Former Livingston boss Allan Preston was convinced he had a future Scotland star on his hands, but he feared Robert Snodgrass’ off-field antics would see his “God-given” talent laid to waste.
But today Preston is equally convinced the midfielder, 25 on Friday, can now emerge as a key figure as Craig Levein’s squad set out on what they hope will be the road to Rio and the 2014 World Cup finals as they open their campaign with a Hampden double-header against Serbia followed by Macedonia.
Preston has watched with pride as Snodgrass’ career has taken him from West Lothian to the English Premier League with Norwich City via Leeds United, but he believes even greater things lie ahead.
He hasn’t forgotten, however, how Snodgrass drove him to the depths of despair at times, recalling how he handed what the star still describes as the biggest rollicking of his life following just one of many incidents as a youth player at Livingston.
Preston said: “Robert’s time-keeping wasn’t great. In fact, it was very poor. We had a reserve game kicking off at 7pm one night and he didn’t turn up until 15 minutes beforehand when he was meant to be there at 5.45. I went absolutely mental at him.
“Robert had unbelieveable natural ability, you could see he was going to be a player. I remember in his first couple of games he played against Dunfermline, cut in from the right and let fly with his left foot and the ball flew into the top corner of the net. You could see what a special talent he was.
“He was very highly thought of at Livingston. He was the jewel in the crown, but the problem was the off-the-field stuff.
“You’d say to him he had to behave as a professional, but he was 17, a young boy with a fair amount of money and as young boys are wont to do, he wanted to get out, have a laugh, party, drink . . .
“He would miss training but once you got him out there he was brilliant, fantastic, a youngster with great ability who loved playing football. His right foot isn’t bad at all, but his left foot is God-given. You don’t like to see that ability go to waste, but I was worried and when John Robertson, as manager, put him out on loan to Stirling Albion, I did wonder, ‘is that it’.
“But he came back, screwed the nut and has realised that gift.”
Preston, though, believes it was Snodgrass’ move to Elland Road where former Scotland captain Gary McAllister was manager in the summer of 2008 which proved pivotal in the Glasgow-born star’s career. He said: “The best thing Robert did was to go to England, getting away from all the demons that were around him.
“Gary McAllister took a chance on him but he showed Robert how to live his life. Gary played until he was 40, he was the ultimate professional and knew how to look after himself.”
Preston watched Snodgrass blossom at Leeds to the point where he was made club captain, following in the footsteps of Scots such as Billy Bremner, Gordon Strachan and McAllister himself, his performances in that famous white shirt resulting in a £3 million summer move to Norwich, where he has already begun to shine, topping a stunning performance against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane at the weekend with a superb goal.
His former boss said: “We’ve watched Robert grow up and mature, he has the responsibility of a family now and being handed the captain’s armband at Leeds was a great honour. Leeds remain a massive club with great traditions, a club which has a long history of Scottish players, your Gordon McQueens, Joe Jordans, Peter Lorimers and so on.
“What Robert has done is put the natural talent he’s always had together with hard work and professionalism which had been missing. That comes from maturity and the experience which comes with games and he played around 200 times for Leeds. There’s the right path or the wrong one, thankfully Robert chose the right one. He’s done brilliantly for himself and I’m delighted because you don’t like to see ability go to waste.
“I had no doubt he could go and play at the very top if he could get the off-the-field stuff sorted out.”
Having said that, Preston believes Snodgrass is capable of taking his career even higher, pointing to his performance in Scotland’s friendly against Australia at Easter Road last month as proof he can play a key role in Levein’s World Cup campaign.
“I think the better the opposition, the better Robert plays. He can go on and play at any level he wants. No disrespect to Norwich, they are a well run club but I’m sure he can go on again and it wouldn’t surprise me if a top six or top eight club come in sometime with an offer Norwich can’t refuse.
“His performance against Spurs at the weekend was nothing short of incredible, capped off by a fantastic goal. There’s no doubt he can be an important player for Craig Levein.”
While Snodgrass may still be regarded as the “jewel in the crown”, Preston believes the fact Livingston has been the starting point for an ever-growing number of today’s stars shouldn’t be overlooked, with West Brom’s Graham Dorrans – who shared a “telepathic understanding” with the Norwich man – and Hibs skipper James McPake now full internationalists with Scotland and Northern Ireland respectively. Leigh Griffiths is banging in the goals for the Easter Road outfit and Richard Brittain has become captain of SPL new boys Ross County.
He said: “Livingston have had a great pedigree over the years for producing young players.
“It’s a source of great pride to have played a part in helping them in their early years but a lot of people have done so.”