former Northern Ireland international, who is now the clear favourite to succeed Craig Levein as Hearts manager, initially joined in February 2015 as assistant to Ian Baraclough.
When the ex-Sligo Rovers boss lost his job later that year, Robinson was kept on staff to work under Mark McGhee. He left to become Oldham Athletic boss the following summer, a move which represents a smudge on his managerial CV to this point as he lasted just six months. Robinson later lamented the fact that he'd been given just three weeks in order to sign an entire squad of 23 players and admits it may not have been the ideal move at the time.
He was granted a reprieve at Motherwell where McGhee and the club's board welcomed him back as a first-team coach. When McGhee was sacked, Robinson did enough in temporary charge to convince his superiors he was the right man for the job.
That no longer seemed to be the case as 2018 drew to a close. While the style of play in his first full season hadn't been the most progressive, they still played with an intensity and tempo which made them entertaining to watch - not to mention their Hampden heroics as they defeated both Rangers and Aberdeen in memorable semi-finals over the course of the season. That dissipated the following campaign as they struggled to string together results and became one of the most boring teams in the league. The tempo in which they played had dropped, which meant it was just attritional football without the urgency, similar to watching Hearts these past 12 months.
Often managers are wedded to their style of play and it seemed unlikely Robinson would attempt a complete 180 in how he wanted his team to attack, but then that's exactly what happened.
In a BBC Sportsound programme from last month, the Motherwell boss revealed that he hadn't necessarily wanted to play such an up-and-at-them style from the start. It was just the best method of winning football matches with the players at his disposal. After signing Gboly Ariyibi and welcoming back Jake Hastie from his loan deal at Alloa, coupled with the rise of David Turnbull and return to fitness of Alex Rodriguez-Gorrin, he had the talent available to turn his side into a passing team. With Turnbull as the fulcrum and quarterback of the system, Motherwell instantly became one of the more attractive sides to watch in the league elevated themselves from potential relegation battlers to just narrowly missing out on a top six spot.
Even with the loss of Turnbull to injury it's pretty much continued in that vein this season. Liam Polworth has filled the boots of the highly promising youngster as the creative force in the centre, while in the likes of Christopher Long, Sherwin Seedorf and James Scott provide quickness and elusiveness in the final third. The 2-1 victory over Kilmarnock in midweek saw them once again return to the best-of-the-rest position behind Celtic and Rangers and they've got an excellent chance to finish the campaign there unless there are any major pitfalls on the horizon...
So what else could Hearts expect from Robinson if they were to make him their new manager?
Shortly after assembling his first team in the summer of 2017, the 44-year-old revealed that he'd taken full advantage of the extra time afforded to him in Lanarkshire than what he'd had to deal with at Oldham. Instead of rushing into making transfers, he and his recruitment team could weigh up their options and fully explore the personality of the player, which included going deep into social media accounts.
“Myself, [chief scout] Martin Foyle and [video analyst] Ross Clarkson sat for hours finding out about people’s character," he said. "People also give a lot away on social media. So you find out who is a good lad and who isn’t.
“You have to do your due diligence on their background, what type of character they are, their injury profiles. We do all of that and it’s massively time consuming. Social media is a footprint of what people do. Obviously, we look at footballing ability first and foremost, and then the player’s background. You have to do every single check.
“We looked at one boy and there was no record of his injury history but we actually found an injury three years previously that was very serious. We ended up not signing him because of it.
“We found that from his Twitter profile so we do go to those depths to ensure our details are right.”
Having a certain type of character around him also applied to how Robinson went about putting together his backroom staff. On the same episode of Sportsound mentioned earlier, he talked through the reasoning of bringing the likes of Keith Lasley, Stephen McManus and Maurice Ross, ex-pros who'd previously played at Motherwell, and for several years in the case of Lasley.
Robinson felt it vital he surrounded himself with people who knew the club inside and out. Should he swap Fir Park for Tynecastle it's likely he'll do the same again.