THE dejection of being overlooked by Hearts last month hasn’t left John Robertson. He remains philosophical over what might have been. His name was on a shortlist with Peter Houston and Derek McInnes to replace the sacked John McGlynn as manager. Only Houston was interviewed and the job ultimately went to first-team coach Gary Locke. Robbo is slightly perplexed at not being spoken to, and justifiably so after he publicly fronted last year’s share issue at the club where he is a living legend.
A second spell managing Hearts is not to be for the moment, yet the 48-year-old is unstinting in his support of Locke. The pair played together for eight years at Tynecastle during the 1990s and Robertson has already called his former team-mate, offering advice. “It’s the easiest thing in the world. If you want to keep your job, keep winning,” was his message.
He knows it is seldom that easy, especially at Hearts where a potential takeover, nearly £25 million of debt, a disinterested owner and confusion over the future are just some of the current distractions. Robertson briefly filled the manager’s position during the 2004/05 season and is fully aware of the difficulties. Yet he would have jumped at the chance to return to the club where he is idolised for scoring a record 214 league goals. The least he might have expected was an interview.
“It was disappointing because I felt, had I been given an interview, I’d have put up a very good case of how I would take the team forward until the end of the season and then into next year,” he said in the first of a two-part Evening News interview. “That was never the case. The club decided to interview Peter Houston, who didn’t get the job either. I think he’ll be even more disappointed than I am.
“They’ve given the job to Gary so, having spoken to Gary and seen how he’s been working, they’ve obviously seen something there that they like and they’ve decided that’s the best way forward. I’m fully supportive of Gary Locke, 100 per cent. I don’t want any Hearts manager to fail. I want them to be successful because I want the club to be successful. Ultimately, that’s what I want for Gary.” Robertson’s home is in the picturesque Highlands and living in Inverness provides a more tranquil lifestyle than he was used to as a player and manager. He offers a measured, objective view of what is needed to return Hearts to the upper echelons of the Scottish Premier League. Next season’s salaries will be reduced as part of the necessary cost-cutting to ensure the Edinburgh club is self-sufficient for the 2013/14 campaign. Nonetheless, the predicted budget of more than £3m will still be the biggest in the SPL outwith Celtic.
“The main thing is Hearts are getting towards the end of the season safely,” continued Robertson. “To this day, I still don’t think people realise how close the club was to being out of business. We’ve got here because of the share issue and fans rallying with donations. We now know Gary Locke will be given a fresh sweep in the summer. Lots of contracts are up, the club will have to come down to a sensible budget which will still be in excess of £3m.
“I keep hearing people saying it will be a team full of youngsters next season. Well, that was roughly the budget I had as Hearts manager and we still had people like Craig Gordon, Robbie Neilson, Steven Pressley, Andy Webster, Jamie McAllister, Michael Stewart, Paul Hartley, Patrick Kisnorbo, Mark de Vries and Alan Maybury all on decent money. If it’s managed properly and spent properly, there is no reason Hearts can’t still have a competitive team on the field.
“That’s not to say you just bring in experience. We’ve seen this season that youngsters like Jamie Walker, Jason Holt, Kevin McHattie, Callum Paterson and Fraser Mullen have all come through and done very well. You want to blood these youngsters more but, for me, it’s important to nurture them alongside good, experienced players. McHattie will have benefited playing alongside Marius Zaliukas when he was fit, as Mullen would with Webster. You blood players by mixing them with really good professionals and I think that’s the way forward. Youngsters have had a lot more game time this season than perhaps John McGlynn and Gary Locke initially intended giving them. In hindsight, it won’t have done them any harm.”
It should not be forgotten that Hearts are also nurturing a young manager. Locke, at 37, has been thrown rather mercilessly into his first managerial role on a contract until summer 2014. It is vital he is given space to grow into the position. “He needs to be given time,” said Robertson. “Only Gary would be able to say this for definite, but he might have been thrown into the managerial situation a wee bit ahead of schedule.
“He coached at Kilmarnock and he’s coached at Hearts for three years now. He knows how to put on training sessions and work on shape and things like that, but he’ll be the first to admit there’s a huge difference when you become the manager. You’re dealing with the media, you need to make sure everything is spot-on and you need to deal with all the players’ problems. Trust me, that’s the difficult bit.
“You have to become a mother, a father, a brother, a sister, an uncle, a psychiatrist, a psychologist and everything else because they all come to you. Suddenly, players Gary would have had a good relationship with will be a bit reserved because he’s the manager. They might have had a joke with him before but now they’ll do that with somebody else.
“Gary will want to get to the end of the season and then start afresh. He will want to keep the players he wants, bring others and get a coaching staff around him that he’s comfortable with. As a character, he’s very strong. He came through a lot injuries as a player. He got a devastating injury in the cup final against Rangers in 1996 and he missed out in 1998 when we won against Rangers. He’s got good experience and he’s been patient.”
Robertson was merely three years older than Locke when Hearts came calling for him in 2004. He had constructed a strong team at Inverness Caledonian Thistle and led them into the SPL for the first time two years previously. However, he was never going to refuse the chance of an emotional return to Tynecastle. Perhaps similar to Locke, he took the opportunity because he feared it may never come again.
“There is never a right or wrong time to get a manager’s job. Take myself as an example, you have to take it when you’re offered it. Gary could easily have turned the Hearts position down and never got the opportunity again. That would have gnawed at him. He’s had several years in a coaching capacity and I’ve heard people say he should’ve done what Colin Cameron and Paul Hartley have done by going away to start at a lower division club. That’s fine if that opportunity comes along.
“If you want to get into management, you just take the opportunity when it comes. Gary’s gone down a similar route to myself. I was first-team coach at Livingston when we won the Second Division, the First Division and then finished third in the SPL. I was working with Davie Hay and it gave me a huge insight into what goes on and how to assemble a team, but it wasn’t until I left to go to Inverness that I realised how different it is being an assistant to being a manager.
“You can only learn in the job. Gary will make mistakes and he’ll make some great decisions. The key to every successful manager is limiting the mistakes. I’ve been in contact with him a couple of times and I’ve given him the same advice I was given as a manager: ‘Keep winning’. If you win, nobody bothers you.”