Interview: Real Kashmir boss David Robertson on being trapped in India by Covid-19

The voice on the other end of the line echoes and stutters and drifts in and out of range, which is hardly surprising since there are the Himalayas to negotiate. Sometimes it’s loud and clear and other times like this fellow is stuck down the bottom of a well. Or the bottom of Bloody Gutter, part of David Robertson’s vivid description of what he reckons is the worst road journey in the world and just one of the many hazards facing what some call Britain’s bravest football manager.
Real Kashmir manager David Robertson celebrates a vital win over I-League rivals Gokulam Kerala. Picture: Tauseef Mustafa/AFPReal Kashmir manager David Robertson celebrates a vital win over I-League rivals Gokulam Kerala. Picture: Tauseef Mustafa/AFP
Real Kashmir manager David Robertson celebrates a vital win over I-League rivals Gokulam Kerala. Picture: Tauseef Mustafa/AFP

“Good on you for persevering,” says the former Aberdeen and Rangers star, now a boss amid the permanent tumult of Kashmir, after I’ve re-dialled his number following the umpteenth communication breakdown. “My wife will try a few times and then go: ‘Ach, stuff it!’”

But Kym Robertson is right by her husband’s side at the moment – trapped by Covid-19. She’d flown out to the capital Srinagar just as the season was halted by the pandemic, thinking she would be bringing her husband back to Scotland for a break from life in the world’s most militarised zone, a place where terrorist attacks are almost routine. Now the couple, and their son Mason, who plays for Real Kashmir, are stuck there.

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“There’s not a single flight out of here at the moment,” adds Robertson, 51, who’s worried about his elderly parents in Aberdeen. Father Leslie is not in the best of health and, for his mother Muriel, it’s even more critical. “She’s undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. I’m sad I can’t be near her.”

So, like many at the moment, he has time on his hands to ponder his current situation. To reflect, once again, on how he ended up managing in such extreme circumstances. To contemplate his return to our TV screens as a reality star. And to wonder if he’s going to beat the record from his debut of 80 sweary words over the course of a primetime hour.

But Robertson won’t waste much time reflecting on the nature of lockdowns. While his family in the Granite City and the rest of us grapple with the stay-at-home decree, it’s been no big deal to Kashmir, which seems to have had India and Pakistan bickering for ever. Both claim the land is theirs but only control parts. Last August a blackout – imposed by India – left the disputed state without any communication, not even phones, and slow-speed internet was only restored last month. “That was tough. There was no way of getting through to Kym and she was worried,” says Robertson. But right away he adds: “It is what it is. Kashmiris are used to this kind of thing, and I’m kind of one of them now.”

His story is an incredible one so I’m more than happy to wrestle with the connection. For years I’ve loved Scotland rugby hero Sandy Carmichael’s anecdote from a 1969 tour of turbulent Argentina – “Match postponed due to snipers” – and thought for a dramatic excuse it couldn’t be beaten. But Robertson may have just topped it with “Game cancelled because of suicide bombers”. Among old team-mates at Pittodrie and Ibrox, no one would have expected any of this from the man of few words behind the heavy curtains of hair in the left-back berth. “I was pretty quiet as a player and didn’t say a lot. They’ll probably be taken aback.”

The team Robertson manages were a modest outfit when he arrived, and a bit of a shambles. What a transformation. “The crowds used to be 200 and all men. Now we’ve been promoted to the I-League whole families including grannies and schoolkids turn out and our ground is packed. It’s 14,000 capacity but for one game there were 26,000 and folk were hanging off the floodlight pylons. We didn’t have lights before; we do now. And we’ve got sponsorship from Adidas – the only team in the division 
to have big brand 
 backing. There’s something happening here. We have no heritage – only been going for four years – but players from other teams are keen to join us. Before the league was suspended we were going for second spot.” And guess what? There’s going to be a Bollywood movie about Robertson’s “Snow Leopards”. “The producers came to see us the other day, gathering stuff about the club to turn into storylines, and then they were going off to cast the film.” So who’s going to play our Davie? “Sounds like a job for Rab C. Nesbitt!”

