Robbo recalls debut against Queens

Hearts football team photoshoot at Tynecastle in July 1981, before the 1981/82 season - Jim Jefferies, Willie Gibson and John Robertson.
Hearts football team photoshoot at Tynecastle in July 1981, before the 1981/82 season - Jim Jefferies, Willie Gibson and John Robertson.
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Queen of the South’s arrival at Tynecastle tonight rekindles fond memories for Hearts legend John Robertson.

Not only did the club’s record goalscorer make his debut against the Dumfries club more than 30 years ago, it was also the only time he and brother Chris played together.

Robertson played the final 12 minutes as a substitute in Hearts’ 4-1 home win over Queens in February 1982. What many don’t know is that the striker, then 17 and a member of the Tynecastle groundstaff, spent an hour alone after the final whistle washing the kit from the game.

“After the game the other players were leaving and I’m thinking, ‘this is great’, because I was on the washing and I was getting out of it,” recalled Robertson. “Then I was told by the manager to pick up all the kit off the floor. You had to put all the maroon tops and socks in one wash, then get them into the industrial drier. Then you did the white shorts separately and dried them. Only after that could you leave.

“I sat there for about an hour after everyone had left. There was no glamour about it, although it was an hour with a satisfactory smile having made my first-team debut. It was the only time Chris and I played together and it was 12 minutes to cherish. People ask about what my dad’s proudest moment would have been, be it Chris winning the Scottish Cup with Rangers, me winning it with Hearts or all the records I broke. I guarantee that would have been his proudest moment – to see not one but two of his sons on the pitch playing for Hearts at the same time.”

Indeed, it was an impromptu call from Chris earlier in the day that informed young Robertson he was in the frame for a debut. “I played a full 90 minutes the night before for the reserves against East Fife at the old Bayview,” said Robertson. “I was lying in my bed the next morning. We were due to report to the ground at 2pm to get the first-team kit ready for that night. The phone started going downstairs but I was shattered and just left it. It kept ringing and ringing so I eventually went down to get it and it was Chris. He said I wasn’t to go to the stadium in the afternoon and instead I was to report with the first team that night. He said: ‘Put your best suit on and make sure you’re nice and tidy. You’ve to report at quarter past six.’

“It was a shock. When I got there, I just sat in the corner nice and quiet. There were 14 players and in those days you only had two subs so the odds were I would be left out. Then Alex MacDonald came in and named the team and I was on the bench. There was no time to get nervous.

“We started really well and we were 3-1 ahead early in the second half. I remember Alex turning round and saying: ‘Robbo, if we go three goals ahead you’ll get your debut so you better hope your brother scores again.’ We scored the fourth goal soon after that but, at 17, I didn’t have the confidence to say to the manager. I wouldn’t even make a couple of coughing noises or anything. I just sat quietly. Someone missed a chance with about 15 minutes left and Alex said: ‘Just think wee man, if that had gone in I’d have put you on because we’d have been three goals ahead.’

“Walter Borthwick [assistant manager] turned round to him and asked what he was talking about. He said: ‘It’s 3-1.’ Walter replied: ‘No, it’s 4-1. It’s been 4-1 for about 25 minutes.’ Alex punched me in the arm and asked why I hadn’t told him. Straight away it was top off and get on.

“In those days, the kit was basic – one size fits all. I came out of the dugout in a top miles too big for me and shorts miles too big for me. People must’ve thought, ‘my God, who is this?’”