Stephen Robinson endured death threats made online towards his children during a brief period managing struggling Oldham Athletic. He has also coped with a debilitating back condition when considered one of Northern Ireland’s brightest prospects in the early 1990s.
So he was always going to have a fairly sanguine response to those who questioned the supposedly rumbustious manner of Motherwell’s progress to tomorrow’s Betfred Cup final.
He has been content to let Brendan Rodgers, manager of opponents Celtic, have his say. It hasn’t always been complimentary. Rodgers suggested careers were on the line after Ryan Bowman broke Fabio Cardoso’s nose when challenging for a header in Motherwell’s semi-final win over Rangers. Even yesterday, Rodgers was stressing how he expected a physical battle against a side others claim bear the physical hallmarks of an English Championship team.
“I only speak about other teams in a positive light and other managers,” is all Robinson has to say on the matter. “Whatever he said, he said.”
Almost everything Robinson has uttered this week has seemed deliberately designed to underline Motherwell’s underdog status. Not that this seems necessary.
After all, they are tackling a side unbeaten domestically for 18 months and who, despite being brought down to earth in midweek by PSG, will expect to exert their usual authority at Hampden. Even the intended neutrality of the stadium is rubbished by Robinson.
“I think it’s 90-10 [split] isn’t it?” he says. “It’s a neutral venue but, wherever we go, Celtic will bring more. Even here [to Fir Park], they probably bring as many fans as we have.”
Robinson will stride out at Hampden in his “Ted Baker suit” – another deliberate reference to his no doubt slightly more expensively tailored compatriot Rodgers. The Motherwell players have already insisted on wearing tracksuits to the final as they seek to maintain an unshowy approach that has worked so well for them this season.
Robinson contends Motherwell have not been given the credit they deserve after overcoming not just Rangers and Aberdeen already in their run, but also Ross County with ten men in Dingwall. Tomorrow is their first meeting with Celtic this season and it is a genuinely eagerly awaited clash between arguably Scotland’s two form teams.
Robinson isn’t embarrassed to admit his side are capable of matching anyone when it comes to battling for the ball. However, he demands attention is paid to what his players can also do when they have it. He sees no reason why they cannot overcome Celtic.
“We’ve gone to Aberdeen and beat them 2-0 on Saturday, outplayed them and outperformed them, so why not?” he asked. “Why can’t we surprise Celtic? In 64 games people have tried. We know that and I’m not going to give them any motivation but we’re going to concentrate on our strengths and I genuinely believe that our strengths are their weaknesses.”
“I don’t think people like when we beat the big teams,” added Robinson. “We beat Rangers, but nobody actually said we played well and had some good performances. It was just that we were very physical.
“We beat Aberdeen and nobody really talks about it. So I’m not sure people like us beating the big boys. People complain that there is no competition and then, when you go and beat them, they don’t particularly like it. We’re well aware that it’s going to be a very tough game but it certainly would enhance things. I’m sure a lot of the neutrals will want us to win.”
So, just 11 months after being sacked by Oldham and little more than seven after he took over from Mark McGhee at Motherwell on a supposed one-match basis, what will he be thinking about when he walks out at Hampden? “Probably that I don’t trip or something,” he said. “I’m that awkward and clumsy – or start a fight with somebody!” If this is another comment aimed at Rodgers, it simply underlines how Robinson’s confidence has returned since moving to Scotland.
He admits he was floored following Oldham, a job he should never have accepted in retrospect. His experience there was particularly bruising because he had never felt better than after Euro 2016, where he was on Michael O’Neill’s backroom staff as Northern Ireland reached the knockout stage.
“There is a real honesty about Scottish football,” he said. “I spoke to Neil Lennon about it. He has honest players. The stage it gives you is incredible. I love the place. I love Scottish football.
“You are playing in front of forty or fifty thousand people, with the media, the attention. And the people are very similar to Belfast people. There’s a real passion for football here. I don’t think people in England realise how big it is up here – the demands, the pressure and the fan bases.”
Robinson is reaping the rewards for his belligerence in the face of sustained interest in top scorer Louis Moult, who he was adamant would not be leaving Fir Park in the last transfer window.
The striker has since gone on to score ten of his 14 goals this season, including two in the semi-final win over Rangers and could well hold the key tomorrow.
“He’s on fire at the minute,” said Robinson. “He can’t stop scoring goals. I’m sure Louis would be the first to admit that we play to his strengths. We put a lot of balls into the box and create a lot of chances for him.
“He finishes them brilliantly. When you’ve got him in the team and Ryan Bowman up there as well, we’ve got boys who can win football matches. It certainly gives you an opportunity to surprise.”