How the hell did Robertson get there? “Good question! Just about all I knew about the Indian subcontinent came from watching An 
Idiot Abroad.” That was the telly comedy starring Ricky Gervais’ mate Karl Pilkington who questioned why it had taken as long as 22 years to build the Taj Mahal, adding that if he’d constructed such an elaborate mausoleum for his wife she’d have demanded: “You’re guilty about something – what is it?”

The writer Salman Rushdie calls Kashmir “India’s fairyland… I’ve never seen anywhere as beautiful”. Robertson laughs when I read this quote to him. “It is beautiful, but I didn’t know it was a warzone. When I got off the plane on New Year’s Eve, 2016 expecting sweltering heat I didn’t know Kashmir was the only part of the subcontinent which has a winter. Two days later the internet shut down and I found out how at that time of year there are power cuts two or three times a day. Then it snowed!

“I turned up for training, the astro pitch covered, and was told there was an indoor facility. I thought the least that could be was a school gymnasium or something. We were stood in what I took to be this reception area, green carpet, two ceiling fans, a tiny spot. I assumed the hall was through a door. No, this was where we were to train, 25 of us bumping into each other. The next day the astro was going to be cleared. Except the snow was piled up in mounds and left there. They were almost snowmen – all they needed were carrots for noses. My players had to run in and out of them. Later that day I saw sofas and chairs being loaded back into the room where we’d first been – it was someone’s house!

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“And do you know, I haven’t been able to forget that green carpet and those two ceiling fans. Three years later I was at a Kashmiri wedding – I get invited to lots of them. They’re always held in houses, men in one room, women in another. I thought to myself: ‘I’ve been here before…”

Robertson has lots of stories like this and all of them are a million miles – well, 3,800 miles, anyway – from life at Aberdeen where he was part of the last Dons team to lift the Scottish Cup and also Rangers where he was a classy contributor to six of the nine-in-a-row.

For instance, Real Kashmir weren’t exactly looking their best when Robertson hoped to interest Ghanaian international Anthony Obedai in a move there, having had the player at his previous job, America’s Phoenix FC. He laughs: “When you’ve been at Ajax in your career you don’t expect training to be cancelled because there’s a wild dog tangled up in the goal net. That day we couldn’t get close to cut it loose because it was vicious. Some time later an oxy-acetylene torch did the trick, and the dog ran off with half the net still attached.”

This year is the 30th anniversary of that cup success against Celtic, the first time a penalty shootout decided the final with our man one of the scorers in a crazy 9-8 finish. The two teams were due to contest a semi-final before Covid-19 struck and Robertson’s hopes that the tie, when it’s eventually played, will be a better contest than 1990’s dire affair. “The worst-ever cup final!” he says. “It was a hot day, the pitch was fiery and after just ten minutes I think we all knew it was going to be a right slog. Just before the end of normal time Mike Galloway left me with a dead leg. I wasn’t one of the original five nominated for pens and was glad about that, never having taken one before. But we couldn’t settle the game. Surely I wasn’t going to be asked? Then I remember looking at Graham Watson, younger than me, and thinking: ‘I’ve got to grow up and step up.’ You might remember I took a slow walk – that’s because my leg was killing me. I had no run-up to the ball for the same reason. Maybe I looked pretty cool but I was petrified. Kym and I were getting married two weeks later and I thought the whole summer would be ruined if I missed. I fluffed my shot but Paddy Bonner dived where I meant to put the ball and I got away with it. I was lucky that day and maybe me being sent to 
Kashmir is God evening things out!”

