KNEE surgery has prevented Scott Robinson fighting any of Hearts’ battles this year. After being injured by a James McPake tackle in January’s Edinburgh derby, the tenacious midfielder missed the League Cup final defeat, the end of last season’s league campaign and was still recovering when his club entered administration in June.
Gradually, he is returning to his combative best. Sunday’s win over Hibs witnessed the 21-year-old at his best – an energetic buzzbomb of a player whose endeavour often inspires others around him. Robinson’s industry and passing ability in central midfield is likely to form a key part of Gary Locke’s Hearts team this season and the player himself feels he is now recapturing top form.
He endured a difficult season last year after a fallout with Locke’s predecessor, John McGlynn, prior to the knee operation taking place in March. Despite some pre-season concerns about the knee’s readiness for Scotland’s unforgiving top flight, Robinson is enjoying quiet progress at the moment.
He is virtually certain to start this evening’s match with Partick Thistle at Firhill with confidence levels high.
“Game by game, I’m definitely getting my match sharpness. Sunday was the best I’ve felt so far,” he told the Evening News. “It was a massive game to win for the team but personally I felt more confident with my knee on the pitch. It didn’t feel good at all during the first two pre-season games against Dinamo Bucharest and Dunfermline, twisting and turning and putting my weight on it. The physios told me it would come with more games and training. It’s feeling really good now.”
Robinson’s Hearts career looked in doubt last December when he was told by the club to stay away from Riccarton. He had refused to accept a substitute’s role feeling he deserved more game time but the situation was diffused when he agreed a new contract two months later.
“I didn’t get as much game time as I would’ve liked, but that happens with managers,” he said. “They take to you or they don’t. They maybe have a different idea. With this gaffer [Locke], I’m feeling like one of the more important players this year and he’s said that to me. As long as I put the performances in on the pitch, I’m sure he’ll stick with me and have faith in me.
“It was just a case of me being patient. Hearts is the team I always wanted to play for. I’ve been here since I was 14. It was just a case of me personally getting frustrated, thinking I was doing well enough in training but I wasn’t getting that opportunity on a Saturday. I think he [McGlynn] was sticking by other players, but the results weren’t quite there. He wasn’t really giving other players that wee chance. I’m just glad all of that is behind me now.”
Robinson has clear goals for the next few weeks, starting in deepest Maryhill tonight. Hearts began season 2013/14 with a 15-point deduction after entering administration but Robinson is one of many who is up for the challenge of overhauling that gap.
Beating Hibs reduced the deficit to 12, and the player believes wiping it out completely is achievable before the first round of Premieship fixtures are completed.
“I’m sure you can imagine beating Hibs in any game is massive. To do it in the first home game of the season, when we really need to pick up points as quickly as possible, was great. We closed that gap to 12 points and we want to get it down to nine tonight. That would put pressure on Hibs and St Mirren already, especially with St Mirren missing their game against Celtic and having to play catch-up.
“With the quality we have in the dressing-room, it’s a realistic target to get to zero within, say, the first quarter of the season.”
Hearts’ added handicaps are a lack of experience and the overwhelming number of youth academy graduates who are now mainstays within the senior squad. Their energy and fearlessness are notable positives but, whereas Robinson would be considered a youngster at most other clubs in the country, at Tynecastle he is virtually a seasoned veteran at 21.
“I think I’m third on the list of most appearances in the team now behind Jamie MacDonald and Ryan Stevenson. I’ve had nearly 70 games now,” he smiled. “It was actually in the programme over in Belfast on the pre-season trip and people were telling me. I didn’t actually know. If I can push on from here, get as many games as possible and look to have a really good season, then I’ll be happy.”
Supplementing his happiness is the fact he is being deployed in his favoured central midfield role.
“That’s where I love playing. I like playing that bit deeper, in there with [Jamie] Hamill and Holty [Jason Holt]. We can actually play and get the ball down and, if we do that, I think we can pass our way past teams. Instead of looking longer and trying to win second balls, we can actually pass the ball because we have quality there.”
Ball retention is something Robinson feels strongly about and will be critical for away matches like tonight’s if Hearts are to take points on the road this season.
“The St Johnstone game on the opening day was kind of like that with second balls and things and I felt that played to their strength. It’s not really our strength. We can go and give it our best shot but I think our game is suited to keeping the ball down. We have got a passing team there who can battle as well, but if we get the ball down and pass it we will do better.”
Hearts need no warning about the threat posed by Thistle, particularly in their own domain. An opening draw at home to Dundee United was followed by a 3-1 win over Ross County in Dingwall last weekend as the newly-promoted club made a stunning start to life in the top flight.
With players like Kris Doolan, Steven Lawless and Stuart Bannigan, they carry a genuine goal threat. Former Hearts youth defender Conrad Balatoni is a regular in the centre of their defence and Robinson pointed out that they have already taken people by surprise.
“I watched their first game of the season against Dundee United and they looked really good,” he explained. “I think they probably should have got three points that night. To go up to Dingwall and win 3-1 is hard for any team to do, so I’m sure they will do well this season. Some folk were saying they might be a top-six team earlier in the week, but I’m not sure about that. It shows you what people think of them and we certainly won’t underestimate them.”
SQUAD NEWS: Thankfully for Gary Locke, all six Hearts players on Scotland Under-21 duty in midweek have returned fit. Their morale may not have been helped by the 6-0 thrashing against England, however. Ryan Stevenson is out for around eight to 12 weeks with knee ligament damage, so Jamie Walker is likely to start on the left of midfield tonight. Winger Billy King could also come into contention.