Club legend on the 1980s titles that never were, wanting to join Rangers and why he has changed roles at Inverness
Dens Park, 3 May 1986. The attendance was 19,567; tens of thousands more have long recognised the significance of what transpired. Albert Kidd’s goals – 83 minutes, 87 minutes – denied Hearts the point needed to pip Celtic to the title. Images of men in maroon shedding tears on the terraces have never really gone away.
Understandably, reflections from Hearts players on the most painful of sporting episodes are not plentiful. That will change with the imminent publication of John Robertson’s long-awaited and self-written autobiography. Robertson, the club’s top league goalscorer with 214 over two spells, was the darling of the Hearts support then and remains revered. The poster boy carried the burden of what transpired in Dundee. A week later, Hearts lost the Scottish Cup final to Aberdeen.
“It was the one section in the book that took a long time,” Robertson says. “It got to Dens and I wondered how on earth to approach it. The hardest bit was that emotional aspect, trying to explain how we all felt after that game. Had we seen the league out I have absolutely no doubt we would have beaten Aberdeen.” In the away dressing room at Dundee, Robertson depicts tears and silence, save a teammate throwing up.
“Despite the reinvigoration of the club, we left a lot of chances out there. I lost in 10 or 11 semi-finals as well as three cup finals. The opportunities we missed as a team and I missed as an individual were huge.”
It took until 1998’s Scottish Cup for Hearts, including Robertson, to end a trophy wait that stretched to 1962. No club outside the Old Firm has won the top flight since 1985. “It will always be there,” says Robertson of one year later. “As will, to a lesser extent, 1998. From April we drew with Motherwell at home, drew with St Johnstone at home, lost to Hibs, lost to Rangers, drew at Aberdeen … We only finished seven points behind Celtic. We just needed a strong run-in and we could have nicked the league. It was an opportunity; nowhere near as big as Dens but still a chance.”
Hearts will swagger towards Ibrox on Saturday trailing Rangers by a point and holding the Scottish Premiership’s only unbeaten record. Robertson is effusive in praise of Robbie Neilson and his class of 2021.
“They have unity, you can see that. There’s a lot of improvement in this team because they have a lot of young lads. They can get better. They are playing with an arrogance but that’s controlled, not in your face. They know they are a decent side who, if they play well together, are as good as anybody in the league. Hearts have nothing to fear going to Ibrox.”
Robertson, 57 and the Inverness Caledonian Thistle sporting director, remains one of the Scottish game’s most knowledgeable and infectious characters. It grates that his managerial stint at Tynecastle ended in 2005, shy of a full season. Vladimir Romanov’s takeover meant a clean slate; Robertson was a high-profile victim. “I went in at Hearts as manager and still think I did a reasonable job under the circumstances. Right man, wrong time. It impacted my career because people looked at it and said: ‘If Hearts are getting rid of them, given his playing career there he must have a major flaw. If Hearts didn’t fancy him as a manager, why should we?’”
Robertson’s incredible recall of people and matches is apparent in his book. Famously, a teenage Robertson was in the Hibs chairman Tom Hart’s office and ready to sign before asking that his brother, Chris, be allowed to look over the terms. Hart – Robertson believed out of indifference towards Rangers, for whom Chris played – refused to let the unsigned contract leave the room. The deal collapsed; Robertson scored 27 times in maroon during Edinburgh derbies.
There was an earlier encounter with Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest. Clough already had a Scottish John Robertson, used on the left as No 11, and refused to let the schoolboy Robertson play as a No 9 at centre-forward in a trial. He too had to wear 11 on the left.
In 1988, at the end of an ill-fated, eight-month spell at Newcastle, Ajax tried to lure Robertson. “If that call had come four hours earlier …” Robertson says. “I had agreed and signed the deal to go back to Hearts. Had I gone to Ajax my career would have gone in a completely different direction, successfully or unsuccessfully.
“I would love to have done well for the Newcastle fans, who treated me well. I still get letters from them. It just wasn’t to be; I didn’t do myself justice. I got injured, needed a hernia operation, then when I came back into the team I was wide left in a midfield four.
“Jim Smith came in and was told he needed to sell players. Myself, John Hendrie, Dave Beasant and Andy Thorn were put up for sale. John went immediately to Leeds and a bun fight started between Scottish clubs over me. Rangers came in at £500,000, Hibs, Aberdeen and Dundee United came in at £600,000. Rangers was very interesting, Graeme Souness was there, but they weren’t prepared to raise their offer. When the chairman told me about the bids, it was Rangers out of the three that I wanted to speak to but the offer was too low. Wallace [Mercer, the Hearts chairman] eventually went that wee bit extra to get me back and the stars aligned.”
Robertson featured in an era where Scottish strikers were feared. Ally McCoist, Mo Johnston, Steve Archibald, Frank McAvennie and Eric Black were among those on the scene. The recent failure to produce prolific scorers is glaring. “It’s mathematics,” Robertson says. “If you play with two centre-forwards you need two as back-up – think of the figures from from under-12s up.”
Robertson was manager of Inverness when given compassionate leave in February. His return arrived in a new role, in which he has immersed himself. Robertson remains irked by Scottish football’s handling of the pandemic, with his Highland club encountering geographical challenges.
“I was running myself into the ground, not sleeping and taking too much on. Three of the players’ wives were pregnant, I was worried about my own family down in Edinburgh. We lost my sister. It all built up and built up. I felt responsibility as a manager to keep players, staff and their families safe. Everything caught up and it was just too much – I had to take a step back.
“They banned players from having showers after games. That’s fine for administrators sitting in Glasgow. The attitude I got was: ‘Well, it’s not our fault you are based up there.’ They weren’t interested. We were away to Queen of the South on a Friday night, the players had to get home at 3am before they could have a shower.”
Now in fine fettle, Robertson closes his book at the conclusion of his playing days. “There’s more to come,” he says with a broad smile. “Robbo II.” You get the sense he has unfinished business.
Robbo: My Autobiography is published by Black & White and released on 28 October