Robertson now sees the funny side of slavering hounds but initially the chaos of Kashmir drove him demented. “Three weeks into the job I couldn’t take any more and went back to Aberdeen but I was talked into giving it another go and I’m really glad I did.” The frustrations didn’t stop and indeed continue, but he’s more philosophical about them. What doesn’t break you, and all that.

Because of Srinagar’s remoteness, every away game is a two-flight journey, sometimes stretching over two days. Aberdeenshire Cup ties just up the road at Buckie Thistle are a fond but distant memory. Robertson’s scouting missions sometimes turn into Himalayan hell. He once set off to spy on Goa’s Indian Arrows and didn’t get back for a week. “All planes were grounded because of poor visibility, which sent me onto the cliffside road over Jammu. It’s not so much a road as a farm track. Every winter it gets blocked with snow and is only open one-way every two days. It’s a sheer drop with no barricades – absolutely terrifying. The Bloody Gutter is where some cars end up, having been pushed over the edge by giant falling rocks. Never again.”

A year ago Real Kashmir had an experience similar to Scotland’s “One team in Tallinn” ghost game in Estonia. Shortly after the worst attack against Indian rule in Kashmir since the insurgency began in 1989 – 40 paramilitary police were killed when a car packed with explosives rammed their bus – Minerva Punjab were too scared to travel to Srinagar. “We got stripped for the game and thought we would be awarded the points,” says Robertson. “But Minerva challenged this in court and, because neither club could have won the title, the match was called as a draw. That made us suspicious. Because we’re the only club whose home games could be called off because of snow, we thought that if there was the threat of bad weather some of our opponents might try and stay at home and exploit the ruling. That hasn’t happened – so far.”

From his early ignorance, Robertson now has a better understanding of the complicated geopolitics of the area and Article 370 which gave Kashmir significant autonomy – at least until India revoked it, following that up with the extended blackout. He now knows that when Kashmiris shake their heads from side to side it doesn’t mean “no”: “That happened during my opening address to the players. I thought: ‘This is going to be a disaster.” He’s come to understand the need for the team to pray before games and to eat with their hands, four to a bowl at weddings. And he’s learned a few bad words in Hindi: “Gando means arsehole.”

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Those bad words in his native tongue made Robertson a star of the new BBC Scotland channel’s first season on air. “I got a fright when I realised how much I swore,” he says. “But that was all my frustrations spewing out. I wasn’t getting at the players. Okay, maybe a bit I was… ” To them he’s “Uncle”.

Robertson spreads the praise around for the success of Real Kashmir. There’s the owner, Sandeep Chattoo: “I’ve never known a guy who runs a football club be so passionate. Some teams in the league can be late with wages but he’s incredibly generous. He’s just moved us all into his swanky hotel.” There’s his boy Mason: “He’s a wee bit of a sensation out here.” And there’s the rest of the squad: They put up with a helluva lot. Like most footballers they like their computer games but the Indian prime minister can shut down the internet by just pressing a button. I reckon if that happened to some Scottish boys they’d be like: ‘Bugger this, I’m out of here.’”

But some of the credit has to go to ‘Uncle’. “I don’t know about being the bravest manager but the situation in Kashmir definitely makes you tougher. I think I’d be ready for anything after this.” And what might the future hold? “I don’t know. Everything’s good here right now but we might start losing a load of games – that’s the way management can go. I think I’d like another shot in Scotland. At Elgin City and Montrose I was too young. But it would be a wrench to leave. Despite all the hassles I’m emotionally attached.”

The line is really buzzing and failing now and Robertson is anxious to call home and check everyone’s okay before he and Kym resume their search for a route out of Kashmir. She had a big part to play in the success of the documentary with her bemused – and amused – responses to her husband’s misadventures. “She’s always been incredibly supportive of me,” he says. “She knows who I am and that I can’t live without football. Even in such a bizarre place as this.”

l Real Kashmir FC, the original documentary, is repeated on the BBC Scotland channel next Saturday at 9pm. The follow-up film will be screened later next month.

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